What It Was Like on The Wire: Stars of HBO's Crime Drama Reveal Shocking Moments, Talk Impact on Breaking Bad and More

Stars Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn and Tristan Wilds discuss one of the most-loved series ever

By Erik Pedersen, Rosemary Brennan Jan 09, 2015 10:09 PMTags
The Wire, Sonja SohnHBO

The Wire: You either think it's one of the greatest TV series ever—or you've never watched it.

See, fans of David Simon's Baltimore-set series are of the die-hard variety, and so there was much rejoicing that HBO, in an unprecedented move, decided to give an HD upgrade to a show that went off the air in 2008.

With its wide-ranging, often heartbreaking plots (written by some of the best crime novelists and screenwriters in the business) and hugely talented cast of cops, criminals, kids, politicians and more, the series launched the careers of actors such as Idris Elba, Dominic West, Amy Ryan, Michael K. Williams, Michael B. Jordan, Clarke Peters, Tristan Wilds, Sonja Sohn and Wendell Pierce. And many more. Since the show went off the air, the cast has gone on to appear in dozens of shows including The Walking Dead, True Detective, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Treme, 90210 and many, many more.

So in honor of the series—which was pretty much ignored when it came to Emmys—getting some belated, digitally upgraded love, we spoke to some of the series to talk about the show's best and hardest moments, its lasting legacy, its influence on series like Breaking Bad and just what happens when they all get together again.

Be warned: There are spoilers, but you don't want to miss what these Wire stars have to say!


Why do you think the show is still so popular?

Tristan Wilds, (Michael Lee): I don't know, I think it's one of those things that's been a slow burn. Even when we started we had a cult following, a lot of people were watching other shows and it would always be I guess that watercoolor talk. Like, "Did you see The Wire? You've got to see The Wire." And they would jump on and start watching it. I think it's been like consecutively now for the last damn almost 10 years now. So people are still now just catching it for the first time. Or going back and reliving. It's like literature, it's like a book. I think people actually love to go back and read it again, re-familiarize themselves with the characters, get reintroduced to the world and feel the same feeling that they felt before.


Sonja Sohn, (Kima Greggs): I think there are a variety of reasons, it depends on the type of fan that you're talking about. I think that the show, depicted the lives of certain types of people with certain professions who are often not depicted fully in existing television series. And I think that's changed since The Wire. Police procedurals stopped being solely about solving crime at the end of 30 minutes or an hour. And you saw the lives of the characters being explored with more depth, but I think that also right now a lot of the issues that The Wire highlighted have now reached a climax and The Wire is partly responsible for that.

These issues that were first raised in The Wire are now sort of resonating in the collective consciousness of society. It's plucking a nerve. People who have been outraged by the treatment of certain populations of folks are happy to see a show that really explores that kind of oppression and see it sort of depicted in a way that touches the hearts of its fans. You know prior to The Wire, we had cop shows, we had shows about politicians. We had shows that used those characters, but you didn't get to see the day-to-day issues of those characters and what their frustrations were. You didn't get to see the motivation behind some folks' like faulty decision making. And then you got to see the drug culture for once depicted in a way that wasn't two-dimensional or stereotypical. Those are the reasons that it remains popular and it remains so real. And not just on the street side. But I have public defenders, prosecutors, I have police officers, you know people in politics constantly coming to me to say that's how it really is. And they're excited to see that someone is telling their story fully.

Wendell Pierce, (Bunk): One of the reasons is because it's so multilayered and so complex. People get so many different see and hear and learn different things and take so many different ideas away from it. That's one reason. Another reason is with every viewing you find something new. Thirdly, I think most importantly they were doing something that was so truly uniquely authentic. And the more truthful, the more authentic, the more truthful you are the more universal the work becomes. Everyone feels as though you're speaking directly to them. Whether it's some little blue-haired lady on Park Ave., or some kid on the South Side of Chicago, they felt as though they were speaking to them, and they couldn't be more different. You couldn't find people more different being touched by the show and its material. And that's the thing that I think is so unique about The Wire. The first true examination of dysfunction in our society and our urban decline and moral ambiguity, with all of those issues it was more truthful and spoke to humanity and that's why it goes on.

It shows the humanity in folks. As cliché as that may sound, but you know you'll never be able to attack into the kids slinging on the corner again without some having understanding of who they possibly could be. That could be Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), that could be Bodie (J.D. Williams), that could be D'Angleo (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.). I think about they think about that when they see someone who's not like themselves. There's a humanity there. That they had not thought of before.


What was the most shocking moment on the show?

