The Wire Behind the Scenes: How Bunk, Kima, and McNulty Blew Off Steam in Baltimore

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July 8 2013 5:30 AM

Life on the Set of The Wire

How Bunk, Kima, Freamon, and McNulty blew off steam in Baltimore.

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“We finished shooting at like 1 o’clock and, you know, normal places close at 2, so we’d go down to the Block, just to feel the energy,” said Royo. “The owners of the clubs would come out; the girls would come out. It was like we were heroes. The local heroes.” At a cast and crew softball game, Royo hired a limousine and a team of strippers to act as cheerleaders.

West, predictably, attracted his share of female attention, professional and otherwise. “A man could live off his leftovers,” Pierce would say. All were champion drinkers, and things had a way of getting out of hand. Gilliam took especially poorly to being approached while enjoying himself off duty.

“He could be an angry drunk in a minute,” Royo said. “If somebody would be like, ‘Oh, you those guys from The Wire,’ Seth would be like, ‘I don’t know what happened to manners, but we were talking.’ And these were guys who weren’t used to being talked to like that. Who had already humbled themselves to come over.” Yelling and pushing would often ensue, though usually not more, thanks to omnipresent bouncers. “Sonja would always have her eye on one of the bouncers and could give him a look. She’s a sexy little chick, so they’d make sure she was comfortable.”

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Gilliam and Lombardozzi, the show’s onscreen Bert and Ernie, shared a large apartment in Fell’s Point. They hosted epic evenings of beer and video games, including Madden Football tournaments pitting “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys,” cops against the drug dealers. The games would run until 5 or 6 a.m., when half the players would have to depart for an 8 a.m. call. (Peters, the refined bohemian, articulated the cast’s generation gap after hearing Lombardozzi brag about a particular Madden move he’d pulled off the night before: “He’s going, ‘Yeah, man, what you do is push x, x, y, x, y, y ...’ I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck? This is how they spend their free time?’”)

The pent-up energy that fueled all this revelry had a darker side. For many of the actors, particularly those working long night shoots on grim streets, production was both physically and spiritually exhausting. Royo found it especially difficult to play the sharp-eyed junkie, Bubbles. Royo’s father had owned a Harlem clothing store, and he had taken special pride in his appearance, showing up for school in wing tips and double-breasted suits. He knew that the sight of him in filthy junkie gear caused his parents particular heartache—not just on sartorial grounds but because it was the type of role black actors were all too accustomed to finding as their only options. At his audition, in front of Simon and producers Clark Johnson, and Robert Colesberry, Royo voiced his concerns that Bubbles not be just another clichéd black junkie. “They just looked at me and were like, ‘Oh, you don’t know how we get down.’”

Still, Bubbles may have been more than a cliché, but it was a difficult character to play day after day. “My character’s head space was not a pleasant one,” Royo said. “I’d look at Idris? Nothing but bitches outside his trailer. Dom West? Nothing but bitches. Sonja? Dudes and bitches. Me? I’d have junkies out there. They fell in love with Bubbles. I’d go into my trailer and clean my shit off and come out and they’d look at me like, ‘You’re not one of us. Fuck you.’ And then when I had the Bubbles garb back on, it’d be, ‘Hey! What’s up? Welcome back!’ That’s a head trip, man. That shit eats at you.”

By the third season, he said, “I was drinking. I was depressed. I’d look at scripts like, ‘What am I doing today? Getting high or pushing that fucking cart?’”

He was not alone. In the isolated hothouse of Baltimore, immersed in the world of the streets, the cast of The Wire showed a bizarre tendency to mirror its onscreen characters in ways that took a toll on its members’ outside lives: Lance Reddick, who played the ramrod-straight Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, tormented by McNulty’s lack of discipline, had a similarly testy relationship with West, who would fool around and try to make Reddick crack up during his camera takes. Gilliam and Lombardozzi, much like Herc and Carver, would spend the bulk of Seasons 2 and 3 exiled to the periphery of the action, stewing on stakeout in second-unit production and eventually lobbying to be released from their contracts.

