What Keeps Wendell Pierce Up At Night
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WENDELL PIERCE: There's going to be hardship in life. And, uh, no matter what. And so the best thing to do is be prepared for that. And I was brought up that when the hardship comes get working on it immediately.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
For the past few years, Wendell Pierce’s work as an actor has taken him all over the world.
WP: I was in Montreal. I was in Morocco. I was in Columbia. I was in London and Paris and Moscow.
Wendell was shooting scenes for the Amazon series Jack Ryan… filming the movie Clemency… and, for three months last fall, playing Willy Loman in London’s West End staging of Death of a Salesman.
But when acting work stalled back in March, Wendell, who’s now 56, decided to hunker down in his hometown of New Orleans.
WP: Eating seafood on the lakefront in New Orleans, uh, in the summertime, uh, has been a treasure. And I've been able to do that with my father and, uh, have some crawfish or crabs. It's been great. You know, I'm appreciating this summer even more because, you know, it was all the things you did for something that you took for granted. I would just hop on a plane and I would be on a Caribbean beach right now, or, you know, and I realized that if I can't get to a beach, I'm going to be like a kid. And you're going to see me, Wendell Pierce, running around with his garden hose and swim trunks on the back lawn.
AS: And I want to be able to picture this, like, what color are your swim trunks this season?
WP: Oh I try to be cool. You know, big dude like me, they tried to look slick, right? So I got some like tight, little boy short sort of swim trunks.
AS: I hope, they're red.
WP: No, they're black, you know, you gotta think slimming.
Wendell’s house is in the Ponchartrain Park neighborhood of New Orleans, just two blocks from his childhood home. His dad still lives there. He’s 95 years old and has around the clock care, but Wendell’s been seeing him every day.
WP: I said, this is, I'm going to look on the bright side. And say, this is opportunity to spend this time with my dad.
AS: Hm. And what do you find - what's, when you think about this time with your dad and think about, what's been special about what you've been able to do together. Is there something that comes to mind, a moment that wouldn't have happened otherwise?
WP: It's one of those times where, you know, every day I kind of go, he’s seen everything. When I explained to him - he can't hear anything. And I explained to him what was going on with the protests, I was waiting to see what he would say. And he figured it out. He goes, "Oh, that's what's happening. Well, we'll fix this shit."
AS: "We’ll fix this shit."
WP: Yeah. 'Cause he had, he had evidence. Of how to do it, a blueprint of how to do it and knowledge that what holds us together is stronger than what will be breaking us apart. And that's family and community.
Wendell learned early about the importance of both of those things, growing up in Ponchartrain Park in the '60s and '70s. As he writes about in his 2015 memoir, called The Wind in the Reeds… his parents settled in the neighborhood soon after it was built in the 1950s. It was a subdivision created by and for Black, working class families, after redlining kept them out of other nearby white neighborhoods.
WP: It was separate but equal, something ugly, but we made it beautiful. It felt like black Mayberry, you get on your bike and you could ride around. And I was, I felt like I had a parent at every other house, you know, and they were like, you know, "That's Pierce's boy." And, uh, I was known as Mrs. Pierce's son 'cause she taught at the school two blocks from my house.
AS: And when you were growing up, like you described it as black Mayberry, where you, did you feel like finances were tight in your family when you were growing up, did you feel really stable?
WP: You know, it's interesting, Pontchartrain Park was seen as like this Mecca, you know. People would come and drive through Pontchartrain Park. Uh, uh, they actually had buses of white folks who would come through on a tour. "This is the first Negro neighborhood in America."
AS: Wow. Really.
WP: "The Negro housewife is putting out the laundry. Ah, the Negro father is cutting the lawn." You know, they brought, of all names, Dixieland Tours, to view black people acting human. And black folks in the city would come too, you know. "Oh man. Oh, you're from Pontchartrain Park. Oh, you think you're you're bourgeois." And my parents would always tell me, I'll never forget. "Listen, this little house. Which is not big enough for any of us. Cost $13,000. And I spent all 30 years paying for it. So remember that."
