Thursday, June 24, 2010
Fringe Lance Reddick as FBI agent Phillip Broyler in Fringe. Photograph: c.20thC.Fox/Everett / Rex Features
Lance Reddick: Life Beyond The Wire
Actor Lance Reddick, Or Lt Cedric Daniels As He Is More Widely Known, Talks About The Incredible Success Of The Wire – And How The Black Community Is So Badly Served By The Entertainment Industry
My feeling is that if you are lucky enough to have appeared in The Wire – readers will be tired of hearing that it is the Best Television Programme Ever Made – you should have signed a contract never to act nor appear in public ever again so I can continue to believe that you are all getting on with your complicated lives on the streets of Baltimore and not, in fact, pestering your agent to get you into Hollywood. I don't want to know that Jimmy McNulty is an Old Etonian who once fancied Samantha Cameron. I shield my eyes from stick-up man Omar Little appearing in the Incredible Hulk. And what I definitely don't want to see – this time in the sci-fi series Fringe – is cop-turned-schoolteacher Prez trapped in a collapsed building with a steel joist staked through a shoulder, two sets of extra limbs and another head attached to his torso, while the man I know as Lieutenant Cedric Daniels stands over him. It feels all wrong.
I accept I may be being unreasonable. Daniels – or Lance Reddick if we are to accept reality – puts in his customarily commanding presence as Phillip Broyles, the FBI agent in charge of the X Files-type unit in this series from the Lost creator JJ Abrams. Was he concerned that the part wasn't enough of a leap from Daniels? "Yeah, a little, but I thought he was different enough that it wouldn't be a problem. I have been concerned about type-casting, but now I feel I've done enough other things, and I'm confident I will do enough different things, I'm not worried." I would imagine that if you've been in The Wire, it must spoil you for other shows. Reddick says it does, but that he was attracted to the part in Fringe because the show is better written than most. "This is more about being involved in a show that's well done, because, with sci-fi TV, it can be cheesy but our show takes itself seriously." The second season of the show comes to an end tonight and they are about to begin filming a third.
Reddick holds himself taut and upright like Daniels, but is warmer. Each question I pose is met with a slight pause and then a careful answer. He came to acting late. As a teenager growing up in Baltimore, he was determined to become a musician – he spent a year studying physics at university before dropping out to go to music school. He married young, and his daughter was born while he was still a struggling musician. "I was working four jobs seven days a week," he says. "I was a singing waiter on these lunch and dinner cruises. I was an artists' model and I worked delivering newspapers and pizzas. I started acting because I thought it would help my music career." (Although he didn't really have a music career to speak of.) "At that point I was just trying to support my family. Acting was a fluke. I had acted in college, but it was never anything I took seriously."
He started auditioning for regional theatres, and kept winning parts, then, on a whim, he applied to study drama at Yale, not believing for a second that he would get accepted. By then he was 29. Did he not think he should get a proper job? "It had been suggested often." He smiles. "I just took a leap of faith. I had the experience of being a college drop-out, working-class black man in America, I was like 'OK, I can't do that again'. I was so hungry and desperate to be the best and I worked my butt off."
After graduating from Yale he moved his family to New York, where he landed small film and theatre roles. When the audition came up for The Corner, David Simon's precursor to The Wire, he says "I poured myself into it. And then it was a snowball effect." Parts in Law & Order and Oz, HBO's prison drama, followed, and then he auditioned for The Wire – first as Bunk, one of the detectives, then as Daniels. He remembers being taken aside by the show's co-writer and creator David Simon when they were shooting the pilot. "He was talking to all of us about the characters and where they were going. He said 'I'm planning a 60-episode story arc and he told me where my character was going, but nothing else. But he had it all planned."
I remember one interview with Andre Royo, the actor who played the drug addict Bubbles, who said that on set one day, he had been struck by how many black actors there were in that one place. Did Reddick have the same realisation? "I went from The Corner to Oz to The Wire [which all have a large number of actors from ethnic minorities]. That was what I was used to. It wasn't until I got off The Wire that I realised that wasn't the normal experience. In retrospect I see that it was really extraordinary."
Back then, did he have any idea that it would unfurl as this wildly complex masterpiece with a cult following? He pauses. "I thought it would be a hit but I didn't anticipate that it would take so long to catch on, or that it would become this phenomenon. Or that it would be so ignored by the industry. That really floored me, because I knew how good we were; we all did."
But why did it fail to win serious awards? There is a long pause. "Sometimes I'm hesitant to go here," he says at last. "It's all about race and politics. It's hard for me not to think those are the main things." Had it been a show with a similar complexity and sprawl, he says, "but with a predominantly white cast, I think it would have been winning awards all over from the beginning. It's not just that it was a large black cast, it was that it was a large black cast that . . . For so much of middle America, the notion of seeing black criminals as something other than two-dimensional thugs, or of half the police department being black, or the commissioner or the mayor being black, it just doesn't compute, it's like a glitch."
Has The Wire changed anything for black actors? "The African American community is so under-served in the entertainment industry," he says. "If you do anything that represents us in any way, we're going to flock to it. But in terms of mainstream Hollywood investing in that, no. I'll give you an example. One of the directors of the show wrote and directed a short about this southern middle-class black family, which they screened. He was speaking to an executive at one of the studios and asked what he thought of it. The guy sighed and said, 'Come on, nobody wants to see a black Terms of Endearment.' I don't think that's an isolated case."
His voice rises but he remains so self-contained. Doesn't this make him furious? "Yes, you can be angry but the only way it will change is if we write our own stories with the same level of quality and we start financing our own things. First of all, if it had been any other network besides HBO I don't think The Wire would have got on the air, and if it had been black creators I don't think it would have got on the air. There's Tom Fontana [creator of Oz] and David Simon – those two guys. What, are we going to wait until they decide they're going to do some more black or ethnic stuff?" He looks exasperated. "It's the way it is. That's why now I'm working on producing my own stuff. Finding quality material isn't hard, getting it made is."
The best thing about the late success of The Wire is that it has shown that industry executives are wrong he says. "HBO is making so much money on The Wire now because it's selling all over the world. It shows that it is a lie. This whole thing about race, that white people don't want to see it, is a lie. That people don't want to see really complex, politically, socially controversial material, it is a lie." But will this change anything? Reddick just smiles and shrugs.
* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
Posted by tha artivist at 8:35 PM