The actor: Wendell Pierce, who spent more than a decade in small character parts in movies and on television before he landed the role that defined him: Detective William “Bunk” Moreland on the HBO series The Wire. Since then, Pierce has re-teamed with The Wire creator David Simon on another HBO series, Treme, about an eclectic group of New Orleans residents trying to rebuild their city post-Katrina. Season one of Treme was just released on DVD and Blu-ray; season two debuts on April 24.
Treme (2010-present)—“Antoine Batiste”
Wendell Pierce: Season two is going great. We find the characters a year later and decidedly saying, “We’ve got to do something.” My character in particular is saying, “I’ve really got to change my lot in life right now.” So he kind of takes it upon himself to start his own band, to see if he could be a bandleader, with all the good and bad that comes with that. Also, he wants to improve his family’s lot in life, so he’s trying to get his girl back in New Orleans, because they’re not really in the city anymore, they’re stuck outside the city. Then he unexpectedly gets a job that changes everything, and makes him realize that he can have a great impact and not just be the ne’er-do-well that he is. I don’t want to give away what that job is, but yeah, that’s the journey he takes this year.
The A.V. Club: So much of the action on Treme is internal. How much about your character do you have to figure out on your own, and how much do you talk over with the writers?
WP: We talk it over a lot with the writers and producers. We talk about the history of what’s happening, and we all kind of know the stories we’re telling. What happens is that the process lends itself, really, to an understanding of how people feel, when you look at it closely and become a student of human behavior and what the characters have gone through and all. So many real stories are around us here in New Orleans. My family lost everything in the disaster, so it’s easy for me to get into that place.
You know, the first season really set up this strange but real place of New Orleans. I think that’s one of the attractions of the show. People look at it who are not from here, and it’s like, all this strange culture and all this unique stuff is not made up. It’s real, and it’s actually in America. A lot of people are coming to New Orleans for the first time, and some are even moving here because of Treme. There was a guy on the Appalachian Trail, who when he got off, he said, “The first thing I did was watch Treme, and I decided to move here.” That’s what’s happening with the show. It’s unique.
AVC: Has doing Treme helped you come to grips to some extent with losing everything?
WP: Oh yeah, it’s therapeutic. Therapeutic for a lot of people. We’re a couple years ahead of the show in real life, so people here can look back and reflect on the things they’ve gone through and the emotions they felt. You may not be able to recognize it now, but when you look back, you can say, “Okay, I have come a little further along than I’ve thought.” It’s been very therapeutic for me. I’m actually down here with my family. My parents are up today, so I can spend more time with them. And I’ve put together a number of organizations to help rebuild our neighborhoods. The show helps me deal with all the frustration of that too, and kind of reminds me why I’m doing it. Because there are days where I do go, “What the fuck am I doing?” [Laughs.]
The Wire (2002-2008)—“Det. William ‘Bunk’ Moreland”
AVC: How would you compare the way The Wire depicts Baltimore to the way Treme depicts New Orleans?
WP: First of all, the shows are very different, but the thing they have in common is an authenticity that people immediately recognize. One of the real worries I had before the first season of Treme aired was that, man, people in New Orleans really hold movie and television shows up to a high standard in how they depict the city. You talk about The Big Easy down here or whatever, and they’ll be like, “Ugh, awful.” Being from New Orleans, I felt this real sense of pressure: “Man, we got to get it right.” And after the first season, even though there have been complaints and there will always be complaints, people have accepted the authenticity. They’ve said, “You guys have really gotten it like nobody has before.” And I think that was the thing about Baltimore and The Wire too, that there’s an authenticity there. Really, with the depiction of Baltimore, the more specific we became, the more universal it landed. The Wire dealt so much with public policy and how it affects people’s lives, and though it’s so personal, everywhere I go, people say, “Man, I know it’s set in Baltimore, but I’m from Chicago, and this is really about our city.” Or St. Louis. Or any big city.
