From being fired as a stand-in on The Cosby Show to landing the role of Dennis “Cutty” Wise on The Wire, it’s been an interesting road for Chad Coleman. In a very candid interview, we recently talked to Coleman about the struggles of being a working actor while trying to support a family.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I’m originally from Richmond, VA and home now is Brooklyn, NY.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I was a sophomore in high school. I did a scene from A Raisin in the Sun and it was a very emotional scene and I kind of had an out of body experience doing it. And everybody else was transfixed. And it was a means, I could channel a lot of emotions into it. I wasn’t conscious of that at the time, really, but in a way I was.
I did the scene and the teacher was saying, “You’re acting that really well, but it’s got to go further than that.” And he came and he took his hand and jabbed it into my abdomen and was like, “It’s got to come from here.” And so I thought about something that really moved me and then I did the scene again and that’s when the whole experience happened. I kind of clicked in to a very important aspect of the craft.
So was acting pretty natural for you from that point on?
Yeah, I could interpret words on a page. I understood the meaning without a lot of explanation.
What was it like starting out? Did you have a tough time getting roles?
Well, that’s a big jump because initially – I was supposed to go to New York University and I went up and auditioned and got accepted. And it was Ronald Reagan era, so a lot of education money got cut, so I didn’t get the scholarship that I was supposed to have, which was actually a free ride from the state of Virginia because I didn’t have legal parents.
I was what you call a ward of the court of the state of Virginia because I was in foster care, but I wasn’t adopted legally. I was at a point where I was eligible, even though I lived with my grandmother. She didn’t adopt me, so I was eligible for a full scholarship ride. They would pay for whatever college you got accepted in.
Ronald Reagan changed that, so I went to school at Virginia Commonwealth University in my hometown. I went there for a year, then I wanted to get to New York. So I went into the military for four years and was a video camera operator, video technician, things of that nature. Then I came to New York.
And, you know, when you come to New York that way, it’s going to be tough. It was definitely tough because most kids come out of grad school or at least undergrad school and plug right into the business. I call it the blue collar route. Most kids, when they come out of grad school, have an opportunity to audition for all of the casting directors and all of the agents in New York City on one given night or a couple of nights. They come and see their work, so they’re aware of who all these people are, which gives you a huge jump for casting directors; if an agent calls, they already have a reference point of that person’s work. But how are they going to know who I am?
Which, I didn’t understand that. All I thought was that you had to be talented. The agent has a relationship with the casting director and you go and it’s all one, two, three and its easy. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
I came out of the Army and I started auditioning. There’s a publication called the Back Stage – if you don’t have an agent, you grab that magazine and you see what appointments there are and you just submit yourself. So, I did that and I almost became a member of this acting troupe called the Jean Cocteau Repertory down on the lower East Side. From 250 people, they narrowed it down to 15. I made it to 25. And this was classical theatre, man. You know, I hadn’t done classical theatre in four years. That’s just to give you an example – the talent was there.
But what I ended up doing first really was becoming a stand-in on The Cosby Show. I auditioned for that out of the Back Stage and I ended up getting that. Just step by step from there. It was definitely not easy. I got here in ‘89 it took about two or three years to get my first real legitimate gig.
What was it like being a stand-in for The Cosby Show and how long did you do that?
That was pretty amazing, but that was crazy, man. When I initially got it, the guy had called me back the same day and I didn’t think they called people back the same day. I didn’t get the call until late because I had an answering machine. You know, cell phones weren’t really clicking at that time and I didn’t have one.
So he had to choose somebody else. But he called and said, “Hey, I had to offer it to somebody else because I needed you to call me back really quick. But I’m going to bring you in.” So they brought me in and it was nice to watch Bill Cosby and Malcolm-Jamal Warner and all of them do the work. But I was always like, “I could do that.” It may have been arrogant at the time, but I thought “I’m really good at that, I’m just as good as they are.”
It was interesting to watch Mr. Cosby do his thing with the script. That was amazing to see. I saw how brilliant this man was. But, I was so close to it, so it was really frustrating for me.
And the whole process was kind of belittling. They put a piece of tape on you with the name of the character and you’re walking around with a piece of tape with “Theo” on it. (Laughs.) And you’re two feet from the assistant stage manager and she’s screaming, “Stand-ins, where are the stand-ins?” just to embarrass or humiliate you. It was tough. And I would always get on the train and I’d be crying, just like, “I could do that.”
They ended up firing me. Some of the moves – you had to move wherever the character moved – I was just like, “That’s a stupid move, I’m not going to do it.”
They would chime in over the intercom, “Aren’t you supposed to be over there?”
Then they pulled us all together and said, “The people upstairs are very upset with someone. I’m not going to say who it is, but they’re not happy with what’s going on.” And everybody’s groveling, but I’m just standing there. I know they’re talking about me. And everybody else is going, “Is it me? What did I do, man? Did I do something I wrong?” And I was just like, “I know she’s talking about me.”
So they eventually fired me. But I had somewhat of a relationship with Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He was cool. He saw me in a video and called me up to his room one time and we talked and everything. He didn’t even know I was an actor. I thought, “Okay, what’d you think I do?”
Like maybe a year later, once The Cosby Show ended, Malcolm-Jamal Warner had his own show for a minute called Here and Now. It didn’t last but five episodes, but I ended up getting cast as one of his college buddies. It was interesting to come back around and be seated at that table as an actor.
It was a tough episode. They were trying to see whether NBC was going to pick them up or not, so there was a lot of tension on the set. It was a tough time. But I validated myself because I came back as the actor I told him I was.
Was there ever a point where you thought about giving up acting?
There was always those times. It’s weird. Initially I was just a machine. I was convinced of what it is I was supposed to be doing. So it was just a lot of frustration, but I never thought about giving it up. But later, the more I got into it, there used to be those times that were so slow that I used to contemplate going back into the military.
