The versatile Juilliard-trained actor describes his role in the new comedy, The Michael J. Fox Show, and in the final season of the Peabody Award-winning drama, Tremé.
Actor-producer Wendell Pierce
Tavis: For Wendell Pierce, a successful career means portraying an array of diverse characters. His range is now on display in not one, but two series with Michael J. Fox in the NBC sitcom appropriately titled “The Michael J. Fox Show” playing a ratings-obsessed news director.
He’s also reprising his role, though, as the free-wheeling jazz trombonist in the award-winning series, “Treme,” which returns Sunday, say it ain’t so, for its final run, its final season on HBO. Before we start our conversation, a look now at a scene from “Treme.”
Tavis: I said a moment, say it ain’t so, say it ain’t so. But as it turns out, this has been a pretty good run for a series that, if you’d looked at on paper some years ago, given the “Katrina fatigue” that was springing across the country, it might not have even gotten off the ground, let alone lasted this long.
Wendell Pierce: Yeah. It was one of those things that you realize, in a disaster, the greatest thing that you have is the will of the people. And a lot of times, people saw Katrina as just an event that dealt with not peoples’ heart, but the social issues and the politics of the time.
But the thing that we wanted to tap into was the culture, that the one thing that was so clear is that, in spite of everything, the will of the people was gonna be the thing that brought it back.
It was gonna be brought back by one tune at a time, one crawfish ain’t too fat at a time, and cultures, that connection between a people and life itself, how they deal with it, you know, the blues people as Albert Murray said in all of his great novels and books.
So that’s what we wanted to do and to have the four years that we’ve had on HBO has been pretty wonderful because now we leave a cultural document that kind of marks this period of time to say this is what New Orleanians were thinking about, this is how we survived this, and this is what is of value to us.
Because that’s the role of art is the place, the forum, where we reflect on who we are as a people, as a community, and decide what our values are. And that’s what we tried to leave, this cultural document for the people of New Orleans.
Tavis: And what do you expect that folk are going to see when they read this cultural document that is “Treme” years now the road?
Pierce: That in spite of neglect, in spite of corruption, in spite of violence and crime, that there is something that is of greater value, that you have to fight with all of your spirit and effort to maintain. A lot of people wanted to give up on New Orleans. Just let it go. They didn’t see the value of it.
I mean, how many times we heard around the country, “Why you guys livin’ down there?” You would never say that about New York and, unfortunately, a year or two later, it was hit by Sandy and everyone realized that no one called into question whether or not we should bring back the Jersey shore or New York City and Staten Island.
So this cultural document is saying that we are of value, that we have importance and that what you bring together as a people, exercising your right of self-determination, is the most important essence of surviving a disaster.
Tavis: I have been blessed to be a friend of yours for some years now and have done a number of documentaries and specials about New Orleans prior to Katrina, since Katrina. And on one of those documentaries, I spent some time with you in Pontchartrain Park and the project you and some wonderful folk are working on to bring back the neighborhood that you grew up in, the historical golf course.
I’ll let you tell the story of how things are going, but I’m curious as to what’s happening with Pontchartrain Park.
Pierce: Pontchartrain Park, I mean, it’s like holding a tiger by the tail, but we are thriving, we are back. It was a neighborhood that was post World War II, the only place where African Americans and Jim Crow New Orleans could purchase a home then.
In the middle of it was a golf course, our jewel designed by Joseph Bartholomew who designed most of the courses in New Orleans, but couldn’t play on them because he was a Black man.
And it became a Black Mayberry, a bucolic place to grow up. It became an incubator of Black talent, you know. Terrence Blanchard grew up with me, the first Black mayor, Dutch Morial, Marc Morial, National Urban League president. We all came from this community. Lisa Jackson I grew up with, former…
Tavis: Former EPA Administrator.
Pierce: Right. So it was an incubator of talent and it was at the deepest part of the flooding in New Orleans. And if it wasn’t for us, we knew that people would just give up on it. And we had this Moses Generation that had done so much to make sure that we had this wonderful neighborhood, what Baldwin Hills is to L.A., what Sweet Auburn is to Atlanta.
That’s what Pontchartrain Park was to New Orleans. And this Moses Generation worked so hard in the civil rights movement to give us that opportunity to grow up with a great foundation like that.
And it was on us, this Joshua Generation, to bring it back. So we reconstituted ourselves, put together our own community development corporation, and we have a couple of dozen homes now with solar and geothermal and brought the neighborhood back. So I’m really proud of that.