There was a little disappointment last year because people here in New Orleans wanted the New Orleans version of The Wire. But what’s so different about Treme is that it’s trying really hard to capture culture, and show the impact culture has on people’s lives. Culture is the intersection of people and life itself. It’s how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment… all of that is expressed in culture. And we’ve lost that understanding in America. We don’t understand the role of culture. The role of culture is that it’s the form through which we as a society reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, where we hope to be. It’s like the way thoughts are to the individual, but on a bigger scale. We only see the residual of it, the entertainment. “All right, perform, and entertain me.” Entertainment is just a residual of culture. It is not the sole purpose of it. The sole purpose is that we kind of reflect on what the hell we’re doing here, and how this thing of ours is going.
That’s what’s been so unique to Treme. It has been, for this city especially, very therapeutic and cathartic. I’ve never seen one show solicit so much discussion about what the hell we’re doing in New Orleans, or what’s wrong, or what we should do next, or what shouldn’t we do. People have real, heavy-duty water-cooler sessions Monday morning after the show. That discussion happened with The Wire also. People talked specifically about Baltimore, but also about public policy in general, and that’s why you have so many college courses, like at Harvard and Duke and Berkeley, that use The Wire to study public policy.
Man, I feel like I’m doing an interview with The New York Times. [Laughs.] I just turned into a senator or something.
AVC: The Wire had such a sprawling cast and setting. What did you see as your contribution to the mix?
WP: The seasoning I brought to the stew of our show was the same I bring in real life, which is that I’m such a soulful, funny motherfucker. [Laughs.] No. [Laughs.] A part was that.
My favorite scene of all five seasons for me was my scene with Omar, when you got to hear for the first time, specifically, why black men become police officers. That the neighborhoods they loved are not what they turned into. That the 1 percent are ruining it for the other 99 percent. These men and women, our mothers and fathers, watched over us and sent us on our way and did so many things for us as kids, and they’re now suffering at the hands of violence and crime, and are disproportionately the victims of crime. I heard from so many black detectives when I was working on the show, and when I researched the show, and that was the common theme. I would always ask them, “Why did you become a cop? Of all things, why a cop?” They said, “That’s not my neighborhood anymore, and I wanted to make sure the neighborhood I grew up in survived. And the few that are making it this awful place to live, I wanted to do something about it.”
That’s kind of reflected in that scene with Omar, and that was my contribution to the stew, that was my voice. These black men share this neighborhood, and by the grace of God, one goes down one track and the other goes down the other track. They actually share something in common, fighting for the voice of all those who are disproportionately affected by the violence and the crime. That’s what black men who become cops are trying to express, and I expressed that to Omar, who was a purveyor of that fucking crime and violence. To have that scene where I’m able to tell him, “Listen man, this is our neighborhood. No more bodies. I don’t want any more bodies. We went to the same high school. We have a commonality, and I’m tired of seeing all this violence in our neighborhood. You owe it to the people that created this neighborhood and raised us that we not do this.” It didn’t land on Omar, but that was my proudest contribution to The Wire.
AVC: Do you find it hard to watch other police shows after The Wire, or do you even try?
WP: Actually, the police show I really got into after The Wire, and now I’m into it like crazy, is a reality police show called The First 48. It’s kind of depressing. It’s about murder, y’know. Homicide. You shouldn’t be seeing that much homicide. [Laughs.] But it just reminded me of all the research I did, and all those officers that I worked with, and one in particular: Sgt. Darryl Massey, of the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Division. He’s a bad cat, man, and he actually made an appearance on The Wire. I look at that show The First 48 and it reminds me of him, and of the real Bunk, Oscar Requer, who I worked with.
I was nervous about meeting Requer. I worked with him at the beginning of the show, and one time he came to the set, pulled up in his Caddy, and looked at me with this disgusted frown on his face, like, “What the hell are you doing?” And I never called him back. For five years, I was terrified. Then one day somebody told me, “You know, Bunk is retiring.” I’m like, “When is it? I’ve got to go, I have to honor the man.” I was so worried that I would walk in there and he’d go, “Man, you been doing that show, that’s an awful depiction of me, all these years.” But I actually went in, and it was like I was the prodigal son. “Hey, that’s me!” You know, it was great to see him.
It’s hard to look at other shows, but The First 48 reminds me of those men, so that’s my favorite show right now.
