The actor: Much of Lance Reddick's young life was spent with instruments, not acting; he studied piano as a kid, and majored in classical composition at the Eastman School of Music. He switched to pop upon graduation, then turned to stage acting to further his music career, eventually attending Yale's drama school. Acting has been kind to Reddick, who's been involved with numerous critically acclaimed shows, including Oz, Lost and, most notably, as Lt. Daniels on The Wire. He's currently playing Agent Phillip Broyles in J.J. Abrams' newest shocker-procedural, Fringe.
New York Undercover (1996)—"Oscar Griffin"
Lance Reddick: It's funny, because in drama school, my greatest strength was my range. So my early career was like that: I played all kinds of different characters. I graduated in '94 from Yale and New York Undercover was my first gig on TV. I played a father of this kid who lived in the ghetto but was going to this boarding school because he was really smart. Then I played a drug addict in a TV movie with Jon Voight called… Oh, man, I can't believe I can't remember. [It was 1998's The Fixer. —ed.] That same year, I did a TV movie, this Hallmark Hall Of Fame thing, where I played James Earl Jones' son. It was set in the '60s, and he was a junk man but was secretly wealthy. [Laughs.] It was set in the South and he owned all this land. I played one of his sons. So I did all kinds of stuff like that. It's funny, because the first agent I was with always tried to type me as a cop. I was really all over the place with roles, which is what I wanted to do.
The A.V. Club: Why did they try to give you those types of roles? They saw a sort of cop persona in you?
LR: I think that's the way the business thinks, in terms of types. I don't know if it was necessarily a cop persona. It was more like "guy in a suit." As far as the cop thing goes, I don't know. I always wanted to do one of those, but I never thought I would be typed as that. That didn't really happen until I did The Wire. Even the cops I did before that, like in Oz, I was undercover. I was a drug addict and a murderer by the end of the thing. [Laughs.] It's funny, 90 percent of what I've done has been television, and I never really wanted to do it that much. I was really interested in film and theater. What's ironic is that when I started doing television, I did a bunch of amazing shows all in a row, starting with The Corner.
The Corner (2000)—"Marvin"
AVC: Were you attracted to the role because you grew up in Baltimore and you understood the city?
LR: No, not at all. I was attracted to the role because of the role. Actually, I originally auditioned for the lead, three times, and it wasn't until my third that [director] Charles Dutton asked me to read this other role. Ironically, it was because they thought I had too much of an edge for the lead. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you remember what you had to do in the audition?
LR: Wow, that was in the summer of '99. All I remember is that I prepared my butt off. I read for both roles. Dutton just gave me one note. I did it again. He smiled. We talked, and he asked me some questions about Baltimore, since we both grew up there. Then I left. That was it. Then I got cast.
AVC: Is it nerve-racking when you don't get any notes?
LR: Notes are tricky in an audition, because I find, more often than not, my instinct is right. If they have a preconceived notion [about the role] and it goes against my instinct, unless it makes sense to me, it often throws off what I'm trying to do. Though sometimes they have an insight that I don't because they've been living with the script. I don't have one feeling or another about notes, but it is always a little bit of a red alert when I get one in an audition.
The Wire (2002-2008)—"Lt. Cedric Daniels"
AVC: A lot of TV critics have written that it's hard to see The Wire's characters in other roles, because the show made them seem so real. After doing The Wire, do you find a difference when dealing with casting directors who are familiar with the show, and those who aren't?
LR: [Long pause.] Well, this is a bit of a tricky question, only because a very odd thing happened to my career when I got The Wire. My career was pretty much a steady climb; I didn't really flatline much. When I did The Wire, that's when I thought all the doors would open, but that's when things flatlined. I had a really hard time just getting seen for film, which was the next step.
AVC: Why do you think that happened?
LR: Well, you can always speculate about why in hindsight. To be blunt, I think it had to do with representation. It was just one of those things where I was still with the person I had been with pretty much since getting out of school. But at a certain point, he just wasn't big enough—his reach wasn't far enough, and he didn't have an L.A. office, so that was a lot of the problem. So a lot of the stuff I was cast in after that, for the most part, came from people who knew me. I didn't have to audition a lot. I just got offered stuff because they knew me from The Wire.
