Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wendell Pierce on Treme

Posted By on Sat, Apr 18, 2009 at 7:02 PM

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It was only after I filed this week’s cover story on the production of David Simon’s pilot for HBO that I found out one of my friends has a copy of the script. Oh well. For those who still can’t get enough Treme, in-depth, at-length conversations with principal players will have to do. Next up: Wendell Pierce.

One of the things I was most anxious about was playing with all the musicians. Being from New Orleans, they’re all friends and people whose work I admired for so long. I wanted to make sure I did my part to be as authentic as possible. I started with Rebirth, to work with the Frazier brothers, and then my trombone player who was helping me was Stafford Agee. And then my trombone teacher was Keith Hart (Kipp Academy on Carrollton). I’ve been learning the horn, too.

Amazingly I got through all the tunes. I made sure that I played on all the recordings we did — I would pull out so I wouldn’t ruin the take. [Laughs] I thought it would make it beautiful. We would always film and then at the end of the shooting we would do a wild track of the band playing the song all the way through. And I made it a point to play a little bit on those recordings, for the spirit of it. I didn’t want to just lay out completely, so I would get off to the side and just play a little bit. But to play with Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s … I’ve spent many a Thursday night at Vaughan’s with Kermit, but to be onstage with him actually playing some tunes with him was great. Then that last day, to have Uncle Lionel Batiste and Benny Jones, to be doing it with them, that was the top of it all.

Stafford told me, “When I was starting to play, I was sleeping with my horn. Are you sleeping with your horn?” I’m like, “Oh wow, I got to sleep with my horn?” I was afraid I was going to break it, because I’m a wild man in bed. There were three major musical parts for me: first Rebirth, then Kermit and then the Treme. I always went to see them after and was invited up every time. So that was the real honor, that after working with them on the set, every time I went to see them they would ask, “You bring your horn? C’mon up.” Wild. So I’ve reached that level. One day I’m actually going to have the skills and the courage to get up there.

When we were working on The Wire, coming down to our last season, David has always loved the city and the culture. We had spent many times hanging out here ourselves at Mardi Gras. I had hung out in New Orleans with David a lot. We were on the set one time and he said, “I’m thinking about writing something about New Orleans.” This was after David put together a fundraiser right after Katrina. When I first came back up (to Baltimore) the whole company really reached out to me, and we put together a fundraiser. They had the subdudes there, and Rebirth. Right after that he said, “You know, I’m thinking about writing something about New Orleans, after this. Would you be interested in being a part of it?” I was like, “Would I!” He actually showed me one page one time of conversations of musicians hanging out before they go to hit. He would never let me know anything more about it, specifically about the script.

To this day David likes to write and never share with the actors because he doesn’t want us to have an arc in our head, predetermined; he wants us to really respond to the material as it’s given to us. I have no idea where my character’s going. None. Same thing with The Wire. We would get the scripts a couple of days before we shot. It’s something he believes in, the spontaneity. Once the actor does the research and gets to know the character, that giving them the situations (that way) they’ll respond more organically to it. It’s frustrating for us as actors, because a lot of times I’m like, “Man, I want to do this, I want to come at it this way.” They always have to put the reins on me, even when I try to do playbacks. They were a little kinder this time, because they knew I was trying to make sure musically I had the right positions with the trombone and all. I don’t know the arc of the characters. We’ll find out a week before shooting when they give us the script.

So we talked about it on The Wire, made whatever tweaks that HBO asked for, and then we got the greenlight to do it. This is the first time anyone’s actually written something with me in mind to play the role. I’m kind of floored by that. It’s a real milestone. We both have a great love for the city and for the culture, and lovers of music. It was really special to know that he wrote me into it.

David Simon is a student of humanity in a very specific way. All writers do, but he finds the stories in subtleties; he finds the stories in how someone came to a particular place in their life. He’s very good at recognizing character in daily life, and how culture is how people deal with life. That intersection is our culture. He has such a reporter’s eye and ear, and a creative pen, that he can merge the two. A lot of times on The Wire people would say, “It’s like a docudrama, right? You guys are just doing a documentary.” And I’m like, “No, these are written stories. It may be based on people, but it’s a story.” What happens is there’s an authenticity to his writing.

