Making a name for himself with acclaimed roles like Major Cedric Daniels on The Wire and Detective John Basil on Oz was not something Lance Reddick had originally planned. Reddick had always hoped to make it big as a musician, but turned to acting as a way to make a living. He recently decided to return to his first love and is currently working on a new album, while still filming season four of The Wire. Reddick recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.
What was it like attending the Quaker High School of Friends School? How was it different than your average public school?
One of the big differences was that the academic curriculum was a little more advanced than the average public school – at least in Baltimore. It was also predominately white at the time. I have since been back and it is much more integrated.
Also, even though Quakerism wasn’t taught in the school, we were exposed to it. I don’t know if you know anything about the Quakers, but we went to something called “meaningful worship” once a week. I don’t know a lot about the history of the Quakers, but they always had a history of political activism. From their inception, they were anti-slavery. They believed that each person had a right to their own private relationship with God. So, there are no ministers in Quakerism. A Quaker meeting service, basically people just sit in silence and whenever someone feels moved by the spirit, they stand up and share whatever they feel moved to share. And also, Quakers are traditionally pacifists.
Did their pacifism come through in the discipline at the school?
No. The students were typical teenagers. We still had a football team and a lacrosse team. Guys still got into fights. The place where it came through was whenever there were political issues. They would have speakers come in and talk to students before classes started.
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?
Even though I have an older brother, he’s much older than I am, so I essentially grew up as an only child in the 70s. I grew up addicted to television. When I was very small, I’d do a lot of playing by myself. So, I feel like that was always in me, but its not something I ever grew up wanting to be. I grew up wanting to be a musician my whole life. The first time I ever acted, believe it or not, was in an English class in seventh grade. We were studying Macbeth and we had to pick a scene from it and act it out. I did the famous soliloquy where he is debating with himself whether or not to kill the king. It was the coolest experience. I felt like I became him.
The first time the general public had a chance to see your work was on the show Oz. How did you land the role of Detective John Basil?
It’s funny because I had never seen the show when I did it. I had been hearing so much about it – it was one of those shows that everybody wanted to do in New York. My agent pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed because he heard this role was perfect for me and I got put on tape and I was cast from the tape. So I actually never met Tom Fontana or any of the producers before I started shooting the show.
What was it like working on that show?
It was phenomenal. I felt like I was doing a film role. Up to that point, I felt like it was the best group of actors I had ever worked with and the best writing I had worked with, at least on television.
From there, you went on to work on The Wire. How many times did you audition for the show before landing the role of Cedric Daniels?
I auditioned four times and the first three times it wasn’t even for Daniels. Originally, I went in for Bunk. I read for that role three times. The third time I read for it was for David Simon and he asked me to read Bubbles on the spot – cold. Then I was told a week later I was second choice for Bubbles. And then a week after that, they called me in for Daniels because they had a hard time casting Daniels and they were looking for a name for that role.
When did you finally find out that you got the role?
It was over two weeks after I auditioned. It was after they had told my agent I didn’t get it. I still don’t know what happened. I thought it was a dead issue when I got the call. Literally, I thought I was dreaming. It’s the only time in my life I really wondered, “Am I dreaming this?” Because, it was like my life changed after that.
You grew up in Baltimore. What is it like filming The Wire in your hometown? Does it mean more to you working so close to home?
When I’m in Baltimore, it’s almost like being a movie star. You have people you haven’t heard from since high school, junior high, even elementary school, calling you out of the blue. My first season, I was asked to speak at the graduation of my high school. The other thing that’s cool about it is – I feel like I’m learning about the political history of the city by doing this show.
Do you feel the show accurately portrays Baltimore?
The part of Baltimore that it’s seeking to portray, yes.
What has the response been like from Baltimore police officers?
Honestly, I get responses from police officers everywhere. I’ve never done any show that cops respond to more. And it’s always positive. More than once, I’ve had cops say, “That show is so real, it’s scary.”
Does it ever get you out of speeding tickets or anything like that?
