Even though it wasn’t a ratings success when it was on the air, the HBO drama series The Wire will clearly be remembered as one of the best TV shows ever made. Throughout its run, it showcased great acting performances and great writing, through some of the most provocative storytelling that continues to challenge viewers, as they discover it.
As part of PaleyFest NY, which is considered the ultimate TV fan festival, co-stars Wendell Pierce (“Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland”), Sonja Sohn (“Detective Shakima ‘Kima’ Greggs”) and Michael K. Williams (“Omar Little”), along with show creator David Simon and Executive Producer Nina Noble, shared great behind-the-scenes stories and talked about what it’s like to have worked on this show in relative obscurity and have it since go on to be something that so many people love, why they think the show has not only endured but also built in esteem and awareness since it was on, when they realized they were a part of something special, how their relationship with the city of Baltimore changed over the course of the production, letting the actors know about their character’s fate, death being ever-present, why the show ended exactly where it did, and the questions that this show raised for people. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: When this show was on, how often in a given day or week were you recognized for being a part of it?
And how often do you get recognized now?
WILLIAMS: Often. Every day.
What’s it like to have worked on this show in relative obscurity, at the time, but has since snowballed into this things that is so beloved and talked about?
WILLIAMS: The best thing I took away was the experience of working with such beautiful people. I wonder if anyone could ever really know how close we were, as a family, and how much we supported each other, and the level of performance that we shared with each other. That’s the best thing I’ll walk away with. I’m grateful for having been exposed to such an awesome cast.
WENDELL PIERCE: I have this mantra that it’s always about the work that you do, the people you meet, and the relationships that you build. That’s the thing that’s gonna last forever, whether there’s a response like we have now or not. Standing in the control room and watching the clips, and then looking around the control room, I just have such admiration for everybody. This is a really wonderful family. And because we didn’t get recognition while we were on the air, we partied a lot. We had good times.
David and Nina, why do you think the show has not only endured, but built in esteem and awareness since the years it was on?
NINA NOBLE: I don’t know. When we started, there was a sense that nobody was really watching, but we knew that we were doing work that was important and special, and that we were proud of. It was an incredible family. There was comradery that still continues, to this day. People are supporting each other, still. That’s what made it special. But, we were not a hit. When The Wire first started, we still had VHS tapes. I think that was probably part of it. It was difficult for people to follow the show, from one week to the next. Once they were able to binge watch on weekends, it became more popular.
SIMON: There was so little expectation. I remember some of our early numbers came in and I expressed some dismay about how few people had watched us on Sunday night to Carolyn Strauss, one of the firmest supporters of the show at HBO, and I’ll never forget her quote. She said, “Oh, it’s a cute little number. Don’t worry about the numbers.” It was like that. I’m very grateful for that.
For the actors, this was a relatively new kind of show that you were coming to. What were your expectations, and was there a moment when you realized that it was something special?
WILLIAMS: For me, this was the first recurring character. I had never had this much responsibility, as an actor, before The Wire. I remember that I was really psyched. I was a huge fan of Wendell Pierce and his past work, and Sonja Sohn and her work, and Wood Harris. All I knew were those three names, and I was going to be working with those three actors. I was hooked. And then, I went down to Baltimore and I fell in love with the city. The whole first season, I came on as a recurring character, and the character started to grow. So, I fell in love with the cast, I fell in love with the writing, and I fell in love with the city. I wanted to move to Baltimore, but I was waiting for second season to see where the storyline was going. I got introduced to the mind of David Simon and he took it to the docks, and I got real bitter. I was the angry black man. I approached David, in my ignorance, and I said, “We made this show hot, and now you want to give it to the white people! This is our show!” He looked at me with this patience in his eyes and he said, “Trust me. If we go back to the projects and that storyline, we’d make the story that we’re trying to build here, look very small.” That went way over my fuckin’ head. It wasn’t until Season 3 that things started to click. As we started going out into the public, and I saw the way that people were reacting to the show and the character and all of the storylines in Season 3, it hit me. I was like, “Oh, wait, this isn’t about me. This is not about my career.” Instead of being arrogant and ignorant, I became very grateful to be a small part of this huge picture. That stayed with me throughout the rest of my time on The Wire.
PIERCE: David always said to us, “This is a visual novel. Just like novels, you’re building the characters and you’re building the world. So, just be patient and all of the pieces will fit.”
