David Simon, Jon Bernthal and the Makers of HBO’s ‘We Own This City’ on Dirty Cops, the Drug War and the Legacy of ‘The Wire’
Fourteen years after their acclaimed crime series 'The Wire,' writers David Simon and George Pelecanos revisit the streets of Baltimore — and find they’ve only gotten more violent and dysfunctional. Joined by director Reinaldo Marcus Green and star Jon Bernthal, they discuss their new miniseries based on a real-life police scandal, and its new resonance in the wake of the national reckoning on abusive policing.
David Simon may have left The Baltimore Sun’s crime desk more than 20 years ago, but he never lost his nose for a good story — nor his commitment to chronicling the ravages of the war on drugs in his hometown. His nonfiction books on the subject, Homicide and The Corner (the latter written with former BPD detective Ed Burns), both inspired eponymous TV series and would form the basis of HBO’s The Wire, which Simon created in collaboration with Burns. Simon oversaw five seasons of the critically revered show before going on to dramatize the wayward turns of the American experiment in other cities and time periods: post-Katrina New Orleans (Treme), Yonkers in the 1980s (Show Me a Hero), and New York City in the 1970s (The Deuce) and the 1940s (The Plot Against America) — each time for HBO.
After this grand tour of American dysfunction, Simon and George Pelecanos — a crime novelist who wrote several episodes of The Wire and co-created several series with Simon — have returned to Baltimore with their new miniseries, We Own This City, which premieres April 25. Based on the book of the same name by former Sun reporter Justin Fenton (one of Simon’s successors on the paper’s crime beat), the show addresses the high-profile scandal that rocked the BPD in 2017, when several plainclothes officers from the department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force unit were convicted of racketeering — among many other charges — for their abusive practices and their role in a conspiracy to distribute stolen drugs.
The group’s ringleader, Detective Wayne Jenkins, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He is played in the series by Jon Bernthal, whose extensive research for the role included ride-alongs with active police and numerous conversations with Jenkins and his former colleagues. Bernthal reteams with his King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who helms all six episodes of We Own This City. Both former baseball players — Green considered a career in the MLB, and Bernthal played pro ball in Moscow while studying theater there in the early 2000s — the two shared a close bond on set. “We both talk about this work on almost purely athletic terms,” Bernthal says in a recent Zoom session with Green, Pelecanos and Simon. Green, as it happens, joined in from his car as he drove to a little league field in Mar Vista, “where I literally take half my meetings.”
(“You coming back from the bank or something?” joked Pelecanos, in reference to Green’s success with King Richard, for which Will Smith won the best actor Oscar.)
In the conversation that followed, the four men discussed the making of WOTC; what has changed in Baltimore and America in the 14 years since The Wire ended; and the tragic futility of the drug war.
David, you have spent much of your career covering the Baltimore streets. You were on the crime desk at the Sun; you wrote the books Homicide and then The Corner, both of which were turned into series; then made five seasons of The Wire. What made you think you weren’t finished with this story?
David Simon: This came about in a one-two punch. I read the stories contemporaneously that Justin Fenton was writing — he had my old gig at the Sun at the time — and I thought, “There’s a book in here. And so I actually called Justin and I hooked him up with my book agent. And I said, “We’ve reached a level of dystopia in the drug war that is fresh and this scandal, it has legs and it’s got to be written.” And so that’s all I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about television or dramatizing it. I was just thinking, journalistically, this needs to be a book. But after I hooked him up with my agent and they got a contract, I let it be. Lo and behold, about a year later, here comes George Pelecanos.
George Pelecanos: Kary Antholis, an executive at HBO, called me and said, “Read this manuscript and let me know what you think. Maybe you’d like to adapt it as a miniseries.” I thought there was a lot there to talk about. And then I said, “I’ll do it if I can bring in my partners, David Simon and Nina Noble, and a couple of The Wire writers as a karmic return to Baltimore.” And that’s how it came about.
One major development since the end of The Wire was the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, and the unrest that followed — which you touch upon in the series. Did you feel like this would warrant a revisiting of the story as well?
Simon: A generation passed. We wrote the last words of The Wire 14 years ago. That’s a generation in the life of the police department when you consider that the average police career is about 20 years. Basically, the drug war that we argued against in The Wire continued apace to the point where generations of cops who had learned how not to do the job and how not to police properly were now colonels and majors. And they’re now teaching the next generation how not to do the job. So what Justin uncovered was basically a police department that had truly bottomed out. And that would’ve happened with or without Freddie Gray. What Freddie Gray and the aftermath of Freddie Gray delivered to Baltimore was a moment where, first of all, communities of color were saying, “We’ve had enough of being treated this way by our police department.” But secondly, the police department itself had a crisis of confidence in that they now had a few guys who knew how to police honestly or constitutionally who, in the wake of indictments related to the treatment of Freddie Gray, and in the wake of the public reaction, if they couldn’t work how they were taught, wouldn’t police. That meant that the guys who were willing to get out of their cars and police, even if they were doing it corruptly and for their own advantage, were now even more valued than before by the department.