Tavis: I want to ask you about what a blessing it has been or how therapeutic – you’ll fill in the blank – a blessing, therapeutic, you tell me, it has been to express your artistry in a series like “Treme” that is based in your hometown.
Before I do that, though, every time I hear the story of Joseph Bartholomew and designing courses on which he could not play, that was the case in New Orleans. I think of the great architect, Paul Williams, out here in L.A. who nowadays, if you live in a Paul Williams home, you’re all that [laugh].
Pierce: Right. But, you know, he used to draw upside down.
Tavis: That’s right. I was gonna tell the story.
Pierce: Oh, I’m sorry…
Tavis: No, I love it. It is a great story. So for those who don’t know the story of Paul Williams, whenever you fly into Los Angeles, that spider – we call it the spider at the center of the airport that has that revolving restaurant in it – he designed the spider.
He designed some of the most beautiful homes in Los Angeles. He designed the Polo Lounge, the world-famous Polo Lounge, the Beverly Hills Hotel, he designed it. But I was gonna tell the story and I’ll let our guest tell the story of how Paul Williams in meetings with white people used to have to draw.
Pierce: Right. Because he was a fair-skinned man, but first of all, there was a moment where they were considering is he African American or not, right? Is he a brother or not?
Pierce: And while they would consider that, he always knew that he had this very brief window to do his work. So he would draw and design upside down so they would have the perspective before they could say, “Wait a minute. You’re a Black man. Get out. I don’t want your work.” And he would show his ability as an architect and designer before they had any chance to kick him out. I just think that’s an amazing thing.
Tavis: You a bad man. Sitting across the table was the white folk and you drawing upside down as an architect to show them your brilliance. They didn’t wanna sit that close to him anyway.
Pierce: And that just points to the resilience of the human spirit that, in the most difficult of times, we rise to a certain level of resilience and brilliance that we find in ourselves to fight those battles, those confrontations, those challenges that, you know, seem insurmountable at times.
And that’s a legacy that was passed on to us from a generation that shed blood on their ballot box, that made sure that we had access to green space.
You know, Pontchartrain Park came about because Black folks in New Orleans could only go to the park on Wednesdays, you know. So it was a battle by A. P. Tureaud to make sure that we had access to green space and that’s how this neighborhood came about, Pontchartrain Park.
So, you know, you think of Paul Williams, you think of Joseph Bartholomew, you think of men and women who fought that battle. It would be a sin for me not to step up to the plate in New Orleans’ darkest hour as a community say we will not let our parents’ generation down.
Tavis: You stepped up not just as an advocate, but you stepped up as an artist which takes me back to my question as to how fortunate – you fill in the blank again – you feel that out of this tragedy comes this kind of artistic expression called “Treme”? I’ll get to “The Michael J. Fox Show,” I promise, in a moment.
But out of this tragedy comes this artistic opportunity for you to express yourself in “Treme,” how fortunate do you feel in that regard?
Pierce: It’s one of the greatest blessings of my life. First of all, on a personal note, my mother passed away right before the final season. And to know that I was home for the past four years to spend time with her in her final years is cherished time that I will forever be grateful for.
Also, what “Treme” is is a true representation of the meaning of art. The role of art in society, we’ve lost the sense of. What thoughts are to the individual, when you lie awake at night and say what kind of man I am, you know, where have I gone, where do I hope to go, what are my inadequacies, what are my strengths?
Those reflections that you have as a personal individual is reflected in the form of art for the community as a whole. That’s why the Greeks came together. Even though they knew the stories at the beginning, they knew there was a moral lesson that they had to learn over and over again to kind of declare their values, you know.
And that’s what the form of art is. What is important to us? Where have we failed? Where do we hope to go? Where do we want to be as a society? And that form of art serves that purpose for the collective, for the whole. And so that’s what “Treme” has done.
On Sunday nights for people of New Orleans who’ve gone through that experience to sit back, reflect on where they’re going, what they’ve gone through, the tragedy that they’ve experienced, how they’re gonna get through it and the best way to bring it to a better place, to a positive experience, and that’s the role of art.
You saw it when Woody Guthrie sang about “this land is your land, this land is my land” in the Great Depression. Even, you know, Ronald Reagan sang, you know, an actor being able to tap into the communicative spirit of a community and lead them towards his agenda, Lech Walesa in Poland with solidarity.
You know, we all remember where we were when we heard Pop sing, you know, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” right after the flood of Katrina. That experience and that emotive form of art serves the community like those reflective moments and thought influenced the individual and that’s the role of art.
