Wendell Pierce is the type of guy who immediately makes you feel at ease in his company.
“Can I take a picture of you?” He gently asks, procuring a small digital camera from his pocket at the bar of the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. The puzzled look on my face must have conveyed my inner confusion: Bunk from ‘The Wire’ wants to take my picture?
“Someone told me I don’t take enough photos,” he reassures. “So I’m trying to be better.” Click.
Pierce might not take enough photos for a reason: he spends too much time on the other side of the lens.
For five seasons Pierce played the wisecracking homicide detective William “Bunk” Moreland on HBO’s Emmy-winning drama ‘The Wire.’ The role earned the 47-year-old two Image Award nominations, and seemed to forever cement him in the general consciousness as the firm center to amoral partner Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West).
In ‘Tremé‘ (Sunday April 11, 9/8c), HBO’s eagerly-anticipated post-Katrina homage to New Orleans, Pierce breaks free of the Bunk mold to embody Antoine Batiste, an accomplished trombonist low on funds but full of the ra-ra spirit you’d expect from a high school band leader.
Teaming up with ‘Wire’ co-star Clarke Peters and co-creator David Simon, the Big Easy native likens his turn in the new drama to a homecoming of sorts.
At the time of our interview, Pierce was only four episodes into shooting ‘Tremé’ (a rep from HBO confirms the ten-episode first season is set to wrap in a few weeks), but was hopeful of the drama garnering the same plaudits as ‘The Wire,’ if only a little earlier this time around.
Are you happy to be back on set with David Simon again?
It’s been great. It’s actually been twofold – it’s like being back home, being from New Orleans, and also trying to tell the story of what’s going on down there. At the same time it’s trying to capture the spirit of a culture, and how it weaves into everyday life. David does the sort of work that I want to do.
What’s your personal opinion of the pilot episode?
I’m close to it, so I love it. The one thing I was concerned about was authenticity, ‘cause you know New Orleanians are very protective of their culture. That was dispelled early, though. I think people in New Orleans are really going to appreciate it and go ‘You depicted it in a way that people never depict it: how it’s a part of everyday life.’ I hope that people outside of New Orleans can also appreciate it, that it’s not too insular. I’m also a strong believer in the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. You sit there and go, ‘What is a black guy dressed as an Indian all about?’ But then you know there are some Italians down in Philadelphia getting ready for the Mummers Parade, so you say ‘That’s what it’s about.’ I’m sure through the arc of the season you’ll see that. David keeps everything away from us as actors, so I never know.
In ‘Tremé,’ Clarke Peters plays the role of Albert Lambreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian chief who returns to New Orleans to rebuild after the storm.
Which has to be tough – having no clue what’s coming up.
Oh, yeah. It’s so frustrating.
Do you guys ever fight over it?
Well…I get in fights with the producers sometimes, especially with the music. I’m not a musician. I’m learning to play the trombone. One thing I wanted to make sure of is that I’m authentic. I’m from New Orleans, and I have all these friends who are musicians. The one thing they’re going to be doing is watching me, like ‘Aww, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ So I need to watch it to make sure it works. But they frown on actors watching playback because you critique yourself so harshly. It’s one of those things where I understand what they’re doing, but it’s actually a real leap of faith. It has a profound cumulative effect. We get the scripts right before we do it so we’re really in the moment. It’s just like life – you don’t know what’s coming ahead.
After working with David on ‘The Wire,’ you must have gotten a little used to his style.
Yeah, you get used to it. The frustrating thing for me is I was working in a vacuum. I didn’t see the pilot until last week. So you’re hoping you’re doing everything right. You have this trust that they’re doing it right. Now I’m put at ease a little bit.
How well can you play the trombone now?
I’m still in the process of learning. I have someone who plays it for me [on the show’s music track]. It would sound a little worse if I played it. I learn all the tunes and then I also have a backup, so we play together. That’s what’s recorded. It’s great. That’s the great thing about being an actor: you get to do great things and challenge yourself. My goal is to one day get up on stage and play during Mardi Gras.
If you do, who would you want to play with?
Just to play with Rebirth again, Rebirth Jazz Band. I played with them in the opening sequence.
Are you more concerned about the public’s reaction, or the people close to you? And have you gotten any feedback yet?
People in the cast and crew, I wanted to try to get their opinion first. They were like ‘This stuff is right on point.’ They had the same concerns about people outside of New Orleans getting it. I was like “They’re gonna get it.’ You may not understand Lambreaux’s desire to get his Indian group back together, but you understand the idea.
You have to wonder about Lambreaux – is this guy maybe a little bit unstable?
That’s an honest reaction because that’s what people think of New Orleanians when we say we’re gonna rebuild. They’re like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ You never understand a desire to go home until you lose your home. That’s the thing that I love about Clarke. There will be people from around the country like, ‘Man, I understand that cat.’ That’s the stuff that makes it really rich. It challenges the audience to listen and pay a lot more attention. That’s what people want, I think. People don’t want the common denominator. It’s so not a formulaic show. I can’t wait to see what the response will be. It’s not going to be a grey area.
Did you feel the same way when you started working on ‘The Wire?’
Oh yeah, it was the same way. I saw the pilot and I was like ‘OK, at least we got to do a couple of them.’ Even during the course of the run of The Wire it was like, ‘Can we get another season?’ I was hanging out with Andre Royo the other day, and people were coming up to us and going ‘Bunk and Bubbles!’ The life of The Wire now is really amazing.
A friend saw Michael K. Williams in South Africa and said people were going nuts over Omar being in town. But when Harvard starts teaching a class on your show, you must know you’ve made it.
The guy who’s teaching that course, we were together at the Democratic National Convention and he said ‘I want to start this course. Do you think the actors would be interested in it?’ And I was like ‘Of course!’ There was also something that was so great about shooting it in Baltimore. We felt like we went away and were able to do our work and be loved in the city, and then go home. Then the show would come out and there was this huge reaction to it. That’s the thing that gives me faith about the pacing of Tremé and how people will react. People will give it the time it needs to develop.
Does it annoy you to get questioned about ‘The Wire’ all the time?
No, man. This guy the other day asked if he could call me Bunk and I said ‘Man, you can call me Bunk all the time.’ It would have been frustrating if the name were Gilligan, though.
[Laughs] Yeah, but Bunk I have no problem with. There’s something very special about that.
It must be nice to get out of Bunk’s suits and ties and into more comfortable clothes for this role.
Well, that [Bunk] was very much me. Look at me – I wear clothes like that. But it is also great to get out of that.
What ideally would you like to see happen for Antoine?
Well, I would just love for people to know how profoundly he loves his music, even at the expense of so much in his life. While things are going haywire all over, his love of music is paramount. If he didn’t have music he wouldn’t have anything. I think it’s a real metaphor for what’s happening in New Orleans.
Are we going to see anyone else from ‘The Wire’ pop up in ‘Tremé?’
Any hints? Male or female?
Tremé premieres Sunday, April 11 at 10/9c on HBO