In 2005, as the show makes clear, there were 100,000 arrests in Baltimore, a city of 600,000 people. And the conviction of half a dozen dirty cops in 2017 was just so extraordinary that I’m wondering whether you think of Baltimore as a representative example of the problems of the drug war in America or an outlier?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I would say that Baltimore is a microcosm for many other cities in this country and around the world that face similar issues. I made my first feature film, Monsters and Men, in 2018 in the aftermath of Eric Garner. I only had 90 minutes to talk about it, but here we have six hours to really dive into a lot of the systemic issues that are facing our communities. I grew up in Staten Island, which is a lot of cops, a lot of firemen. And so a lot of the people that I grew up with are police officers. My father worked for the [New York City] Department of Investigation. And I think the conversations that I’ve been able to have in my life with the people that do wear the uniform, that wear it right, have given me an insight into both sides of the argument.
Did you ever have any run-ins with the law at that time?
Green: I’ve never been arrested, but yeah, I’ve always felt that my car stops were a little longer. My IDs were certainly checked a little bit more. I made a short film about Trayvon Martin, and it made me think: Look, I’ve got two master’s degrees, but at night with a hood on, I’m just another kid in the community. We’re all put in the same bucket. And that type of policing I think has become very problematic. I’ve been stopped for walking down my own street a number of times, and you can easily see how a situation can spin out of control, how talking back to an officer or just questioning your own rights could lead to an escalation. For every video you see, there’s a thousand interactions that you don’t. And that’s really the bigger issue.
The Wire was largely about broken systems, and We Own This City is as well, but it’s also centered on one broken man, Detective Wayne Jenkins, and the way his behavior can infect his colleagues. Why did you choose to build your story around a dominant protagonist this time around?
Simon: I actually don’t think it’s about one guy. In fact, I think it would be an easier story to tell. The problem here is it’s not about the bad apples. It’s not even about a system; it’s about the mission. The entire mission of the drug war lends itself not only to the outcomes that Rei was just talking about, but it lends itself to the worst kinds of police work and to a destruction of the kind of police work that’s supposed to happen. We’ve accomplished nothing with the drug war. Drugs are as available as they’ve ever been. We haven’t done anything with the rates of addiction except watch them go up. It doesn’t achieve anything. But what it does do is fill prisons. It alienates. It’s destroyed the fourth amendment. It’s made the metrics of policing the things cops are rewarded for: guns and dope on the table, mass arrests. Meanwhile, the clearance rates, the arrest rates for murder, rape, robbery, assault — everything in my city has tanked, and Baltimore is as violent as it’s ever been in its modern history. That’s what the piece was about. Having said that, we kind of compelled Jon to be the poster child for all of that.
Jon, you’re famous for intensely preparing your roles. To play Coach Macci in King Richard, for instance, Rei had you do three hours of tennis a day and lose 30 pounds. That sounds grueling, but at least it’s exercise. I imagine it was a lot darker to get into the soul of Wayne Jenkins.
Jon Bernthal: I knew going in that, because of the resonance of The Wire and because of who David and George are and the access that they have in that city, we would be able to go in there and tell this unbelievably sensitive story. And I would be able to do it in the way that I wanted to do it in terms of prep. I would be able to go into the Baltimore Police Department and ask them for permission to let me enter into their lives, to go out on ride-alongs, to go to raids, to have these conversations with these folks who knew Wayne, when he’s probably the most vile and polarizing figure in the recent history of the department.
How did you find empathy for this character, which I assume you need to have in order to play him?
Bernthal: You always do, and you got to try to reserve judgment as best you can. In my first conversations with David and George, they said, “Look, the key here is we can’t just make this guy a monster.” But if you read the scripts, the dude’s a bit of a monster. That being said, we’re examining the culture of policing. When you’re celebrating quotas and putting drugs and guns on the table, you are creating a situation where corruption then has a blanket. He could do no wrong. For me, as far as empathy is concerned, I got to become very close with guys who were on Gun Trace Task Force. I got to know folks who coached youth football with Wayne. I got to talk to Wayne personally. Even getting to know Donnie Stepp, the drug dealer that Wayne sold drugs through. Every single person, to a person, said that Wayne was an unbelievably committed father, that there’s nothing in this world more important to him than his kids. It’s the first thing he and I talked about on the phone. Before anything else in this world, I’m a husband and I’m a father. And to me, there’s an enormous psychological disconnect: How can you be such a committed father yet engaged in such heinous activity that’s ultimately going to keep you away from your kids? That question was something that I could really hook into.
