Wendell Pierce: ‘Willy Loman is as exhausting a role as Lear. I’m knackered’
A star of seminal HBO drama The Wire and more recently Suits, New Orleans-born Wendell Pierce is taking on Death of a Salesman’s lead part at the Young Vic. He tells Nick Clark about his awe for Ian McKellen and desire to produce work by Kwame Kwei-Armah on Broadway as well as theatre’s role in combating the rise of bigotry
For an actor with a string of acclaimed stage and screen performances, it comes as something of a surprise that one of Wendell Pierce’s career highlights revolves around a job he didn’t actually get. It was 1986, and a young Pierce was auditioning for Big Deal, a Broadway show directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse.
“I did that audition trick of bursting into a room doing a scene, and Bob Fosse said: ‘Hold it, everyone take a break. Give me the script.’ Then he did the scene with me,” Pierce says in his distinctive baritone, unmistakable to fans of groundbreaking TV show The Wire.
“He called my agent that day and said: ‘Wendell is great. He’s too young for this but I promise you I will work with him.’”
But Fosse died the following year. “I thought: ‘God, I never got to work with Bob Fosse.’ Then I went: ‘Wait a minute, I did.’ I will always remember that.”
A heavyweight actor no longer at the whim of auditions, Pierce is in London for his first UK stage role. He is starring as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, which has just opened at the Young Vic, and is a significant factor in the show selling out and extending for two weeks.
He has been longing to do something in London “my entire career”, he says, before adding: “Theatre here is so much a part of the culture. If you’re doing cinema, you go to Hollywood. For theatre, you go to London or New York, but especially London.”
Playing Loman was also a huge draw. “It’s one of the great American tragic roles. It’s been called the American Hamlet; some have said it’s as large and exhausting as Lear,” he says of Arthur Miller’s creation, adding: “This is a role that is like Mount Everest to an actor.”
In looking for help in playing the role, he turned to his agent, who had represented the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who had memorably played Loman in 2012 at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. “I asked my agent if [Hoffman] had given any advice on Death of a Salesman. The one piece of advice was that Willy Loman is 24/7. And it has been. There’s the psychological impact it has.
“As an actor, you always start from a place of understanding where you are. And when you investigate the things this man is considering in your own life, it’s massive. It affects you.”
Pierce says it has been beneficial to perform the role in London, where he doesn’t know many people. “You need that time to go home after rehearsals and be alone. I need the quiet time to settle down. It is 24/7.”
As a plate of scrambled eggs arrives at our table in the Young Vic’s Cut Bar, Pierce reveals he is preparing for a long day’s tech ahead. “This role, man, it’s so massive,” he adds. “I’m knackered, as they say. Mentally and physically.”
He was convinced to play Loman by the production’s co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, having never considered the role before.
“It’s not often done with a person of colour,” he says, adding that making the Loman family African American – he’s starring opposite recent Olivier winner Sharon D Clarke and Arinzé Kene – brings a whole new dynamic to the play.
“Someone asked the other day if we had added lines, because all of a sudden, they heard it from the perspective of an African American. The demeaning use of the word ‘boy’. This was without changing a single consonant.”
In those days, in a segregated, hostile America, he says: “If you didn’t tip your hat to a white man or step off the curb, it could be an act of danger. This adds another layer without abandoning the lessons that are in the play.”
Many of these themes are depressingly current today – especially with the rise of nationalism and divisions opening up in society – what Pierce describes as the “ugly side of human nature”. He adds: “Hopefully if we’re reminded of that, we don’t fall into the trap that it will just go away. If the nationalists’ dream that all immigrants and all people of colour disappeared one day, they would find another group to target. It’s an ugly part of the human experience, and we have to be ever vigilant.”
Miller’s in town
Miller has been particularly popular in London this year. Up the road at the Old Vic, All My Sons is playing starring Bill Pullman and Sally Field, shortly after the same venue staged The American Clock. The Price recently finished in the West End and The Crucible runs at the Yard for a few more days. Pierce thinks that may be down to the playwright’s insight into human nature.
“We’re students of human behaviour in the theatre. As we’re trying to understand human behaviour in this regressive trend of ugliness, it brings us to Miller. He was the best at mining the psychology of human experience in his writing,” Pierce says.
“Tennessee Williams was the closest thing to American mythology – we have insight into who we are through that. Miller is the psychology of the American aesthetic and a human aesthetic. He touches into the psychological better than most.”