You play Dennis “Cutty” Wise 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 working on a national tour of a play called Exonerated and I was on the road and I said, “I’ve got to get a TV show” because I got back together with my wife and I had my daughter and was thinking about the future and trying to provide some security for the family. And they called me in for this audition.
I had the beard and everything and they thought that was a good look, but nobody told me and I shaved my beard for something else. (Laughs.) So I had like three or four days to get some growth going on. They called me about a week later and said, “Hey, they really like you. They want to see you.”
So I went in for David Simon and Ed Burns, the executive producers. They had been looking for this character for a long time. And it was just another one of those out of body experiences, man. I understood the pain of the character. I understood his vulnerability. He had to be hard, but vulnerable. I was able to capture the essence of those two qualities and that was it.
Were you familiar with the show before you became a part of it?
Oh yeah, Wood Harris used to be my roommate years ago when he was at NYU, I knew his brother Steve Harris, who used to be on The Practice, so I sublet Steve’s apartment when he was about to get The Practice, so Wood was my roommate.
And I had worked with Idris Elba when he was playing Stringer Bell. We had done a reading of a play at the Public Theater. And he told me then, “You could be on The Wire.”
And I was like, “Nah man, they would never cast me.”
And Wendell Pierce I knew personally. So I worked with a lot of those guys. Andre Royo I knew from auditions.
That had to make it easy for you when you were starting out on the show.
Yeah, when I walked out on the set, there was a bunch of brothers that I knew and it was great.
Having been a part of the show for the past three seasons, what was it like when the final season wrapped and how do you feel now that the filming of the show is complete?
I can’t really frame that experience – my experience wasn’t that way because this year you’re not going to see much of me. The show always does these seismic shifts in subject matter, so they went to focus on the media this year, which shifted the space. This year, I don’t have a lot to do. You won’t see that much of me.
There’s not a lot of space. There’s 10 episodes. David Simon came from media and, as the executive producer, he has every right to explore that aspect of it. So, focus is mainly on this whodunit mystery, which I think you can see is already unfolding.
In the fourth season, Cutty was shot at for stepping outside of his boundaries to try to save this kid. The producers, I believe, felt that if we’re going to stay honest about that, Cutty’s not a vigilante, so he’s going to stay in his realm and try to draw the kids to him. And that’s pretty much what guys like him in the hood do anyway.
I know the guy – the storyline of the character is based on this guy Calvin Ford and they have to come to him. He doesn’t go out there too often. Once he gets them in the gym, he establishes the kind of relationship where he can send word to try to get them back and inevitably most of them come back.
Did you base your portrayal of Cutty on Calvin Ford?
They did, they introduced me to him. They knew him; Ed Burns arrested Calvin Ford. He was a part of one of the biggest drug rings back in the ‘80s down in Baltimore. He was a good guy going in the wrong direction. He pulled his life together and started this boxing gym.
Was he actually shot or was that added in?
They added that in. The earlier part of his life was dangerous, being in the drug game. But once he got out, he never got shot. But I think that was their way of saying, this is what you’re dealing with today. Kids with a fierce amount of anger and a quick trigger and you’ve got to be really careful about how you negotiate that. They’re trigger happy now. But, at least he didn’t shoot me in the face.
With so many great actors on The Wire now looking for new jobs, do you think you will have a tough time moving forward since the show has never really gotten the recognition it deserves?
Let me tell you man, the numbers are not great. Whenever you’re a trailblazer, it takes the commercial world time to catch up to it because you’re ahead of the game. Anything that’s new and great and innovative, it’s not designed for mass appeal. It’s not Law and Order, where an episode can be contained in itself and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have back information.
And the average person is what I call a fast food TV watcher. Now I’m going to sit you down to a beautiful four-course meal, where it’s going to take time for the food to come and you get to savor it. And the waiter’s going to explain everything in detail. That’s how The Wire is. So, it’s going to take them some time to catch up to what this is.
So, for those who know, they really, really appreciate it because they’re so fed up and tired of being spoon fed. So, a bunch of people do know about it, but the other side of it is, people attach numbers to faces, so they want the guy that’s had an audience of at least 13 million people watching.
What’s the future like for you? Will you go back to theatre for a while?
Oh, no, no, no. I want to continue to work in all the mediums and I really want to get a substantial feature film career and have that be the anchor. Or a great network show, something like a Special Victims Unit.
There’s a new show on Fox called New Amsterdam and I was the boss in charge of the two lead detectives. But, this business – they had a change at the top of Fox and when he came in, instead of shooting 13 episodes, they shot seven. So I ended up only shooting one.
I had a new show for BET that Queen Latifah produced called Wifey, but it hasn’t come off. I worked with Brett Ratner on a new show he has Blue Blood, about cops. That’s the guy who directed all of the Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker movies and produced Prison Break. So, I’m still in the mix, man. It’s just a matter of things falling into place.
It’s kind of tough right now, the strike is on and that’s making it tough for everyone. You’ve got to hang in there, it’s a tough racket. Especially when you have a family. You start thinking about the future. Time flies. I need to be looking that we’ve got some things secure so that we can grow old gracefully and my daughter and step son can have secure lives. That’s why you see a lot of actors just stay on their own. It’s a lot easier to deal with when you don’t have those obligations.
What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?
I like to run. I like to read. I like playing tennis. I try to swing a golf club. I like to fool around with the piano and the guitar a little bit.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I think I would probably be in television production or like an anchorman.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Most people probably don’t know I used to do musical theatre in high school.
I have a good voice, but I never pursued it. They were seriously considering me for The Color Purple, but I was doing The Wire.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, February 2008. The Wire airs Sunday nights on HBO.