One on One with Robert Wisdom
It’s been an interesting road for Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin on HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama, The Wire. First, he legalized drugs in Western Baltimore in what became known as Hamsterdam. This season, he’s the man tasked with radically reforming the flawed Baltimore school system.
So it’s fitting that the man who plays Bunny, Robert Wisdom, lives life a bit off the beaten path – finding his way to Hollywood after stops in Jamacia, D.C., New York and London. Fortunately for us, he slowed down long enough to sit down and talk about life on the road less traveled.
[Editor’s Note – If you think you might have a drug problem, they’ve compiled some of the top drug rehab centers in Phoenix, AZ here.]
Okay, there’s really only one way to start this interview off right where are you right now and which way is north?
(Laughs.) I’m looking west out my doorway. North is to my right and that’s the big Pacific Coast Highway.
Now that we got that out of our system, where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I call this home here. I’ve been here about 12 years. I grew up in D.C., born in Jamaica, but I lived in Washington my whole life. Then lived in New York, lived in Kentucky for a year, moved to London, then found my way back out here and I’ve been here about 12 years. I call myself, if nothing else a “Santa Monican.”
How did you get into acting? How old were you when you started and how did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
It was one of many things. My first acting course was my senior year in college and I took it as a gut course to fill out my last semester and had a good time, but didn’t think it was something I was ever going to do seriously. Then I went to work as a banker. From banking I went into radio at NPR and I worked on All Things Considered for a long time and from there I got into the avant-garde art world and started running a place called The Kitchen in New York. From there, I did a lot of artistic direction, putting festivals together in Spain and France and went to work in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and I figured that was what my life was going to be.
Then, I just had this epiphany. I mean, that was great work, I did some really great projects I traveled with gypsy families all over Europe and North Africa for a year and visited Cuba a whole bunch of times and worked with some great artists, but I had this nagging feeling that there was something I was supposed to do as an artist myself rather than facilitating other people’s work. I found my way into an acting workshop and I had been training as a closet actor for years, but more as a hobby. Then one day, I realized this is what I’ve got to do.
One of your first big movies was Face/Off with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. How did you land the role of Tito Biondi and what was it like working on a John Woo film?
That was a prize. A great casting director out here, Mindy Marin, was the person that gave me my first gig and she was casting the John Woo movie and there was this part for Tito. She just put all her weight behind it, my agent got behind it and they paved the way for Paramount to say yes. Then I got to work with the great John Woo, I’ve got to put it like that. He’s one of the great action directors and that was his third American movie and there was a lot of buzz around it. Nick Cage and Travolta were in their little prime and just a lot of great bullets and a lot of great diving shots. I loved it. He directs action like ballet. He came up to me the first day and said, “You make character, I make action, we make movie.” That was his whole direction. So we went for it. We worked on that film for eight months and it was really a great project.
You also appeared in a very underrated show called Boomtown. And actually, you were in our favorite episode which was called “Execution.” Tell us a little bit about your experience playing Chronic, a.k.a. Daryl C. Norcott.
It was one of those shows where everything came together. The audition for that was the worst – well, I’ve done a lot of bad auditions, but this was one of the worst ones. I stopped in the middle of it – the script wasn’t finished, so they gave me some new pages and I just wasn’t feeling it. So Jon Avnet just stopped and said, “Let’s have a conversation.” We just started talking. I figured I blew it, so I left. Then, next thing I got a call saying they wanted to offer it. So, we show up and I got the new script under my belt and just went to work on it. We did a total immersion thing. We shot in a L.A. prison. I’m not really a method kind of person, but I totally had to get in the head of being locked up and your freedom taken away. Not only that, but being on death row. That really put a whole other spin on it.
Then, to live the life because we shot a lot of flashback scenes of Chronic’s life. It just brought me back to living on the streets of D.C. and the gangsters in my neighborhood, so I drew on some of them. It was really, really, really a great project because it moved me to another level in my work where I realized I was ready to carry a big character. I think it was pretty much that role that led to Bunny Colvin coming into the picture. Boomtown was definitely the first pillar of the whole thing.