And that’s what “Treme” has done for New Orleans. At this period of time, this is where we were, this is who we are and this is how we were resilient and how we got through it and let this be a lesson for all of those who will come after us. And this is our answer to that question. What did you do in New Orleans’s darkest hour?
So this is our response to neglect, corruption, violence. Our response is the beauty of our music, the resilience of our spirit, the creativity of our cuisine. And that’s the humanity in it and that’s what I’m proudest of about “Treme.”
Tavis: You said a number of things now that I could go back and ask you to kind of extrapolate for me. But there’s one thing in particular that you said that I want to go back to and I resonate with it for all the obvious reasons.
You talked about lying in bed at night with these wonderings and one of the wonderings that you wrestle with that expresses itself ultimately in your artistic choices are your own inadequacies as a man, inadequacies as a Black man.
That hit me profoundly because any one of us who is being authentic, being earnest with ourselves, no matter what color or gender we are, if we’re being honest – was it Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living?
Tavis: So if you’re living a life that’s worth living, you got to examine yourself. So you got to wrestle with those inadequacies.
Give me some sense – and I’m not asking you to put your business out – but I am curious, though, as to how a Black man – I’ve got my own answer – but as one Black man, how do you wrestle with those inadequacies in this world, in this business, and come up with answers that allow you to address those inadequacies in a way that allows you to pursue your craft? Does that make sense?
Tavis: In an honorable way.
Pierce: Right. First of all, the one thing that I always come back to is to thine own self be true. Because there will be choices I make in my career that may turn people within my own community away, like why did you do that?
For instance, I have a movie out that I was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award called “Four” where this man is living a clandestine life. He is gay and he’s closeted, but he has a family. And people come up to me all the time and say, “Why did you do that” ’cause I go out with this young kid that I meet on the internet. He’s a teenager.
I said, because that is a conflicted, awful, troubled man who is destroying lives in his wake and we have to be aware of that and they’re not just some outward monster, you know. It happens every day and there has to be that examination. So it’s a troubling and disturbing role.
So people say, “Well, why would you do that?” I said because the role of being an actor is not to just entertain. That’s a byproduct of acting. It’s the examination of human behavior, even abhorrent human behavior. We have to know about that so we won’t fall victim to it ourselves and understand it.
So to make those choices and deal with your own inadequacies, it’s about trying to find truth and be as authentic as possible. For me, it’s about the study of human behavior and if it’s something that’s gonna be of value in the study of that human behavior or is it just sensationalized and arbitrary?
See, I wouldn’t have done that role if it had just been arbitrary, if it’s just some sensationalized pedophile that, you know, some guy gets to come and attack. This was something that it’s on the slippery slope, you know, that some people may not even realize that they are actually a part of something abhorrent. And that’s the study of human behavior that I would like to encounter.
The barometer for me is approaching roles like a psychologist because it’s the closest thing to being an actor, trying to understand the psychological impact of why people behave a certain way and the impact that it has on others. And when they come together in a particular journey or story, what enlightenment will that bring to all of us as we reflect on that?
The only reason you go to the theater, Tavis, and turn down the lights is to see some emulation of our own experience, to learn from it, for everyone in that room to have some connection with it, you know. It’s not just the entertainment. The entertainment is the byproduct.
But that’s why the Greeks, as I go back to the Greeks, went back. They knew the story going into it. Oedipus is gonna kill his father and sleep with his mother. What can we learn from this journey that he’s about to take that we don’t want to forget that kind of gives a foundation to our value system?
So with that approach, you have to say, as a Black man, what is value to me? What’s of impact to the community that I want to change and be impactful towards? What is my contribution to this dynamic? Because that’s the one thing I control. My contribution to a dysfunctional dynamic or paradigm is the one thing that I control.
So don’t think I’m detached from the violence that all of some young men in our community are a part of. So what is going to be my contribution to that? How will I change that? How will I impact it and bring value to their lives instead of contributing to the dysfunction of their lives?
Tavis: As always, when we have these conversations, the stuff you say opens up so many other doors that I want to go into. I recognize that art is subjective, so there is no necessarily right or wrong answer to the question I now want to ask based on what you’ve just said.
I recognize that every actor has to make his or her own choices. You talked about the fact that, obviously, those of us who are your fans get a chance to critique your work once it’s done and that oftentimes puts you in a situation where you have to explain your work, why you made certain choices.
The question I want to ask you is whether or not the audience itself, your fan base, ever factors into the decisions that you make on the front side. It’s one thing to explain it on the back side. Do they impact decisions on the front side? I think of our friend, Harry Lennix. I love Harry Lennix.
