The Wire changed the game for Wendell Pierce – and for TV

The storied actor reveals how Hurricane Katrina in his native New Orleans shaped him and how he has pride in his younger self

At 16, I had just returned from a trip to London which was a defining moment. I saw As You Like It with the RSC and Yul Brynner in The King and I. At home in New Orleans, I was already into community theatre, I was doing a radio show and I was preparing to do a local television programme. I knew it was my last year at home before going to New York. And I came back from London with a renewed interest and a focus I hadn’t had before. A career in the theatre felt possible. I knew it was something I could be part of, and that it wasn’t just a hobby.

The peer pressure for me was the opposite to normal teenagers. I was friends at Nocca [New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts] with some of the best young jazz musicians like Branford and Wynton Marsalis and Donald Harrison. The worst thing you could be called was a fuckhead. Don’t be a fuckhead. The pressure was, are you focused? We said, are you shedding, are you practising? I understood there were opportunities if you were focused. One thing I knew from my parents was that failing to prepare was like preparing to fail. At the same time, I was also having frivolous fun going to football games, hanging out with friends and chasing girls. Growing up in New Orleans, we celebrate a bon vivant lifestyle with great music, great food and so much culture that the line is blurred between work and play.

In New Orleans, life is defined as pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. So I left home pre-Katrina and returned post-Katrina. I moved back because everything was destroyed [by the 2005 hurricane] and my parents were elderly. I wanted to make sure to get them back in their home before they died because everything they had worked for in their lives was in that home. If anybody understands the importance of that stability, this publication does, so I moved back. And now I move between New York, LA and New Orleans.

You create the life you want. My parents’ generation created a wonderful neighbourhood in the midst of some of the greatest threats of violence and oppression and a world of segregation and degradation. You either stood up and created a life for yourself or you caved in to it. And they chose to step up and fight. People use the word activism, but I don’t define the work I do in my neighbourhood as activism. It is out of necessity. It is as essential as breathing. Going back to another mantra that came out of the Civil Rights movement – when evil people plot, good people plan. That is what I live by.

I would tell my younger self not to allow his fears to be so internalised that they become insecurities. That is something I constantly have to fight against even now. My actions at the time said the opposite – at 17 I was living on my own, attending Juilliard [a performing arts conservatory] in New York City. I was studying theatre all day, then hanging out in the [Greenwich] Village with all these great jazz musicians, hearing them play the wonderful music I knew so well because it was from my community. I should have been able to make the connection at the time, that working hard could give me optimism about a professional career in acting, but hand-in-hand with that was the development of an insecurity I still fight with. Insecurities become embedded and as you change they change, you know? You add age to that insecurity and you start to wonder if your best days are behind you.

The Wire changed everything. It was the defining moment of my career. David Simon changed the game. He innovated the medium. Because he wrote the first television novel. And he showed executives that people would watch television the same way they read a novel – allowing it to develop chapter by chapter. And as Bunk [Moreland] I was also able to show why black men want to become police officers, because I have met so many. They know the criminality that may be in a community does not define the community. It is only one per cent. They are thinking of the other 99 per cent.

It is about the work that you do and the people you meet. They will be the lasting impressions. On The Wire, we did great work that defined television in a historic way. And it gave me great, deep friendships I cherish. Dominic West and me had a great partnership on and off the screen. I have been able to hang out with him in London, I have brought him home to New Orleans, and it is a long, abiding friendship. Same with Clarke Peters.

Where The Wire was a novel, Treme was a poem. Non-linear, thematic, showing how culture, ultimately, was what rebuilt this city of New Orleans after the traumatic event of Katrina. It wasn’t the city administration or any leadership. It was the people and the culture that advocated to bring that city back. So Treme was a visual poem and a cultural document, placed in a time capsule for when, years from now, people say, in New Orleans’ darkest hour, what did you do to bring it back?

I would tell my younger self to choose wisely and you can have the great gift of a commercial career and a challenging career. As you move forward, try to satisfy both. What The Wire and Treme taught me was that it is always about good writing, not about one medium over another – theatre, television or film.  And I have failed in that. I won’t mention the shows, all you have to do is look at my CV to see where I have failed.

That young man would be so pleased his work will pay off. And now I am even more encouraged. Finally making my London debut in Death of a Salesman after coming here over 40 years ago – I would have never thought it would happen. Now I know it can, I have the courage I wish I knew was in me back then. I am tapping into it. I am ready to do all those roles my insecurities told me I shouldn’t pursue. Richard III, Walter Lee in A Raisin In The Sun, the Scottish play, Macbeth – those are three that come to mind. It is a very optimistic time. I am focused, I am encouraged and I am emboldened. I have a sense of carpe diem.

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There is a wealth in health, a wealth in spirit, and a wealth in love before you even come to any idea of monetary wealth. I would tell my younger self to be more disciplined with his health. Have a drink, have a meal, maybe have a little smoke – but be careful of the poisons. And I believe there is something greater than myself – but everyone will have an opinion and there is no need to fight. There is no difference between the story of Adam and Eve and the Big Bang – it is how you express the beginnings of life and our existence.

In the pursuit of the joy that having a wonderful career brings you, do not compromise the love you can share with another person. And I have compromised it. That is the greatest lesson I need to learn. And I am still trying to learn. So the advice I would give my younger self is explain to those loved ones that the joy your work gives you is very special but in no way is it in competition with the love I have for you. It is in concert with the love I have, not in competition. It should not have to be one or the other. Ultimately that is always disappointing to me, it is the most difficult thing to express to those in my romantic life.

Nothing counts so much as family. It is the best connection to your past, they are most likely to be there for you in the future. So look around you right now my friends, cherish the family that you have.

Looking back now, I feel great affection for my younger self. And I feel a great pride. I am very proud of him and admire him. I admire his fortitude, that in the face of all the fears, he kept moving forward in the hope that one day he would get there. And I can tell him now that he did.

Death of a Salesman is at London’s Piccadilly Theatre until January 4

Image: William Widmer/Redux/Eyevine