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Wendell Pierce

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/26/2005

To a generation of African-American women he’s Michael, the nice guy in Waiting to Exhale. To fans of HBO’s The Wire, he’s William “Bunk” Moreland, the sure-fire Baltimore homicide detective who gets all the good lines and all the best hats. To family, friends, his church congregation, and Ninth Ward natives he’s Wendell Pierce, a New Orleanian doing his part to get his people through the actual wreckage left in Hurricane Katrina’s path and the emotional wreckage that continues every day. On Tuesday, Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day, The Wire and Associated Black Charities hold a benefit for Katrina victims at Sonar with the Subdudes, the Rebirth Brass Band, and the Iguanas, with 100 percent of the door going to relief funds. Pierce hosts the event. We spoke to him over the phone from his parents’ place in Baton Rouge, “which overnight has become the largest city in Louisiana,” he says.

City Paper: How bad is it still? Because you read about the French Quarter being open now.

Wendell Pierce: I bought a home for my parents in Baton Rouge, and then my other brother flew in, and last week we were allowed to go in for the first time and saw it. And once you leave downtown the city is like a ghost town—you know, they’re saying New Orleans is back, but it’s basically like saying Fells Point, Canton, the Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill are open, and the rest of Baltimore is just a ghost town.

CP: As a native, did you grow up knowing this sort of thing was a possibility?

WP: We all grew up knowing this was possible. In fact, a friend of mine called me when this happened and said, “You know, you said this may happen over the summer when we visited New Orleans. You actually said, ‘If the levee breaks, the Ninth Ward will be devastated.’”

But growing up in New Orleans you always knew of the SELA [Southeast Louisiana Flood Control] Program, and this is where I find that the national press has kind of dropped the ball. Every year, with every administration, we always put up the SELA Program, which is an updating of the levees and shoring up of the coastal marshes, and it’s like a $12 billion, $14 billion price tag that no administration wanted to buy. And every year the same thing, and this administration went so far as to cut $70 million for maintenance of the levees. We all knew about that.

CP: What are some of the stories you’ve heard from families and friends that aren’t being told yet?

WP: One is, because it’s so ingrained culturally, but people did the right thing. People got to the river, ’cause you know the river is high ground. The convention center is right on the river, the Superdome, the CBD [central business district] is all right by the river. And the convention center was completely accessible the entire time, and FEMA was stopping people from going in. I mean literally, people here of goodwill of all races, classes, were trying to get into the city, wanted to bring food and water into the city, wanted to go and help, and FEMA turned them around. Wal-Mart tried to take advantage of the opportunity—great PR—they sent down four trucks Tuesday morning. They were turned around.

And just today I found out that a church member of mine that we were really concerned about stayed, and [finally] we heard his story, which was everybody survived the hurricane. And there was this moment where they were all relaxing and somebody said, “Who’s running water?” And there’s water rushing in the front door and literally coming up between the floorboards. He had a boat, so he got everybody to the highway and took them downtown to the convention center.

CP: Where is everybody now? I mean, now that you have your parents in a home, people are safe and being taken care of, is the question of what’s next being left unanswered the hardest part?

WP: Waiting to hear is such an overwhelming thing. What is happening with the levees? Are we finally going to build the SELA Program that I grew up 40 years hearing about? Or are they just rebuilding them to the state they were before Katrina?

The psychological thing is what I’m worried about with my parents. My father is 80 years old, he bought this house with the GI Bill when he got back from World War II. I was born and raised in that house. My father, when he [came back] to the house, he got out of the car, came around to the front, and he lifted his head and it just knocked the wind right of him. And he said, “My whole life.”

And I had to think about it—here was this young man at 30 years old, in a segregated New Orleans, finds this neighborhood where there’s black Realtors selling to black GIs, who automatically get a mortgage with $10 to hold the contract. We had a little three-par golf course in the middle of the neighborhood. Back in the 1950s, Dixieland tours literally used to bring buses through the “first Negro subdivision in New Orleans.” They’d say, “Look, they’re barbecuing!”

It was that sort of unity made this neighborhood a great place of substance and survival. The first black New Orleans mayor came out of the neighborhood. Terence Blanchard, the great trumpeter, came out of the neighborhood. What Sweet Auburn was to Atlanta or Lafayette Square to Baltimore . . . just a classic midcentury black neighborhood, where working-class folks got together and said, “We’re going to give our kids a piece of this American pie.” And now we, the generation who benefited, are coming together to say we owe it to them to take care of them now. And there’s a battle between the bottom line and the second line.