Capital News (1990)—“Conrad White”
WP: That was my first television drama, and actually, it was great experience. It was really good. It was well-written by David Milch, who did NYPD Blue and Deadwood. It was a great show, and it’s actually a genre of television that people don’t get into much. We all know cops, doctors, lawyers, but there’s one genre that only comes up every once in a while, and that’s journalism. We were at a Washington Post-like newspaper, and I was a journeyman reporter. I think we got a season out of it, and that was it. I got to work with Lloyd Bridges, who played the editor. So it was cool. That was my All The President’s Men for television.
The Weber Show (2000-2001)—“Wendell Sims”
WP: That was a period of time that I did a couple of sitcoms back-to-back-to-back, and then I told my agent “All right, no more sitcoms.” [Laughs.] The Weber Show was in the middle of that. It started off as a show called Cursed. Great cast. We had fun with it. Had a ball with Steven Weber, had a ball with Chris Elliott, and Amy Pietz. We had such a great time, and these were well-written shows. It started off called Cursed, and it was a typical example of how a studio, a network, puts their hands into a show and ruins it. First of all, it was about a guy who goes on a date and gets cursed by a gypsy woman, and then hilarity ensues. Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong. But the network, NBC, they were just so, “Oh you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t do this.” By the time they ended with it, they’d changed the name. It couldn’t be Cursed because in the Midwest, they’re going to think it’s a devil show, and that’s the Bible Belt, so we can’t do anything like that. By the end of the run, it was just called The Weber Show, and I literally didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a place to live on the show. I would just show up, and it was like: “Negro No. 1 enters.” [Laughs.] That was it. It had a great team, funny writers, funny actors. And they fucked it up.
The Gregory Hines Show (1997-1998)—“Carl Stevenson”
WP: That was one of my favorite shows. Gregory Hines was the most talented man I’ve ever met or seen. Gregory Hines is one of those people that whenever he talked to you, you felt like you were the center of the universe. And I never knew anyone who was just so gifted as an actor, as a musician, as a dancer. He was amazing, and that show was funny, but also it was really progressive, because it was three generations of black men depicted on television who all loved each other. There was the father, played by Bill Cobbs, and then Gregory and I played brothers, and he had a son, played by Brandon Hammond from Soul Food. It was the best of times and worst of times, because it was a great show, but it was one of those shows that are too good for television. Or network television, I should say. I’d put it on par with like, Frank’s Place, in terms of shows that are taken off the air but never really given a shot.
I’ll never forget one day—and it’s another example of how networks can get involved and screw things up, but this was actually a social lesson, and I’ll never forget this. Usually, actors go away after the first read and then the network gives notes, because they don’t want the actors to be offended or whatever. But this guy from the network said, “Before we break, I just want to ask one question, and don’t take this the wrong way.” And whenever we hear that, black folks all over the world, first thing, we think to ourselves, “Don’t say it.” [Laughs.] Whatever it is. So he says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but do black people kiss their kids?” [Laughs.] And Gregory said, “All right, everybody leave. Come here, motherfucker. Let me talk to you.” Because Gregory, first of all, always kissed his kids in real life, and so he would do it in the show. Whenever he would come in, he’d say “Hey son, how are you doing?” Mwah! And he’d give him a kiss. This guy actually asked, “Hey, do black folks kiss their kids?”
But I remember it as a great show, and something that had never been seen before, three generations of black men loving each other and sticking together as a family after the women in their lives had passed.
AVC: You had a chance to play another family-man-type on Men Of A Certain Age, but had to give it up when Treme came along, and then Andre Braugher was nominated for an Emmy playing what would’ve been your role. Any regrets?
WP: No, no. I was offered the roles at the same time, and it was the height of flattery, because you got two writers who had written roles specifically for me. It’s rare that it happens one time, but to have it happen with two shows at the same time? I was really honored. I told Mr. [Ray] Romano, I said, “Please understand this is a hard decision to make, but this is about what my family went through and the history I have with David Simon working on The Wire, and it’s a chance to say something about my city, the city I love, the city I grew up in, which might not get back to where it was before.” That’s the thing that kind of tipped the scales for me. He was really gracious and understanding. And he ended up with a great show, too, so it all worked out. It was a win-win for everybody.
