“Treme” more than just a gig for star Wendell Pierce

Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste in HBO's "Treme"
Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste in HBO's "Treme"

By Stacey Harrison

It’s usually hyperbole to say that an actor was born to play a certain part, but in the case of Wendell Pierce and Treme, it might just be true.

David Simon and Eric Overmyer, creators of the New Orleans-based drama that debuted on HBO on Sunday and has already been renewed for a second season, wrote the role of Antoine Batiste specifically for the gregarious actor, who is best known for his role as cigar-chomping homicide cop Bunk Moreland on The Wire. A New Orleans native, Pierce knew the rhythms of the city and the characters, and has been intimately involved with helping his hometown rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Treme tells of the recovery by weaving together a tapestry of characters who are trying to make sense of their new realities and figuring out how New Orleans can live again.

Pierce spoke with me recently about his deep connection with the show, and what Hollywood just doesn’t get about New Orleans:

David Simon and Eric Overmyer said they created the role of Antoine just for you, so does that give you more leeway to forge the character as you see fit, or do you feel more compelled to give them what they want?

Wendell Pierce: We’ve been basically on the same side with the character. But to have someone write a role for you is a highlight for an actor’s career. It’s a great honor. I was flattered and humbled that they would think of me for a role, especially in a show like Treme, which is about my hometown, the city that I love. So it becomes more than a job, it becomes a great responsibility. It becomes this great cathartic moment, especially in this time for New Orleans when we’re trying to recover, and to have this opportunity to bring the character and this show to life while I’m also struggling with developments and trying to bring my neighborhood back to life. In our darkest hour, I feel it’s like a bright, shining light.

Eric Overmyer mentioned when I spoke to him the other day that some parts of the city are finally coming back. Is it getting better?

Things are getting better. Thinking about it last night, looking at photographs and actually talking with some of the crew last night while we were shooting we were talking about the first week after the disaster and I just thought how far we’ve come. Things are getting better. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It’s a profoundly complex thing to rebuild an entire city that was destroyed overnight. We’ve come a long way, and there are always challenges. There are those people who don’t have our best interests at heart. There’s a commonality of spirit and determination that people have that when you’re in the middle of sometimes you get down in the weeds and you don’t really see how much progress you’ve made until you step back, and I think that’s where we are. While we’re in the midst of it, we can’t see how far we’ve come in the past four and a half years.

Was there any reluctance on the part of locals in telling this story? As much as it needs to be told, it must be painful.

No, not at all. I don’t think people really know the extent of what we’ve gone through, really. Martin Luther King said a long time ago we’re a 10-day nation. And it’s natural, just part of human nature. You’ve got a window of 10 days where you have the consciousness of the country. That was his belief. We see this as an opportunity to remind people of what happened here and what is happening here and bring it back to the forefront. There are those who feel as though they want to be in a state of denial. “Oh, let’s not look at the bad things. Let’s look at how far we’ve come.” People are adult enough to be able to look at the balance of the two, at how exciting it is to be in the city now, the [Super Bowl] championship of the Saints, all that. At the same time, you have to reflect on where you come from. You are doomed to make the mistakes of the past if you don’t really learn from the past. I think it’s very important, especially now, for us to look back and remember how difficult it was and how difficult it is. Hopefully it enlightens people and helps streamline the recovery. People are excited about telling this story. It’s a humbling reminder of what happened and how difficult things are, and the humanity of the people here that was affected, the people who were killed, the people who lost their home, the families that are still trying to recover and regain the life that they had before the storm. It’s really focusing on that humanity that people appreciate.

You’ve got the authenticity of being a native of New Orleans, but how are you as a trombone player?

That’s the most terrifying aspect for me. I grew up in New Orleans, I have so many friends who are musicians. That’s the thing I love about New Orleans, we have a connection with our culture that’s closer than any other part of the country, if not the world. Culture is how people intersect with life, and we intersect with life in our culture here, especially through music, our cuisine, our architecture and all those things, but especially through music. I know that all my boys are going to be watching me with a real critical eye. I feel a great responsibility of representing the New Orleans musician and the pride of a New Orleans musician. I’m not every musician, I’m just this one character, but I knew that I had to get that right, so I take lessons. I work with Stafford Agee, who is my sound double, and I go out to hear music all the time. It informs my behavior, too. How you carry the horn itself affects how you carry yourself. Plus, I didn’t want to be one of those actors where you just see them faking through it. You can see that they have no idea what the instrument is, and they’re playing a caricature instead of a character. Then there’s all these musicians I have to play with, who I’ve been a big fan of for a long time. I get weak in the knees, man. They say, “All right, we’ll ready for you on the set,” and it’s nerve-wracking. Just the other night, I was playing with James Andrews and Trombone Shorty.

So, you play live on the set and they double you later?

I try to play live all the time. I’m playing in tandem with Stafford. You’re hearing Stafford. But I learn the solos, and I joke that my goal is one day to put Stafford out of a job. Kinda like an immersion class in a foreign language, I’m getting two or three tunes and I’m learning those tunes. There’s hardly enough time to learn the script, acting, learn the music for the episodes, but I need more time to just learn the horn itself, and music theory. I’m looking forward to the off-season when I get to learn the horn a little bit better, because right now I’m learning the songs from the episodes but I’m not learning the trombone as much as I would like.

What’s harder about playing a musician, the technical aspects or the lifestyle?

The technical just informs the creation of character. I want to be technically correct, and it influences behavior. One thing I learned is just how much breath it takes to play the horn. Just the preparation of taking in that breath and finishing a solo, how that takes the breath out of you, getting the aperture right for the mouthpiece, how musicians are dealing with their lips because their lips get swollen from playing all the time. If you just go out and get technically correct, it will inform the behavior.

Let’s talk a little about Antoine. Money isn’t his only problem.

Antoine is a man who is in flux. He’s conflicted. He’s no longer with his ex-wife, but clearly he loves her. He appreciates his girlfriend. He’s tried to find a way to hold together his sense of family, and doing it at a time when it’s most difficult in regard to the city. It’s a disaster zone. … It’s the only thing he knows how to do (being a musician). In times of crisis, you go to the thing you know and do the best, and that’s what he does. He’s just trying to play his music. You see him trying to hold on to the things that are important to him. … who we are and what we have created gives us our true north.

How much do you know beforehand about the plot?

Not much, but that’s true with life. We’d all be millionaires or billionaires if we knew what was going to happen tomorrow. It gets you focused on who you are as a person because you don’t know what’s coming ahead of time, so you can really respond in the moment and that’s the thing you have to embrace where on other television shows, you know the arc of the character. It’s a different way of working that makes you even more immediate and in the moment, because that’s how life is. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You know who you are, you’re informed by your past and what’s happened to you and the relationships you have. I try to embrace the fact that it’s going to help me be more in the moment. I have no idea where it’s going. At the same time, there are sometimes regrets where you go, “Oh, man, I wish I would have known that, I would have done something two episodes ago.”

You mean like foreshadowing?

Not even foreshadowing, you just know more about your character so you could respond in a more authentic and truer way. I look forward to going back and seeing past episodes because I really get to learn the character. “Oh, that’s how I deal with love, that’s how I deal with disappointment,” the specifics of the relationship to another character. “I’m in love with her, but I’m starting to see things I don’t like about her, so let me add that to the mix.” You know, things you don’t like about a woman you love. That’s even more intricate and more detailed. Or the things you admire in an enemy. “Man, I hate that guy, but boy can he play.” You can add that to the portrayal. “I’m embarrassed to play in front of these guys because they work more than me” or “they’re better musicians than I am” and so you can play embarrassment but you can also play admiration.

What do the locals have to say about the show?

What we’ve been hearing is, “Man, you all got this right.” You’ve got to ask the right people to be a part of it. This is the first time someone’s asked, not just asked an opinion or asked how do you portray it, but being asked to be a part of it and actually do it yourself. (Treme features many non-acting, native New Orleanians playing small roles.) No matter what, there are going to be people pointing out things. The minutiae is going to be even greater. People are going to nitpick it, but for the most part, as a New Orleanean myself, who’s always disgusted by Hollywood’s portrayal of New Orleans and how they get it wrong — you know, Mardi Gras every day — I feel as though people are going to appreciate the authenticity, and now just hopefully they like the story.

Other than making it seem like it’s Mardi Gras every day, how does Hollywood get New Orleans wrong?

They miss the fact that the more specific you are, the more universal your story becomes. You look at this pilot, someone said to me, “I’ve never been to New Orleans, and I felt like I was dropped into this foreign world. I just became so curious about it, because I knew you guys were being so true to the facts.” You feel that the veil is being lifted, that you’re looking into the private lives of these characters. That’s what Hollywood is missing. They love formula. But that’s why we go to the movies, that’s why we turn on the TV, to see our lives reflected.

Photo: Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO