“Baltimore Was a Culture Shock”: Real Talk from The Wire’s Creators and Stars

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In honor of the tenth anniversary of the first episode of The Wire, a certain men’s magazine decided to take its mind off boobs and video games for once and instead give the series a thorough historical review. The whole oral history is worth a read, but we’ve distilled it to a few choice snippets for those of you in a rush. Read about the cast’s take on Baltimore, their strip club visits, and their interactions with local drug dealers below:

(On an early meeting with David Simon, then a journalist for the Baltimore Sun) Ed Burns: He said “I’ve got permission to follow this, and I’d love to know what’s going on. I won’t write anything until the case is wrapped up, but I’d love to hear some of the wire taps.” And I said to him, “You know, quite frankly, I’d like you to hear them too so I can lock you away for 10 years.” Because that’s the punishment for listening to wire taps if you’re not authorized. He followed the case, and we became, I wouldn’t say friends, at that time, but I trusted him. He knew how to keep his mouth shut.

Method Man (Calvin “Cheese” Wagstaff, Proposition Joe’s gang): We had a taste of what The Wire was before The Wire came out when they did The Corner. It was like Star Trek compared to Star Wars.  Star Trek was good, but you wanted to see more detail. I wanted to see some space fighting. When Star Wars came out it blew my f***ing mind.

Casting Director Alexa Fogel  (on the difficulty of finding the perfect Jimmy McNulty — and eventually making the bold move to cast a Brit): With Domenic, on the page that character was very different physically and age wise. We exhausted our ideas and possibilities and I was pretty desperate. We had not cast this role really close to shooting the pilot.

Dominic West (Officer James “Jimmy” McNulty): It was just another audition tape to send off to a casting director. I suppose the thing that was going through my mind was how I spent most of my boyhood running around pretending to be Starsky or Hutch, so it was something of a fantasy for me to play an American cop.

Deirdre Lovejoy (Rhonda Pearlman): I never thought of myself as any kind of romantic anything, but it’s the first day of work and Dominic is on top of me! I’m usually not the girl who has to sit there with her clothes off, but it is cable, so the clothes are off. Dominic said to me, “Oh, last week I was on top of Renée Zellweger!”

Many of the characters in the series are based on real Baltimore cops. Some of the actors got to go on ride-alongs to get a taste of what the real deal was like.

Wendell Pierce (Det. William “Bunk” Moreland): I actually was in the (interrogation) box with a couple people as they were asked questions, and then I hooked up with real “Bunk.” He took me around, telling me stories about Homicide, introducing me to all these other cops. “This guy is going to be playing me in this new show. Come here Bunk!” He called people Bunk. It comes from the military. Your bunk mate.

Sonja Sohn (Shakima “Kima” Greggs): In my own history, I had a very conscious dislike for law enforcement, and in order to play a cop I had to get over that. So I made an effort to get to know some detectives. “Why did you become a cop?” “Who are you as an individual?”

The show was also notorious for casting non-actors, many of them native Baltimoreans.

Anwan Glover (Slim Charles, Barksdale gang enforcer): I was born and raised in D.C, like 30 minutes away, and, you know, it was just like being in it in my own life…but you can get up without having the real wounds.

Chad Coleman (Dennis “Cutty” Wise, ex-soldier, boxing coach): Crack just obliterated the city, and gave it a certain desperation and hardness. I grew up around that sort of stuff. I wasn’t in the projects, but I was three blocks away.

Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon): I wound up buying a house in Baltimore, and when I go back I see some of the characters who were just extras, whether they’re bartenders or councilmen or street people. They’re still there. They’re like, “That was your gig, but this is our life!” It’s surreal.

Filming in Baltimore was its own kind of culture shock for some of the show’s participants:  

Andre Royo: They called me and told me I got the part of Bubbles, and my wife got excited. “Oh, shit! You got the part!” Packing her bag for L.A., and I’m like, “Nah, nah, we filming in Baltimore.” And she unpacked real quickly: “I’ll see you when you come home.”

Hassan Johnson (Wee-Bey Brice, Barksdale gang soldier): Baltimore was a culture shock.

Michael B. Jordan (Wallace, Barksdale gang dealer): This is some real shit. It was real to the point where crackheads would come up and try to cop. I had fake money, and they would come over, and an exchange would go down. I would think they were part of the crew, and I’d make the exchange. Then security would come around and be like, “No! No! No!” and break it up. I was like, “Oh, shit! That’s really a crack-head! I’m sorry! I’m not really a drug dealer!”

Idris Elba: We smoked a lot of good weed, did a lot of strip clubs. A lot of that.

Michael B. Jordan: I kind of grew up around Idris and Wendell and Clarke and everybody. I would just tag along, going to strip clubs. I became a man in Baltimore with those guys.

Dominic West: Socially, it did sort of polarize around cops and gangsters. The police tended to go out with police, and the gangsters tended to go out with the gangsters.

John Doman (police superintendent William Rawls): Two thirds of the cast I never met. I never had any dealing with the drug dealers. When I was there, it was just the cops.

Read the full story here.



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