AS: That detail from your book, that when your parents paid off their house, they hung up the paid in full statement on the wall.
WP: Oh yeah. Yes, indeed. My father framed that and put it in his little museum, as we called it. And he would always point to that: "My house is paid for in full." And um, we had a healthy respect for work and understanding that money, um, allows you to build a life that you want. Uh, you should not have a love for money, but, uh, it's important that you, uh, you try to build your wealth. And my father to this day always says, "Watch your money. Watch your bread." When you walk out the door, "Watch your money."
AS: Mm. One, one detail that you write about in your book that I've thought about a lot is you, it must've been when you were still at home before you went away to school, when your, when your brother Stacey was having some mental health difficulties.
AS: And just tell me, how did your, how did your parents approach that as a family?
WP: My parents believed in sharing everything. If something happened, you sat down at the table and they said - we had a, we had a family meeting. And so, uh, even as taboo as mental illness was and still can be, and, uh, in the Black community, they said, listen, your brother is going through some issues at school. Uh, and we got to go and get him, uh, 'cause he's having a breakdown, he's having a breakdown. And they brought him home and they said, you know, now this is the thing you always have to remember. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. So we have to take care of your brother. And I remember at the time, we as a family -- now this is, I had never even heard of it then. We went together as a family to therapy. To make sure everybody was on the same page -- these are the feelings that you're going to have, you know, my parents, you may feel that you failed him. You guys are kids, you may be scared of who he has become or when he goes through an episode or something, don't be, it’s natural. Also understand - that's when I first understood as a kid, the doctor was very good, explained to me that, in you know, your brain, there's chemicals. And sometimes if you, like in science class, you put the wrong chemical together, you get an explosion. It's just as physical as anything, any other illness. And so, uh, family, uh, is paramount. And in times like that, it was demonstrated, you know, uh, family means everything. Um, even as dysfunctional as it may be. Uh, I was raised to believe that family is the greatest connection to your past and most likely to be there for you in the future.
AS: How old were you when you were going to family therapy? Do you remember?
WP: Oh, let me see. I had to be about 10, 11. Ten or 11 years old. Yeah. I was a child.
AS: Yeah. I mean, I, I, I think - like, how do you think, you know, your, your brother had left the house. He was no longer living at home and that he had a place to come when he needed help. Like, did that, do you think that made you more brave in thinking about what you might do when you left the house?
WP: Oh - bravery was uh, that was established with my parents right away. I mean, just what they were doing, just living, uh, we were conscious of - it's really, it was an interesting balance. They taught us that there are those who do not have our best interests at heart. We live in the South. This is dangerous. Be on your P's and Q's. Be aware. But don't ever think you can't do anything because "can’t died three days before the creation of the world, so don't ever tell me you can't do something," right? Which is a mantra in my family. So hand in hand, you know, uh, those two principles lived in my family. You can do anything, go anywhere, be whatever you want to be. And at the same time, you have to be prepared.
Wendell knew from a young age what he wanted to be. After his two older brothers went off to pursue careers in medicine and in the military, Wendell fell in love with theater. As a high school freshman, he was accepted to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a performing arts high school where got to know other students like Wynton and Branford Marsalis. From there, he was accepted into the theater program at Juilliard. He arrived in New York in the summer of 1981.
WP: Everyone was on their stoops. Music was playing, kids were playing in the streets. A fire hydrant was open, you know. I was, oh man. I was like, "Man, New York! Skyscrapers and everything!" Like the Stevie Wonder tune. I was, oh man, it was excitement. The other thing is I had, uh, I had friends here already, you know, or there. Wynton Marsalis was there, Branford would come down on the weekends from Boston. Uh, you know, so, uh, they were in school. So I went to Juilliard during the day and then at night I would go and hang out with Wynton and Branford and staying, uh, and I got another education at the jazz clubs.
AS: What was it like - so you're living with your aunt in Crown Heights, right? In Brooklyn?
WP: Yes, in Crown Heights.
AS: You're going to jazz clubs. You're exploring New York City. Like, um -
WP: And then I eventually moved in with Wynton and Branford.