See, what's interesting is, especially this last year, most of the people who are fans of the show who aren't… [Laughs.] Who aren't black people or cops… most of the people in the industry are the crew: writers, actors and directors. And so they understand what it is that we do, so they think, "Wow, what a incredible group of amazing actors." It's funny, I think there are a couple of reasons why we have never gotten any nomination for anything except for writing, and, even that, only twice in several years, despite being in the top five, top 10 TV shows, often called the best TV show.
AVC: The constant Emmy snubbing is a crime.
LR: Well, yeah, the Emmys, but it's not just the Emmys. The Golden Globes. The one set of awards that really hurt me were the SAG awards, because that's supposed to be our peers. So, for me, that was like, "Wow. That's deep." I think what you said about critics is because [the show] was so rich… It was like a documentary, almost. In fact, that's what David Caruso said to me. We were talking about the whole Emmy thing, and he said that one of the things about awards in this town is that a lot is about the drama—like the drama of the performance. And he said "Your show looks so real, it almost looks like a documentary. And people who aren't artists—a lot of people who vote for this stuff—don't get it." So they think—especially because a lot of us are unknown—they were casting real people. Even though the vast majority of us are classically trained actors.
AVC: You've said in previous interviews that you think the lack of awards stems from the fact that the majority of the show's performers were African-American.
LR: Oh, I definitely think that that's a factor. I know some people think it's not good for me to necessarily say that, but I think that at this point, to me, it's so blatant. I mean, come on. Nobody on the show has any question about it. No one of color in the industry has any question about it.
AVC: After five seasons, do you still think race is the issue?
LR: Oh, absolutely, because it's not like however many seasons is going to change the culture. First of all, for a lot of people, watching a show about black drug culture… it just doesn't compute. Also, you can't just pick up an episode and watch it. It's like a five-season novel. It's very complex and intricate.
AVC: When you were shooting season one, before there was a lot of buzz, do you remember how you felt about the show and what the experience was like?
LR: Absolutely. When I read the pilot—and this was at a point when I didn't really want a television career—I said, "I have to be on this show. This is the best pilot script I've ever read." It read like the first chapter of a novel. It wasn't like I felt I had to play this character, I just had to be on this show. I didn't even go in for Daniels originally. I went in for Bunk. I read for three different roles, actually. Daniels was the last the last thing I read for.
AVC: Did everyone on the set in those early days share your enthusiasm?
LR: Everybody felt like, "This is a hit." I was coming from a theater background. I had an obsession with classic film and cool, interesting, intelligent television. I didn't really understand the way the mainstream television industry worked. I just thought "This is so good that it's going to be a huge hit, and we'll get awards up the yin-yang forever." That's what I thought! When I was working with the other actors, scene after scene after scene, I felt like we were singing together. We were dancing together. I'm like, "This is the best ensemble I've ever worked with. I'm working with these cats? Holy mackerel, this is heaven."
AVC: After reading for Bunk and Bubbles, did you ever catch yourself thinking about what could have been? Especially after witnessing those character arcs over five years.
LR: Well, I couldn't have asked for a better role, but two things. Number one: Bunk was a… I was pushing… It's funny, I almost got into an argument with the casting director. I resisted her when I was originally reading, because I was trying to put something on that wasn't quite a fit. And being a character actor, I kind of wanted to do that anyway. But the truth is, once I saw the show, once I saw Wendell [Pierce] play Bunk, I thought, "There's nobody else, I couldn't do that." Everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to. He brought something not only to the character, but to his relationship with McNulty that I wouldn't have brought.
AVC: What was the argument with the casting director about?
LR: It wasn't even an argument, I did my reading and she said, "No, stop, stop." Cause I was literally doing a voice. I was doing this: [Gravelly, harsh gibberish.] She was like "No, stop."
AVC: As Bunk?
LR: As Bunk, yeah. 'Cause when I read it, for me it was clear that Bunk was so far from who I am that I needed to do something. And most of the characters I'd played up to then were so different from me, so far from me that I had to transform. So I figured "Well, let me try this." She was like, "No, just read it." And I was like, "No. I won't be this character then. I'm not going to be this guy. I'll be me reading these lines."
