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 phone interview with Collider, actress Dominique Fishback, who brings real heart to the young streetwalker Darlene, talked about why she wanted to work with David Simon again (they first worked together on the HBO mini-series Show Me A Hero), what attracted her to this character, how she got into Darlene’s mind-set, what she thinks Darlene would rather be doing with her life, the experience of working with her first female director, Michelle MacLaren, who directed the pilot, what she learned from shadowing a director on set, that she has no idea where Season 2 will go, and the types of roles she’d like to do next.
Collider: You do terrific work in The Deuce and bring such humanity to a character that’s in a very difficult business, and the sex industry is still a business, even though people tend to forget that and instead try to demonize it because they don’t understand it.
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: Exactly! I totally agree with that. And that’s why I was so serious about doing this role. I have a lot of family, and I have younger brothers. You want to consider everybody, but at the end of the day, people don’t have to understand and they don’t have to watch. It’s out there, and it’s a part of history and a part of life, and you can’t ignore that because you don’t understand. I think it’s important that HBO gave a voice to people that may not otherwise have one. There are young girls and women who write to me on Instagram and who private message me because they were a part of the life and they see themselves in Darlene.
You worked with David Simon on Show Me A Hero, before doing The Deuce. What’s that collaborative relationship like?
FISHBACK: I felt very protected. That’s why I wanted to do The Deuce. I’d worked with him, so I understood that he wants to create human beings. Sometimes when you read scripts, it doesn’t sound authentic, but that’s definitely not a problem with him. He goes from writing a black girl in the projects to the side of the government and the white people in East Yonkers, and everyone is so distinct. As a writer myself, I want to learn how he does it because all of the voices are so different. I never feel like I have to change the dialogue or dialect, in any way, ‘cause he understands it so well. Darlene is completely different from Billie, and completely different from the other working women. I just wanted to play a truthful character that has heart and complex human emotions, and he does that.
You’ve said that you didn’t want to play Darlene as just a stereotypical prostitute. From your initial awareness about the show and from reading the scripts, did you see that potential there, from the beginning?
FISHBACK: Yeah, it was there. In the beginning, you think she’s raped, but then you find out that it was role play. I don’t know that that’s stereotypical or cliche, at all. We’re all human, so the most well-trained actor can fall into playing something, as opposed to being it. It wasn’t about the script, at all. It was just about me figuring that out. I had to remind myself that I was playing a person, first. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t put on anything I’d seen in TV, or anything like that.
What did you do to really understand Darlene and get inside her head, and what was it that ultimately got you there?
FISHBACK: I read books. They gave us a book, called Gentleman of Leisure: a Year in the Life of a Pimp, and it had the stories of the women that he pimped and their relationship with him, which gave me a real understanding of the mind-set that you had to be in. I really wanted to understand how these women felt about their pimps. I also wanted to understand how a young girl could be so able to open up her legs and have sex. That’s something that I don’t know, personally, so I had to really understand how a person could get to that point in their lives. I also summerize each scene and give music to each scene that I have. It doesn’t have to be music from the ‘70s, but it’s more about the mood. And I journaled as her a lot. That helps me ‘cause I’m a writer and that’s my way in and how I understand her.
Darlene seems like a sweet girl, but she’s also flawed and does things that might upset viewers and that she might not want to do herself, in other circumstances. Was it important to you that she be a flawed character and not always be so sweet?
FISHBACK: In the episode where Darlene goes home and then brings a girl back, I totally understood that. You can be the sweetest person in the world, but we also make mistakes because we’re human. There is manipulation in that life. If you’re made to believe something, that affects you. It’s not like she’s made of stone. I really appreciated that they layered her that way. I’ve read about young girls in that life, and a lot of times, they bring in other young girls. That’s a true thing. I didn’t want to do a disservice to that. I’m glad that they thought about it and decided to have that.
If Darlene could do anything she wanted in life, what do you think she’d choose to do?
FISHBACK: That’s so good! I made up that she came to New York to act. You can see remnants of that, when she role plays or watches old movies. I think if she could, she would be an actress. I don’t think she would be in porn. I think she’d want to be a star in movies. She’s so emotionally in tune that I think she could bring different characters to life. I also think that she’s going to write a novel someday. I definitely think she loves the creative side of things, so I think she’d do something with that.
David Simon isn’t known as an exploitative storyteller, but you also had Michelle MacLaren there to add a female perspective to the pilot. How did you find the experience of working with her and what do you think she added to the project?
FISHBACK: It was my first time working with a woman director, so I was in awe of her. The world of The Deuce is so big, and whoever the director on the pilot is gets to create the whole world. It’s so huge, from the cars to the sets to the people, and to watch her be so calm and in her element was really inspiring. I’m an actress and I’ve been doing it for awhile, and you can get comfortable in knowing what you’re doing with a character. Being a director is completely different, and I was in awe about how, if there was a problem, she could fix it without yelling or giving off that she was overwhelmed, at all. I also had my first nude scene, and even though it’s a closed set, she had everyone turn around when I first took off my shoot. I didn’t expect that. They had to turn back around anyway, but just for that moment of taking it off, she was so aware and I felt empowered. There’s also Nina Noble, who’s the producer, on set watching and she said, “If anything is wrong, you let me know.” I felt very protected. And George [Pelecanos] and David [Simon] are such gentlemen.