Wendell Pierce: New Orleans’ Favorite Son

by Micah Haley on August 7, 2012

Born and raised in New Orleans, Wendell Pierce is one of the most lauded creatives ever to emerge from Louisiana. A veteran actor of stage and screen, Pierce is perhaps best known as Detective Bunk Moreland on David Simon’s The Wire, an HBO series frequently cited as the best television drama of all time. Pierce now stars as trombonist Antoine Batiste on Simon’s New Orleans-set and shot drama Treme, now in its third season. We spoke overlooking the Mississippi River at Second Line Stages in New Orleans.

MH: As a local boy, I know you started your study of acting here in New Orleans. Can you tell me a little about that?
WP: I went to Ben Franklin High School and NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. It was great. I was back in the third year of it. We were Uptown and it was great, man. I remember being there… all these young people …and they were very serious about training us. That set me on the road. After graduating from NOCCA, I went to Julliard, got out of Julliard and began my career. That was great but NOCCA was really the foundation of it. Great training and then also to be around people of like mind. Wynton and Branford Marsalis were there, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison. Someone is going to look back on that time and just say, “Wow!” At this particular time, this school put out all of these people of like mind. And it goes on. I remember talking to Anthony Mackie. He said, “Hey, I went to NOCCA. I came here and I want to go to Julliard.” And I was like, “Yes.”[laughs] And look at him now. There’s a real legacy of artists that come out of this city that went through NOCCA.

MH: When you think about it, it’s really not surprising that our culture has produced a school like NOCCA.
WP: That’s the great thing about Louisiana and New Orleans. The reason people will come here, the reason we’re world-renowned, is because of our culture. We actually live our culture more than other places. It is a part of our life. We demonstrate the role of culture better than most communities because culture is where people intersect with life itself and how they deal with life. That intersection is culture: how we deal with love, death, food, joy, everything. We see it in our cuisine, we hear it in our music, we see it in how we exhibit our culture. How do we deal with life itself? And what that means is thoughts are to the individual as culture is to the community as a whole. It is to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been and where we hope to go. It’s a tangible thing. Entertainment that comes from our culture is the residual. The role of it is, “Man, I lost my momma, so we’re going to send her out right.” A homecoming, let’s cook this wonderful meal. A birthday, a celebration… all of that happens in all cultures in all societies, but the way we do it is so specific and so special and unique that people around the world admire it.

MH: Having Treme here has been awesome for the city.
WP: It’s been a classic example for me of life imitating art and art imitating life. It’s going to be a marked period in my career and in my life together. Where your two worlds come together, you know? The whole family’s life was turned upside down and destroyed, and actually coming to the city and talking about people as they are rebuilding their lives… you couldn’t have a more cathartic experience.

 

MH: That’s such a great word, catharsis. A welcomed word.
WP: That’s really what it is for me. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride to relive stuff, to go through stuff. I just imagine years from now, people having thatset of DVDs of Treme where they’ll be able to pull it out, look at it and mark down a period in time. That’s what we were going through then and this is what we were saying about it. This is what this production was trying to say. I just came back from Paris… and to see the Soul Rebels that were playing in Paris, to hear a brass band playing at three o’clock in the morning, all these French kids trying to play New Orleans music… the impact of our culture around the world you get to see and to attempt to try to honor that is really cool too.

MH: I am an enormous fan of The Wire. It’s a show that I watch in its entirety once a year. After working with David Simon on that show, when did he come to you about possibly working on Treme. Did they come to you early on, or after they had written a pilot?
WP: It was early on, actually. They had talked about it going all the way back to Homicide. We were shooting The Wire, maybe even the fourth season, when Katrina happened and that kind of expedited things. That’s when David said, “I really need to do this show now. I’m going to do a show about the music and culture of New Orleans. And now I really need to do it because that culture and city is threatened.” And he came up to me on the set of The Wire and said, “I’m writing a show about New Orleans. That’s going to be my next project.” And I go, “Ok.” [laughs] He said, “I know you’re from New Orleans.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” [laughs] And I didn’t say it but I was thinking, “I better be in that show.” [laughs] Then one day he just kind of gave me an opening, just a little scene he had written. It didn’t have a title… it just had “musicians.” It evolved to the scene between me and Kermit and Steve Zahn outside of Vaughan’s [Lounge]. It was these musicians talking about if you could leave or should we stay in New Orleans. It’s that classic scene in the first season where Kermit says, “You just going to stay here, barbeque and smoke weed?” And he said, “Yeah…that’ll work!” [laughs]

MH: Kermit’s just amazing on the show.
WP: Yeah, he is. So, David gave me the early version and then came back to me and said during the last season of The Wire, “I’m writing a role for you in it.”

