Keeping a straight face with Kristen Wiig isn’t easy.
Take it from Michael K. Williams, who stars opposite the Saturday Night Live vet in IFC’s pulp-noir miniseries The Spoils Before Dying (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Shooting one of his first scenes with her — a tempestuous cliffhanger in which her character serves cake to a couple of prying, hard-nosed cops — she surprised him when she started improvising dialogue.
“I was sitting there, just trying to be a good actor, and I hurt the muscles in my rib cage trying to hold in laughter,” Williams says. “She started saying the most random things,” ad libbing how the dessert’s vanilla frosting is pink because she sliced her finger.
“That was a very fun scene, because it was so silly. We did a million different takes,” Wiig says. “It was really fun to work with (Williams) because he was just enjoying being in a comedic atmosphere. He was laughing all the time and pitching jokes.”
Williams is best known for playing the principled but violent Omar Little on The Wire and the racketeering Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, both on HBO. But he gets to flex his comedic muscles in Spoils, a three-night follow-up to last summer’s The Spoils of Babylon, another drawn-out parody of schlocky, vintage TV narrated by gruff, alcoholic author Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell).
While Babylon was an epic forbidden romance between siblings played by Tobey Maguire and Wiig (in an Emmy-nominated performance), Dying is an old-timey murder mystery. Williams plays 1950s jazz-pianist-turned-detective Rock Banyon, who investigates the death of an occasional lover (Maya Rudolph) and rekindles a romance with big-band performer Delores DeWinter (Wiig). Haley Joel Osment is Rock’s persistent manager, while Kate McKinnon pops in as a drug-addled hooker, Michael Sheen plays a a gay barfly and Tim Robbins is a coroner.
Directed by former SNL scribe Matt Piedmont and written by Andrew Steele (who also wrote Wiig and Ferrell’s recent Lifetime movie, A Deadly Adoption), the Funny or Die-produced anthology series is in line with other IFC shows such as Portlandia and Garfunkel and Oates, which often find offbeat humor in how straight-faced their stars play satire.
For the Spoils cast, “it’s all in the way they deliver the lines,” says network president Jennifer Caserta. “You need to be very subtle in your comedy, and let the story line and the environment carry the laughter. It’s not one of those knee-slap, laugh-out-loud (comedies).”
Wiig, who appears in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series later this month, signed on for Dying sight unseen. “I had so much fun on the first one. The writing is just so good,” she says.
Williams, who channeled Miles Davis to play the series’ protagonist, describes the fast-paced shoot as a comedy master class, which meant stepping outside his comfort zone.
“I like to think I have a funny side a lot of people don’t know about,” Williams says. “People mainly know me as being more dark and sinister, but I didn’t deviate from basically what I do. I played (Rock) very straightforward and believed what he was going through, and the beauty happened when you surrounded me with all these dynamic actors with awesome timing. They were just putting all these things in front of me to react to and made the transition very smooth.
“At one point, I started doing my own little improv,” he says. “I felt I grew as an actor from Spoils.”
© 2015 Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY.