Meet the man who helped Michael K. Williams tell his story
Jon Sternfeld talks about working with the actor on his memoir, ‘Scenes From My Life’
When Jon Sternfeld received a call from Michael K. Williams’ agent in 2018 about potentially working on the actor’s memoir, he was, of course, excited about the opportunity. But Sternfeld couldn’t have imagined that, four years later, the Emmy-nominated actor wouldn’t be alive to see his story hit bookshelves.
Nearly a year after Williams died of an accidental drug overdose on Sept. 6, 2021, the book, Scenes From My Life: A Memoir emerges as what will likely be seen as the final word on his life — a responsibility that Sternfeld, the actor’s co-author, doesn’t take lightly.
“When he passed, it was my job to finish up the book,” Sternfeld said. “So the loose ends, that’s what I had in mind: What Mike would have wanted? If he were able to read it, he would be OK with it.”
Written in unflinching detail, the memoir covers everything from Williams’ difficult upbringing in Brooklyn, New York, with his abusive mother and absentee father to his struggles with addiction, as well as breakthrough roles on The Wire and The Night Of. The book also delves into Williams’ activism in the communities he grew up in.
Recently, Andscape caught up with Sternfeld via Zoom to discuss working with Williams, how he found out about the actor’s death, and the responsibility of faithfully telling Williams’ story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with this book, and what was the process like?
He got in touch because I had co-written a memoir called A Stone of Hope with Jim St. Germain, who Mike knew through his activist work. They share an agent, so the agent reached out and asked if I’d be interested in meeting with Mike and maybe working with him on a book. Of course I said yes.
Usually, when you’re co-writing or ghostwriting a book, it takes like a year, year and a half, but this was very extended because Mike was a busy guy. He first wanted to do the book with his nephew Dominic [Dupont]. It was going to be a dual memoir. That fell through, and then Mike wanted to do a straight juvenile justice-type book. So he teamed up with an expert on the issue, but then that wasn’t working.
So after six months or so of talking to Mike and getting to know him, there was this idea of telling his story more directly, which he did not originally come to me wanting to do. In fact, he very much said, ‘I don’t want one of those books that’s like, ‘I did it and you can, too.’ ’ But he had realized that sharing his addiction, sharing his abuse stories, and sharing his failures would be a useful, helpful thing. If he was working with kids in the community, what better way than to say, ‘Look, I screwed up, too, and these are the lessons I learned. And I’m still screwing up day-to-day.’
I definitely got to know Mike really well. We developed this strange private relationship, because he could call me and tell me things and he knew I wasn’t in his circle. I wasn’t his friend, in a sense. He said it was therapeutic. He’d call and I’d say, ‘I have some questions to get to,’ and he’d say, ‘Listen, I just got to get five minutes to get something off my chest.’ And he would go off and it was not stuff that would end up in the book, but he was going through a lot of ups and downs throughout our 2½ years together. So I was happy to get to know him.
Now that he’s gone, I almost feel like it was too big of a responsibility, at least for me. Even the fact that we’re talking. If Mike was alive, he would be doing these interviews. So it’s a very strange time seeing him on a book cover and out there, but not existing as the force behind it.
Do you feel like the man that you got to know is the same one that comes through in this book?
That’s my ultimate goal — that the book itself gives you what Mike would say, and what Mike would publicize about what is valuable in his life.
He definitely talks about his acting work, but we didn’t go through his résumé. He was not interested in that. He talked about the work in terms of his own personal development, and a little bit about the celebrity that came with it, but he was interested in the way that his life and his work and his activism came together. And when he passed, it was my job to finish up the book. So the loose ends, that’s what I had in mind — what Mike would have wanted. If he were able to read it, he would be OK with it, I think.
There’s a lot of revealing stuff in there. There’s revealing stuff about his addiction, and the ugliness of it. There’s stuff about his childhood, his mother’s abuse, and the depression he went through. But he felt the point was to let everyone know that what they saw was ultimately someone who was human and struggling, but trying. He would not want his death, which was accidental, to cloud how people took it. Sometimes I picture what he would think and I think he’d be pissed that his death is overshadowing the book. And sometimes I think he thinks it’s the best lesson. This is the way to get people to listen to him.
Tell us how you found out Williams had passed?
Mike’s manager and longtime friend, Matt [Goldman], called me right before it hit the wires. It was disbelief. It was shock. I didn’t even really think about the book for a while. Later that week, the editor and the publisher called me asking, ‘What should we do? Do we need to bring in other people to finish the book?’ I don’t know what their plans were, but I said, ‘No, the book will be done exactly as Mike wanted. Just give me some time.’
It was upsetting because of the way things get covered in the 21st century — the salaciousness of it. Mike had a drug problem that he was open about, but his death was accidental. He was in a good place. I had talked to him a couple times that week. He was happy and reminiscing. And there was nothing in his mood that indicated anything. There were some people assuming that he must have been in some kind of downward spiral, which just wasn’t true. But it just made me feel really, really sad, because I knew how much more he had in him. And I knew the journey he had gone through to get to the person he was. He was really going through this phase where he was getting in touch with his power and his influence and what he was here for.
So much of this book is about Williams’ passion for change in his community, but his organization’s website, makingkidswin.com, is for sale, and its social media pages haven’t been updated in almost a year. When someone dies suddenly, how do we ensure the work they do continues?
It’s a great question. For a few years before Mike passed away, he put a lot of his energy into an organization called We Build the Block, which is essentially a way for people in the community to take ahold of their community safety, elections, voter registration, and criminal justice. So the makingkidswin.com website is down, but I know they’re going to build it back up. A lot of Mike’s work still continues and he was absolutely an inspiration, but We Build the Block and Crew Count, which were the kids he worked with, are still very much going, and I would not want anyone reading this to think that Mike’s work crumbled without him.
It was extremely important for Williams to return to his neighborhood, Brownsville, Brooklyn, but that’s also where he experienced so much pain.
I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I know that everything that made Mike beautiful also made him hurt. So just as someone who is a human, I would say, yes. I would say that living inside your past can be healthy if it motivates you, but not if it drags you down.
By the end of the book, it feels like Williams is telling us that he finally found his place in the world and knew what he was supposed to be doing.
That’s absolutely true. It sounds convenient for me, as his co-writer, to say that’s where he was, but that literally is where he was. Anyone that talked to him in the last couple of years would say he was in his best place. He was getting in touch with his power as an actor. He had, for a while, felt like his job as the talent was to show up and read the lines. But he was finally getting in touch with taking control, talking back if he wasn’t comfortable with what was going on, and becoming a producer. He had a lot more control over Black Market: Season Two, for instance. So the things he did wouldn’t have just been acting roles. He was merging his life and his work and his activism in this way where he finally had a platform to do what he wanted to do.
If Williams were still here, what do you think he would be most proud of about this book?
First, just that he finished it. I imagine someone of Mike’s stature, people have probably been trying to get him to write a book forever. So I think he would be proud that he finished it.
Second, I think the fact that he didn’t hold back. I think the fact that he didn’t present himself in a great light. He didn’t worry about how things would come across. I had an early conversation with Mike where he was sharing an embarrassing drug story and I said, ‘Are you OK with leaving that in the book?’ And he said, ‘I don’t feel like I have the liberty to leave that out.’ That told me a lot about what he cared about. So I think he would be most proud of the fact that he was able to face the world as someone with his trauma and with his issues openly and say, ‘This is me. This is what I care about. Either you’re with me or you can move on.’ I think there’s bravery and courage in that. And even though he wouldn’t use those words, that’s what he would be proud of — the openness with which he presented himself to the world.