One on One with Delaney Williams
While the storylines may keep Sgt. Jay Landsman in the background, his surly demeanor and affection for porno magazines help him to steal most of the scenes he is in. Although entertaining, Delaney Williams, who plays Landsman on HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama The Wire, wants you to know that he is quite different from the character you see on your television screen. To help you learn more about the man behind the magazine, he recently sat down and talked with us about himself, his character and the real Jay Landsman.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I’m originally from the Washington, DC area and I split my time now between New York and the DC-Baltimore area.
How did you get into acting? How old were you when you started and what made you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
It’s one of the things my father did when I was about 12 or 13. My father did a little community theatre, I went with him just to find out what he was doing. I ended up auditioning for a small role – he ended up not getting a role in the show, but I ended up getting a role. I was hooked from there, I guess.
I did some things in high school and, of course, went to college for it for a couple of years. Then, while I held a day job for many years, I did a lot of stage work. I did mostly stage work for 20 years. Film and television started taking off for me in the last 10 years or so and has been the bulk of my work. But, I have been doing a show or two on stage a year.
What was it like starting out for you? Did you find it really tough to get roles or were you pretty lucky?
I worked fairly steadily on stage. It’s difficult for any actor. It’s not a career you would choose because the opportunities are enormous. If you are looking to make a lot of money and secure a future, you are probably not going to make this choice. You are going to make this choice because you love to do it.
Was there ever a point where you thought, “I don’t want to do this?” or “Maybe I should do something else?”
Every day. Because you live through the struggles of trying to find a job everyday. I don’t know if you’ve had the experience of looking for work and being rejected, but that comes with the territory. The hardest part is getting the job and you’re always doing that. But, for the last 10 years or so, it’s been fairly good, especially because of television and film.
You have a lot of experience working on David Simon projects. You appeared in an episode of Homicide and The Corner before being cast as Sgt. Jay Landsman on The Wire. What were those experiences like for you and did they lead the way for you getting cast on The Wire?
The Homicide job was just something that being in the DC-Baltimore area a lot of actors worked on the show. I don’t believe I worked on a show that David wasn’t involved with. Obviously, he wrote the book that the show was based on.
But The Corner and The Wire were connected. I was one of the people that was called in to read for a small role on The Corner and it turned out well enough that they wrote another scene in another episode of The Corner for the character. So I think they were pleased with my work on the show. And, of course, the miniseries did very well for HBO, so HBO picked up David’s idea for The Wire.
They called me in specifically to read for that role. Bob Colesberry and David Simon remembered me from The Corner and brought me back in. It’s actually kind of a funny story. I really tanked the audition, but I think afterwards I really begged and pleaded to do it again. By begging and pleading, I think they got what they wanted out of me. The audition process was an odd one, but it worked out well. The show is a great show and I’m glad to be on it.
How was the Jay Landsman character described to you initially? What kind of direction did they give you?
Absolutely none. There was no direction. It’s partially there in the writing and I knew that a Jay Landsman existed. I hadn’t met him until the end of the first season, actually. It’s not really based on that person. But, there is a Jay Landsman and he worked for the Baltimore City Police Department and now he works in Baltimore County.
But, it was one of those things where I could see in the writing how I thought they wanted it to go, my audition took it there and then when we started working on the show, I didn’t know it was going to recur as much as it did, but I think they were pleased with what I brought to the character. It worked out that the choices I made were something they were interested in having for the character. Of course, they’ve written to that since then. I think that’s true for a lot of the character traits you’ll see in Landsman’s scenes throughout the four seasons.
Do you know why they decided to name the character after a real person?
I think it was a shout out, sort of an homage. It was a person that David had known when he followed the homicide unit for a year in Baltimore before writing the book Homicide: Life on the Street.
When you met the real Jay Landsman, what was his impression of the show and what was it like meeting him?
I think he liked the show a lot. It was kind of fun. We got a picture taken together and we’ve met several times since then. I think he enjoys the show a lot. It says a lot of the things he thought about working in the Baltimore City Police Department or any big city police department. He’s a much smaller man than I am, so I think that was sort of a joke played by David Simon on him. Of course, I don’t get the joke. (Laughs.)