TW: There's two different ones. For one, me as a viewer and fan of the show, the most shocking one was when Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) died. Now you knew that his end was coming, but you didn't know how. You prayed that you know it would be good, that it would be fine, that he would make his way out. The Wire was a show like that that you would actually hope that the bad guy wins in a way, you know? But for me, as an actor, I guess one of the most shocking moments was me killing Snoop (Felicia Pearson). One thing about the show was that we'd all come together like family members, so when I first read that script, I was like, "Wait, I gotta do what?!" It was craziness in the office that day.

What was the hardest scene to film?

TW: It probably would have been the scenes at the end of the show, with me and my little brother (Keenon Brice), and me and Jermaine Crawford who played Dukie. You know those scenes were kind of our last goodbye. The way that Ed Burns and David Simon set it up was to shoot, like it was literally our last time shooting together, so he made sure that those scenes had that emotional depth to it because it was literally our last time seeing each other, well, not our last time shooting, but our last time seeing together on set and everything so there was definitely a lot of weight in those scenes. I remember all of us just in the car reminiscing, it was a hard moment.

WP: I wouldn't say hard to film—what was difficult for me was a moment that was actually off screen and I was about to leave the show because of it. It was a cast party for season for, met a young lady. Oh man, she was on point. She said, "I played one the kids, Mr. Pierce and didn't get any seasons with you, but I would love to, and I'm going off to college," and she was an honor student on her way to Brown University, just an impressive young lady. And I said, "Well who did you play? I can't think back to the character you must have been." She was like, "Oh I was…" I can't think of the character's name now, but she was like, "I looked younger so, I was one of the kids…and I slashed the girl's face with the razor (Charmaine McPhee)." And then I realized, that was you? And then I realized: Why aren't we telling your story? Her story? And I thought: We're part of the problem. It's just arbitrary and the negative images and violence and why weren't we telling this young lady's story? And it was after the season came on and I realized: OK, it's not arbitrary. It's holding a mirror up to nature it is actually giving us the insight to say that these kids are valued and we're losing them. And it became my favorite season. And it was a thing that, because of the impact of that, she held me onto the show. She was so impressive. I should probably look her up today, because you know she was going to Brown University and I think she was playing one of the most dysfunctional, violent just lost kid in the show. And you know it so broke my heart that kid, that fictionalized character's real life was on point. Thank god it wasn't the other way around. And I realized all those kids needed that love, that direction, everything that she was getting in real life. And that violence and all wasn't arbitrary, and the impact of what David was writing about landed on me more than any other time, and that's why the fourth season was my favorite season.

Wendell, we saw what you said on Bill Maher's show recently and it was really powerful and truthful. Was it hard to play a cop considering some of the experiences like the one you described on Real Time? Does that come into your performance?

WP: No, It wasn't difficult to play a cop, it actually was quite the opposite because first of all, I met the real Bunk (Oscar Requer) [and] Detective [Darryl] Massey, one of the consultants who was just so impactful on me. But I learned playing Bunk that so many African-American men become police officers because the criminality that's in their neighborhood is such a small percentage of the people in their neighborhood. And it doesn't affect all of those good, great, law abiding citizens just trying to get by and live their life. It doesn't reflect the people that they grew up with and the men and women who raised them. And so they say: I don't want that to be my neighborhood. I want to drive that out of my neighborhood because the majority of people are getting up every day, trying to raise their kids and work hard and better their live. And so it was a privilege and an honor to bring them on screen. It's the thing that gives me hope in these times when we see the misconduct of men and women who wear that badge. It is such a stark contrast that it's easy for me to play Bunk, and it's even easier for me now to be as damning and condemning of those who misuse that privilege of being a police officer. Who take people's lives, who become criminals themselves with that privilege. And so I wasn't conflicted at all about playing a police officer.

It's actually the story that I tell Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) on the bench, it was something that came from a retired doctor that I knew: It was such a sense of community that he was called school boy, and they knew he was going places in a segregated time and he was at a party, and some thugs were there, and they were like, "Oh no, no, no, not you, school boy you don't belong here. We know you're on track, you get out of here." Even thugs had a sense of community then, and that's what I told Omar on that bench: You know what this community is, don't destroy it. And that famous line which is, "You know it makes me sick how far we've done fell." And so that sense of community is what drove so many black men and black women of the time to become police officers. That's what I was portraying in Bunk and it actually emboldens me to be more condemning of those police officers who misuse that privilege especially when they take another's life in an unjust way.


And is that scene with Omar you're describing a particular favorite?