AS: Oh, then that - was that a party house?
WP: Yeah, party house, you know. Young men in New York, you know. [Laughs]
AS: How did you think about romance at that time of your life?
WP: Uh, romance was a, just as elusive as being a great artist was, you know, it's something that you had to work on constantly. And like any young man, I was chatting up everything that was walking, you know. I did not realize it then, but they called me "The Hound of the Hallways" at Juilliard.
WP: In New Orleans, in New Orleans we say, "Hey baby." Right? That's that's a sweet thing, right? It's a, it's a term of endearment to everyone. "What's up, baby?" Men and women, you say it to anybody. And I remember this guy came up to me and said, "Hey, listen, man, I just gotta tell you. I'm not homosexual. And I know you keep trying to hit on me." I'm like, "Keep trying to hit on you? I'm not hitting on you man." He said, "You keep calling me baby." I said, "Oh, man, that's a New Orleans thing, baby!" [Laughs] So that was my, idea of romance.
AS: "The Hound of the Hallway" is quite a nickname. [Laughs]
WP: Yeah. Because I was being from New Orleans. "Hey baby! How you doin', hey baby!"
AS: And so when you, when you think about like, I guess at that point in your life, when you're 17, 18 years old, and you think about what it was about performing that just was like, this is the thing, this is why I'm here. What was it?
WP: I learned, I learned early on it’s closer to psychology than anything else. Creating the world so strong that it induces the behavior. That you don't think about the behavior itself. If someone said, you know, a loved one of yours got hit by a car outside, you wouldn't think about, how am I going to get up from this table and run out and look this way and look that way? You would just react because you have a history of, of love and a connection to that person. And I learned young that it was creating that world that will induce the behavior when it comes to a particular scene. And I appreciated and I loved that part of it, and it made me a student of human behavior. Then I saw an institution that respected that sort of level of study. From nine in the morning until 11 o'clock at night, we're going to look at every aspect of your human being. And tie that into the work that we're doing. It was that sort of detailed level of examination that I knew that it was nothing - when I left Juilliard, there's nothing that I will go through in this business that will ever, ever, uh, come up to the level of scrutiny that we had at Juilliard. Um, when you left, it could be debilitating. And for me, it was for a little while. The one thing I knew with certainty leaving Juilliard was the fact that I wasn't an actor. I was like, I don't know what I'm going to do, but I know one thing I'm not good.
AS: Really? You came away feeling not good enough.
WP: Because the work had been so intense that, you know, uh, I had a little bit of a, you know, insecurity about it, you know? Um, not a little, it was big. It was, and I'll never forget the first year -- it took me a year before I decided that I was an actor. You know, every time I got a job, I had imposter syndrome. I thought, oh man. They're going to find out I'm no good. Then I got another job. Oh, the only job, like the only reason I got that it's because that one guy liked me, everybody else didn't like me, then, you know, something else would happen. And then after a year I said, Wendell, stop. It doesn't matter if they like you or not, you know, go in and do your work. If they choose to work with you, good. If not, go on. And then that was the thing that kind of sent me off.
Wendell graduated from Juilliard in 1985, and three years later, made his Broadway debut.
He worked steadily after that, and then in 2001 he was cast in what has become his most famous role, as Detective Bunk Moreland, on The Wire.
Coming up, I talk with Wendell about riding high on the success of that show… when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown.
WP: To quote Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Uh, it was the best of times, obviously for my career. And then Katrina happened and, uh, I really saw how fragile our society is. It is very fragile.
Talking to Wendell Pierce reminded me of the time that the Death, Sex & Money team got to spend in New Orleans.
We reported from there in the summer of 2015, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, and talked with a collection of people about what had happened in their lives during the storm, and then after, including bounce artist Big Freedia, the then-coroner of the city, and a partyer turned professor who was raising her three kids in post-Katrina New Orleans. (We also made this version of our show’s music for that series, thanks to our colleague Jason Isaac and the Outer Borough Brass Band.)
I’ve thought back on this series a lot during this time of pandemic, when a really terrible thing is happening to all of us, but hits each of our lives in specific and individual ways. If you want to listen back, there’s a link to that series in our show notes or you can find at deathsexmoney.org/inneworleans.