One of your bigger moments on the show came during episode 28 in season three, when everyone gets together at Kavanagh’s Irish Pub to honor the late Ray Cole. Can you talk about filming that scene and also, is that something that really happens in the police force?
My understanding is that it’s a traditional thing. It may not happen exactly as depicted in the show. Our show is fiction, of course. But there are certain traditions that are carried on when someone passes away – just as in any tight-knit organization. It’s beyond my knowledge, but apparently there are some traditions that are carried through by the detectives and the police department that are just their own.
As far as that particular episode and that particular scene, I was very proud and honored to get a chance to do it. Ray Cole was played by Bob Colesberry, our executive producer. He was extraordinarily important to our show and a decent human being and I think he pulled our show together the first couple of years. The creative forces that David Simon brought to it were very important to it, but Bob was the guy that made it good television and good art. It was very sad when he passed. And it was absolutely my honor to honor him in that way. I’m glad we got the chance to do it. The scene kind of steps out of the show a little bit, just a little bit, but it ties back in to that part of the story. It was kind of an emotional and moving day. It took us many, many hours to shoot that. I think I recited the eulogy probably 50 or 60 times. It was a long, hard day, but well worth it.
And, of course, we just recently had an episode air where Col. Forester passes away and we had a similar wake for him. I had a smaller speech in the squadroom about him and that was also kind of a sad day for us because the actual actor, Richard DeSantis, passed away. That was the basis for doing that in the series. Richard was a really, really good guy and a good actor.
Do you think those episodes are cathartic for the cast to get to do?
I think a little bit. I know definitely for me they were. The cast is so broad and wide that it doesn’t affect everyone the same way, I guess, but certainly for me they were chances to say in public “Goodbye to our friend.”
Just to change gears a bit so this interview doesn’t get too terribly serious, how often would you guess Sgt. Landsman looks at nudie magazines while sitting at his desk?
(Laughs.) I kind of know when I receive a script that I’ll open it up and it will say “Enter your homicide unit daytime. Sgt. Landsman is looking at a nudie magazine and eating half a side of beef as he reams out one of the detectives.” That’s basically what I know will happen in every scene that he’s in. It’s kind of a running joke. But hopefully in the fifth and final season, we’ll see some of his more cerebral pursuits. Perhaps we’ll see him at a Mensa meeting or a chess tournament.
Are you a method actor? How many magazines did you purchase for “research” purposes to get a feel for your character?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think if you ask David Simon, he’d say, “Well, we took all of this stuff from what Delaney does.” But, I’d say no, that’s all out of David Simon’s back pocket. I’m going to leave that all on him. He had personal knowledge and experience of all of that, obviously in depth, and that part of the character is actually written by the creator himself.
What is it like working on such a complex show? Obviously, as a recurring character, you don’t have to pay as much attention to what is going on with everyone else, but do you try to keep track of all of the different plotlines and intersecting stories?
The producers try to keep a reign on the story so it doesn’t leak out. So, I wouldn’t get every script necessarily. The difficult part about that was that I’d have to know information that happened in those scripts for the character in the following episode. Without that information, I wouldn’t know what the character was talking about. So I ended up having to get all of the scripts and keeping up with all of the storylines. It was important just for the character’s sake. As an actor, I would feel like I would look silly because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about in the following episode.
The hard part about that is you don’t necessarily get to watch the show and enjoy it the way someone who is watching it for the first time does because you know what is going to happen. Toward the end of this last season, I actually didn’t get a chance to read all of the scripts. Basically, my character was doing the same information, so it wasn’t really necessary. Actually, the last couple of weeks when I get a chance to see the episodes, I’m seeing things for the very first time. And I can see what a really interesting and brilliant show it is to watch. It would be one of my favorite televisions shows … and it is one of my favorite television shows.