Night Catches Us (2010)—“David Gordon”
WP: We only had a few days to do that. It was, like, a 15-day shoot. I knew the writer and director from a short that she did coming out of school, a thesis piece. Tanya Hamilton, from Columbia. And when I got the call, I said, “Is this the Tanya Hamilton who did The Killers?” And she said yeah. I said, “I don’t even need to read the script. I want to do it.” Because she has a way of writing that doesn’t spoon-feed you everything, plus she has a great visual sense. You look at Night Catches Us, and at first, people go, “Wow, it has to deal with Black Panthers and redemption and all that.” But immediately after showing the marches and gun battles, what happens is that this character-driven story develops that is very straightforward and simple and human.
I was very proud to be a part of that movie. I also worked with my homeboy Anthony Mackie. Anthony went to the same high school as me here in New Orleans, the New Orleans Center For Creative Arts. He likes to remind me that I came to speak to his high-school class, and I’m like, “All right, I know how old I am.” [Laughs.] And he said he went to Juilliard because I went to Juilliard. That was the second time we got to work together. There’s another movie that hopefully will be coming out soon called Bolden! about Buddy Bolden, the jazz-trumpet player from the 1890s. I really loved working with Anthony, and I really loved working with Tanya Hamilton. It was a great script.
AVC: Do you find that having worked in television, doing a fast shoot like that is easier for you?
WP: Yeah, it is. I was just doing a reshoot this weekend in Los Angeles, and it was one scene over three days. I’m like, “Man, we got one scene over three hours on our Treme schedule.” [Laughs.] So it was easy for me to adapt. I love doing independent films like that. I’ve got another one coming out called Foreclosure with Michael Imperioli that was only, like, a 20-day shoot.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (2011)
WP: The thing about Twilight is this: I have nieces and nephews who have barely seen anything I’ve done, because it’s all R-rated and intense stuff, and they’re always like “Oh yeah? You’re doing that? Oh, that’s good, another TV show? That’s nice, Uncle Wendell, that’s nice to know.” And I never thought I’d be one of those actors to say, like, “I did this for my kids,” because I don’t have any kids. You hear people say that, and I thought they were just giving lip-service to it. But I got this role, accepted it, love to be a part of a franchise, and gave it no thought really, until my nieces and nephews found out. Then I became a hero in their eyes. [Laughs.] “I think you’re the greatest actor ever, you’re in Twilight.” I was so happy I got the role, because there are four kids who mean the world to me who will get to see their Uncle Wendell in a movie.
Get On The Bus (1996)—“Wendell”
WP: It was a great ensemble, but the highlight of that for me was working with Ossie Davis. He’s one of my heroes, man. You know the work I do in rebuilding my community? I think of him, because he was always an actor and an activist. Very much involved. He was involved with the March On Washington with Dr. King. He just set a precedent, and the way he worked, even at the age he was on Get On The Bus, his inventiveness and stamina—it was just walking history.
I remember the last time I saw him, I was actually crying outside of a Broadway theatre, because P. Diddy was playing Walter Lee in A Raisin In The Sun. I’m one of these guys that I judge rappers as actors, like, “If you want to come in, I understand. Rappers have a name, producers want to put them in roles, that’s fine. But I’m going to judge you by the work that you do.” I saw the show early, and I was actually in tears, because I knew: That’s it for my generation. All of these actors of my generation that could’ve done that part. That role is like a Hamlet sort of role for us, and it only comes around once. I went like, “Damn, now I’ll never get to do it.”
And so there I was, my head down, and all of a sudden this door opened and it’s Ossie. Now, he understudied the original. So here I am, saying, “Oh well, I’m not going to get a shot to do it because P. Diddy already did it.” And here’s a man who was understudying someone who did that role and became an international superstar because of it, so that no one remembers his rendition of Raisin In The Sun. He says to me, “Wendell, what’s the matter?” I’m like, “I’m never going to get a chance to do it.” He goes, “No. Everyone does it in their own time, and it doesn’t matter where or when you do it. You’ll do it one day.” Here’s this fatherly, grandfatherly figure, and that moment just changed my whole outlook. I was like, “How can I not accept that from Ossie Davis, who understudied Sidney Poitier in that same role, decades earlier?”
He is, solely for me, my memory of Get On The Bus, because we were all like, “Tell us a story, Ossie.” Whenever we weren’t rolling, we were at his seat, listening to his stories and his words of wisdom about being men, about being actors. He gave me a great legacy to try to carry on.