BEST known as world-weary Baltimore cop Bunk in The Wire, Wendell Pierce may seem like the most quintessentially American of stars — but it was a visit to England as a teen in the 1970s that solidified his decision to be an actor. ‘I remember seeing Kate Nelligan at the RSC doing As You Like It, and Yul Brynner in The King And I in the West End. That trip made me realise that you could have a career in the theatre, and there was a real culture around it. It was fate.’
Now, four decades later, he’s making his debut on the London stage in what he describes as ‘one of the great roles in the English speaking world’, Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman. Arthur Miller’s mid 20th-century tragedy about the struggle of a lower-middle-class family to achieve the American Dream is regularly performed, but in this revival at the Young Vic, directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have refreshed it by making the Lomans African-American.
As Wendell explains, this is not ‘colour blind’ casting, but ‘very specific casting’, that heightens ‘the sense of the obstacles that are placed in front of Willy, his wife Linda, and his sons Biff and Happy.’ Particular moments sting in new ways.
‘There’s a line where Willy says, “I can park my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their own.’’ There’s irony because we know if I reach for my wallet too fast in a situation with police in America right now, my life could be in danger.’
This production is also representative of how opportunities have opened up for black actors. However, Wendell remains sceptical. ‘When I was starting my career, there was a surge of films by black filmmakers, and then it became a desert,’ he says. ‘It ebbs and it flows. I wish Hollywood would learn the lesson and not keep repeating the same mistakes.’
Wendell works consistently across theatre, TV, and film. ‘Yes to the industry being more diverse. But I think I’ve been smart enough to keep my career diverse.’ This year, he’ll be seen returning in Amazon action series Jack Ryan, and on the big screen in prison drama Clemency. To some, though, he’ll always be Bunk from The Wire. ‘It’s going to be the first line of my obituary,’ he laughs. And he has no problem with that.
The Wire means so much to him that, for years now, he has been trying to get a prequel film off the ground. The only problem is that he has never quite managed to convince the show’s creator, David Simon.
The other show that has put him in the spotlight is legal drama Suits, in which he played Meghan Markle’s father. Wendell fondly recalls the moment when he discovered his co-star was dating royalty. ‘I kept thinking of [King] Edward [when he married] an American divorcee and I just thought, ‘‘It’s not going to happen’’. And then one day, she had security outside and I was like, ‘‘Wait a minute…’’’
More surreal still was watching the Windsor Castle wedding on TV, because he was unable to attend. He recently tweeted his congratulations to the Duchess on the birth of her son, Archie, though he’s not counting on an audience with her during his stay in the capital. ‘She’s a little busy right now,’ he laughs. ‘So I can’t get upset because she won’t be able to see my play.’
One person he will be seeing is The Wire co-star Dominic West, with whom he shares a love of a boozy nights out. ‘We haven’t hung out yet because I have to get work done. And once we start hanging out, there’s not much work going to get done!’
■ Death Of A Salesman is at the Young Vic until July 13, youngvic.org. Every Thursday at midday a limited number of £10 ‘Rush’ tickets will be released online for the following week’s performances