WP: Yeah, it is. It is one of the highlights of the entire series. That scene with Omar to actually put that out there, to understand, that was something that I'm proud to have been a part of so that the community understands that you know, our community in crisis with crime and with young men killing each other and understand that this is not your community, that this is not world that you were brought up in this is not community that you are a part of that is such a deadly and small percentage of it, remember what your community is, it is not that. It makes me sick how far we done fell, it speaks to my heart. And that was just a small way as an artist to say something about it. And I'm just so happy that George Pelecanos wrote that scene today people mention that to me all the time. So it has a nice impact.

Is there a line people come up and quote to you often?

TW: Absolutely. The scene with me and Snoop. Everybody always comes up to me, like, "How my hair look, Mike?"


What changed after The Wire? For you or TV or Baltimore?

SS: Let's say…Baltimore has this love-hate relationship with The Wire. I think the Baltimore citizens who live there, particularly those who live in underserved communities love the show. Those who are activists and advocates, teachers, even cops, love the show. Politicians don't love it so much. A lot of people working in those public institutions think that The Wire has kept people from the city or shown the city in a bad light etcetera, etcetera. But David would always say, these issues, these characters could be from any city in America, but Baltimore is the one that is the place where he lived and he reported for many years.

But I believe for all of that criticism from the Baltimore establishment, there has been…Put it this way, they are quick to criticize the show and how it depicted Baltimore, but what they can't see is if the show had not aired and not been popular, I don't know if they would have gotten on top of these issues. There has been a lot of change in Baltimore…Things are by no means OK. They're better. But the kind of attention that the Baltimore establishment began to pay to education, to young men of color, boys of color, has you know certainly increased a great deal and I believe that is because of The Wire, and they wanted to make it unture. And that's all right. They'll never admit to it, but I saw it because I started working there on the ground on as advocate…for the years that I did the nonprofit down there. And I saw firsthand: You know you go into meetings, you get together with a group of people and you see. The issues that were brought up in The Wire were the topic of a lot of conversations and meetings I had in those years following the end of the show. And I met a lot of amazing people who were doing work prior to that were now and I met a lot of people working [in] those fields as a result of what they saw on The Wire. People wanted to volunteer, you know, how can I help and how can I make this better?

And I think The Wire, just in terms of actors, got a lot of careers off the ground, with a predominantly black cast. You know as a black actor there's fewer roles for you. And so it's harder to earn a living at it, so you know we got a chance to do it. And who knew it was going to be such a critically acclaimed show when we got those roles. And a result, people in the business noticed us and a number of us have done well. I'm able to make a living acting and no matter how much you see me or don't see me, I haven't had to have another job other than acting since I was on that show. And prior to that I was struggling.

TW: I think our culture got a very direct look into the lives of what happens and the urban decay that happens right in our backyard. I think for a lot of people it was hard to watch, but it made some strong changes in our different policies as a nation. I still think we definitely need to change. I think The Wire has definitely helped whether it's Baltimore or New York or Los Angeles, it definitely helped spark the change.


Do you ever look at shows like Breaking Bad, ones that benefited from streaming services and binge watching, and think, that should have been us!

TW: No, not really I think, I do think that were kind of ahead of our time with a lot of the stuff that we were speaking of, which is why I feel it still resonates today. But no, I think the way it happened was perfect because people are still catching on to it now like it's brand new. And…the people who've seen it and were there with us they're still going back to watch it again, like I said timing and everything made it so much like literature you know you just want to go back and pick that book up again. If were here now, starting up brand new and a part of the whole streaming services who knows how it would have been. But I'm very happy with the way things turned out.

WP: Well, it is us. We're having this conversation seven years after we've gone off the air. I'm stopped in Paris, I'm stopped in Africa I've been stopped in London, I've been stopped all over the world since the show. We are on this phone right now because the show's being rereleased. I meet someone every month who is seeing it for the first time. I meet someone every month who has watched it five or six times, so while we didn't get the awards—kind of weird to imagine how that would have been—we will always be remembered. Every Emmys: How could The Wire, not have gotten an Emmy? How could The Wire not have gotten an Emmy nomination? [Ed. note: The show did get nominated in the writing category.] It would be not be a question now. With every passing day, you're reminded of the impact of The Wire because it goes on. The work is classic in the sense that when something is classic it will speak to humanity today and years from now when we're gone, people will be watching it as almost a cultural document of the times. And it's still having an impact. You know 50 years from now, people will be looking at The Wire going, We still haven't' solved this, or we need to respect all people, or there's moral ambiguity in these institutions that just chew up people and spit them out." The dysfunction is highlighted here. In a way, while Breaking Bad and House of Cards and all of these shows benefit from binge watching and streaming—that really The Wire kind of started—is kind of a lasting legacy of from the way that our show impacted their real lives. People started saying, "Hey man, I first started doing this with The Wire." You know, in a way they are reaping our awards, even though we didn't get a little statue.