In 2004, you played Jack Lauderdale in the award-winning movie Ray. How did that role come about? Also, how difficult is it when you, as an actor, portray a real person? Is that more of a challenge for you?
Not so much a challenge because I didn’t really know him and you’re just putting the facts of his life together. Ray was one of those movies that when the word got out, everybody wanted to be a part of that movie. I was determined to be a part of the film somehow. We fought to get in on it because there were a bunch of well-known actors at the time who were up for a bunch of those parts. I just pushed my way through. My manager is a bulldog and he got it going and my agent got it going. We got the audition. I knew when I went in that audition that this was mine. Jamie Foxx was in the room and I did my best to piss on every corner in that room because I wanted to leave my mark.
I got offered the part, so I looked up who Jack Lauderdale was and just morphed. They put us in the period clothes and I was just happy to be at the party. Jamie was amazing. The first day we were shooting, I went up to him on the stage when I first meet him and put that leg on the stage. All the sudden, it was almost like I was hit with this atmosphere. I thought I was looking at Ray. The cameras were rolling and it felt like, for a minute, I totally forgot I was doing a movie. I was just looking at Ray Charles. I ended up popping my head back and realized this was Jamie. He was that deep in it and that real. I knew at that moment this was going to be the deal.
Of course, from there you ended up being cast as Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin on the best show on television today, The Wire. What attracted you to the show and how was the character described to you initially?
I was a big fan of the show at the tail end of the first year and I’m one of those people who loved the second year. I thought the second year was this weird, baroque fucking opera with all the dockworkers and all the parallels with the projects. I would never imagine that on American television. And then, I was literally down in New Orleans shooting Ray. My agent got a call and said, “Bob, David Simon wants to offer you this role.” I had gone up for a part on The Corner a few years before and that was another “must want,” every actor wanted to be a part of it. I got one of the parts, as one of the junkies. I also, at the same time, got a role in this ensemble shoot making this movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana and that was interesting to me because we were going to improvise from scratch the whole movie, so we were going to work together seven months. Artistically, that was interesting. I didn’t make any money, but artistically it was a challenge. So I passed on The Corner, but David and Ed remembered me from that audition and when Bunny came up, I got the call. What that told me right there was never drop your guard. Always be ready because you just never know how it circulates.
They called me, but they didn’t say much. Bob Colesberry was alive then and he and Ed came in my trailer and said, “Bunny is a major in the Baltimore police force with 29 years. He’s just seen it all. There’s not much that gets him worked up anymore.” And that was it. As we were shooting, there was so little dialogue. This was episode 10 of season two. An actor goes in and you say, “Oh, I got a lot of words,” and you can really build around the words. There were no words in it. It was just showing up in a scene, standing in a background and having a look a look of just like: “What the fuck are we doing? Every time I show up at a crime scene, this kid got shot.” Everything we were doing was just empty. When I look back at that episode now, everything about Bunny was in that scene. They had him perfectly conceived from God knows when, from the beginning of the series. But it was just a sketch in season two.
Season three; I had no idea, because David doesn’t tell you anything that’s going to go on. Ed, every now and then, will give you a look and let you know there’s some weight coming behind it, but he won’t say much either. He’ll just give you a laugh and walk off or let you guess and if you’re warm, his eyes will light up. And then you realize, “Okay, I’m on to something here.” But none of them told me what Bunny was really going to be up to. So I learned of it as we got each episode handed to me and it was deeper and deeper. It was one of the most magnificent years that I’ve spent – second only to last year shooting season four – but that year shooting, with Bunny and Hamsterdam was one of the great experiences of my acting life. I’m really proud of the character I get to play.
In season three, Maj. Colvin is nearing retirement and decides to push drug dealers to three abandoned locations in Western Baltimore, which are dubbed “Hamsterdam.” In season four, Colvin works with the school system and convinces the administration to divide the students into two groups – the street kids and the regular students. Do you enjoy having your character used as a springboard for radical ideas and do you agree with Colvin’s tactics?
