Wendell Pierce Talks About His New Katrina Memoir, 'The Wind in the Reeds'

The actor opened up about his family history, the storm that devastated his hometown, playing Clarence Thomas and all the love he still gets for 'The Wire.'
AP Images/Invision

Wendell Pierce’s (The Wire) moving story of his life, his family and the flood that devastated the city of his youth in The Wind in the Reeds (Riverhead Books, 352 pages, Sept. 8) is one of the best celebrity memoirs to come out this year.

The actor, 51, who grew up in New Orleans and studied at Juilliard, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the themes of the book: family, history and using art to heal. Our conversation touched on how Katrina affected him, why he staged a performance of Waiting for Godot in his flood-ravaged New Orleans neighborhood in November 2007, the surprising similarities between himself and Justice Clarence Thomas (whom he’s playing in an HBO movie) and still getting love for The Wire. The highlights:

On how Katrina affected him and why it made him more interested in art:
We’re talking about losing every semblance of what you know as your life. Think about if someone’s house burned down; immediately the neighbors would reach out to them, someone would take them in, everybody would help rebuild it. But when every signpost and milestone and marker is gone in your life, it can be a scary thing. It’s the closest to what I felt a nuclear holocaust would be like. I expected people would take some umbrage with that because hundreds of thousands of people being killed in a flash can’t compare, but it was a sense of loss of everything around you. It really was, and it was an awakening that made you take stock of what’s important: “Who am I, where do we want to go?” I used to go home every once in a while. I enjoy the music, I enjoy the cuisine, my family’s there. To see it all go away so fast and in a flash, it made me realize how fragile it all was and how fragile it can be from within, even. And I’d like to make sure that we understand how important our culture is and the role of culture and art.

And why he decided to stage a performance of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward in 2007:
You have to realize, I come from a tradition in New Orleans in theater that was started by the Free Southern Theater company, a company that went around during the civil-rights movement doing plays. In their first season, they did Waiting for Godot. So that awareness was so much a part of my life understanding how Pontchartrain Park came about, knowing that blacks could only go to the park one day a week and that A.P. Tureaud [a civil-rights leader and attorney who lived from 1899-1972] led this movement. That was part of the story of Pontchartrain Park, like Middle-earth. It was a time in 1952 when this neighborhood was created. Tureaud fought for it, and it was supposed to be separate but equal [for African-American residents during Jim Crow]. Out of this came this great incubator of talent. Dutch Morial, the first black to become mayor. His son became mayor, who is now the National Urban League president. And on and on and on. It is the mythology and the true full history of my neighborhood that is taught to you from the minute that you’re born. Waiting for Godot was a moment of cathartic synergy. I literally felt like I was out of the play, out of my body. People from disparate walks of life all being in the same position of, “We have gone through something horrific. We lost loved ones, we have lost our lives.” The idea that I can’t pull up pictures, that my father before he dies can’t look at a picture of himself as a young man. It’s just a semblance of memory; all of that is affected. It woke something up in me, and that’s what came like an epiphanic moment of me to take stock take stock in my life, why I became an artist and what the legacy of my family and those who have helped me get to this point, how truly heroic and how important that was.

On the surprising similarities to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he’ll play in Confirmation, which will air on HBO in 2016:
I actually was intrigued by the man even more because I saw so much in his upbringing as in my mother’s upbringing and my uncle’s and my grandfather, and so I tapped into that, to the understanding of that. His grandfather, the hero of his life, said, " 'Can’t' is already dead. I helped bury him. Don’t ever tell me you can’t do something." Mine would say, " 'Can’t' died three days before the creation of the world. Don’t ever tell me you can’t do something." That sort of similarity of the wisdom of those black folks who had gone through so much racial violence and protecting their children as they tried to prepare them for going out into a racist world and a world that, as my parents always told me, "Those who don’t have your best interests at heart." I try to tap into the humanity of who the justice is. And coming from Pin Point, Ga., he reminded me of College Point, La. the moral construct of church, the importance of education and so on where my mother and where my family came from. So I tapped into that. I find it very interesting. I found similarities in that. I reached out to [Thomas, to meet him]. I doubt he will meet me, but, hey, please put it in this article that I still, to this day, would love to meet him.

And the surprising conservative pundit who does want to meet him:
What’s interesting is, I hope to meet Rush Limbaugh because he was speaking about our project on the radio one day and said, “You know, it’s just the left liberal condemnation of our justice and it’s awful, but the guy playing him is that actor from The Wire. I kinda would like to meet him.” So just as an off-cuff relationship, I reached out to Rush Limbaugh, to his office, and said I would like to meet him. His people said, “OK.” If he invited me to come onto the show, I would go on the show because they need to have those voices.

He still gets love for The Wire — everywhere he goes:
Great art, the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes, and that’s the thing that I loved about The Wire. So many people would stop me and say, “Man, I think The Wire was great.” I wish I had took a picture of every person that’s said that to me because it’d be a little blue-haired old lady on the Upper East Side of New York to one of the most hustling cats on the streets in Kansas City who’s like, "I can’t tell you my name ‘cause the cops are looking for me, you know." And to the most erudite British ambassador and his wife, who came up to me at a party one time, to a police officer standing on the parade route in New Orleans and coming in close and not looking at me and saying, “I’m on the job right now; I can’t look at you right now, so just be low-key, but I couldn’t let this opportunity pass without telling you how important to me The Wire is because you guys finally told my story,” and then walked away. That is the brilliance of art.

He wants to do a movie about the youngest person ever executed in America:
The film I’m producing right now is Billy, which is loosely inspired by the story of George Stinney, who is the youngest person to be executed in this country. He was 14. He was so small that they had to place him on a stack of books. He didn’t know. And there was a novel called Billy written by Albert French, who was inspired by that story when he was younger. And you follow Billy through the course of the movie. It raises the question: "Whose lives do we value?" So I’m going to produce that right now with Marty Davidson and Jerry Leader. We’re working on the financing now. That’s the next project that I hope to do.

His dream projects for the future:
I would love to do an anthology show based on the character of Jesse B. Semple that Langston Hughes wrote about. He’s sort of a Forrest Gump character in the midst of 20th century Harlem. I walked outside, and these guys were having a fight. I started to record them. I would love to see a real story about Fred Hampton. I know I’m too old to play Fred Hampton. I think this documentary that’s out now by Stanley Nelson about the Black Panther Party is magnificent. I know Stanley, I’ve supported that film. A Fred Hampton movie would be a great movie. Ultimately, I would love to do The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. It’s a thriller that begins with the death of the black conservative justice on the Supreme Court. I would love to do that. Another that I want to do is Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.