Which season is your favorite?

SS: I would have to say for me, it's the third. I know that the fourth season is a heartbreaker and probably like the fan-favorite because of the kids and because it was so well done. But if we're saying personal favorite, I have to say the third. I think there has been far too little attention paid to that mayoral race and what happened. And that right there was just really interesting to me and it's probably because I grew up in the hood, and I knew the stories of the boys, I lived the girl version of that…so it wasn't like a fresh story for me personally. But what was fresh for me was seeing how a political race was run, getting behind-the-scenes look at how political race is run. And I thought those actors were amazing, all those guys who were on the political side of the fence and I love how that got into the Barksdale operation, and then that was sort of end of the Barksdale crew in a way.

That was the end of the Barksdale storyline when you really think about it because Marlo (Jamie Hector) comes along after that. And I loved following this family of people who were in that were in the drug business, but there were key members of that who were of that crew who were reluctant. Stringer was trying to make it legit and get out, D'Angleo never wanted to be in it and he was in it because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. You saw soldiers get locked up: Wey Bey (Hassan Johnson), but his kid comes out that. But you saw such a beautiful arc: the Barksdale arc ends that season, and you see that basically a life of drug dealing is never going to end up anywhere good. It's rare that you get Jay Z out of that. It's rare that you get a 50 Cent of out that.

And I thought the reality of that was portrayed very beautifully in the third season and how it ties into politics, and how it ties into the public institutions and social structures, and how that is feeding and creating this problem.


TW: Would it be tacky if I said the fourth season? No I mean, it was a great season, it was fun, I remember watching the third season and just saying, "How do they come back from this?!" And then getting cast for the show and then reading the scripts already as a fan. Reading the scripts was like, "Oh my God…they just took to a whole other level." With the kids, getting deeper inside the government, how the drug money funds the government. It was crazy.


What do you remember most from your first day on set?

SS: My first day on set I believe was the scene in the pilot when Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carv (Seth Gilliam) are busting someone in a car and I drive on the lot on and I search the car and find the gun that they didn't find in their cowboy badassness—I should say cowboy police badassness—and I find a gun. And I pull back the mechanism and a prop bullet slips out into the foreground of the shot, and I thought, "Isn't that nice?" Because I was nervous as hell, never worked with guns before. I'm driving a truck, I get out and I got two people to talk to on either side of the car, I don't know where the f--k the camera is, I get this gun, I got to pull out this mechanism, like I do this s--t all the time. And the the prop bullet flings out, and I'm like "Oh nice! Well, all right." So that was my biggest memory from my first day. First day, first scene.

TW: I think it's not necessarily what I remember most from the first day on set. I think it was the first day that I went to the office. JD Williams was there, and I remember Ed Burns and David Simon, they kind of just gave us a talk, like, "Listen, you guys are going be in here, shooting this and whatever," but just kind of giving us warning, like this is literally a bad town. Everything you see on this show is pretty much real, so don't think you're going to go out or go see some girl in the city or something like that because there are really some bad neighborhoods and we don't want you to get caught up. So I remember them kind of giving us the rundown of what Baltimore actually is about.

Did the cop actors and the criminal actors hang out?

SS: I'd say all of the principal actors actually lived outside of Baltimore, so we all came to Baltimore for six, seven months of every year. And we just had each other. We had actors from England, L.A., New York, and you know especially some years are really demanding and you had to be there, you couldn't train back and forth. I ended up moving there myself. Yeah, we did hang out together, especially those of us who were working a lot and needed to be in town. Because you had nobody to hang with except each other.


Do you still see the other cast members?

WP: Oh yeah, all the time. We try to get together. When Dominic [West] was shooting The Affair, I was in New York—he and I and Clarke Peters got together for dinner. We stopped traffic, we were sitting out on the patio, and people were like, "Oh s--t, they're getting the squad back together!" Just the other night I got to see Michael K. Williams, he's a dear friend. And Sonja Sohn, we actually do work together, she has ReWired for Change in Baltimore so she and I were helping each other as we were doing our nonprofit stuff. So it's a great reunion. We've gotten together for happy times: christenings, and birthdays and weddings. And sad times too, you know, when there's a death in the family. It's too few and far between, but when we do, it's like picking up right where we left off—we're a true family.

TW: Even after the show ended, everybody kind of just stayed kind of close. It's like aunts and uncles and cousins and everything. So I definitely stay in contact with Julito [McCullum] and Maestro [Harrell] and Jermaine, and kind of reach out to Sonja every now and then. You know I try to stay in contact with as many people as I possibly can. Even Idris. Idris is like my big brother.

Is The Wire the greatest show ever?

TW: Absolutely. Absolutely.

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