AVC: What did she say to that?
LR: Well, I didn't say that. I don't remember what I said, I didn't say much, I just resisted her. [Laughs.] I read for Bunk a few times. In the third audition, they asked me to read Bubbles on the spot. They knew me from The Corner as a crackhead, so they figured, "Let's see what you do with this."
AVC: What's your process when you get asked to read for something on the spot? Make a choice as quick as possible?
LR: Yeah. You gotta just do it. And sometimes it's the best thing. It's funny, that almost happened to me on Fringe. When I read the script, Broyles was the only character I thought I was right for. And even then I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, because it felt too close to Daniels. And then they didn't even want me to come in for that, they wanted me to come in for Charlie. But while I was in the waiting room, the casting director came out and said to me, "You're reading for Broyles, right?" I said, "No, Charlie." "Oh, I think you'd be a great Broyles, can you read for Broyles?" I said, "Well…" [Laughs.] It was basically a two-page monologue, a big confrontation scene with Olivia in my office that we have in the pilot where I just talk and talk and talk.
Fringe (2008)—"Agent Phillip Broyles"
AVC: As an actor, do you find differences in working on HBO vs. a big network show like Fringe, with a lot of buzz before it airs?
LR: I found an enormous difference. On Fringe, there is a lot more pressure about the numbers every week. For me, I'm like, "What?" It really informs the mood on the set, and how scripts are rewritten.
AVC: Does it inform your work as an actor at all? Have things been changed as a result of numbers?
LR: It only changes insofar as that I have to learn things more quickly, because we will get a lot more changes in notes from the network. It's interesting. During the last season of The Wire, I read for the role that Blair Underwood eventually got for Dirty Sexy Money. The creator [Craig Wright] said to me, "On HBO, you do your show. On network television, you do their show." Fringe, though, is a bit of special case because it's with J.J. [Abrams]. It's kind of a dance. It's not really [Fox's] show, but they have input in a way that HBO didn't really give.
AVC: Is J.J. Abrams open to hearing your character ideas?
LR: That's one thing that is different for me. On The Wire, I didn't feel I could put input into the character, because I felt like I was doing David [Simon] and Ed [Burns'] show. I thought, "These are geniuses and everything is completely from their personal experiences. So what do I have to offer?" This is the first time a creator has actually come to me and said, "I'm thinking this, and if you have ideas, call me." I'm like, "What? I've got ideas? I'm an actor, not a writer!" I know a lot of actors want to write and direct. I'm not one of those guys.
AVC: Have you taken him up on the offer?
LR: Yeah. It was actually just a riff on an idea he had mentioned to me. He had said, "I feel like I want to go home with this character." My thought about the guy was one thing—that he was single. And J.J. was thinking that he had a family. I started to think this, that, and the other about it. I actually don't want to say what it is, though, because it might end up in the show. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why are you so comfortable playing hard-ass leader-type people?
LR: I don't know that I'm more comfortable doing it, but it seems to be what I've been getting since The Wire. The funny thing about it is sometimes they're leader-y and sometimes they're not. Though there does seem to be a consistent hard-ass thing. I do seem to be playing a string of cops now, but a lot of them are very different. For example, I did a little independent movie in 2004 called Bad City. Sometimes it goes by the name Dirty Work. I don't know why. The guy I played was a homicide detective. The guy was a thug. He was a gambling addict and a womanizer and he beat suspects up. I've got a movie coming out in December, a Lee Daniels film, where I play a state trooper who is an abusive husband. It's very different than guys who are much more sophisticated, like Daniels or Broyles.
AVC: Is there something satisfying in playing a really dark role?
LR: Yeah, I don't know what it is, but there is. I was talking to David [Simon] about that in season four, just about drama in general. He said, "Well, happiness isn't interesting." Funny is, but even funny generally comes out of conflict, but it's turned upside down so that it is made absurd instead of tragic. What's interesting to me is being able to go into something that is kind of extreme. The thing that I'm really desperate to do right now is something funny.