MH: He drew it out like that, huh?
WP: Yeah. He did. He wrote the scene, it was like we finished one season, came back and he was like, “So I’m moving on with this pilot and I wrote a role in there for you.” I was like, “Oh, thank you!” [laughs] And that’s one of the highest honors anybody can give an actor; to write a role for them. I realized now that I’ve been working with David since 2001. It’s been a special, special decade for work.

MH: That’s amazing. And the show has brought you home.
WP: Yeah! It brought me home. My parents are happy about that. I was terrified at the beginning because I’m from New Orleans, man.

MH: You have everybody’s eyes on you.
WP: Yeah, everybody was looking at me like, “You better get it right!” I told David, “New Orleans, man, they are always going to be on you. It better be correct.” So, I felt a certain dread and fear and responsibility of getting it right but David’s very, very specific in that he wants to find the real, authentic – whatever it is – the authenticity in whatever he writes. I knew he was going to be approaching it right. It’s still hit and miss, you know. Not everyone loves the show and you can’t please everyone. But the one thing I’m proudest of is, I feel as though we are authentic. More authentic than any other depiction of New Orleans. Years from now, we’ll be able to look back at these shows, even with a critical eye, and say, “No, I didn’t like that about it. I did like that about it.” But the one thing that everybody will have to say is “that moment really spoke truth to me.” That was authentic, that was a real moment. I’ve had people tell me that there’s a moment when Clarke [Peters] comes back into his house for the first time and they said, “Wow, I hadn’t dealt with losing my house until I saw that moment.” I remember the mud. I remember seeing the mold on the wall. I remember all that and having an emotional moment five years after the fact. Or four years after the fact, since I’ve kept it all bottled in. So that’s the thing I really like about this show. I was on it pretty early on. I was really happy that David wrote a part for me.

MH: One of the great things for me about Louisiana’s entertainment incentives is that they have brought some of our favorite sons and daughters back to Louisiana. Talented people like you have been able to return home and work.
WP: And here’s the other thing: the film industry in Louisiana now is real. It is substantial. It is something I feel is not going to be temporary. It is established. We have now passed New York in production. And I call all the flights to L.A. the actor’s express. It just shows you that it’s real. And the thing New Orleans has – unlike the other states and other cities that have picked up on the tax credits – is that this is the place people want to come. People want to come here to cut their films even if they shoot them other places. To have the industry here, I see it as one and the same [with Los Angeles and New York]. I feel like I’m going from one neighborhood to another now when I go from L.A. to New Orleans. It’s real and it’s only going to grow more and more. I am pleased to see the industry here and I know it’s only going to grow and get bigger.

MH: Where do you spend most of your time?
WP: I’m tri-coastal. I’m between L.A., New York and here [New Orleans]. Before I would split my time between Los Angeles and New York.

MH: You’re not making it easy on yourself are you? [laughs]
WP: [laughs] No! No, I’m not at all. But you know something? It works out. As crazy as it is I go between cities like I’m going from one room of my apartment to the next. And it’s seasonal. Treme is done now so I’m in Los Angeles more right now. It’s great to be home.

MH: Do you feel like it has benefited your career outside of Treme? Do you feel you’ve gotten other opportunities on films that you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten?
WP: What happens is, when I’m down shooting Treme, people go, “What? Wendell’s down here?” [laughs] It actually works out for them because they don’t have to house you or fly you in, you know? So yeah, they love that stuff. That’s the next part of the evolution is making sure those principle roles get to local actors here. There are a lot of local actors I know who are building up their resumes before they go out to California. Now it’s also great to see New Orleans and Louisiana actors, who I’ve known in Los Angeles and New York, say, “I’m moving home.” [laugh] It’s so great to see that.

MH: Because David Simon’s shows are so authentic, the city itself becomes a character in the show.
WP: Yeah, Baltimore was definitely a character in The Wire just like New Orleans is a character in Treme. What’s great about David is he populates the world, and he wants to tell the story of the world he has created. So once he has populated the world and wants to go back to the storyline, he’ll call back that actor and that character. What sometimes happens is that one character that may start off as just a walk on one day evolves into a real storyline in a couple of years. It’s great to be home and it’s great to be doing the show. I’m very proud of it. I accept the praise along with the criticism because that’s all a part of it. It’s real.

MH: Some people who don’t live in New Orleans say that Steve Zahn’s character is so annoying. I don’t get that. The thing is, I have known so many guys like him in New Orleans and they are annoying!
WP: First of all, have you met the real guy? [laughs]

MH: He’s hitting the nail on the head! He’s doing his job.
WP: Yeah he is and Steve is one of the nicest guys ever. It’s real! People annoy you in life.

