Wendell Pierce — Julliard trained actor, business entrepreneur, film actor, television icon. His baritone voice and infectious charisma made his pivotal role on David Simon’s “The Wire” one of the more cherished in small screen history. His turn at Antoine Batiste was the first cast for Simon’s “Treme,” a show that this writer somewhat controversially thinks the best show in the history of American Television, a poetic look at music, film and culture that surpassed even the unabashed magnificence of the much lauded, Baltimore-set drama “The Wire.”
As part of a larger conversation that included talk of his latest film project, the remarkable “Selma” (which documents the events surrounding the March to Birmingham in 1965), we pivoted to talk about his two most prominent roles on the small screen. What began as a simple, general question resulted in an answer of rare depth and complexity, an intensely introspective and philosophical response about what these two projects mean to him both as an artist and as a man.
What “The Wire” means to Pierce…
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“The Wire,” to this point, defines me as an artist, defines my career. That speaks not just of occupation, but there’s a vocation of why you become an actor, the thing that you’re called to do. One day it might not be my occupation, I may not earn my living at it, but it will always be my vocation, the thing that I’m called to do, to try to illuminate some aspect of this human journey and human existence.
What he feels is the role of art…
What thoughts are to the individual when they lie awake at night and say “Who am I? What are my values, what have I done, what do I hope to do, where have I failed, where have I succeeded?” As you reflect on your own personal life, and those thoughts fill your head, that is the same role of art in society as a whole.
Entertainment is just a residual of art, but the role of art is where we collectively think about who we are, what our values are, where we’ve succeeded, where we’ve failed, where we hope to go as a society as a people. It’s a declaration of our value.
We’ve lost that, assuming that the only role of culture and art is to entertain and it should have no other impact. And that’s why people so readily say hey, you’re just a Hollywood actor, shut up, don’t have an opinion. But [with] “The Wire,” you could not get a clearer demonstration of that role of art in action, where it is to declare to society in a forum, to discuss who we are, what our dysfunctions are and where our problems are and where we hope to succeed. More importantly, [it’s] giving humanity to folks whom society has marginalized, said we’re going to put on the side, we’re not going to face our dysfunctions, we don’t want to deal with that.
Well, we’re going to put it front and center on the table.
On Pierce’s faith in David Simon, and watching “The Wire” for the first time…
I can now look back and appreciate that impact that “The Wire” had. Reading it, I saw the possibility there. Shooting it, I felt the possibility there. When I first saw it, I thought, “Oh my God, save your money, this is not going anywhere!”
I sat there with Andre Royo and Sonja Sohn. I’ll never forget the day we screened the first two episodes, I thought oh my goodness, man, this is gonna be cancelled!
David Simon has [taught] me to have a respect for the intelligence of the folks in the audience, to speak not to the least common denominator in the audience, but speak to a higher level. Folks will come up to you if you’re authentic and truthful and honest.
[Simon] said all the pieces matter, all the pieces fit. He had faith and he was able to change American storytelling on television. He had faith in the audience — that if you were authentic and truthful, and to the point, people would hang in there.
On “The Wire” as a visual novel…
If [an audience is] engaged with the characters, they are going to put in the time and see where the development of the characters takes them and the development of the stories. [Simon] said that happens all the time in novels and we give it short shrift when it comes to television, but I think it can happen in television. He proved that it can be done and that you will be rewarded handsomely by honoring your audience.
It was the first time that I ever heard someone say it, but they said to think of “The Wire” as a novel. Some chapters you won’t be in, and you’re not going to be a part of other chapters, but creating an entire world will have an impact. That’s why “The Wire” lives on to this day [as a] multi-faceted, complex rich depiction of humanity, not only in the acting but in the written word. [There’s] the meld between actors and folks who were coming from the world, bringing even more, a higher level of authenticity. Putting them in the piece just helped the actors become more authentic and do their research and allow themselves to create the world so strong that it induces behavior.
I was able to trust that all of the pieces fit and mattered, [as] I knew it would be cumulative.