SOHN: We all were in our own little worlds. A lot of us were just beginning our careers. This was the first steady gig that we had. We did a lot of growing and discovery together. We learned a lot about the business together. This story was resonating so much with my own life. In a way, it was about me, but I wasn’t even clear about that, at the time. I came into this show thinking that it was a paycheck. Andre [Royo] was the only one that I knew, going into the show. So, we went to a conference room to see the pilot and we fell on the table. I didn’t get it.
PIERCE: She was like, “Oh, my lord, this thing is going nowhere!”
SOHN: Wendell knew that this was something special. A lot of us where like, “I don’t know. It’s kind of slow.” Within the first three episodes, Wendell became David’s voice for the actors, explaining it to us.
PIERCE: In the meantime, I was like, “I’m going to be free in about two weeks.”
There’s a famous scene in the show, in the fourth episode, where only the f-word is used, in different variations, over and over. How long did it take you to get used to the level and creativity of the profanity in this show?
PIERCE: It was fuckin’ easy! David came to us, one night when we were shooting, and he said, “I’m writing this scene. We’re gonna get a lot of push-back on the language that we use, so we might as well just go for it. You’re going to do this entire scene, but the only word you’re gonna say is ‘fuck’.” And I was like, “Okay.” It was great to work on. My one disappointment in that scene is that the actual super had the last line, in that original script. It was all written out, too, which was great. It was a great acting exercise. It’s one of the scenes I’m proudest of. In the original end, when I found the casing, the super said, “Motherfucker!,” but that didn’t last. Obviously, we had a great time doing it.
David, a lot of the characters on this show had real-life inspirations. Was there a real-life Stringer Bell, or was he entirely an invention?
SIMON: He was based on someone who was the #2 to Melvin Williams, a case that Ed Burns did, named Chin Farmer, or Lamont. It means nothing to anybody, but if you’re from Baltimore, you’ll get the reference. He was the kind of guy who could have a whole career and not many people would know about him.
Nina, how did the relationship between the show and the city of Baltimore change, over the years, or was it roughly the same, in terms of your interactions with politicians and other people?
NOBLE: It was easy the first season ‘cause we were mostly filming in abandoned row houses, where there was really no one to ask permission, even if we wanted to. Often, it was just a matter of taking down the boards and going in and filming. And then, for the second season, David and Ed came up with a story about these women who come up dead, and they said, “No thank you. We don’t really want to be involved with that.” That was a new experience for us. We got turned down, and we had to tell David. That was a process. And then, there was the politics of certain people thinking that certain characters were based on them. There are politicians in Baltimore that still haven’t gotten over it. The entire film industry in Baltimore collapsed because of us.
SIMON: The guy who became the governor, when the chips were down in 2008 and he had to cut his budget, one of the things he cut were the film incentives and a lot of businesses left Maryland. I couldn’t help but think that was such a bad decision. You’re not giving anything out that’s not a percentage of everything that’s coming in. It was such a terrible decision, and he was extremely emotional about it.
What was it like, as actor, to be living in this city and going around in it, as this show was on? Did the citizens of Baltimore seem to be possessive of you?
PIERCE: The people of Baltimore are great. I love Baltimore. What I looked forward to, every year, was getting a new apartment in a different part of town and hanging out. People started to see you in the character that you were, so everyone thought I was real police. So, I would dress up in a suit and tie and go to Choices, and they were like, “Bunk! Bunk!” It was great. I also got to know a lot of the real police, doing ride-alongs. There was one detective in particular, Sgt. Massey, who was always in a suit and tie, and he would love to interrogate people in front of me and show me the tricks of the trade. But then, I also met the real Bunk, and that was great. Right at the beginning of the show, I met the real Bunk, Rick Requer, in the courthouse. I’ll never forget, the first day that we were shooting, he came in his Caddy with his big cigar. He parked at a distance, got out and looked at me, got back in his car and drove off. That was the first day, and I didn’t talk to him for five years. I was terrified of what his review was gonna be. Then, I was in the barbershop one time and the guy said, “You know, The Bunk is retiring.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’ve gotta go!” So, I went there, and I walked in. He was standing there, looking at me the same way, and then he said, “Oh, boy, you made me a star! Come here!” We’re actually gonna hook up for the Baltimore-Saints game on November 21st in New Orleans. I’m still in touch with The Bunk.
David, how did you approach letting the actor’s know about their character’s fate?