Pierce: Right, right, right.
Tavis: I adore Harry Lennix. Can’t wait to have him back on this show again. Everybody loves “The Butler.” It’s made tons of money, everybody celebrated. Harry Lennix called it historical porn. Harry said it’s historical porn. Now I love Harry and I respect Harry’s point of view on just about everything.
So you got people celebrated on the one hand, but a great committed person like Harry who loves his people say it’s historical porn. So clearly it’s a decision that Harry would have made not to do it.
Tavis: So I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not the audience and how the work might be perceived ever impacts your decision-making on the front side.
Pierce: The only time I’ll considerable as a variable that a multitude of people are gonna see it. I mean, one of the things, besides Michael J. Fox doing a one-camera comedy, the total opposite of what I was doing before for the past 10 years, those were all reasons that I’m on “The Michael J. Fox Show.” But one of the things also was the fact that it was broadcast television.
So many more people are gonna see me on “The Michael J. Fox Show” than, I mean, on “The Wire” or “Treme,” you know? So that’s the only time to consider it. But I think the true barometer is the truth of the work and your relationship. The greatest relationship you’re gonna have is the relationship you have with your work, you know, and that journey.
You must consider the fact that years from now you’ll be able to look back and look at a body of work. And you want to be able to look back at that with pride and go, ah, those were great choices. I know why I did that. Maybe people will join me in my appreciation of that role later on down the road where only a handful of people would have appreciated it then.
That happened with “The Wire.” I meet more people today who watched “The Wire” than watched it when it was on the air. So I consider the audience and my fan base as friends who I would hope understand the choices that I make. I try to make them authentically and maybe they’ll come for the ride.
Tavis: So how fun is it, then, to do a show like “The Michael J. Fox Show” where you’re playing his boss when you have done “The Wire” and you’ve done “Treme”? How fun is it to have that radical departure?
Pierce: Well, I always wanted to be a journeyman actor. That’s the reason I went to Juilliard, classically trained. I wanted to be able to do comedy and drama, classical and contemporary. I like to do film and theater. And I pride myself on that diversity of being a journeyman actor with pride.
I think of James Edwards and Roscoe Lee Browne and Ozzie Davis. They did everything. Those were the men that I saw as a young kid who was thinking about acting, who said, “If I become an actor, that’s who I want to be.”
They did everything and I really appreciate – James Earl Jones, you know. I’ve seen them in so many, a multitude of things, Al Freeman, Jr., just really journeyman actors, you know. Yes, they are stars. At a certain point, they become stars. But I remember, you know, all the different plays that they’ve done.
James Earl Jones did “The Blacks” by Genet that people forget about before he did “The Great White Hope” and Roscoe Lee Browne was also in that production. Godfrey Cambridge, I think of men like that. So I kind of base my career on being that journeyman, of being as diverse as possible.
So to go from “The Wire” to “Treme” to “The Michael J. Fox Show” to doing a movie like “Four” and have all of that happen at the same time while still doing theater, you know, and producing theater – I did “Clybourne Park” as a producer on Broadway and we won the Tony for that. It’s that sort of diversity that I pride myself on.
Tavis: How does comedy test your chops?
Pierce: Comedy tests your chops, especially in film, because, you know, when you’re doing comedy on stage, it’s great because you have the audience there and they’re like another actor in the scene, you know. You feed off of them, laugh, you know.
But, man, in film when everyone’s quiet, it’s all about timing. But the key to that is to be authentic. You know, once again, be in the moment, and if you play the moment truthfully, the humor will be there.
Tavis: I got 45 seconds. Speaking of playing the moment truthfully, everybody knows Michael J. Fox’s condition and the battle. It’s courageous for him to come back to TV. How is that factoring into the story line?
Pierce: Just like it is in his life. It doesn’t take over his entire life. It’s just a part of his life. So as he says, everybody has their bag of hammers that they have to deal with and it just happens to be his. But he’s still a family man, he’s still a craftsman, and that shows his entire life and that’s why we try to show the humor and the fun in his whole life and not just that one aspect.
Tavis: Wendell Pierce is, I can’t say, back on TV. He ain’t never left from “The Wire” to “Treme,” now “The Michael J. Fox Show.” He plays Michael J. Fox’s boss, this ratings-obsessed news director on network television, as he said a moment ago. Happy to have you on this program.
Pierce: I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: These conversations are always so inspiring. I appreciate it.
Pierce: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to have you back. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. As always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.