On the universality of this story from Baltimore, and the nature of culture…
David is successful in his storytelling because he taps into that humanity. The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. We are all human, and our humanness is manifested in different ways because of our cultures and where we are, [with] a culture being that intersection between life and how people deal with it.
People deal with life in different ways, but the common thread through us all is the humanity, the humanity that will inform our behavior and who we are and how we react to things. How we react finds our moral core.
On reaching different audiences…
[It’s] humanity that connects “The Wire,” from the kids slinging on the corner to that blue haired lady on Park Avenue. If you look in the hip hop culture world, “The Wire” is revered, and then you can go online and see “The Wire” high up on the list when it comes to a parody site like Stuff White People Like. It is the thing that pulls them all together.
It is that humanity that David tapped into and the fact that he didn’t give it short shrift. He was very specific. I don’t know anyone strung out as much as Bubbles, but I knew who Bubbles was, I empathized with him, I understood his struggle, I got angry with him, I loved him, I cried at his triumph when he overcame. That is the humanity that we all share.
On “Treme” and its connection with his life and birthplace…
“Treme” is not a television show at all to me. “Treme” is a defining era of my life.
[“Treme”] was the last 4 years I got to spend with my mother before she passed. It was coming back to the city that I loved so much, but I didn’t understand how much it was a part of who I was until we lost it all, and I knew that it could easily never come back.
[That] fear of knowing that your entire city, your entire reference of childhood and present and future is gone in one week, in one day, with the possibility of it never coming back. [It] was a nuclear holocaust and a nuclear winter of spirit, of place, of memory, of future.
Being from a city is like being from a family, with all of the dysfunction. It is the closest connection you have to your past and the people who are most likely going to be there for you in the future.
What New Orleans means to Pierce…
Family. That’s what New Orleans is. To lose New Orleans in one night with Katrina, goes far beyond Mr. Wolfe’s declaration of you can’t go home again. It’s like you can’t go home again because your home never existed.
It was an unacceptable fear to everybody in New Orleans and that was the thing that unified us to say we have got to bring New Orleans back. It wasn’t just lip service, it wasn’t a declared love, it was out of an absolutely acute necessity because if we didn’t bring New Orleans back, didn’t attempt to bring New Orleans back, didn’t declare the importance of New Orleans, didn’t declare the absolute American genius of our culture, it would be saying it never existed at all and you have no reason to have any importance of existence and no declaration that you were ever here as a person, as a family, as a neighborhood, as a city, as a culture.
You heard the calls from people around the world saying why should we even build it back? So that was the emotional impact that people had in losing this city and wanting to bring it back.
How the people of New Orleans reacted to the show…
“Treme” was this vehicle that David gave not only me but the city, the people who had gone through this experience. A vehicle to vent, a vehicle to declare the importance of their city, a vehicle to make a cultural document that will outlive us all as a piece of art to say this is where we were, this is what we were thinking, this is what our reaction was, good and bad, as dysfunctional as that is, to one of the greatest tragedies that ever hit our city and in the darkest days of New Orleans.
We’re going to make this cultural document that will outlast us all, so that generations to come will be able to say what did you do, Mr. Pierce, in New Orleans’ darkest hour. How did people react, Mr. Pierce, in New Orleans’ darkest hour? People of New Orleans, what was important to you, what was your culture about, why did you feel it necessary to bring back this city that I’m now visiting long after you’ve gone on?
On “Treme” being both a “classic” and a “fictionalized documentary”…
The thing I know about “Treme” [is that] it’ll be classic. When something is classic, it not only speaks to the people at that present time and place, it can speak to people and about people’s moments in the past, and will speak to people the same way in the future as they engage that piece of art. That’s what makes it classic, and that’s the thing that David created.
[Simon] went even further to create something seldom executed so well, and that’s fictionalized documentary, where you take these fictionalized characters and their journeys and are able to make a commentary, through art, on the presence of what’s happening in a society or world, a place at one time. Commenting not only alongside it but within it by making sure that there were actual things that happened within that moment of time that are in the story with it.