Oz (2000-2001)—"Detective John Basil"
AVC: Do you find that doing darker drama helps the cast become more cohesive more quickly?
LR: Not necessarily. Before I did Oz, I did an Off-Broadway show that was a comedy written by Ann Meara. We were like a family, and we did that show for a year. On Oz, I did feel like the cast members were friends and there was a lot of bonding. That said, there was a lot of testosterone. Once again, it was full of really intense theater actors with this writing that was really intricate and subtle.
AVC: Your character on Oz becomes addicted to heroin, and other past roles involve being a junkie. How do you prepare for moments that involve drugs?
LR: Wow. The Corner mostly didn't show me doing that kind of stuff. Oz was more intense, because it actually showed me going through it. But a lot of it is just kind of memories of watching stuff. This is the thing I found interesting about Oz: Twice, I had people come up to me; one was a crew member who had actually been a drug addict. He was like, "Wow, man, it looks like you've done it before." And actually, when I was shooting the pilot of The Wire, I ran into Charles Dutton in the grocery store. He was just complimenting me on how real I made that character in Oz. And I had never snorted drugs before. I started to realize, a lot of times if you go into your memory, your sense memory, you know more than you think you do, from having watched and listened.
The West Wing (1999)—"DC Police Officer"
LR: I never met Aaron Sorkin. That was just a quick day-player thing, which I happened to get mainly because they could hire me as a local hire in DC because I was shooting The Corner at the same time. So in the end, I shot one scene and left. It was cool, because that was a moment when my career was starting to accelerate and take off, because the next couple years were a flurry of activity.
Lost (2008)—"Matthew Abaddon"
AVC: What is it like working on a show where your character is purposefully mysterious, and much hasn't been written yet about him? It's like you're figuring it out along with the writers, the fans, everyone.
LR: That's an interesting phenomenon. [Laughs.] I have to make up a lot of the backstory on my own. However, in this particular instance, even though I got virtually no background, the one or two sentences I was told about the character allowed me to—how do I put this—figure out where the guy was coming from, even if I didn't know a lot about his history. That way, my attitude in the scenes I was playing would be clear for me.
AVC: The show has a huge cult following of nit-pickers. Do you ever get caught up in the message boards and the theories?
LR: It's funny, I've never seen any of that stuff. Because I'm not a big Internet guy. And it wasn't like I came in and was suddenly on the show all the time. I've only done three episodes. So it was one of those things where I did it, then thought about something else, then a few months later they called me up and I did it again, and then thought about something else. I still don't get stopped a lot about Lost. Even now, even though I have Fringe, the vast majority of the people who stop me are about The Wire. It's a little disconcerting. [Laughs.]
LR: I've just never been stopped, so for the first time in my life, I feel like my public life isn't necessarily my own. I'm starting to get used to how to maneuver and operate in New York in a way that I don't get stopped all the time now.
AVC: Do you have any standard tactics or lines that you say to people when they stop you?
LR: No, I just pretty much say "Thank you." But one of the things is to try to keep moving. Not to stop too long, because people try to get into a conversation with you all the time. The hardest thing is on the subway, or when people try to chase you down. Just to give you an example, about two weeks ago, I was in the subway and it was pretty crowded. And I noticed this guy staring at me. I was standing and pretending I wasn't looking, but I was noticing him out of the periphery of my eye. Every time he would lean to try and get a good look at my face—I also had a cap on—I would shift so my arm was in the way. Eventually I moved, I went to the other end of the car. So he moved to the other end of the car, across from me. Then I moved to another place. Then he moved.
AVC: What ended up happening?
LR: Well eventually, after 20, 25 minutes of this, he comes up to me and goes, "Are you…?" Like he's asking me if I am who he thinks I am. And of course he knows who I am, because he's been staring at me for 20 minutes. So I said, "Yeah." I had headphones on; I took them off to answer him. But as soon as he stopped talking, I put my headphones back on, looked down, and started rocking to the music again. And he finally got the message that I was not going to engage him, and then he got off the train.
AVC: That's kinda sad, actually.
LR: Sometimes you have to say, "No. This is my space." If you're going to come at me, come at me respectfully, and I will respond respectfully.