One on One with Hassan Johnson

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From a soldier in Avon Barksdale’s army to concerned father who wants a better life for his son, we’ve seen several different sides of Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice. With season five underway, we caught up with Hassan Johnson, who plays Wee-Bey on The Wire, to talk about working on the critically-acclaimed show, his longtime friendship with castmate Method Man and Wee-Bey’s love of fish.

Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?

Basically, I’m from Staten Island, New York – born in Brooklyn, raised in Staten Island, and I call in between time zones my home because I’m always between New York and LA. That’s sort of what turned into my lifestyle for the last four years.

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?

I’ve always been interested in being on television, is what I told myself. Whether it was journalism being a news reporter or whether it was an actor, anything that could get me on TV, that’s what I wanted to do was be on television. Never really asked myself what I wanted to do on television and the acting came along when I was in high school and a friend of mine’s girlfriend basically called my bluff and challenged me to go to an open audition, which was Clockers, a Spike Lee film.

You got a part in Clockers. So the first audition you went on, you got?

Yeah, I went to the open call, they liked me, they called me back for an audition – I had several callbacks thereafter, but basically from the open call to the end of the callbacks, I was in the movie, unbeknownst to me, but I had a feeling the whole time.

What was it like having your first role in a Spike Lee movie? Was it overwhelming for you?

Yeah, definitely. Being a high school student, at that time in my life I was playing football, I was really into the ball playing, that’s what I thought I would go to school to do. And when the acting came along, I took the opportunity, of course. It was my senior summer year and I was playing ball – I was supposed to be captain, but I didn’t make it to football camp. My relationship with my coach just kind of went up like whatever and I decided, “Yeah, I think this is what I’m going to do.” Didn’t pursue going to college, the ball playing, anything like that. I just got into acting full-fledged. So it was overwhelming at first just being on set with Spike Lee and all this other talent.

From there, have you had a tough time getting roles or has it been pretty easy for you?

It’s been tough and easy at the same time. When I first got my agent after doing Clockers, something my agent explained to me was, “Since you came up on such a high tier, a high level, it’s going to be hard to face rejection.” That was one jewel that anyone could have dropped on me because most kids do come into this business and if they come into a motion picture principal role right out the gate, it’s like everything’s supposed to be good and you’re a star overnight. I guess just knowing where I was from and just being practical and realistic, she decided to just be down to earth and give me the real and not even let me run off and think it’s going to be this fantasy world where I’m going to be a Hollywood star in the next five years. So it has been a battle that I’ve been able to balance out with some good, so I appreciate everything, all the experience, for sure.

You played Mark in the film Belly. What was it like being a part of that film and working with DMX, Nas and Method Man?

That was also a hell of an experience. I was excited for that because that was another film at the time that when Hype Williams was casting for it, he had an open audition. I told myself I wasn’t going to go to the open audition again – I’ve done that once, I need to take another route to get cast in the film. I ended up getting an audition and that just worked out because Method Man, being from Staten Island, put the word in for me definitely. I think Meth said something to the effect of, “Hype, I can’t be in this movie unless you cast Hass, that’s my brother.” Just being from Staten Island, at the time Wu-Tang having the force that they did in the industry, he definitely stepped up and spoke on my behalf as far as that. I think between that and Hype looking at my audition tape, they decided, “Yeah, this cat is what we need just to balance it out right.”

That was the first film, I don’t know if anyone thinks about it, that really started rappers in the leading role. I mean, all rappers and artists carried the film. You got Method Man, DMX, Nas, T-Boz. That’s pretty much what spawned that. I don’t know if Hype gets his credit or not.

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It’s so beautifully shot, too.

Right, it’s a masterpiece cinematic-wise. It is crazy. It’s like a two hour video.

Were you and Method Man really close before you did the movie?