Despite a long career on stage and screen, Pierce is probably best known for his role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire – “That will be the first thing in my obituary, and I’m proud of it.” – the HBO show that ran in the US from 2002 to 2008. He finds a link between it and Miller’s plays.
“Miller, and especially in this play, writes about the disintegration of the American dream,” Pierce says. “About the pitfalls of buying into materialism over humanity, and how that can be so destructive, when a person loses sight of what’s important. That’s the same thing as with The Wire. There was the moral ambiguity that [its writer] David Simon was looking at, and the disintegration of the American urban centres at the expense of those people who lived there.
“There is a connection there. It’s an examination of the disintegration of the American structure. They’re both cautionary tales. Where standing by and doing nothing results in these problems.” He laughs: “David Simon would be happy for us to make the connection between him and Mr Miller.”
Looking back at The Wire a decade on, Pierce calls it “pretty amazing”. He adds: “It is one of those things we did not see coming. While it was happening, we did not feel it happening, and the lasting effect has been remarkable.” Many fans of the show may not have realised that Pierce has a long stage career on and Off-Broadway going back to the 1980s, from Chekhov to August Wilson, to Shakespeare and Caryl Churchill.
He is also a theatre fan and regularly comes to London to catch a show. Last year, he flew from South America to see Ian McKellen in King Lear. “The rumours were that he may not do more theatre, and I’d never seen him on stage. I was in tears after, and I got to meet him – I was moved no end.”
Another play to have stayed with the actor was the National Theatre’s production of Barber Shop Chronicles, written by Inua Ellams. As a birthday gift he treated himself to a trip over to see it, and one actor stood out.
“It was absolutely amazing. I remember Patrice Naiambana. His performance was…” he tails off, before taking a different tack: “I never saw Gielgud in Julius Caesar, I never saw Olivier’s Hamlet, but I saw Patrice in Barber Shop Chronicles at the National. I think it’s one of the great performances in the history of the theatre.”
Wendell Pierce on…
“When I came to the theatre here when I was 16, people at home asked me what it was like. I said: ‘People here go to the theatre like we look at television.’ I love that. They get out of work, go to the pub and then go to the theatre. There’s also the sense of tradition.”
… Meghan Markle, his onscreen daughter in Suits
“I wrote to invite her to the show. I haven’t heard yet if she can come. I thought it would be rude to come to town and not say hello. I think it’s great she’s a patron of the arts [she’s a patron of the National Theatre]. One of the great regrets of this wonderful thing that has happened in her life is she probably won’t act again and she’s a wonderful actress.”
… acting and psychology
“We’re trying to come to an understanding of what is it about the human psyche that would allow us to be so retrograde. Why are we taking these steps back? The psychosis of that. For me, acting is the closest thing to psychology.”
… friendships from The Wire
“I see folks the whole time. I was with Dominic West last year in LA, I see Sonja Sohn pretty often, Andre Royo, Michael K Williams, Clarke Peters, it’s great to see Michael B Jordan’s career take off. And Idris Elba of course.”
… the rise of the far right
“Steve Bannon has come here and is trying to globalise this shit. Here in the UK, a group [members of the Conservative Party’s European Reform Group] started calling themselves “grand wizards”. It may not prick up the English ear. If they did that in America, that reference is unmistakably about the Ku Klux Klan.
Pierce first came to London more than 40 years ago on a school trip and it would change his life. On that trip, aged 16, he saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It, with Kate Nelligan, directed by Trevor Nunn.
“That was the first time I saw Shakespeare come alive,” he says. “The idea it’s taught as something read rather than lived and breathed” – he shakes his head – “the thing that makes it classic is it connects you to those who came before and those who will come after. It all came together for me then.”
Before then, he hadn’t properly considered becoming a professional actor. “Theatre was in my blood, but I thought it would only be a hobby. I hadn’t seen anyone around me make it their profession.”
But his training in performance had started early. His studies between the ages of 13 and 17 were split between the Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, a move supported by his parents. It was at the latter that he made several lifelong friends such as virtuoso trumpeter Branford Marsalis.
He was accepted into Juilliard to study drama with an audition speech from Richard III, and his first professional role at the age of 17 was as The Shepherd’s Son in The Winter’s Tale at the Tulane Shakespeare Festival. But the playwright’s work was only truly opened up by Pierce’s other great cultural love: jazz.
“I felt restricted by verse and how to honour the metre of the line,” he says. “I was at the Village Vanguard jazz club in 1981. I was humming the melody of the song, and the musician went into a wild solo. I kept humming the melody, and he came right back on the melody with me. I realised you can honour the form and still be free within it.”
