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When it comes to prolific actors, Wendell Pierce is at the top of his game. In addition to his series regular role on CBS’s The Odd Couple — which returns this spring for season two — The Wire alum has been juggling appearances in everything from Suits and Ray Donovan to Grease Live and the upcoming HBO film Confirmation, in which he stars as Clarence Thomas opposite Kerry Washington’s Anita Hill. Not to mention the handful of plays (most recently the off-Broadway play Brothers from the Bottom), performances and big-screen films (The Gift, Selma) in between.
It’s a busy schedule for the Juilliard grad to manage, but one that he’s always aspired to as a self-professed “journeyman actor.” Ahead of a busy April and another appearance on Wednesday night’s Suits season finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Pierce to hone in on his craft.
How do you manage all these projects at once?
A schedule is a schedule. I started my career 30 years ago and one of the things I’ve wanted to do is be a journeyman actor. I trained at Juilliard so that I could do all kinds of genres, so that’s what I’m trained to do. I consider myself a journeyman actor and I pride myself and look forward to keeping my career choices as diverse as possible because it challenges me as an actor. Then when it comes down to it, it comes down to scheduling. I’m a multitasker and I kind of like it that way.
What was your Juilliard audition like?
It was pretty straightforward; they wanted a classical piece and a contemporary piece. I wanted to try to show language and verse and classical text, and at the same time I wanted to do something that was close to me for the contemporary piece. So I did Clarence from Richard III for my classical piece and for the contemporary piece, I did a monologue from Who’s Got His Own, by Ron Milner, about a son returning home for his father’s funeral.
How do you select your roles today?
Coming out of school, sometimes people can be theater snobs. I only wanted to do theater, highbrow stuff. But what I learned very quickly is there can be good material in every genre. I’ve worked for years with David Simon, who is doing some really challenging work in television. And then I love working on Suits because of the writing and the ensemble. When you think about it, it’s great writing, a lot at stake and a great ensemble of actors. And that provides as much action as any car chase, as any death-defying leap from a building or whatever. You realize just with the spoken word and some great actors, you can create something just as exciting as an action movie.
Have you had to say no to things lately?
There have been some things I couldn’t do because there was a conflict, but it doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Everything has been working out. I recently shot a movie in New Orleans, was doing a play reading in New York, and later on I’m going to Atlanta to do an independent film. We work in three-month periods, from a day to three months. It always allows room for scheduling. Plus, it keeps me on my toes. That’s why I’m tri-coastal; I live in Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans.
When was your last actual audition?
Oh, yes, it was two weeks ago. I didn’t get the part! I still audition, and I have no problem with auditioning. I always tell young actors that it’s an opportunity to share your work with another colleague. They may choose to work with me then, and sometimes it works out where they work with you later. I auditioned for years for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and never got a part. Then finally I worked there for three years. I asked the director, “You always auditioned me, but you never hired me. What changed your mind?” He said, “Nothing changed my mind, I always wanted to work with you, but the opportunity never presented itself and now it did. All those other times you didn’t get the job because of some other thing, not because of what you did.” I learned a great lesson from that.
Your Suits character Robert Zane is returning for the season finale. What can you tease?
Well, listen. As you already know, his business and his family are the most important things to him and he will fight tooth and nail for both. In the last six-episode arc you’ll see that. No matter what, Robert Zane will fight for family and firm.
How did you come to play Coach Calhoun on Grease: Live?
Tommy Kail, the director of Hamilton, who I’ve worked with before in New York on a show called Broke-ology, called me and asked if I would be interested. I was cool with it. It was something unexpected and unlikely to have me in the role. To work with Tommy again and to do something as iconic as Grease, I jumped at the opportunity. Even more, it was something that hadn’t been done before, or at least recently. This live production of this musical on multiple stages and outdoor sets, simultaneously with hundreds of castmembers and hundreds of crewmembers, going live around the country and around the world — that was something that had never really been done in recent history if at all, and I wanted to be part of that.
Would you do it again?
According to what the show was, I would. It was like an MGM musical back in the day. It was something that I would not have been expected to be asked to do. I had to get my singing chops back up and have a little fun. And I had a ball. It was unique and special, so if it was like that again I would jump at the chance. I look forward to bringing back something like Playhouse 90 before our time when people actually did dramatic plays live. That’s something I would like to do.
The door for Ron to return on Ray Donovan has been left open. Have there been any discussions for a role reprisal?
I always wonder, how could Ron be alive after what he did to Mickey (Jon Voight). And the producers always say, “I know.” So you may be seeing me again so they can take me out, that’s what I predict. I think Ron is going to be getting his comeuppance — you’ll see me again there, so that you will never see me again. People always seem to die on that show and I think my character is prime for some revenge from Mickey.
What was it like going from something like Confirmation to The Odd Couple?
That’s the thing that’s amazing. In April the first thing you’re going to see is me in the HBO political thriller film Confirmation, about Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, as played by Kerry Washington. It’s based on the actual events that happened when he was being confirmed. And at the same time The Odd Couple returns to CBS. It’s the perfect example of the sort of career that I want to have: diverse, multifaceted, me being a journeyman actor with so many things on at the same time. I’m proud of that. You learn so much from people, so hopefully my best days aren’t behind me and I can keep getting better as an actor.
What’s your acting Achilles heel?
Every role is a challenge. I wouldn’t say one particular genre or a particular role will forever be an Achilles heel. From the first day when you’re looking at a script and you can do whatever you want with this empty canvas, that is a moment of anxiety, but also anticipation and joy. You can’t wait to see what will be created in the process. That first moment, the first time you begin to work on a role, is when you’re the most vulnerable or anxious. At least for me.
Catch Wendell Pierce on the season finale of Suits on Wednesday at 10 p.m. and this April on Confirmation and The Odd Couple.
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