He doesn’t take that for granted. And though David’s been in Baltimore forever, he’s still from D.C., ultimately. So he came to Baltimore as an outsider also. That’s a testament to his eye and ear for the authentic. And if it’s one thing I feel confident about, there will be an authenticity to what we do. People may like the story or not; they can’t say we didn’t come to it in an authentic way. What he’s learned on The Wire is that you can bring people in from the world who actually even heighten the authenticity. That’s what he did. I think he’s given people a voice that a lot of other production companies would come down and not give. They think they know it, but they haven’t spent time to really get to know folks. The testament to that is after people finish working. Musicians said, “Man, nobody did it like this.” And I would be able to tell them, “Here’s your opportunity for you to make your mark and put it out there the way you want to hear it.” I would always let guys know: “Alright, this is the take. This is for prosperity. This is going in the film. All the other takes, that’s cool. This is the master.” Indian practices and the second line, where we took the time to record that to make sure it’s reflected in the work. The protective nature that we have about our culture is a good thing. And we welcome it as we try to portray it, because it keeps it conscious in our work as we approach it, trying to be authentic. The one thing that’s guaranteed is, there are going to be people that hate it. It’s New Orleans. Like, “Oh, man! No.” That’s a part of the culture also, which I hope we reflect in the show.

I took the cast around. But the production company, that came from the top, from David also. He really put it in the way everyone worked, so every department took that edict and went out there. Like, “It has to be authentic, so let’s go to the real people to find it out.” Karen Livers (special casting assistant) was very helpful in that. She took everyone around. She plays a small role in the pilot as well. We went to hear Rebirth on a regular basis, Kermit on a regular basis. We were hanging out at Kermit’s saloon every chance we got. People worked at the saloon. We went to an Indian practice. We went to Super Sunday. We had drinks Uptown at the Bulldog with the Tulane crowd. I made sure the teamsters went over to Parasol’s. I took people around as much as possible to really get into it. It was a real bonding thing.

We actually were here for Mardi Gras, so people experienced Mardi Gras for the first time. We had the good fortune of being at Gallier Hall Mardi Gras morning. It’s Mardi Gras, so we’re going to have breakfast of rum and cokes. We started getting texts — I guess the CNN camera was across the way. Somebody across from Gallier Hall sent out something on Twitter or something: “The HBO cast of Treme is getting drunk!” It was a couple of cast members and production staff, but it ended up being, “Wendell Pierce is getting drunk at Gallier Hall at 8 a.m.” (Research?) Like, “He’s from here, he doesn’t need to do research!” I rode in my first parade, NOMTOC. Clarke Peters had just come in from London, and we did the toast to the king, and he brought greetings from Queen Elizabeth from London to the king of NOMTOC. We had a great day that day.

There was this one moment that I’ll never forget. It was at the end of the shoot for me. And it was very cathartic — it brought me to tears — and I realized it wasn’t just about the show, it wasn’t just completing it, this honor of working with all these people. It made me realize what we’ve all gone through for years, and that was when they were playing “Closer Walk With Thee.” I was standing in the middle of the street, playing “Closer Walk With Thee” with the Treme, and that just brought me to tears. I realized that for me, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, on the business side of it, what happens; what was so great was having this time, taking these two weeks to put on film a prayer, almost, for my city. I just walked over to David and I said, “Thank you for everything, man.” To watch that band, watch Benny and Uncle Lionel and Kenny (Terry) on that trumpet, just play “Closer Walk With Thee,” it just brought me to tears and made me think of how far we’ve come, how many people we lost. It was an amazingly painful thing, but out of that, we will survive. Yeah, that’s the moment that I remember the most. It made me realize more and more how much I love New Orleans. To introduce the city to people for the first time, this time I fell in love with it even more. I saw people learning about it for the first time in a way I hadn’t seen before. The good and the bad, and working through it all.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Wire. We saw a screening, and we said, “OK, I guess that’s it. Nobody’s going to get into this.” You never know. It’s a fragile thing. But it will be authentic.

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