CP: How so?

WP: Man, [insurance companies] are showing their most evil side to us right now. An adjuster came down and called and said, “OK, we’re going to give you contents. We’re going to max you out with contents of the house. Because I went to the house”—and this is before we could get into the city—”and the house is OK.” And we’re like, “What the fuck are you talking? The house is OK? It’s been sitting underwater for three weeks.” I even know that you can’t just look at it and say, “Well, just wash the dirt off and get that water line off from right there by the roof, and it’s OK.”

We immediately called and said no, and when we can get back into the city, you’re meeting with us. A friend of mine met with their adjusters and they were told the same thing. And here FEMA is telling us we don’t know if your neighborhood will ever be inhabitable again. And this guy is saying, “Your house is OK, we’ll give you contents—we have it maxed out at 50 grand.” You know, I’m waiting to hear that story: “Today in New Orleans an insurance adjuster was killed”—because everybody is getting the same story.

CP: People like to compare Baltimore and New Orleans. Are there any similarities?

WP: In the past three years that I’ve worked there, I’ve always felt that Baltimore is very similar to New Orleans. First of all, a bar on every corner and a church on every other—that’s New Orleans. There’s that blue-collar work ethic. The evolution of the politics of class is very reflective of New Orleans. There’s the tax base that is outside the city, yet everyone works in the city, so you take the money out of the city and it leaves this hole of poverty in the center, and we all try to pretend that there’s no connection, but it is so glaringly clear. The sociopolitical aspects of The Wire speak volumes about New Orleans.

CP: Since The Wire isn’t afraid to confront socioeconomic issues head on, do scenes sometimes hit too close to home? I’m thinking especially of the scene between Bunk and Omar in Season 3 where the search for a gun becomes more than a search for a gun?

WP: I was so thankful last year, that story came out as I was—the writers are very cagey, because they never want to let us know where we’re going, because they don’t want us to consciously try to set up a performance or arc. And I was just trying to figure out where this whole search for this gun last year, which was driving me crazy. And I said, “Y’all gotta let me know where this is going,” and I kind of got there just as they were ready to tell me. They said, “The gun was going to bring you to Omar.”

And I like to talk aloud and I think about what’s happening to my character, and it made me think of this story that my girlfriend’s father had mentioned. He’s 80 years old, and he said in a segregated town people are very aware of their role in society, and it’s a sense that we’ve lost. And I mentioned this one day, and they said that’s exactly where we’re going with this, and it became this merger of ideas. And so much of that is out there in all of our lives that television is afraid to do, except places like HBO, and especially David [Simon] and what the guys are doing with The Wire.

And this year, I’m telling you, this year, I want to make sure that I get all the Baltimore papers when it runs, because there’s going to be a real dialogue in the middle of an election year in Baltimore and Maryland. The Wire is going to be going on at the same time.

CP: Do you ever feel like you won the lottery with the role of Bunk?

WP: I definitely won the lottery. And at the same time, it terrifies me, because I’m going, Is it a fluke? Am I really doing this sort of work? And then, also, living the life of a character in multidimensional ways, where I can’t wait to see how Bunk handles things.

Then there’s also the element that I am a little scared of, that there is actually a real Bunk. All the characters, the writers have taken a name or something to kind of reflect someone who is on the force, but there is a guy on the force who’s called Bunk. I’ve met him one time and hung out, and I’m terrified to meet him again. I’m terrified to find out what he thinks of the character we’ve made. Because no matter how good I think I am, he’s the real Bunk—but he’s not some crazed, alcoholic dysfunctional fucker who vacillates between being a really good cop and a fuck-up.

CP: Will the series ever reveal why Bunk is called Bunk?

WP: I don’t know. I know why. If we ever get to that point where David knows this is the last season, he’s going to have a great time tying up little loose ends and stuff—I can’t wait to see Rawls with his lover.

CP: So, what do you really think of the crab mustard, that yellow stuff in the crabs that you famously ate in an episode?

WP: First of all, I’m from New Orleans. I was like, “Of course we eat that.” I couldn’t wait for that scene. Dominic [West] was like, “How can you do this?” Now it’s like, I don’t know if I’m going to eat another crab from Louisiana for a while, until I get the EPA reports. I had a little attitude when I first came to Baltimore—“Why you put the seasoning on the outside?” We boil ours in. After a couple of nights of Obrycki’s and a couple of batches from Chris’ and even Bo Brooks, man, that shit is good. Crab is crab.

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