Yeah, definitely, coming from Staten Island, Park Hill was the neighborhood. Definitely grew up with one another. Him and an older cousin of mine were real close friends. So the rapping always been in their blood and it was just a matter of time before he became a star anyway. Even from being in the neighborhood, he was a pretty popular, charismatic dude, so it was just a matter of time before he got the spotlight and ran with it. So yeah, Meth, we go way back; 80s babies like since I can remember.

And now you and Method Man are both on the best show on television today, The Wire. How did you end up getting cast as Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice and how was your character described to you initially?

Actually, it was funny, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into because Wee-Bey’s character, along with the rest of them – Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell – was a real character based on this true story.

So, what happened was, I auditioned for D’Angelo Barksdale, that was Avon Barksdale’s nephew, played by Larry Gilliard, Jr. I think it was the second callback, because I went in for one audition before 9-11 and the callback was during the aftermath of 9-11, once you were able to go back into Manhattan, because they didn’t have access to the city from like Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, anything like that.

So once that let up and we were able to go into the city, I had a callback and I was still reading for D’Angelo. What happened was, Clark Johnson leaned over to David Simon, or it was the other way around, and said, “Oh, this is Wee-Bey.” And whoever, whatever, that was, I didn’t know at the time. I just was like, “Whatever.” I left the audition and my agent said, “Yeah, they want to book you for this pilot as Wee-Bey.” I hadn’t even seen a script probably until two or three days before we were filming.

It’s been interesting to see your character develop. In season one, we saw you on the streets. In season two, we got to see Wee-Bey’s life in prison. And in season four, we got to see your character as a father. When did you start to get an idea of what the character was like and where he was headed?

What happened was, Wee-Bey definitely being the significant part of the story that he was, I started to get into it around the wardrobe fitting when I actually did get the script. So I drove down to Baltimore, picked the script up and I started reading it back in Staten Island.

Then I started to embody the character more where I was able to look and understand his role, his position – okay, Wee-Bey’s a soldier, he’s very loyal to Avon and the organization and basically he’s going to carry out his assignments to the fullest. That’s who Wee-Bey was, the cleanup guy. No joke, no mistake about it, he’s getting the job done. So I started to catch a whiff of that real fast.

Then, just filming the pilot also helps you capture and embody the essence of the character. So everyone’s breaking ice now – Wood Harris, Idris Elba, Andre Royo – everyone’s starting to break the ice of their character during the pilot because that was filmed in November. Then we got picked up and we started filming the rest of the episodes for the first season in February of ’02. So, you know what I’m saying, we had a time to let it all sink in and figure out what kind of dynamics we were going to bring to the table now.

Did you know your character would end up in prison at the end of season one? Did David Simon give you any indication of your character’s story arc in advance or were you finding out week to week?

Yeah, week to week, we get the script, that’s definitely how I’d find out. But I wouldn’t say I was blind-sided. Some of what took place on the show with certain characters, people feel they were blind-sided by. But whatever, that’s what the show consisted of. We didn’t get the script for the next week’s episode in our hand until maybe the last day of filming the last episode.

So, when you wrapped on one episode, you went into your trailer and either there was a script waiting for you or there wasn’t. And, what happened was, you picked up the script and you found out if you was going to be offed or not because you would basically skim through. I knew everyone did the same thing – you go in your trailer, get your script, you run through it real fast to see what happens with your character and then you let out a big sigh of relief because you find out, “Okay, I’m going to be working again.” (Laughs.)

That’s really how it was, but I tell people the story all the time where we just really didn’t know what we were doing anyway, we didn’t know how good the show was going to be. We all came with our A game because there’s like 30 principal characters. So we all got speaking lines, so you had to be on point, but I don’t think we really knew what we were putting together until we actually sat down that first Sunday night and saw the premiere. Like, wow, “This is crazy. That’s us? We were doing this?” That’s how it was. Because we were just working like, “Okay, this is some Baltimore shit. What’s going on tonight? Who has to work tomorrow? Are we hanging out?” (Laughs.) That’s what was going on every day on the set. I think that set the tone for what you see now because there were no egos, nobody was trippin’, everyone got along, the chemistry was great.