And thank you to those of you who have sent in your stories about feeling a rent crunch right now, like this listener from LA, who works as a freelance artist. Work has been scarce for him since the pandemic started. So he and his roommate decided to ask their landlord if he’d be open to a rent reduction until the end of the year.
LISTENER: And we were maybe naive in thinking that he would be, I dunno, generous or understanding or sympathetic. But that wasn’t the case. He said there was nothing he could do.
So they paid their rent in full in August, but are planning to talk to their landlord again at the end of the month.
LISTENER: I hate to be like argumentative or difficult about this, because it’s not like this guy is some multibillionaire. And I understand that like this is his income, but also like, it’s a global pandemic dude! Have some decency!
If you’re worried about whether you’ll be able to make your rent over the next few months, we’d love to hear from you. Tell us how you’re dealing with housing instability. Record a voice memo and send it to us, at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the summer of 2005, Wendell Pierce happened to be in town, visiting while on a break from filming The Wire in Baltimore. He and his parents left to stay with family in Baton Rouge, and watched from there as there city and neighborhood filled with water.
WP: You saw the worst in human nature. You saw many people die. We had, uh, insurance companies not recognize anyone's insurance policies, like my parents after 50 years of paying them. Then you saw the best of people. You saw people from all walks of life come to help. So every time you would get angered by some ignorant, racist, bigoted murder or police brutality, you saw the kindest, most loving, giving people, opening their homes, giving food, transportation, cars - traveling people from all parts of the country. I had a neighbor come to me with a worried look. "Wendell, I never heard of these people. They going to build a house and everything. They gonna help me with everything I got, but I just, I don't know if I should accept it. I never heard of 'em." I said, "Who are they?" "Mennonites! I never heard of no Mennonites." I said, oh no, that's some of the most loving, kindest people in the world. "Well they don't sound like it. Mennonite? What the hell is a Mennonite? I never heard of that. I'm Baptist!" You know, so. [Laughs]
AS: How did you, how did you think about the sets of decisions that you needed to make about how to be helpful to your parents and your family during that time?
WP: I said, you know, we are going to be away from home for a year, at least. Prepare accordingly. And so, uh, that was the, that was the thing that was kind of cultivated in my family. Uh, almost like you're on watch, you're on call like a fireman. And the alarm bell goes off and you go into action. So I bought a house, got furniture, moved my parents in. Started commuting between Baltimore and, uh, and Baton Rouge on the weekends just to make sure they were set and done, all of that. And I said, I'm going to get you back in your home in New Orleans. And I had a friend called me and said, Wendell, whatever you do, don't let your parents go back alone to Ponchartrain Park. It's going to kill them. You have to be there to soften the blow. It's the worst thing you've ever seen. And to go back and to not even recognize the place that you grew up in. I - imagine what it would be like, uh, in a nuclear winter. You know. What it was, you know, after, after a bomb has gone off. So I was there, my parents broke down, it was an emotional time. And I said, we're going to get you back in this house. Don't worry. You know, and my goal was to get them home before they died. They were in their seventies, eighties, and I said, I'm going to get you home.
AS: And you did, and your mother lived for years back in the neighborhood. Um, she died in 2012.
WP: Five years back home, before she passed.
AS: So that was about eight years ago now. Um, when you think about - I guess when you think about your mother's death and, and what it's been like to grieve her and how you think about her now and your relationship with her, just what are you, what are you thinking about?
WP: I am always uh, I'm always thinking about, um, the lessons she taught, you know? She was a teacher. So, you know, it's like when your teacher walks away from your desk and you're left facing a problem on your own. You try to remember what she said, how she told you step into the problem, how the challenge gets worse as it goes further along, and then your knowledge of how to solve it is strengthened in the most difficult times. Um, my mother was also a strong, strong woman, and she always said, "Mourn me for a day and then live your life." You know, don't hold onto it. Oh, she would hate when people would just mourn and mourn and on and on and become so debilitated by the passing of someone else. She said, that's actually disrespectful to the person that died, if you really love them and remember them, you move on with them. So I just think about small things. I was thinking about rubbing my mother's back one night before putting her to bed when she was ill and, uh, thought about how it was this one moment that I prayed with her. Uh, I think about it, how we laughed. I always think of my mother when I get stewed okra with shrimp, my favorite dish. And she would make it for me whenever I came home. And people say, "Stewed okra?" I'm like, yeah, you - you're not from New Orleans, if you were you'd know how good it was.