SIMON: Tom Fontana is a guy who mentored me in television, and Nina, as well. He said, “If you tell an actor, episodes in advance [that there character is going to die], then suddenly everything in the script is leading up to that.” Even trained actors will measure everything against it. Human beings don’t know the moment of their own death. If we did, we could barely get through the day. It’s the kind of thing where I had a lot of moments coming to a guy’s trailer with a newly published script going, “Good news and bad news,” but there really was a method to the cruelty.
PIERCE: People were doing really great work, and this was a special time. So, when that moment came, out of respect for the work that the actors were doing, we missed a couple, but we said, “We need to go and show support.” When they were shooting a death scene on a particular day, we’d try to make it out. Over the course of those hours, out of respect for the actor and the work that they’d done, we’d go. That was a tradition that Sonja started, that I really loved.
NOBLE: It was amazing how much of a family we all were. We never knew if we were coming back. We were never renewed ahead of time, so we were all saying goodbye, at the end of every year. So, everybody would show up for everybody’s last scene, and that happened for five years. Actually, that first season, we thought we were cancelled.
SIMON: There came a moment where they delayed the decision whether we were ever coming back until all of the actors’ contracts had lapsed, meaning we were not holding anybody. So, I had to call everybody and say, “If we’re gonna finish the show, everyone is going to have to come back. Not only that, they’ve trimmed a couple of episodes, so we can’t pay out everybody for 12 episodes, if we’re only shooting 10. We just don’t have the money because they held our budget.” I told HBO, “If it’s about the actors, they’ll all come back.” I said it, but I’m not sure I actually believed it until we put the calls out.
NOBLE: Every single person came back and said, “We’re there.”
SIMON: Nobody said, “I’m free, but I want a bigger trailer.” It was none of that. It was the work.
NOBLE: The actors operated as a department, like no other show that I’ve ever been on. Everybody brought their game to this show, and everybody had to, every day. There was a responsibility on each one of them and each one of us to make this happen. Everybody had to work together.
SOHN: Death was ever-present on this show, and for me, especially. I was the first one to escape the bullet. I found out just before I was supposed to shoot my last scene on the pilot, and I met Melanie [Nicholls-King], who played my girlfriend, and she said, “I really wanted the role of Kima.” I said, “Oh, but you’ve got a great role.” I was letting it trickle off my back. And she said, “But, the director tole me that the character is going to die in the fifth episode, anyway.” And I was like, “What?!” David and I had a whole conversation around it, and David talked about the importance of it and how it would resonate, as the moral center of the police department. I really didn’t give a shit, at that point, because I had just come off of two years of unemployment and was like, “Oh, fuck, what am I gonna do now?” Being in that position was really interesting for me. It taught me about this business, first of all. Whenever an actor was going to die, I tried to help them understand not to take it personally. It wasn’t about them. It’s the story. We’re there to serve the story.
We became so close. I had such a rough time, that first season. People who worked in scenes with me knew that that first season was torture for me. I would study my lines for hours and come to the set and just draw blanks. Later, after the show ended, I realized what happened. This story was resonating some sort of unfinished business in my own life. My brother was a teenage drug dealer. My brother had been murdered. I was basically being triggered, and my work wasn’t there. These guys were the first to be there for me. I wanted to quit. I was about to quit. I was like, “Fuck the money! This is not worth it. I’m drowning.” We were developing and learning, all together. We didn’t know the business back then, but we were all bonding over death, which resonated for all of us differently. And because we had such a strong bond, we wanted to honor each other. It was a beautiful experience, and something that I don’t think will ever be repeated.
SIMON: The person who did the most talking that saved your character at HBO was Carolyn Strauss because she knew the storyline. It wasn’t actually in Episode 5. It was later in the run. But when Kima got shot, originally we conceive that she would be killed. And Carolyn got up to Episode 6 and she said, “Don’t be killing Kima! Do you want to have a show?” No, she didn’t say that, but she loved the character and she loved what Sonja did with it. She said, “That’s a mistake.”
SOHN: David said, “There’s someone high up on the food chain that loves this character, so the jury is still out on that.”
SIMON: We were still arguing over it.
SOHN: When she got shot, I was like, “Is she gonna die?” We went through a lot together. It was a beautiful experience.
PIERCE: And we were fans of each other’s work. As a homicide detective, I never saw any of these guys until they were down and dead. My great scene with Idris [Elba] was like, “Yep, he dead!” But, I was such a fan of the show. Things just constantly resonated. There were really amazing moments that fans have pointed out, that we appreciated while they were happening.
