When Maury Levy had Omar Little on the stand in court, he tried to discredit the witness by saying that Omar profited from the drug trade, making a living off of the suffering of others. Without missing a beat, Omar responded, “Just like you man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.”
It’s ironic that on The Wire, a show focusing on the drug trade in Baltimore, one of the most evil characters is the lawyer who represents the street thugs. But Maury Levy, played brilliantly by Michael Kostroff, is a smarmy, unapologetic villain who fans love to hate. We recently talked to Kostroff about his character, the show and why fans won’t let him pick out a tomato in peace.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I’m originally from New York City. I’ve been living in Las Angeles for 18 years, so naturally I call New York City home.
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 believe acting is a calling. Practically out of the womb I was making up shows, talking to imaginary characters or becoming characters. It’s sort of been a lifelong thing. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know I was going to be an actor.
It’s always hard to answer the “big break” question because there wasn’t one. It was sort of a series of little breaks followed by long periods of unemployment and at a certain point I looked around and I was making a living as an actor.
You have appeared in guest spots on a variety of television shows. What has it been like being a journeyman actor? Is it tough to constantly go onto new sets to play these parts or do you enjoy the variety in the work?
I think one of my favorite things about being an actor is the variety. Variety of roles, variety of settings, going from theatre to TV; it’s really one of my favorite things. In fact, if I’m ever in a play where I can play like 10 or 12 roles as I did in The Producers, that’s Heaven for me because I really like the diversity.
And, I’ve always had a very kind of blue collar philosophy about my acting career. I love the whole journeyman aspect. I always think of it as wheeling my little peddler’s cart through the village, ringing the bell, seeing if anyone needs an actor.
Which of those experiences stand out to you? Was there a particular show you really enjoyed working on?
Well, I think I have a bad reputation for closing shows. I did Studio 60 and then that went off the air. I did The Wedding Bells and that went off the air.
You know, it’s really hard to top The Wire, I have to tell you. That show has been such a joy for me that everything else pales by comparison. So, of my TV work, I can’t off the top of my head think of anything that leaps out.
I had a great time on The Geena Davis Show. I played the school principal who was very nervous around Geena. The character had a big crush on her and would always hit on her whenever she came to visit her kids’ school, so that was kind of a fun part.
When did you first start to realize that The Wire might be something special?
You play Maurice Levy on the best show on television today, The Wire. What attracted you to the show and how was the character described to you initially?
To the first question, it always makes me laugh when actors get asked in interviews, “What drew you to the project?” and nobody tells the truth. The truth is, we like work. (Laughs.) So, you know, a job as an actor is never a bad offer.
We no longer have to keep this a secret – my sister is the executive producer. It was sort of an unusual journey for me getting the role. She called to ask if I wanted to audition for a different role, Barlow, and I didn’t get the part. She said, “The bad news is that you didn’t get the part, but the good news is David Simon would like you to come read for Levy.”
And, I went and auditioned and apparently he looked at the tape and said, “Why are we looking at this? That’s the guy.” So that was the extent of it.
I don’t know that it was ever described to me. With David Simon’s writing, you take the pages and unfold the origami that’s in the wording. You find the clues. And it’s just so brilliantly written that, if you do your homework, you figure out exactly what’s happening in the scene.
I don’t think I really got it until I saw it on television. I thought it was good and I loved the role because it was so different for me, but until I tuned in, I didn’t really get what a great show it was. Then I became as addicted as any fan and I tried to forget what we filmed so I could be surprised every week.
Most of the characters on The Wire operate in shades of gray, but Maury Levy doesn’t really seem to have any redeeming qualities. He’s one of the least likeable characters on the show.
You’ve really hit the nail on the head. That’s an excellent observation. In fact, one of my favorite things about The Wire is the complexities of the characters. You have Wee-Bey, the toughest shooter in the gang, who has to make sure his tropical fish are taken care of when he goes out of town to kill somebody.
And Levy’s one of the few characters whose good side has never been shown. It’s interesting. I have to tell you, at our premiere in Baltimore, we came outside and there was a protest. There were folks protesting the image of black people on the show. And I thought, “Have you taken a look at the portrayal of Jews on the show?” (Laughs.)
Black characters have been portrayed at all ends of the spectrum. I think that’s really a flawed objection because we have wonderful, noble black characters on the show. But I think I’m the entire representation of Jews on the show. (Laughs.) Not so good.
I don’t know exactly why David Simon did that, but I’m glad he never showed the good side of Levy because it’s been much to fun to play an absolute son of a bitch.
Do you think there is a good side to Levy? Do you attempt to round out the character in your head?
Well, I had to find a reason why he did it because you don’t ever want to say, “He’s evil, so he likes doing bad things.” And I decided that for Levy, it was very much about the chess game and he was very proud of being able to win unwinnable cases and make thugs look like people with great potential in society. So, for him, it was sort of the sense of “Aha! See what I did? You didn’t think I could do that. Pretty good, huh?” I think that’s sort of what drives him.