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Did you know you would get to come back for season four as Namond’s father?

Yeah, I did. I didn’t know that, but David Simon always gives you some sort of heads up. If he really has some plans for the character, David will come talk to you at his own discretion, whether it’s a phone call or he pulls you to the side on the set. And he’ll drop a line on you and basically, he said to me, “I got some shit for Wee-Bey. He’s down, but he ain’t out.” And I just had to take his word for it.

And, I think it was after I did the premiere for season three, David told me then, “No, I got you.” Once they got picked up and the ball got rolling for season four and five – because remember, we took a season off and that’s when everybody thought we were done – so, I started getting those calls again and it was like, “Okay, Wee-Bey has his family; his son, his son’s mom, this is what it is now.” So I had to take a different approach – he’s locked up, has this guy learned anything? What type of mood is he in now? And that’s what you got to see in season four.

It was definitely a different side of the character from what we saw in season one, especially at the end of the season, when Wee-Bey lets Namond move in with Bunny Colvin so that his son can avoid the same fate he suffered. It was definitely a change from the soldier who never questioned anything Avon asked him to do in season one.

Right, at the drop of a hat, he’s putting in work with no regard almost. But I think the dynamic of Wee-Bey was that he was this hardened, callous guy that still had a heart because all I wanted Avon’s nephew to do was watch my fish and he sold me out. He thought he was going to die that day.

Wee-Bey’s love of fish is definitely an interesting aspect of the character, like in season two, when Wee-Bey is in prison and he’s upset because the guard smashes the little plastic fish tank he had in his cell.

(Laughs.) Right, yeah he smashed Wee-Bey’s fish. Oh, Wee-Bey’s loving his fish, you know? Come on, let him have his fish. Wee-Bey’s heart was broken behind that. It’s like, “I’m doing my time, I didn’t deserve that.”

Obviously, you can’t give much away, but will we be seeing much of Wee-Bey in season five?

I do make an appearance, I’ll say, and it’s definitely just to close a chapter in a long book of the story of The Wire. I definitely love every minute of it. I don’t regret anything. It has been a hell of an experience. I definitely thank Alexa Fogel for casting me, David Simon and Ed Burns for giving me the opportunity to be a part of that history because it’s definitely history in television genre and everyone will be satisfied, I think, with the outcome, for sure.

Will Wee-Bey be tied in to the storyline with Marlo visiting Avon in prison?

No, it’s something a little more isolated, I would say, where it’s just closure, that’s really all it is. It’s just the last chapter, we close the book and know our guys, really where they are. It is what it is, we’ve got to accept it. One of those type of situations.

Being a part of the show from the beginning, what was it like filming your final episode?

I don’t know, I think me, the type of personality I have, I was ready for it to happen actually. I didn’t think we’d actually get this far to begin with, much less myself. I was told anyway from the beginning that Wee-Bey was only going to be in about three or four episodes and that was it. I had like a slightly recurring role that ended up turning into a series regular for the most part – not technically, but for the most part, I was. And I was one, along with the rest of those characters, who set the tone of the show.

I was kind of ready to be done with it because I’m the type of guy that when I book any job, I’m thinking about the next gig anyway because I know all good things come to an end and I don’t really like to get hung up in the moment too long. I ride the wave as long as it needs to be rode, but I don’t really like to dwell too much. Some people have been sad about the outcome, whether they’ve been killed off the show or there’s been some other political issue. Some people have been sad, but I’ve learned to condition myself to not really let it get to me or takeover where my mind state is at. I love The Wire. I know it can and has the potential to stay on for another five seasons, but that’s just not practical. Somewhere you have to close this book.

You also have had a reoccurring role as Darnell Thibeaux on ER. How did that part come about and what has it been like working on that show?