Jenkins was a particularly aggressive policeman. You’ve spoken openly about anger and violence in your past1 and how you’re reckoning with those issues. Did you draw on any of that history?
Bernthal: You always try to find points of connection. We’re telling a vital story. There’s no length that I felt that we wouldn’t go to. If that means connecting with something in my past … yeah, of course.
Pelecanos: Jon really went above the call of duty. We always offer our actors, “Hey, we’ll set you up with a ride-along or something like that.” But he dug deep himself. And there were times that he would come to set and I’d be like, “Hey Jon, why are you chewing gum or why do you have a lollipop in your mouth? And Jon’s like, ‘Oh yeah, Wayne Jenkins chewed gum,’ and knew the brand he chewed. (Laughs.) Very impressive.
How do you feel about the word “Method,” Jon? Has that been abused?
Bernthal: Absolutely. And that’s why these conversations are difficult for me, honestly, because every actor has a process. Having studied in Moscow at the Moscow Art Theater, I guarantee you that making everybody call you by your character name and not showering for eight months was not what Stanislavski had in mind with the Method. But at the end of the day, these sacred seconds between action and cut, that’s all we got. So that means that I got to stay in proximity to that role, close to those sacred seconds, that I’m not on a cellphone or eating Chinese food or making plans for the evening. But if I’m talking like Wayne and I’m acting like Wayne, because it’s going to help those seconds, I think you got to do that. And sometimes that’s a day, sometimes it’s a week, sometimes it’s five minutes. But I think this idea of Method acting where George was only allowed to call me Wayne, I don’t roll like that. I don’t see any benefit in that.
Did the Baltimore accent linger between takes, though?
Bernthal: Yes it did. But I think more importantly with Wayne, I think he was a code-switcher. If you look at it, he talks one way with Black folks and another with white folks. He talks differently on the streets than he does in command. Wayne used to take drug dealers’ phones and put his number in it. He would call his own phone with it and then he would call them later pretending to be a friend of theirs trying to speak in the same accent as that drug dealer spoke in. And he would hook up drug deals that way and arrest the guy. He would show off to his friends with how good he could rap and do hip-hop. He was constantly switching it up. It’s what made him so uncanny in his ability to manipulate people.
David, after the death of Michael K. Williams (who played larger-than-life stickup man Omar Little in The Wire), you wrote an essay in which you brought up a question he once asked you. When you decided to shift the focus of The Wire in its second season from Black neighborhoods and Black stories to the white working-class world of Baltimore’s dockworkers, Williams asked you, “Why are we even doing this?” Did you hear a version of Williams’ question in your head when working on We Own This City?
Simon: What Michael touched on there — which is always an amazing thing when an actor gets this personally involved — is the idea of the we of it. Why are we telling this story? So I had to have an honest conversation with him. I said, “I think the show you thought we were, we’re trying to be more than that. We’re trying to tell the story of the city and why American cities have reached this impasse: the death of work, automation and deindustrialization — a lot of forces are in play here that are fueling this drug culture that we showed in the first season, and we need to now demonstrate that.” He asked a question that deserved an answer. When George brought in [We Own this City] and said, “What do you think about dramatizing it?” that was a moment for us to say, “What does this piece say that The Wire didn’t get to?” The answer was basically, “The Wire said we were headed here. What does it feel like to finally arrive?”
Do you believe that a television show can change any of that?
Pelecanos: I’ll answer that. The answer is no. For me. Going back to The Wire, the thing that I’ve noticed occasionally is somebody will come up to me and say, “I became a teacher because of The Wire” or “I became a volunteer community activist.” I think that’s the best you can hope for, is pulling people through the keyhole occasionally. There’s a certain group of people on both sides of the spectrum — whether you’re a thin-blue-line person or you’re somebody who thinks that all police are bad — we’re not really trying to reach those people, because their minds are not going to change. We’re going for the people in the middle, who want to think about these things. So I don’t think we’re going to really change anything, but we can throw the issues up and make people think about it.
Most of your shows are deeply grounded in local reporting — including your own. Regional newsrooms are in decline across the country; do you have any faith in some of the digital startups working to shore that up?
Simon: Well, there’s something very specific in Baltimore right now. There’s something called The Baltimore Banner, which is an online newspaper that’s about to launch this year. They’re going to make about 50, 60 hires. In fact, Justin Fenton, the author of this book, has left the Baltimore Sun, which was being devoured by Alden2, destroyed by out-of-town ownership. He’s moved over to the Banner on the premise that the new publication — as a nonprofit, locally based newsroom — has to be the future. It can work if we can get a subscription base going on. I’m fully in support of it.
Another thing that’s changed since your earliest collaborations, George and David, is the discussion around who gets to tell what stories. But did those conversations affect the way you staffed We Own This City?