He definitely seems to have a smug satisfaction whenever he wins a case. It’s odd too because as smarmy as the character is, he’s definitely one of those guys you love to hate.
I get that a lot. People like watching Levy and they always smile when they tell me how much they hate me.
I was in the grocery store, picking out tomatoes like you do and, I have to say, I don’t walk around with a constant awareness of the fact that I’m on television. So, I’m buying tomatoes and behind me I hear, “You motherfucking son of a bitch.”
I turned around and I thought, “Did this guy want these particular tomatoes?” And I noticed that he was smiling from ear to ear. It took me a second, then I went, “Oh, you watch The Wire.”
And with a big grin he went, “Yeah, you’re an asshole.” (Laughs.)
There is something likeable about him. And yeah, you’re right, he is very pleased with himself when he has outwitted his opponents. That’s kind of what it’s about. And I think that’s why lawyers admire him. Not because they admire his ethics, but because they do admire his technique.
How often do you get recognized? Does it happen quite a bit?
Fairly frequently, more so now that our fifth season is underway. We have hardcore Wire fans everywhere. I think more often they look at me and they feel like they know me but they can’t quite place me because I’m so different from Levy in real life. I’m a total goofball, I’m just a geek and I’m usually smiling when they meet me and they just can’t put that together.
Obviously you can’t give away anything substantial, but can you give us any indication what is in store for Levy for the rest of season five?
I can tell you that it’s just as ever, more slime, more duplicity, more unscrupulous tactics. As you know, we are all sworn to secrecy, we all sign an agreement saying we won’t say any plotline. I’ve already disappointed those that thought I might end up a minister by the end of the season. That’s not going to happen.
It really kills me that I can’t talk about this season because it’s really, really good. It’s got shocks in it. It will not disappoint and we will not have a Sopranos ending, I can promise you that.
What are some of your favorite moments from the show?
It’s so many little moments that I love. I share this in common with David Simon, he likes the funny moments. I love the “fuck” scene, when the whole dialogue in the scene is fuck. One of my favorite things was when they were trying to use Robert’s Rules of Order for the co-op meeting among the gang members and somebody says something and somebody else says, “Sit down motherfucker, the chair ain’t recognize you yet.”
I just love the richness and the diversity of the characters and how they completely manage to surprise us over and over again. It is hard to pick out a moment, I have to say.
I think most fans would say their favorite Levy moment is when I get knocked down by Omar in the courtroom and kind of exposed as a fraud. That’s a fairly brilliant moment, I think. And I loved working with Michael K. Williams.
Because there are so many characters on the show, many of the actors have never met. I mostly work with certain characters. So, at the premiere this year, I was able to shake hands with Rawls and Carcetti and a bunch of people I’ve never met and tell them I like their work.
So the day that I went to work with Michael K. Williams, I was scared because he’s such a badass on the show. I was nervous to meet him. I came over, very shyly put out my hand and he looked at me and said, “I was afraid to meet you.” Then we ended up having a good old time. He’s just the sweetest man in the world.
The fact that he’s been overlooked in the Emmy nominations is appalling to me. He and Andre Royo have put in just perfect performances year after year, moving and complex, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been nominated.
Having been a part of the show for such a long time, what was it like when the final season wrapped and how do you feel now that the filming of the show is complete?
It’s strange. There’s a really good feeling in moving on. I feel like we made great television and there’s really kind of a proud feeling in putting a hat on it. And at the same time, I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but when I rapped my last scene, I thought, “Maury Levy’s gone. That’s it. There’s no more Maury Levy.” And I thought, “I’m going to miss that son of a bitch. God help me, I can’t believe it but I’m going to miss it.”
So there’s a little sense of loss, but I think much stronger than any sense of loss is the sense of real satisfaction and pride. You know, Maury was only supposed to be on two episodes and they just kept writing me in and I was so flattered by that. Just to be in the company of those actors and for David Simon to want the character to continue is really an honor.
Overall, the feeling is just a really good feeling and I’m excited to move on. In fact, I wanted my next job to be as different as possible from The Wire and I just shot a pilot for Disney just before Thanksgiving. Not only is it a comedy, but it’s a kid’s comedy and I’m the only grownup on it and I play a total wimp. So it’s really nice to have the other end of the spectrum for a change.
What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?
I’m addicted to online Scrabble. I waste way too much time. And I’ll now say what I shouldn’t, I watch horrible reality TV shows. I’m a big American Idol junkie and Top Chef, Project Runway, all that crap that we’re not supposed to watch because it puts actors out of work.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
Wow, that’s a great question. It’s a hard question. I’ve always loved theatrical set design, so I guess that would still be in the arts. I think I might have been a therapist. I’m really interested in what makes people tick. I think that drives me as an actor as well. I think I could have very happily become a therapist.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Most people don’t know that not only was I raised on R&B music, but I actually sing that stuff. There are a handful of people who will sometimes call on me to do backup and I’m always the only white guy. I can dance a little too, but I think the main thing that surprises people is that I riff.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, February 2008. The fifth and final season of The Wire airs Sunday nights on HBO.