SIMON: The real joy of doing this stuff long-form is that, if it survives, it survives long enough so that it builds to something where you can actually make it a complete universe and have the universe argue or discuss something. Every single actor, the writers, the producers, the directors, and all of the departments were so collaborative. I come out of prose. I come out of journalism, and then book writing. There, it’s just you and your editor and maybe a copy desk, looking over your editor’s shoulder, and that’s the story. It’s right there. I can show it to you because it’s on paper. But this is so collaborative, and it’s so much bigger than the sum of any of us. I used to have this metaphor that I would tell to everybody, and it sounds almost dehumanizing, but I don’t mean it that way. We’re building a house, and we’re all tools in the toolbox. We all can do certain specialized things very well, but it doesn’t work unless everybody kicks it. We have certain talents that we’re all proud of and worked hard at, but you’ve gotta put the ego aside and just shut up for awhile because you’re doing something together. In the writers’ room, all of us would have to say to each other, “That sucks,” and we’d have to have arguments. I admire that so much. After The Wire, I thought, “I can do that, every time,” but no. I’ve worked with a lot of other people on other shows, but something happened, somewhere along the line, on The Wire. It felt like everybody knew that something bigger than the sum of its part had a chance to happen. It was the authenticity of it.
PIERCE: People from different walks of life come and say to us, “I loved The Wire,” whether it’s a little old lady or a kid slingin’ on the corner. The thing that makes it classic is that it speaks to humanity, of the characters and the world that David created. It’s going to speak to human beings after us. It’s the complexity of The Wire that makes it last, on and on and on, and that complexity speaks to so much of our humanity. Different people from different walks of life come to it, and it speaks to them in a very special way. I came to that realization when I actually considered leaving The Wire. I know that we have favorite seasons, but the kids in school was the best examination of what’s happening in our society, every depicted on screen. Being a homicide detective, I had very little to do with the live kids, but I was worried that we were a part of the problem. And then, I went back and watched that season and realized that it was so impactful and touching to me that I knew we weren’t arbitrary about the choices we were making about the violence and the dysfunction. We were telling stories that need to be told and that will speak, for a long time. Those kids touched me so much.
David, you’ve said that you don’t have any interest in bringing back the show, but do you ever find yourself, just as a writer, thinking about what these characters might be up to now?
SIMON: Stories work, if they have a beginning, middle and end, and we really did plan the end. The end had to be the end. There are a million channels. There is all this entertainment. We’re a culture that’s pretty much entertained ourselves to death. I’m really proud of the fact that we made a television show about this America. There’s a whole universe that isn’t sufficient for narrative, in most people’s minds. This show was a very improbable thing to manage to last for awhile. The reason that had to be the last season is because, even when you get close to something like this, people use it as a grist for melodrama like, “Let’s revel in some gangsters. Let’s have some tough cops. Let’s enjoy the violence. Let’s have the thrill of the chase, or the ticking time bomb.” There was a little part of me that wanted to say, “Pay attention to what gets pulled through the keyhole and what doesn’t. This is the part of the iceberg that never gets under the water. In this one show, it poked up above the water.” To do another season would have just been to sustain a franchise. If they want more Bubbles, Bubbles can start getting high again, and then he can get clean again. Maybe Bubbles dies, and then his twin brother shows up. And then, Stringer comes back, and Omar wasn’t really dead. Sustaining the franchise is the great disease of American television. We’ll all do something else. We’ll build a barn in the backyard, make a new story, we’ll all be in it, and it will be fine.
SOHN: There’s not been enough conversation at how great this writing was.
SIMON: Oh, there’s been plenty.
SOHN: You created a piece of television that reaches the common person, from all walks of life, and is also literary. Has there ever been any conversation about publishing the scripts, so that people can read them as a novel?
SIMON: I think it would be great to publish the scripts. I would like that.
SOHN: The greater question that this show put to humanity was, why is there no hope in the ghetto for a certain population of people in this country? And we need to put that underneath the microscope. David talks a lot about why these circumstances and situations happen for certain people, and that was what this show was all about. It’s been an honor to be a part of something that really enlightened and awakened Americans to what is really happening in this country. There is an unfairness and an unjustness. People shouldn’t have to be put into these positions to make these choices that really are no-win situations. To be a part of a project like that, that’s had such an impact throughout the world, we wouldn’t be looking at education the way we’re looking at it, if it weren’t for this fourth season. The change agents who are out there trying to change policy and create programming to make this country better were so influenced by this show, and what David, the writers’ room and the producers did. There’s no greater honor, as an actor, to be a part of a project that changes lives, and awakens and enlightens and entertains.