One doesn’t compete with the other, but each work in concert with each other to illuminate the importance of what the message is, to work in concert with each other to illuminate the moral of the story that you should get from this fictionalized character’s journey, and to work in concert with each other to understand the absolute lesson that you have to learn from these true events that happened during the crisis of New Orleans that you have to face and deal with at this time.
The goal of “Treme”:
[The goal was] to illuminate the triumphs and the beauty of the human spirit that were illuminated in this crisis of New Orleans, that we should celebrate and never forget that happened. People saving people. People understood the importance of its culture, supporting its cuisine, heard people’s music and took an underground, grassroots, cultural tradition that everyone knew about and brought it to the light of the world, like we did with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
To do all of that [with a] fictionalized, documentary style, and do something that’s seldom done on television — be poetic, be amorphic, non-linear, but impactful and poetic… That’s something like what a piece of visual art does.
It’s not literal to me, I don’t know the image exactly, but that is pretty. It’s beautiful. It speaks to something in me and it moves me. And that’s the thing I’m proudest of, about “Treme.”
“Treme” has to be one of the best depictions of poetry on television, bringing humanity and an expose of culture and the importance of culture to the world.
A continuing theme: How “Treme” and its specificity makes for a universal story.
In New Orleans, the first thing they say is “Wendell, you’re from New Orleans, we’re from New Orleans, we know, do people get this outside of New Orleans? Do they understand it, because it is so uniquely New Orleans? It’s so uniquely our culture, I don’t think anybody outside the city will understand.”
The minute I’m outside the city, they say, “Wendell, I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I feel like I know everything about New Orleans. I feel like I totally understand this culture. Do people in New Orleans understand and know how much we love it and love and understand that culture? Do they know, do they realize the importance of their culture and how rarely people get to live their culture the way they do?”
They’re always asking about the other group’s appreciation of the culture that we depicted. That speaks to that humanity and authenticity that David taps into. [It] reminds me of a saying that was in Ken Burns’ baseball documentary: He said when you meet a baseball fan, and you’re not into baseball, through their enthusiasm, you wish you were.
On the documentary that helped influence David Simon and set the feel of “Treme”…
David did something that the documentary film “Always for Pleasure” [Les Blank, 1978] attempted to do and I think succeeded. I think David took that and went even further. If you ever get a chance to see that documentary, the filmmaker just goes and just turns on the camera [and] opens up the microphone. It’s a visual painting of the culture of New Orleans, trying to capture the culture and the essence of what the city is, this last Bohemia, this northern-most Caribbean city. It was a poem to the city, not linear at all, not the specificity that you would expect from a documentary. He just turned the camera on and let the images and the things that happened tell the story and speak to you.
David was greatly influenced by that film. You take that same approach and then you add storyline and perspective and commentary and a point of view the way he does — it just takes it to another level.
So it’s a piece of art, so uniquely different than any television ever produced that while we did not get the numbers while it was on air, we have left this cultural document that I think will outlive us and help define the city for some time to come. Even more important [was] what it did for the city, [with] watch parties all over New Orleans on Sunday nights, waiting to see the next episode of “Treme” because it was slightly behind where people were in the present. It was therapeutic.
It was that communal forum that art is supposed to be, where people gathered as a whole to understand their experience and reflect on where we’d come from, how devastating it had been, how we are triumphing, the things that helped us to triumph. To realize, even though things are going really bad right now, we were still in the midst of rebuilding when the show was on. [To reflect] wow, we’ve come a long way.
On how actual events from New Orleans would shape those watching the show
I’ve been in moments at watch parties where something specific came up and the person recognizes, oh, no no, not this, no, I can’t watch this, it’s still too soon. But it was therapeutic, it was almost like group therapy in little bars, and lounges, and homes around New Orleans on Sunday night. So that they could actually have some cathartic moment about those difficult days we went through when New Orleans flooded.
So “Treme” is not the defining moment in my career. It’ll be the defining moment of my personal life and the life of the city of New Orleans.