I have to say personally, my life has always been a bit of a maverick, so I do have that affinity with Bunny. It’s this irresistible call, he winds up trying to reform situations. It’s a very strange thing for him. He looks at a situation and he gets these almost intuitive bursts where he says, “If this happened and this happened, we could get something done.” All he wants to do is move the shit 10 inches down the way. He can do that by streamlining things. He wanted people in his neighborhood to have a normal life. He saw the drug pushers there – so what do we do? We’re not going to eliminate drugs, so you put them in one area. You can’t throw kids out of school, but you can separate the ones who seriously are decent kids and have a shot from the ones who just need social adjustment. It’s kind of this reformer’s eye.
He does it kicking and screaming. Especially in season four, he’s not happy that he has to do this again. He’s not going to take it on because Amsterdam kicked his ass and ruined his life. He was counting on that pension, he was counting on so many things and his life is radically changed. So it’s not something that he wants to take on, but he’s the only one there and he’s willing to do it. So there’s a weird, almost potentially tragic flaw in Bunny and I don’t know if it will ever come to that point of Shakespearean tragedy, but there’s a man who is trying to redeem his life in a way. And that’s what I kind of felt in season four. Season three with Hamsterdam, he pissed away his whole career, instead of just taking an easy way out or just doing it by the book and just playing along with the system when the system was broken. Nobody would speak up about it. He finally did or, he didn’t and just went ahead and did it and paid for it. But it’s made him stronger. I dig him. It’s a vision I have of my own life if I could change things.
We know you can’t give anything away.
I know, that’s the closest I’ve come to describing any of the storyline and that’s pretty vague.
Bunny returns in the third episode of this season. What can you tell us about where he is at when we are reintroduced to him?
Bunny has been trying to put his life together. He had that job offer from Hopkins to head up their security, which would have been a pretty penny. Putting that with a major’s pension, you would have walked away with over 100 grand a year – 125 grand, that’s big money for a former Baltimore cop. He got bumped down to a lieutenant’s and you see him working security, but not on the level he was planning. But he’s taking orders from dipshits – running into people who don’t know their ass from their elbow, who are “yes men” and the one thing he doesn’t like are “yes men.” He’s sees his world is covered in them. That’s where we meet him. He’s at another crossroads. Very quickly, he’ll keep coming to these crossroads. But this one – I can’t get into too much, but when we meet him in three, he has no idea how his life is about to change. I think that’s all I can say.
Your character’s experiences closely mirror those of writer/producer Ed Burns. Has he given you any guidance or advice in accurately portraying the role?
Ed is always there. I love that guy. I’ve got so much respect for him. He’s one of those leaders who leads with his actions and with his eyes. If you put a wrong step, he’ll let you find your way back. We have conversations, but we have conversations about books and ideas and political situations and we get a lot of stuff out. In the midst of that, I’ll have my own little epiphany. We’ll have a moment where both of our eyes will just shine and I’ll just walk back on set. I’ll come off set after doing a scene and the first person I’ll look to is Ed and without saying a word, he just gives a nod that it’s on track. That’s all we do.
Whoever the director is that week, they might want to do it again, but Ed will tell me pretty much if the compass is locked in. Sometimes I’ve got to try to push things or whatever and he knows that I’ve got to do that and he doesn’t lay his experience on you because he knows all of us are going out to do our research – I went to schools and talked to a lot of teachers, went around Baltimore and talked to administrators so when I came in, I had raw material and then in the course of our conversations and interaction with the kids, it would just get refined over the year. By the time we reached the last episode, it’s in this real sublime place, which is what the show does so brilliantly. It takes all of these storylines and just distills them down into one essence, which turns into a major montage.
What is it like working on such a complex show? Is it ever difficult for you to keep track of all of the intersecting storylines and different characters when you are reading the scripts and filming scenes? Is it tough to visualize how all of these different storylines will end up connecting when you are just getting the scripts week to week?
