Wendell Pierce Opens Up About 'Treme,' Jazz and New Orleans
By Jane Levere Posted Jun 19th 2010 04:46PM
Before starring in 'Treme,' Pierce portrayed Detective Bunk Moreland on another HBO series, 'The Wire,' created by many members of the 'Treme' team -- including the brains behind both shows, David Simon. Last year, he was named host of 'Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio,' a weekly, nationally-syndicated public radio show out of New York. (JALC'S artistic director is Pierce's childhood friend, legendary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis).
How did 'Treme' come about?
David Simon [creator of 'The Wire'] had been discussing it with Eric Overmyer [another creator of 'The Wire'] going all the way back to 'Homicide: Life on the Street.' They wanted to do a show about New Orleans; they wanted to do it about musicians. I was from New Orleans, and then David shared it with me, saying, I'm writing a show about New Orleans. I was hoping that he'd put me in it, and then he wrote a role for me, so I was very happy about that. He wrote the pilot, [and] in March of last year, HBO saw it and gave it a green-light to go into a series.
Simon wrote your role for you. Is this the first time this has happened?
At the same time that David wrote this role for me, Ray Romano wrote a role for me in his new show, 'Men of a Certain Age.' It was the first time that anybody wrote a role for me -- it was an embarrassment of riches. I had to make a choice; as difficult as it was, it was pretty simple, the fact that I wanted to work with David again, the fact that I worked with him on 'The Wire,' the work that he was doing, the fact that it was in New Orleans and about New Orleans, I'm from New Orleans, it made the choice very easy, and Mr. Romano really understood.
You come from New Orleans originally, from Ponchartrain Park. Tell me about growing up there and how you ended up going to the Juilliard School.
I grew up in Ponchartain Park, which is a different historic neighborhood of New Orleans [than Treme]. It came about as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the only place that allowed blacks to buy homes in the growing New Orleans suburbia. This very special neighborhood that I grew up in, the first black mayor came out of it, it was a real incubator of talent. I had my academics in high school at Ben Franklin, and then went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which was a performing arts school. At that time, Lolis Elie [a 'Treme' writer] was there, Karen Livers [who does specialty casting for 'Treme'], Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr. and Donald Harrison, who's also a consultant on the show, Terence Blanchard. I left directly from NOCA and auditioned and got into Juilliard, and years later, so did a young man by the name of Anthony Mackie.
When I saw you last fall, you told me there is a musician playing with you in 'Treme.' Are you more comfortable playing the trombone now than you were in the fall?
I go to a teacher and learn every song, kind of like double the work because you have to learn every song, and you have to learn the role and the scenes also. I go to a teacher, Keith Hart, and then on the set, my sound double is Stafford Agee from the Rebirth Brass Band. He's just off camera and miked ... He's in my sight line and I'm in his, so he can see me. And everything is recorded live on the set.
Tell me about the New Orleans the show is trying to depict.
More than any other place, I know we embrace the role of culture. The way we deal with life reflects in our music, in our food, in the adaptive and improvisational way that we go about life; our social aid and pleasure clubs are really important. It's reflected in Clarke Peters' character. It's not just a pleasure club, the first part of that phrase, social aid, it's very important. It was the first form of community activism, our culture serves a role, makes sure your family is taken care of.
Do you think you have succeeded in depicting this culture in the first season?
We got a lot across, [but] we still have further to go. Television has always been a very formulaic medium, [with] procedural shows, every show is either cops, lawyers or doctors. We are doing something totally different. It's a very delicate balance that we're trying to strike, and it's an ongoing process. We've only had ten episodes in the first season to even begin that process, and we've had some failures and we've had a lot of successes, too.
What can we expect in the next season?
I have no idea. We are in a hiatus. The writers don't go back to work for another month or so. They're going to get into a room before we come back in November and then they're going to start to map out the journey of the next season. Right now, if anybody knows anything, it's probably just a glint in David Simon's eye, we have no idea. He works that way, he stays away from the actors until the last moment. I never even knew the end of this season until two weeks before we shot it.
Are you comfortable talking about the successes and failures of the first season?
I think the successes are you've never seen the depiction of music and culture the way we've done it in television history. Everything is recorded live on set, on location. It's a real celebration of the talent, of the musicianship, here in New Orleans. That is the first and paramount success. When I say failure, it's things that I wish we can go further with. How do you really capture on television the wonderment of a meal, the smell of great cuisine, and that's a hard thing to depict, and so I hope that we go further than that. And also I'd like to get into hopefully the struggle of, the discipline of the musician, of how he has to work to make sure that he hones his skills.
You are working to redevelop Ponchartrain Park. Can you tell me about it?
My neighborhood was in the deepest part of the flooding. We've put together a redevelopment of solar and geothermal homes, we're going to do 500 homes, we have 12 starts just this month.
How tragically ironic that we're doing that just an hour's drive from one of the worst environmental disasters [the Gulf of Mexico oil spill]. We are proof positive that it can be done, it should be done, we have to turn the corner, we have to end this dependency and addiction to fossil fuels at the risk of destroying our natural resources.
How much of your time do you spend in New Orleans?
I'm commuting between New York, Los Angeles [and] I'm spending a predominant amount of time here, especially now that we're building all these houses.
How did you and Wynton Marsalis hook up at Jazz at Lincoln Center?
I've known Wynton since I was 14 years old. After the death of Ed Bradley [CBS newsman and first host of 'Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio'], I expressed to him that I would like to get more involved, take over some of the role that Ed was doing.
Has playing a trombonist in 'Treme' increased your appreciation of jazz?
I think I had a deep appreciation already established because I knew so many musicians. What's most nerve-wracking is actually getting up to do the music, because I know I have a great obligation and responsibility to make sure that I respect their craft by portraying it in the most authentic way possible. That was my greatest fear, that the musicians would look and say, "Man, what are you doing, how can you mess that up?" I know that they are going to be on me like white on rice, so I stay on my P's and Q's, and that's why I'm learning the horn and learning the music as if I am a musician and not just playing one on TV. I take it very seriously, and hopefully one day over the course of time I'll be able to get up on stage with them.
What has their reaction been to your musicianship?
I am quite happy to say that people are pleasantly surprised. They see me practicing on the side, getting some sound out of the horn. A couple of guys have joked, say, "You're better than" some guy that they're playing with. That's actually the greatest compliment I can get.
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