Michael K. Williams talks Central Park Five and how Obama helped him "grow up"

Michael K. Williams talks "When They See Us"

Michael K. Williams – the breakout star of HBO's "The Wire" – is taking on one of the most publicized crimes of the 1980s with his role in the new Netflix series "When They See Us." The Ava-Duvernay-directed project centers on the five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 attack of a Central Park jogger. The men came to be known as the "Central Park Five."

Although four of the five teens confessed on videotape, they later retracted their statements claiming that police had intimidated, coerced and lied to them. Williams portrays Antron McCray's father, Bobby McCray, who in the series convinces his son to confess after being blackmailed by police. It's a role that Williams told "CBS This Morning: Saturday" was "gut wrenching" to play, not just as an actor, but as a parent.

"I just don't – I don't understand. Well, it's easy to sit back, and say, 'I don't understand how he could do that.' However, the circumstances, the lack of information of how the system works or what was legal, what was not accurate, that mixed with the fear they instilled in him," Williams said. "It was the ignorance. He actually believed when they told him that, if you get your son to just, you know, go along with the story, you all get to go home."

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Michael K. Williams CBS News

Williams was in his early 20s and living in New York City during the case. What he remembers most from that time was "fear."

"I remember looking on the news, hearing what they were being accused of, having only to go on what I was being fed. I heard that they confessed, but when I looked at them, I saw myself," he said. "This easily could have been me. I also felt the fear of not wanting to be generalized or lumped in, whatever it was they said these kids were doing."

The city of New York never apologized to the Central Park Five. Williams hopes with "When They See Us" he can help take back the narrative for these young men and pay tribute to their resilience.

"There has to be accountability, obviously, on the police and on our lawmakers side. That was wrong. As a man from my community that looks like the community where they came from, it's my accountability to better educate myself, better inform myself with the way things were and to get to know my local politicians and my local police officers and make sure that they know me and they hear my voice," Williams said.

The Central Park Five: A cautionary tale of injustice

But that voice, Williams revealed, was something he only found a few years ago after he learned former President Barack Obama's favorite character from "The Wire" was his own: Omar Little, the beloved thief and antagonist of Baltimore drug dealers. 

"I had to grow up. It was frightening. I wasn't living my best life at that time. You know, here goes the … president of the United States, you know, singling me out for something I had done. It was a little like 'whoa.' But what it did was set me on my journey," he said. "Because at that point I was a grown man on television who thought my voice didn't matter, so I wasn't involved in my community. I didn't think that my input mattered."

"When They See Us" will be available to stream on Netflix starting May 31.