That was great because of the history that ER holds. And also for a good friend of mine, Mekhi Phifer, being on the show for the past three or four seasons. So really, that’s how all of that became what it is and I got the role of Darnell Thibeaux, who’s Dr. Pratt’s longtime friend from the neighborhood. And basically, I think that was a different take on life also, playing that character. You know, street oriented, but here’s this single parent.

You never really got to understand Darnell and his wife’s situation or why he ended up with his son, but that’s supposed to justify the means to his ends because he has the alcohol problem. And if you’ve seen in some of the episodes where Darnell and Dr. Pratt kind of bump heads because here it is, I have this little boy that I need to take care of and be more responsible with and I’m a little irresponsible.

I’m trying my best, but I’m really feeling sorry for myself. So now I’m drinking, I forget to pick him up from the hospital at the end of his volunteer service and then there’s the time when I get into the accident and hit the junior high school kid that was in the van. So I think it’s a situation where we know these characters, there are a lot of good fathers out there, men by themselves who are trying their best, but there’s really no excuse because I’m feeling sorry for myself. And that landed my character in jail on there and he’s no so bitter about it.

Because we always used to seeing the bitter, angry guy in jail. Wee-Bey also, Wee-Bey’s not bitter. He’s not angry. That’s what we’ve got to come to realize. So it’s a different dynamic to your typical street thug role. I told Dr. Pratt in the last episode I was on last season, “You still my boy. I’d probably still be out there drinking if you didn’t make me turn myself in.” There’s nothing to be bitter about when you know you’re responsible.

Do you get recognized quite a bit out in public?

Yeah, I have to say so. And at the damnedest places and times too. It might be a little kid who knows me from an old music video or it might be an old white lady. I’m serious, it comes from all over the spectrum. People do recognize me for Wee-Bey and other things. But Wee-Bey, I have to definitely credit my stardom and fame to that. A lot of people definitely pay homage to Wee-Bey. Not even Hassan, it’s all about Wee-Bey. That’s a good feeling though.

What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?

Basically, I like to work out. I do a lot of callisthenics. And I’m just getting into a lot of reading now. So I’ll go to the park to work out, I like to do it outdoors and get a lot of fresh air and drink a lot of water. And then, I’m getting into a lot of reading. Staying current on what’s happening, politics, anything, doing my diligence on life and history and stuff like that. I’ve never really been a moviegoer, that type of person. I study film; I have to watch a film maybe two or three times before I know what it’s about because I study the actors and what they individually bring to the table. That’s how I really hone my skills at this point and study and practice.

It’s almost like you are a coach breaking down game film.

Exactly. I’m stopping, I’m rewinding, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?

I think I would definitely be into photography, that’s something that I also like to do. I think I take pretty good photos. I really capture what I’m trying to take a picture of. So, I think I’d be into some sort of film background if it wasn’t the acting itself.

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Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

I’m pretty reserved. I’m not a shy person, I’m real social. But I’m funny in a way where I really don’t like to be around a lot of people. I like to be by myself, I like a lot of me time. And I think I read in an article where Patrick Dempsey said, and I felt just where he was coming from, “The older I’ve gotten, I’ve found myself wanting to be by myself.” I just like being by myself. Because there’s so many shady folks and I’m a real friendly guy and loveable guy, I love people and some people just really don’t deserve that good energy. They like to spew negative energy. I’m big on energy – the type of energy you put out, you get back.

So I try to dodge all of the nonsense and just stay clear. It’s cool to meet new people, you have to network and broaden your horizons. And I do that when I need to and I don’t shut out anyone and I’m not an antisocial person, but the older I’ve gotten, I’m 29 now, I definitely find myself wanting to be alone.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2008. The Wire airs Sunday nights on HBO. Hassan Johnson can be seen in upcoming basketball comedy Frankenhood with Charlie Murphy and DeRay Davis, as well as Thug Passion and A Talent for Trouble, which will be released on DVD later this year.

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