(Laughs.) No. Matter of fact, for the pilot, I was on my way to a cast reading and I got a speeding ticket.
The fourth season of The Wire is in production now. Where do you see the character of Cedric Daniels going next season?
I don’t know much about my character. What I do know is that, after my promotion, I’m not going to be as connected to the day-to-day of the unit. With the promotion, I’m actually in charge of a whole district now. But, the wiretap unit is still my baby. For me, it’s going to be a lot of dealing with politics. The politics of trying to keep the unit running the way I want it run and being a buffer between the unit and the higher ups. I know there is going to be some friction between me and the new lieutenant who takes over for me. I also know that I’m going to be somewhat involved in Baltimore politics because my wife is running for city council. The whole issue of us being separated and me now being more open with the district attorney – it’s going to cause a lot of conflict that I’m going to have to deal with.
You originally got into acting as a way to support your musical ambitions. When did you first discover your passion for music?
I stared writing songs when I was seven. I started playing the piano when I was eight. Growing up, I always thought I was going to be a musician. My first year at college, I was a physics major and that had more to do with getting cold feet about being a musician. I went to the University of Rochester. The Eastman School of Music, even though it’s a famous school by itself, is technically part of the University of Rochester, which is a lot of the reason why I went there. I went to a concert in October of my first year at the university when I was studying physics and I thought, “You know what? I made a mistake. I need to come here.” So, I applied for a transfer.
What were your biggest musical influences growing up?
When I was a kid, I was really into pop music. Even though I studied classical music my whole life, I was really into pop music and I was really into bold ballads. My favorite singers were Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis. I would just listen to their stuff over and over again and imitate their singing, their styles and the way they phrased.
After having such success as an actor, what made you decide to rekindle your music career?
About five or six years ago, I was singing this song I started writing when I was 25 years old. From time to time over the years, I’d sing these songs that I had written that I never recorded. And one day my daughter said to me, she was about 11 years old at the time, “Dad you should do something with that.”
I said to her, “It’s too late. I’m too old.”
And she said, “I don’t know, Dad. I think that’s an excuse.” She didn’t say anything else. She just walked away. The way she said it and the timing, I was just left with, “Wow.” So, I just started thinking about it a lot. And, I just decided to start trying to write again and it was really hard at first. It’s still hard. One of the things I had never gotten over was my fear of the empty page. The first thing I had to do was try to discipline myself to try to write something every day, even if I threw it out. And eventually, I picked up some old songs and I finished them. Then, I just started writing new stuff. After a few years, I decided I wanted to do a song writing demo. That turned into – maybe I should try an album. That’s where I am right now.
Is there a release date yet for your album?
No, there isn’t. The plan right now is to finish recording in Baltimore. The guy who does the promotion for and supervises the production for George Clinton is going to be producing the album. Ironically enough, he’s from Baltimore. So we are going to be doing the album while I’m shooting this season.
We have a tough question for you. Do you consider yourself a songwriter who acts or an actor who writes songs? If you had to choose between the two, which would you pick?
It’s tricky because acting is how I made my living for so long, but music was my training for so much longer than that. Honestly, I would say I am an actor and a songwriter.
What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?
I like to read and I like movies. I’ve never been much of a club person. I hate to say this because I’m an actor and I’m in the entertainment industry, but I’m not a real people person. I like quiet evenings. Mostly, I like to read.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I’m really goofy. I’ve had a hard time getting an opportunity to do any comedy since I started doing a lot of television because what I’ve become known for is intense dramatic character acting.
We’ve got one last thing for you here. We are going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
Major Cedric Daniels.
Serious. Intense. Committed.
The city of Baltimore.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, October 2005. Lance Reddick is up for one of the adult leads in Kaffir Boy: The True Story of Black Youths Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, a new film that is being adapted from the Mark Mathabane bestseller. He is also being wooded to co-star with Susan Sarandon and Rafe Fiennes in a new film. His album, Black and White, will be available on his website. The fourth season of The Wire is filming now.