When asked about the productions that stand out in his career, Pierce is reticent to pick one out, saying instead: “It’s cumulative.” He returns to Loman and says it’s a role that has made him reflective. “You get to a certain point in your life and you have to consider those things that have been important to you, and you investigate your own insecurities. Doing Willy Loman, I’ve been wondering whether my best days are behind me.
“I had impostor syndrome for the first years of my career. I was working, but waiting to be found out. I remember, after a year or two of working, consciously thinking: ‘Okay, this is not a fluke. I am a professional actor.’ I had thought it was luck, and was prepared to go back to New Orleans and work in radio.”
The driving impulse behind his choice of work was to be diverse, he says. “I feel that sometimes actors pigeonhole themselves. That’s why I live in New York and Los Angeles. I try to do a play, a television show and a film each year.”
Last month, his film Burning Cane premiered at Tribeca. The same night his story arc on the NBC show Chicago PD ended, and now he is on stage in London. “That is a perfect example of what I knew would be the best way for me to be as diverse as possible and give myself as many opportunities as possible.”
Pierce produces plays as well – “I find it just as creative to say I would love this material with that director and those actors” – and his shows include Clybourne Park, which won a Tony. His dream project is to produce Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Elmina’s Kitchen on Broadway.
In the meantime, he has found his own acting aspirations reinvigorated by playing Loman. “After doing this play, I’m ready to attack some of the larger roles. I want to do Richard III, A Raisin in the Sun, and I want to go back to Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. I hope I don’t ruin my reputation here in London and I can come back.”
Q&A Wendell Pierce
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked at a summer camp, a day camp, as a gopher. Go for this, go for that.
What was your first professional theatre job?
My first role was The Shepherd’s Son in The Winter’s Tale in Tulane. I was 17.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
So many things. Pursue your career, but not at the expense of your personal life. I’ve learned that the hard way.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Look at it as an opportunity to share your work with a colleague. It’s your opening and closing night. They will either choose to work with you or not.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to try to be alone and lose myself in the world of the play. I’m still trying to figure out the pre-ritual for this one.
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have been?
A jazz musician. I learned a little trombone for the TV show Treme.
Godot in the wake of Katrina
One of the actor’s most extraordinary theatrical experiences was Waiting for Godot, staged in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, his home town, which was still devastated two years after Hurricane Katrina had hit in 2005. “So many people had lost their lives there. You had folks there from uptown, which is the equivalent of Mayfair, sitting next to longshoremen who had just got off work. They were sitting together in a disaster zone. It was complete catharsis – to stand there and say: ‘In this place at this moment in time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance.’
“People watching in New Orleans understood they had a choice. You can act and care for humanity or leave them to this absolute void of destruction and death. In the time of tragedy, you see those who step aside and those who try to exacerbate it for their own gain, to strip people of their property and their life. Then you will see the best in humanity rise to the occasion.”
Pierce is a huge advocate for the arts, and recalling that Godot – in which he played Vladimir – leads him to a wider point. “All high art is the merger of technical proficiency and freedom of thought. The form of art and theatre is where we reflect on who we are collectively, as a society. Where we’ve been, where we hope to go. Our faults, our triumphs. Our values.”
Could the US do with some of that? “Ah absolutely, yeah. We could all do with it, but especially the States. That’s the most powerful weapon right now and I don’t think we’re utilising it in the States. We should really call on artistry even more to move people’s hearts and minds as a community to combat propaganda, and the authoritative measures that Trump uses.”
CV Wendell Pierce
Born: 1963, New Orleans
Training: Nocca, Juilliard
• Cymbeline, the Public Theater (1989)
• The Piano Lesson, Walter Kerr Theater (1991)
• Waiting for Godot, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans (2007)
• Broke-ology, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (2009)
• Clybourne Park (2012, as producer)
• Some Old Black Man, 59E59 Theaters (2018)
• The Wire (2002-08)
• Treme (2010-13)
• Suits (2013-19)
• The Odd Couple (2015-17)
• Jack Ryan (2018-)
• A Rage in Harlem (1991)
• Malcolm X (1992)
• Waiting to Exhale (1995)
• The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)
• Selma (2014)
• Burning Cane (2019)
Agent: Chris Schmidt, Paradigm Talent Agency (LA)
Death of a Salesman runs at London’s Young Vic until July 13. Full details at youngvic.org
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