Simon: I think we always did a much better job of bringing in people of color on the directing side. You can be a bit of a critic for how The Wire came to be. At the time we started The Wire, there were not the same discussions of inclusion that there are now. Those discussions are obviously for the better. The Wire was what it was, and in some ways, [We Own This City] is a coda on that. We brought in [author] D. Watkins, one of the finer new voices in Baltimore, a guy who was badly policed as just a regular guy in East Baltimore by some of these very cops. He took a kick from Daniel Hersl3 to his ribs one day on the basketball court. So we tried to get a fresh voice. When George and I did The Deuce, the story came to us. We said, “You know what? I happen to be a guy. You happen to be a guy. We are not telling a story about pornography and sexual commodification and misogyny from a guy’s point of view. We need that writers room to be half women.” That change in the industry is absolutely healthy, and if you’re asking me if The Wire were to start up right now, would inclusion not be more of a priority, of course it would be, and rightly so.
You gave Justin Fenton, the author of the book, a walk-on part as himself. Having local characters play themselves is something you and George did a lot in Treme. It can add local cred, but does working with non-actors ever backfire?
Simon: When it can work, it can work. I wasn’t ready to give Justin a love scene. It can work as it can work, and sometimes it has to work. With Treme, the musical performances were as important as the acting. So I’d rather have Kermit Ruffins say a few lines of dialogue than have someone else try to play the trumpet like Kermit Ruffins. So it’s always a trick. Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes you’re cursing yourself in the editing room. Acting happens to be a skill. Now that Jon’s heard me say it, I’ll never hear the end of it. (Laughs.)
Pelecanos: We had Rei in the show, too. He was a prison guard. I thought he was a little too handsome to be a prison guard.
Green: Yeah, I did steal the last scene of the show, guys. I’m sorry. I took the focus off of Jon.
Rei, given your work on King Richard, I have to ask: What was your reaction when you saw Will Smith slap Chris Rock at the Oscars? He later apologized to, among others, the people behind the film: Did you feel it was sufficient? (Silence.) Oh, looks like you’re muted.
Bernthal: He might stay muted. (Laughs.)
Green: Look, I like to focus on the work, and part of what I do is to help bring people’s stories to life. I want to focus on Richard Williams and the Williams family and the craft that was created in making that movie. There are certain things that are out of your control as a filmmaker, like audience reviews or audience reaction, or what people do on and off the field.
You’ve been quoted as saying that one of the people whose careers you’ve wanted to emulate is Cary Fukunaga. So far, so good: You’ve been a Sundance breakout, made a major feature film, now a prestige HBO show. Are you eager to direct a Bond movie?
Green: Yeah, if it has somebody that looks like me in front of it, I’m definitely open to it. I want to go into that direction and I want to be able to add value to a new Bond. I grew up watching popcorn movies, so if I could add a little something to it, that would be cool. Let’s see if Idris wants to do it. I think Dave and George could call Idris4 and see what we could do.
Simon: I was just going to say that I think the focus should and can remain on the work until maybe the premiere party, where I plan on slapping Dom Lombardozzi5 for no particular reason. (Laughter.)
David, I’m curious, what can you tell us about your upcoming project set in Dallas, which you tweeted about recently?
Simon: It’s not greenlit. You probably shouldn’t talk about anything that’s not greenlit, but there’s a story about a Muslim FBI agent, and what happened to him is rather traumatic. This would have been after the first World Trade Center bombing, and then during the post-9/11 period. So I’m working on scripts about that true story, as a miniseries. He was posted in Dallas-Fort Worth as an FBI agent. So I’m going to need a city that looks like Dallas-Fort Worth in a state where I can take my cast and crew, where their reproductive rights will be held sacrosanct. Because as an employer, I can’t expose people who work for me to a situation in which their civil rights are impaired. So, If anyone knows that city and that state, give a yell.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The original version of this story incorrectly credited George Pelecanos as co-creator of The Wire.
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1 Growing up outside D.C., Bernthal regularly got into fights, and has broken his nose a dozen times. In 2009, as he recalled in an Esquire profile, the actor knocked out a drunk who was harassing him and his dog in the street, an assault for which Bernthal served three years’ probation. He settled a $2 million lawsuit out of court.
2 The Manhattan-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital became the second-largest newspaper publisher in America when it acquired Tribune publishing, the Sun’s parent company, in 2021.
3 Former BPD detective Daniel Hersl was convicted for his role in the Gun Trace Task Force and was accused of stealing from citizens. He is played in We Own This City by Josh Charles.
4 Idris Elba, whose scene-stealing turn as Stringer Bell in The Wire helped make him a global star.
5 Actor Domenick Lombardozzi, a principal castmember on The Wire who plays a bit part as a police union leader on We Own This City.