The funny thing about The Wire, we get the scripts on a Thursday and you read it like a novel. It’s just like another chapter in this big novel that you are reading. And then you go back and you look at your storyline. And you really kind of have to blank out everything else. You go through and track when other people might mention you or what else is happening if it has some impact on what you’re doing, but it’s best to just kind of get into your own bloodstream, your own vein, and stay there and maintain the integrity of that.
The less you know about the other worlds, the stronger your world becomes. It’s an odd kind of thing, but I think you know what I’m saying. You just have to keep that focus. And then, when they cut it together, you have all of these incredibly powerful storylines that are being acted and they fit together well. If you do it with the mind that I’m going to do this because so-and-so is doing that, it’s going to blur the lines. So really, you just keep a dead focus on your storyline. I go see other people’s work, like if Andre Royo is doing a big scene or Domenick Lombardozzi or one of those guys, I love watching them work, but you don’t get into too much of the story.
You become a fan then and you just sit back and watch it as a fan, but you don’t watch it in anyway to try to comprehend a larger whole. I’m going to get it the same way you get it week to week. I read the whole script, I have no idea how this will look until I watch it on TV. Then I see the real brilliance. That last leg, with the lighting design and set design, the camera people, the actors just bringing that stuff alive takes it to a whole dimension I can’t even imagine. That’s my approach. I don’t know if everyone does that.
You mentioned watching the show as a fan. While The Wire is critically acclaimed, it’s had trouble connecting with a larger audience. A lot of that probably is the season-long story arcs and the complexity of the show. Do you worry about that kind of thing?
This show would work well up to the mid-20th century, the whole serial thing. It’s a very old-fashioned form. We’re in this world where we have the masses’ attention. It’s a show ahead of it’s time and way behind it’s time. People don’t read anymore – they don’t read newspapers, they don’t read books. They might listen to an audio book in the car, but it’s abridged. The show goes against the direction that popular culture is moving in. But, there’s this irresistible thing with these pockets of people who still recall what it’s like to sit around the fire and tell stories. A good story will grip you.
Those people who find themselves devoted to this show are romantics in a way. They want to be taken into a world and immersed. It’s kind of like 1,001 Nights or Aladdin stories, the epics. It’s The Odyssey. In a sense, Jimmy McNulty is Homer. But, it’s not something that is ever going to be popular in America again. This would never work on network and it barely works on cable. But, I think that those people who show up to it – and I don’t count those numbers on Sunday night. I would spread our numbers over the whole week, all the repeats and all the different ways you can watch the show. At the end of the week, we might reach seven, maybe 10 million people. Those 10 million people are invariably pacesetters in their worlds. They are people who have such a sharp sense of opinion and vision. They make changes in their world. It’s a real cutting edge group. That’s where we’re ahead of our time.
But, by and large, who reads the Metro section of the newspaper? The Wire is just the Metro section of your newspaper fleshed out. Most people toss that away. We read the celebrity pages and barely read editorials. It’s a sign of our times that we’re not plugged in. I’ve got to at once applaud HBO for putting it on and grudgingly re-upping us year after year. And now we get our five. We get the five that we really wanted, David gets to tell the story out his way and then it’s retired. It’s going to be taught in schools and it’s going to go to whole other formats that no other kind of television has ever gone to because people are going to discover it later on. Thank God we have DVDs because people can go back and catch up with it. That’s where this thing is going to live on and on and on. I really see it as like our Illiad and our Odyssey.
Because you’re originally from Washington, D.C., what is it like filming The Wire so close to where you grew up? Does it mean more to you working so close to home?
It definitely does. D.C. and Baltimore are like mad cousins. There’s sort of a perverted kind of pride that we take in the quality of our gangsterism. Anacostia and Northeast versus various parts of Baltimore. But it’s all the same. This show could never be done on the west coast. Not in a thousand years. We’ve got projects, we’ve got ghettos that are common with industrial cities that are deteriorating and you have the whole phenomenon of professional classes moving out of the city, leaving it for black and immigrant people. Even though they are starting to return now, by and large, Baltimore and Washington share that kind of fate. Washington was always a tale of two cities and Baltimore is pretty much the same. I can see parallels.
