Director David Shane On "Typecast"

Getting four riveting performances from one Michael K. Williams.

+NYCJanuary 15th 2018

"Typecast," the centerpiece of the Question Your Answers campaign for The Atlantic, featured Michael K. Williams (Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Night Of) confronting personal and societal assumptions, along with some of his famous creations. The film was directed by O Positive Films' David Shane, who has made a name for his deft touch with performances. When it came to bringing “Typecast” to life, both the talent and the challenges were formidable.

Here, Shane talks about capturing Williams’s riveting performance.

I was so psyched to be a part of this piece. It’s timely without being heavy-handed. It has undercurrents of so many of-the-moment hot-button debates.

The idea is so smart and so simple—The Atlantic allows and encourages you to look at all sides of an issue. It isn’t overtly polemical. And what better way to show that than to see one person kind of grappling with different sides of a story? And so we tried to create the vibe of four dudes, four friends just hanging out and having this kind of thoughtful discussion. Each new POV that was introduced into the conversation would be represented by a new persona of Michael. Michael asks the question, and at first we think he’s asking it into the ether—or even to us, kind of making us complicit in the answer. And then we realize he’s talking to someone else.

Current Time 0:00
Duration Time 0:00
Progress: NaN%

The degree of difficulty of this performance is actually hard to fully understand. He was playing, in effect, four characters and trying to keep track of them. We had stand-ins—other actors—reading the other roles against him, trying their best to echo his rhythms, but often he couldn’t see them because there was a green screen separating him from the background that his other “personas” would inhabit.

It was very important to Michael to name these “sides" of himself, and we spent a fair amount of time doing that in the morning. Michael 2 became “the philosopher”; Michael 3 was, obviously, “the gangsta,” the one who nursed the most angry resentment; and Michael 4 was “smartass Michael,” who kind of stood at the margins of the scene, sniping.

In between some takes, though not all, Michael played music through his headphones, and it occurred to me, probably later than it should have, that he was playing different tracks for different characters.

He is an amazing actor, truly riveting and so watchable—and that’s innate; you can’t learn it. No amount of acting lessons will give you it. And it’s kind of ineffable. Why do you not want to take your eyes off certain people? But he was tireless too and brought so much to this thing, in terms of ideas and passion and energy. There were times when I thought we had it and wanted to move on, just to protect him during a long day, but he wanted to go again.

He was lovely and funny and gentle and, I think, still amazed that anyone thinks of him as this macho OG character.

It was really tough, honestly, watching Michael say the line about “seeing the last black president for a while.” You could see it kind of effect and gut-punch to the whole crew, like we all had to have a moment of silence after it.

We didn’t have a great deal of time with Michael and so, instead of getting a splitter and blending performances in real time to make sure all the individual performances meshed, we really mostly flew blind. Which meant we had to have an amazing editor, and luckily, we did: Gavin Cutler.

It always comes down to the power of the idea and a great script, and we had both here. I was just trying to get out the way.