Q & A with 'Treme' star Wendell Pierce: 'Characters are fictional, the culture is not'

For actor Wendell Pierce, working in his native New Orleans truly feels like a homecoming. Since about 2008, he’s been helping the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts of his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park. But filming Treme, HBO’s new series created by David Simon about the struggles of locals piecing together their lives three months after the hurricane, has been doubly rewarding.

“I was honored when he told me he wrote a role for me in it,” says Pierce, who played Detective Bunk Moreland in Simon’s other HBO series, The Wire. “To do a new series about this great city, my hometown, it’s kismet.” In Treme, which premieres on the network this Sunday, Pierce portrays the charming Antoine Batiste, a journeyman trombonist who’s perpetually low on funds, but has plenty of family drama. He’s part of solid ensemble cast that includes TV vets John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and fellow Wire alum, Clarke Peters as a Mardi Gras Indian chief. In a recent chat with theGrio.com, Pierce claims that a show about the resilient spirit of the Big Easy couldn’t have been better timed. Not that he’s biased or anything…

theGrio: A lot people probably can relate to your character Antoine—short on money, long on problems…

Wendell Pierce: One thing he is good at is his music. He knows if he can get to that, then he can figure out all of this other shit. Musicians, artists can be so focused and tunnel visioned, that they allow their lives around them to fall apart. I hope it’s not art imitating life too much.

theGrio: Did you feel a huge responsibility playing a jazz musician in a show set in a city considered the birthplace of the genre?

Pierce: I’m still doing research. A lot my friends are musicians. When I first knew I was going to play the role, play the trombone, I started taking lessons. I didn’t want to look like an actor who knows absolutely nothing about music, so I’m continually working with a trombone teacher. And the cat who plays the music for me on set, we actually play together. He’s off camera and I play. I would still say I’m in elementary school when it comes to my knowledge of the horn. But the other night I was playing a solo, it was getting late, and I was playing better than my backup. He was getting tired. The goal is—as years go by—to play myself.

theGrio: A lot of famous names have come from New Orleans—Terrence Blanchard, the Marsalis family, etc.

Pierce: I grew up with Terrence. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison—we all went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts together. [Plus, co-stars] Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty, I knew they’re going to be watching that I represent correctly. They’re great musicians. I just want to make sure my music is up to par.

theGrio: Are you also concerned about avoiding the clichéd depictions of New Orleans? Every day is not Mardi Gras there, right?

Pierce: I have a great responsibility to educate. I first started educating my castmates. They’ve done research too. David has been coming to New Orleans for years. [Co-creator] Eric Overmeyer lives here. We all focus on authenticity. One thing is that New Orleans will, and I can say with pride, recognize the authenticity. People outside of New Orleans, they’re going to be dropped into this really foreign sort of world.

theGrio: Just like Baltimore and The Wire, viewers saw elements of an American city that may have seemed unfamiliar.

Pierce: Even though the characters are fictional, the culture is not. [In Treme], when they see a Mardi Gras Indian for the first time and see Indian practice or see how a 2nd line happens or how pedestrian it is, how family it is, how neighborhood it is, how hood it is. This is not invented, not with the costumes and stuff. This is the 2nd line that just happens in the neighborhood all the time. What will hopefully draw them into the show is that it’s real.

theGrio: Are there similarities in the way Treme and The Wire portray urban America?

Pierce: What we do have in common is that the city itself is a character. There are similarities in cities themselves—a bar on every corner, church on every other, the spirit of people. The commonality will be David’s attention to detail, and attention to people’s humanity. [In Treme], you find it in a man trying to restore his business and bring back a culture that’s older than he is. Or the story of a musician like myself who in spite of great catastrophe is trying to bring life back through his music and love of family. Despite everything we’ve gone through, that we will survive. That’s uniquely American and a wonderful message to say at a unique time in America when we are all struggling.