Then we had a guy named George Pelecanos who was a motherfucker of a writer. One of the greats and one of the great human beings. He really brought it down. George had the smell of the language on the page. When George wrote a script, you knew this was George. I don’t know how this little Greek guy came to know the streets like that, but he wrote instinct. When you read his scripts, you tapped into the instinct of your character. And that’s what people were picking up on The Wire – those looks and little things that clue you in by just a look or a gesture. That’s the stuff that George would suggest and I loved him for it. Ed gives you the whole bed to lay in and it’s a passionate place. He writes with that kind of passion. Richard Price, he’s a cerebral cat, he writes the big speeches. He’s the progressive lefty who makes you get on that soapbox. He was the one who wrote the paper bag speech in the Hamsterdam year. Dennis Lehane taps just that crumbling misery at the end, that pain and that irrational violence that folks have to live with. How they all came to know this about Baltimore, I really don’t know. But they get it on the page. And then David does his magic on it.
How accurate do you feel the show portrays Baltimore?
Somewhere between 95 and 100 percent. In terms of the streets, I would say it’s really like that. Bill Zorzi, who is a political ace, knows that world inside and out. I really don’t know that world the same way, but I would think that Zorzi is pretty much going to be someplace in the same range – 85 to 100 percent. Our guys walk with an integrity, it’s almost like a journalist’s integrity, and they bring that to the scripts. I pick up those scripts and I just feel like there’s no bullshit in there.
What has the response been like from Baltimore police officers?
They love it. I got in a little fender bender over in Baltimore. A kid ran into the back of my car and he wouldn’t get out. All of the sudden, this plain clothes car pulls up and these two white guys get out – I was just wearing sweat pants and stuff. “What’s the problem here?” One guy turns to the other, “Oh, it’s the major. Major, everything all right?” This kid is thinking, “Did I hit a police officer?” They are giving me their card and said, “Anything you need, give me a call.” I’ve never been a cop guy, but they really took us to their bosom and they believe in what we’re doing and they really admire the journey of Bunny.
In fact, the guy who played my lieutenant is an actual police officer in Baltimore. Everyday, I’d say, “Am I on mark?” And he’d say, “You’re on mark, man. You’re my major.” It’s really sound. The fuckups are the fuckups the police encounter everyday. They were right with it.
You have a starring role in the film Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank and Patrick Dempsey, which will be released next January. What can you tell us about that film?
That’s another inspiring story. A bunch of kids who were counted out in the Long Beach schools and this nice little white preppy woman from the suburbs comes in to try to be a teacher. She winds up, against all odds, making these some of the most outstanding writers in the country. They go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book they wrote. These were kids that couldn’t read when she met them, so it’s a really inspiring story. Hillary is great in it. I play the superintendent of schools, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.
What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?
I’m deep into music. I play a lot of Moroccan music. I play an instrument called the sintir and harmonium and drums. A lot of my friends are musicians and we spend a lot of time hanging and cooking food. I do a lot of traveling, on my own. I just like to get lost in places. I’m lucky enough, thank God, that I can’t do it a lot, but I can do it. And then I have a lot of great friends that I really, really dig. And, I’ve always loved movies. They make it hard for you to love movies these days, but I still love them.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
There’s a good chance I would still be working in the arts. I’d probably weigh about 300 pounds in Washington, just looking at arts grants and shit and having panel meetings. Either that or sitting in a fleabag hotel with a needle in my arm.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you. Actually, that might have been it.
(Laughs.) That might have been it. I’ve got to say it like this – put my hands together when I say it – my life has been really a blessing. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing something that would equally be as stimulating.
We’ve got one last thing for you here. We are going to do a word association.
What is this? Are we in the actor’s studio?
We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
Interview by Joel Murphy, September 2006. The Wire is on Sunday nights on HBO and replays throughout the week.