AS: Are you, are you currently living alone in your place?
WP: Uh, yes. Yes. Living alone. I have uh, my girlfriend is in New York and she comes down.
AS: Uh huh. When you talked about family being, you know, it's the connection to your past and it's also the connection to your future. And I wonder if -
WP: I can ask it before you ask it.
AS: Oh wait, what's it, what do you -
WP: Why don't you have a family?
AS: No, I think you have a family. You have a family. That's not the question. It's the question about choosing - I don't know if it was a choice, but, but being at this stage of life and not having kids, um, how do you think about that?
WP: I, I, you know, I could still have kids and, uh, I have to, I have to pull the trigger real fast. [Laughs] I, that is the one that is the one fear, I guess that I can say that - that's the one fear that's, uh, debilitating to me. As much ammunition to fight the fights that I've been given, as much good fortune that my career has given me, why am I still, still so fearful to bring a child into this world? I always feel - I feel such guilt. Such an overwhelming sense of guilt that a generation from now there's some young man or woman going through the worst that life can bring them and it is because I brought them into this world. That just - I can just imagine myself seeing my child going through something that is so hurtful, um, and that debilitates me, man. It just makes me so fearful. I always admire people that, "Oh, Wendell, my child, if you..." I said, yeah, man, that - and I think about it and I go, that's - that's fleeting. Because that child will then encounter the harshness of life. What they're reacting to is that pure innocence of this new, innocent life, experiencing everything new for the first time, knowing no fear, knowing no dread, knowing none of the harshness. And, um, and that is infectious. And sometimes I think that's selfish, you know? Yeah. That child is making you feel good that you have to bring it out into the world just to feel good about yourself. Oh, I think man, that is really cynical when I even say it. I'm saying it for the first time. Um, and, at the same time, God rest her soul, my mother would always say, "Oh, Wendell, if you only would trust and know, there's no such joy as when you have a child, when you bring a child in the world. It is a joy that you, I can't describe to you and that it doesn't end with childhood. I feel that with you to this day. And I just wish you would trust that." We had conversations about this. She would always say, "Oh, by the time you have kids, you're going to be too old!" You know, "You won't be able to run around with 'em!" And I said, yeah, but I'll be able to pay somebody to run around with em.
AS: For you, it still feels, it feels like it's a, it's a question that you're thinking about, about whether you want to be a father.
WP: Oh yeah. I think about that more than anything right now. See, I love my mother so much and I respect her opinion so much. And I trust her opinion so much that it's her voice that echoes in my head saying, "Oh, you do not know that joy you're missing out on of having a child." I also look at the math and say, listen, I've got to get them to 21. So, you know, I got to pull the trigger in the next year or two. So. Oh my God, you were hearing, you are hearing the machinations in my head when I lay awake at night. So I will see.
That’s actor Wendell Pierce, at home in New Orleans.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Katie Bishop produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
And thanks to Sam Garrett in Washington, D.C., who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Sam and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
AS: Do you think about a child taking care of you when you're older?
WP: Uh, no. Even though I'm giving my all to my father. Because with your siblings, there's always one who does the heavy lifting when caring for an elderly parent. And if you are one of the others, you're not doing enough. And that's the same with me, my brother, I can't get him...oh, I'm not going to break on my brother. Uh yes, I am going to break on my brother. You know, I'm doing all the heavy lifting. My brother's cool, I love him. He's great. But there's always one. So I always know that if I have the one, he may be like my brother [laughs]. You know? So, I'm not relying on any kids to take care of me when I'm old. 'Cause those suckers will forget you in a minute.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.