MH: It’s an awesome show and I can’t wait for the third season to come back.
WP: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting.

MH: What does Antoine Batiste have in store for us in the third season of Treme?
WP: What’s great for me is carrying on the tradition. I love working with kids and these are real New Orleans kids. Carrying on that tradition of passing on the music and legacy of the music. I go a little further on my teaching job this year and that’s the thing that I love the most because that is such a New Orleans thing. That for all the people who have come here since the storm and New Orleanian evolution that’s happening in the city of the old and the new. The one thing that is constant is that tradition of passing on the cultural legacy that Antoine gets more involved in this year.

MH: Do you have any other projects you can tell me about?
WP: Parker, which we shot here, comes out in January with Jennifer Lopez and Jason Statham. Four, which doesn’t have distribution yet. Me and my castmates just won Best Actors in the Los Angeles Film Festival for that independent movie. I just got back from Europe where we were shooting this movie called Mobius with Tim Roth and Jean Dujardin, which is a French film. I play an American in it. It’s an espionage movie. I play a CIA guy. And I just shot a local film here called Runaway Hearts. John Schneider is in it and J.K. Johnson. J has the lead in it. Those four projects are coming out and I just won the Tony Award producing Clybourne Park on Broadway.
MH: I was so happy to see that you won the Tony!
WP: Thanks. I have a lot of irons in the fire that are on the artistic side. That’s the way to do it. Then on the entrepreneurial side, I’m doing grocery stores here, which the first one opens in Marrero next month, Sterling Farms. One of the things is rebuilding Ponchartrain Park, seeing the needs of the neighborhoods and really making that commitment. It’s an opportunity to do well, to do good. The food desert areas that hadn’t had grocery stores or had lost grocery stores after the storm… as a part of the recovery, I wanted to participate in that. To have convenience stores called Sterling Express and the grocery stores will be Sterling Farms. So the first Sterling Farms opens in Marrero next month. It’s opening actually in September when Treme comes back on.

MH: Have you had an opportunity or thought about doing any theatre in New Orleans? There’s been a little bit of a revival?
WP: Yeah, there has. In 2007, I did a production of Waiting for Godot in the Lower 9th Ward. Right where the barge had broken through the levee and that really was another cathartic moment for me. The play was perfect timing after what we had been dealing with after the disaster. How are we going to come back after so much loss had happened… that play really deals with the isolation of man and a difficult void of life; and dealing with issues of hope. So it really played well there. I’ve been thinking about it. I want to do a play. This film that I just did, the crew was a ton of film students and I was talking to the head of the program over there and I wanted to do a production for the Tennessee Williams Festival here. So I’m thinking of doing a production of Night of the Iguana. Got a lot of irons in the fire.

MH: I have one more question for you. When are you going to run for Mayor?
WP: I’m not going to ever run for mayor. Never. That’s the downside of coming back, I’m reminded of our politics. There’s one thing about Louisiana, I hope we’re working through it, there’s always a zero sum game when it comes to politics. There’s politics everywhere but I hope that we evolve away from the politics of zero; “I can’t succeed unless you don’t succeed.” That is so against growth. My civic involvement just comes out of the need that I saw in my community after our devastation. I want to bring solutions to the table. That’s all. People want to complain and I told my community that we can complain all we want but let’s bring solutions to the table. The common goal is bringing New Orleans back and making it better. And not at the expense of anyone because if you make New Orleans better, it helps everyone and that’s what growth is about. What happens then is when you get involved people automatically assume that you want to go into politics because politics is such a primary and dominant thing here in Louisiana. It always has been. But I’m a private sector guy. I have nothing against government but all I’m saying is bring solutions to the table. I told my community, “Exercise your right to self-determination.” And that’s the mantra I try to live by. So whenever you see my civic involvement it really is that; exercising a right of self-determination and that comes from my life as an artist. You say, “What am I going to do? What do I want to express as an artist?” So when you see the need in your community you say, “What do we need? Let’s create it.” So let’s exercise our right of self-determination and that’s the spirit that you actually see in New Orleans post-disaster. People saying, “I want to bring my city back.” That’s my favorite line from Treme. My favorite line. I think about it, and I almost want to cry every time. I just want my city back. I just want my city back.

Season One and Two of HBO’s Treme are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Season Three of Treme premieres September 23.

Photos: Jason Kruppa
Styling: Andi Eaton
Assistant: Yemaya Guzman
Clothing courtesy of Rubensteins