From show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, the HBO series The Deuce, named after the local slang for New York’s 42nd Street, chronicles the time when the sex industry went from back alleys to a billion dollar business. As twin brothers Vincent (James Franco) and Frankie Martino (also Franco) navigate their way through Times Square in 1971, the earliest pioneers of the flesh trade, including pornographers, hookers, pimps and adult bookstore owners, have to dodge the law while figuring out how to make the most of their situation.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. (who plays Chris Alston, a police officer who patrols the Deuce) talked about the appeal of this series, why he enjoys collaborating with David Simon, not knowing which side of the law his character might end up on, where his character could go, his experience on The Wire (where he played D’Angelo Barksdale) and why it’s such a special TV series, and how spoiled he is, by getting to do such quality material.
Collider: Did you know anything about how the porn and sex industry started, before this?
LAWRENCE GILLIARD, JR: No, I was very young during that time, when it was all happening. I never knew how it all started and turned into that, and that it wasn’t always that. When I was a kid, that was my normal. Whenever we went through Times Square, that’s what it was. I was more curious about how it all disappeared. I thought it was just gonna be that way forever, and it all disappeared. It’s fascinating to me, to learn during this show, how it became that. What I love about David [Simon] and George [Pelecanos] and the way that they write is that the characters are so full and there are so many layers, dimensions and levels, and when you get down to the bottom line, they’re just all people who are trying to get by. These are the cards they were dealt, and they’ve gotta make a living somehow.
You previously worked with David Simon on The Wire and you know the quality level of his work, so were you immediately excited to sign on for The Deuce?
GILLIARD: I was really excited when I found out about the show and when I found out I was gonna be a part of it because I knew it was gonna be quality material and I knew the characters were gonna have layers. I know the kind of content that they like to do, and it’s right up my alley. I’ve always been looking for a Quentin Tarantino to my Sam Jackson. If David wants to be my Quentin Tarantino, I’ll take it.
If you’re going to play a cop on a TV series, playing one during this time period must be really interesting.
GILLIARD: This is one of the most corrupt periods in NYPD history. It was so corrupt and so dirty, but you were forced to play a little bit. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have the trust of the other officers in your precinct, which is basically a death wish. You’ve gotta watch your back, all the time. It’s a very interesting time and a very interesting character because you’re walking a line and you have to decide if you’re gonna cross that line or not. I’m curious to find out which side of the line Chris Alston is gonna fall, at the end of the day. We’ll see how strong Chris is.
This season doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of everything being wrapped up. It really feels more like life is going to continue to go on, for all of these people.
GILLIARD: It absolutely does, and I love that about the way that they write. First of all, they’re genius prose writers. For me, watching a David Simon and George Pelecanos show feels like it’s playing out in real time, but because the characters are so full, it makes it exciting and interesting.
Have you been told about where your character could go, in future seasons?
GILLIARD: I’m waiting to find out. I have sort of an idea. I know that Chris moves up the ranks, but I don’t know what he gives up or sacrifices to get there. We’ll see where we go.
When you worked on The Wire, did you know that show could have the impact that it’s had?
GILLIARD: When I got the part and I read the pilot, and then we shot the pilot, I was like, “There’s no way this show is getting picked up!” There had been nothing else like it. I was like, “They’re making this?!” I read it and was like, “What is this?!” But at a certain point, during the first season, we did interviews and I started to feel like it was something that was so special. The fact that it hadn’t been done or seen before, these characters hasn’t been seen, and the story hadn’t been told in this way. So, when we did interviews and a reporter asked me, “Where do you think this show will be in 20 years?,” I said, “In 20 years, I feel like this is gonna be the show that nobody watched, but it was one of the best shows on television.” It definitely impact television, across the board, and I feel blessed and fortunate that I got the opportunity to be a part of it. I feel the same about The Deuce, too. I feel like this show is also special.
When you do work like The Deuce and The Wire, and you really get to dig into a complex and layered character, does it make it difficult to find projects that get you as excited, creatively?
GILLIARD: Absolutely! After The Wire, there were a lot of things I passed on because it just wasn’t the same standard. It just wasn’t good. But then, I had to step back and go, “Oh, wait, this is sort of the norm.” You get spoiled when you do a great show. Breaking Bad was a great show. Better Call Saul is a great show. Game of Thrones is a great show. There are a lot of great shows, and once you work on a great show, at the highest level and of the best quality, you get spoiled and you forget that that’s so rare. It’s a gem. All the stars have to align, to make that happen. It’s great, but when it’s all over, it’s challenging.
One of the things that David Simon does so well is strip away the stereotypes and get to the realness of who people are.
GILLIARD: Absolutely! He leaves it up to the viewers. The best way for the viewer to relate to a character is to strip away all of that and make them humans with everyday problems and issues. They just happen to be in this other world, but they have everyday issues. It’s not glamorized, in any way. It’s just real. That’s what’s appealing to viewers, and exciting for actors.
The Deuce airs on Sunday nights on HBO.