Actor Michael K. Williams Questions His Many Selves in The Atlantic's Thought-Provoking Campaign
Actor Michael K. Williams is known for portraying complex characters, from Omar Little of "The Wire" to Chalky White of "Boardwalk Empire." But in the new "Question Your Answers" brand campaign from The Atlantic he plays what may be his most thought-provoking role yet -- himself.
Created out of Wieden & Kennedy New York and directed by David Shane of O Positive, the online film opens on a close-up shot of the actor, sitting on his living room couch, dressed in a rainbow Aztec-print sweater and sipping a smoothie. He asks out loud, "Do you think I'm being typecast?" He thinks to himself, "I don't know, is a cat typecast?" But after the camera pans out, we discover that another version of Mr. Williams -- in a more polished, neutral outfit and sitting on the other end of the couch -- had actually delivered that line. The two versions then carry on in quirky banter about whether a cat could play, or even become, a poodle -- until another Williams jumps in, the OG version, to proclaim "This whole metaphor is bullshit, yo!" He'll always play a gangsta, he insists.
The two-and-a-half-minute film goes on to show four different versions of the actor interrogating each other about whether Mr. Williams can escape being typecast. Along the way, they touch upon topical issues -- ranging from race relations to the election -- in nuanced and poignant ways.
"Question Your Answers" is The Atlantic's first brand campaign in a decade. It bows as the publication promotes its 160th anniversary this year as well as high points in certain metrics. Audiences on TheAtlantic.com have grown nearly 30% year over year, according to the company. It saw a record month in January, with 32.7 million unique visitors. Revenue across its business grew by 18% in 2016. After the election in November, the Atlantic said it also saw a record number of new subscriptions -- then doubled that in December. Both months accounted for one-third of all subscriptions placed online across 2016.
According to Sam Rosen, VP of brand and customer growth, the company has been working on its brand strategy for a couple years and started working with Wieden a year ago. In the process it discovered that even since the magazine's founding by literary giants Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Editor Francis H. Underwood in 1857, its DNA has been about questioning the conventional wisdom and challenging assumptions, including one's own. The magazine and its readers are "all curious -- we prefer to be challenged rather than feel the safety and comfort of what we already believe," he said.
"The Atlantic doesn't like to pound their chest and claim they know everything," said Wieden & Kennedy Creative Director Jaclyn Crowley. "They really respect process and debate. Sometimes the best way to show something is through examples, so we presented the idea of having notable personalities confronting something they might have been surprised they struggled with."
The agency had looked at a range of people, from musicians to activists to the everyman, but when Michael K. Williams' name came up, the team knew they had their star.
"If you think about actors with vulnerability, who really made you feel something, he was at the top of the list by far," said Ms. Crowley. "He might play a tough gangster, but if you read about him and do research, you see he's actually been fighting that his whole life. The writer on the campaign, Brock Kirby, is a big fan of him and knew this about him going in. We thought there was real tension there and something we could jump off of."
On set, Mr. Williams delivered.
To get in character, "it was very important to Michael to name these 'sides' of him, and we spent a fair amount of time doing that," said Mr. Shane, the director. "Michael 2 became 'The Philosopher," Michael 3 was, obviously, 'The Gangsta,' the one that nursed the most angry resentment, and Michael 4 was 'smart-ass Michael,' who stood at the margins of the scene, sniping. In between some takes, Michael played music through his headphones and it occurred to me -- probably later than it should -- that he was playing tracks for different characters."
According to Ms. Crowley, Mr. Williams also did everything from wardrobe "consultation" to props (he suggested the smoothie, for example).
And then, of course, there was the performance itself. "We had our jaws to floor as we were seeing him work, seeing how he owned the script not creatively, but also emotionally," said Mr. Rosen. "It was a really arduous creative process, but he was able to immediately embody every one of the four roles the second he got into the wardrobe and sat down."
"This was such a nice opportunity for Michael to un-typecast himself because, in one piece, he gets to show his dry comedic timing, his raw menace and the depth of emotion he's able to access," Mr. Shane added. "This is a deceptively simple looking piece -- the degree of difficulty for him was so much greater than it looks. He had a lot of balls in the air."
On his part, Mr. Shane didn't have the luxury of time -- or a splitter -- device that allows the crew to split two sides of the frame and see Mr. Williams' side-by-side performances to ensure they worked off each other. "It took too long to render every take, so we just decided to rely on stand-in actors who did their best to capture the rhythm of Michael's various performances," Mr. Shane said. "So we flew blind in the sense that we didn't know 100 percent that it would all cut together in two and three shots." Mr. Shane also gave props to the editor, veteran Gavin Cutler of Mackenzie Cutler, who made it all seamless.
The film will appear on social media and on a dedicated landing page with a letter from The Atlantic's president explaining the campaign and articulating the publication's guiding principles. The campaign will also include shareable digital question cards asking thought-provoking questions such as "When does childhood end" and "What does 'American' mean." Along with the campaign, The Atlantic is also introducing an editorial series from Atlantic Studios, Bold Questions, which interviews notable figures such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Caitlyn Jenner -- and illustrates them through lively animations.