Because you’re originally from Washington, DC, 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 should have a universal appeal. There is some draw to the fact that no television shows are shot anywhere other than Los Angeles and New York, at least major network television shows. So there’s a different feel to it altogether. It should appeal to the rest of the country more, I would think.
It means a lot to me to get to work here because I have a four year old and a seven year old. I have two young sons, and their time is split between me and my ex-wife, who lives here in DC. So it makes it much easier on me, personally. I can be in DC and I can be at work in a half an hour. It’s not a matter of commuting across the country, which I’ve had to do in the past and most actors have had to do.
How accurately do you feel the show portrays Baltimore?
It’s fairly accurate about the things it addresses. Each individual scene is mostly shot on location in the city. The stuff that’s shot on the soundstage is meticulously remade from places in the city. Vincent Peranio is in charge of the look of the show and he’s a longtime Baltimore artist who has done this for many years. He knows Baltimore inside and out. For instance, the scenes that are shot in the homicide office, where I mostly am, are shot on a soundstage. It’s based on where we actually shot the first season which was on the fifth or sixth floor of 100 Northwest Charles Street. The first season, you’ll see the exteriors of that scene will be the actual buildings outside of 100 North Charles Street. When we had to go inside to a soundstage for the following season, they recreated every last detail of the exterior and the interior.
What has the response been like from Baltimore police officers?
The response I’ve gotten has always been positive. Especially while the show is airing, I’ll walk down the street and get stopped left and right. People will say how they love the show and they love the character. It reaffirms that you don’t have to kowtow to the lowest common denominator. You can make a thinking man’s show about the problems of a city that resonate with people who live there who understand what you’re doing is creating a work of art and something to think about. You are not trying to denigrate the city, what you are trying to do is create a dialogue.
It’s not bubblegum television. It’s not for everyone. I assumed that going in and I’m sure the producers did as well. HBO has apparently been good about that as well. They know that it’s not breakout television, it’s not going to be this neatly wrapped up hour’s worth of crime drama where the drug dealers are all bad and stupid and the cops are all smart and virtuous. It’s more like real life than that.
We know you can’t give anything away, but what is in store for Jay Landsman for the end of season four?
Jay Landsman, the character, not being part of the main thrust of any of the stories, he doesn’t have necessarily a through line of his character. There isn’t really any attention paid to what happens to his character. He affects the other stories in certain ways. But definitely look out for the last episode. There’s some interesting stuff for Jay there. The final episode of the current season was a lot of fun to do in a different way altogether from anything you’ve seen from Jay Landsman so far.
What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?
I’ve got the same hobbies as everybody else – watch a little good television; go to the movies; go out with friends to dinner; play a little tennis, believe it or not, and a little bit of basketball. That’s about it. I like to read a lot and I’m a big fan of the theater.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I don’t know. My day job for 10 years was I managed a bank. I know it wouldn’t be that. I would kill myself if I was still doing that. Which is not to say it’s not an honorable profession, it just wasn’t for me. It made a living for me for a while, while I was doing a lot of stage work in the evening, I was able to use banker’s hours to my advantage. So that worked out really well.
To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. I think it would probably be something creative, maybe even behind the camera somewhere. Backstage, maybe directing. I would still be in the arts somewhere, I would guess.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m not the person they see on television. I’m not that character. You are the person they see in terms of your physical form, but you are not the person they see in terms of what you do and how you react to situations. I get a lot of comments about what the character has done and the person I’m speaking with thinks that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, I always have to let them know that it’s not really me that does that.
As a matter of fact, I actually had nothing obviously to do in the storyline with getting rid of Stringer Bell at the end of the third season, but that caused a huge uproar in the fans. I actually had a t-shirt made up that said “I had nothing to do with Stringer Bell.” I was getting so much grief about it.
We’ve got one last thing for you here. I’m going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
Dom is great.
Where is it? Where the fuck is it?
Sgt. Jay Landsman.
Smarter than you think.
Not quite as smart as you might think.
Interview by Joel Murphy, November 2006. The Wire airs Sunday nights on HBO.