Michael K. Williams, whose Omar was far and away the series’ most popular figure (a GQ writer quipped that asking viewers their favorite character was “like asking their favorite member of Adele”), was so carried away by sudden fame that he spent nearly all his newfound money on jeans, sneakers, and partying. At the very height of his popularity, Williams found himself evicted from the Brooklyn public housing project he’d grown up in, for nonpayment. He and Royo were only two of many Wire veterans who said they sought help for substance abuse once the experience was over. This is not to mention those non-actor cast members brought from the real Baltimore into the fake one—among them Little Melvin Williams, the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, out of prison on parole and cast as a wise, battle-scarred deacon.

***

To be an actor on a series like The Wire was to live in a permanent state of anxiety, one’s mortality (and unemployment) forever lurking around the next plot twist. On another show, death might just be the beginning of a long, fruitful run of ghost and dream sequences. But most actors in this Golden Age of TV understood that one of the period’s signature tropes—that, as in life, anybody could check out at any time—had significant implications for their job security.

The situation turned actors into forensic critics, deep-reading every set of new pages for the slightest hint of impending doom. “Every time you read the script, you’re looking for a hint: If too much of your story is being told, ‘Oh shit, they’re building it up. I’m gonna go,’” said Andre Royo. He and Michael K. Williams decided between themselves that one of their two characters, either Omar or Bubbles, was bound to buy it before the series ended. (Williams won that grim competition.) After a few seasons, Royo even developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome. He went to Simon and asked whether keeping Bubbles alive wasn’t a disservice to the story’s realism, given the usual life span of a junkie snitch.

“David looked at me and was like, ‘Shut the fuck up,’” he said. “‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know there has to be some hope or people aren’t going to get out of bed in the morning.’”

The Wire actors’ anxieties may have been compounded by the fact that communication with actors wasn’t always one of Simon’s showrunning skills. “David had a problem about telling people how they were gonna die. He’d never just say, ‘Look, you’re gonna die.’ There was always this weird energy,” said Royo. Larry Gilliard Jr., who played D’Angelo Barksdale had been infuriated by how he learned about his early departure in Season 2: Simon had run into him on set and said, “You’re going to love the stuff I wrote for you this episode.” “Great!” said Gilliard. “I mean, it’s probably your last episode ...,” said Simon.

The lesson went apparently unlearned by the end of Season 3. By all accounts, the producers honestly meant to sit down and talk with Idris Elba about the timing and manner of Stringer Bell’s death. Instead, that meeting never happened and he learned about it by reading the script—and subsequently hitting the roof. Making things worse was the script direction that had Omar standing over Bell’s body and peeing on it, apparently a real Baltimore gang tradition. Elba headed to set and started telling fellow actors he wouldn’t shoot the scene, enlisting some in his cause.

“He was pissed, man. And I got it, because, in effect, we were firing him,” said George Pelecanos, the crime novelist who wrote the episode. “David and I went to his trailer and tried to talk him down. We said, ‘This is the end of the character. We can’t keep his story going; it’s not logical. And this is exactly the way he would probably go out.’” Elba fixated on the urination. Omar wouldn’t be peeing on him, Simon and Pelecanos said; he’d be peeing on a fictional character. “Not on my character,” Elba told them.

Simon and Pelecanos could have invoked a favorite David Chase line when faced with similar protests: “Whoever said it was your character?” Instead, they cajoled and apologized until Elba relented. The death scene was shot at an empty Baltimore warehouse and wrapped at 4 a.m. On his way down a dark street to his car, Pelecanos heard pounding footsteps behind him and turned, cringing. It was Elba. “I just want to shake your hand,” he told the writer. “It’s just business.”

Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent. He lives in New Orleans. This article is excerpted from his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

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