Chad L. Coleman: Through The Wire, Pt 1

Virginia native-turned-New Yorker Chad L. Coleman has made an impressive showing on season three of The Wire as Dennis “Cutty” Wise, a street smart yet under-educated man with a jaded past and an amazing hope for the future. After studying acting at both Virginia Commonwealth University and the Herbert Bergoff studio in New York, Chad […]

Virginia native-turned-New Yorker Chad L. Coleman has made an impressive showing on season three of The Wire as Dennis “Cutty” Wise, a street smart yet under-educated man with a jaded past and an amazing hope for the future. After studying acting at both Virginia Commonwealth University and the Herbert Bergoff studio in New York, Chad took on more intensive training with Howard University professor Vera Katz. He has acted in off-Broadway plays and regional theater, performing alongside the likes of vets like Willem Dafoe and Patrick Stewart, and has performed in several commercials and television shows including Law & Order.

Chad’s role as Cutty gave the popular HBO series a different, and almost moral, direction without being too preachy. It is interesting to note that while Cutty speaks slowly and often uses less than desirable grammar, Chad speaks smoothly and swiftly with the air of a distinguished gentleman. Where Cutty deliberates internally about basic day to day activities, Chad asserts himself with confident expression. The man and his character seem to be worlds apart in demeanor and life experiences, but it is evidently clear that Chad understands Cutty on a level that transcends mere acting. Alternatives got caught up in an intense conversation with Chad L. Coleman about the development of the storylines and character interaction on The Wire, and what ‘Cutty’ represents beyond the television show. Alternatives: We have interviewed JD Williams and Hassan Johnson both about The Wire, and talked quite in-depth about them going into Baltimore. You guys have talked to the people of Baltimore one on one a lot about their street life and picking up the dialect and things like that. Hassan mentioned that he was a little disappointed sometimes that there really wasn’t a consistency with the actors getting that dialect down. It almost seems like your character, Cutty, has his own dialect. He’s maybe not as educated as some of the other guys. How did you work in developing that role from a standpoint of the diction that you use?

Chad: Basically for me, it [came] as the producers filled me in on information about the character, and I’m dealing with a producer like George Pelecanos who created my role. He had already written a book about a guy who was incarcerated and came out [of jail] and was trying to get his life together. The blueprint was there, it just came – it wasn’t something I was trying to go for. It was creative inspiration, along with information from the producers – but if you break it down, if you think that this was a kid that came up, he didn’t get a high school diploma, he spent most of his life on the street. Even on the show when they would ask about getting a GED, that’s not something he wanted to pursue. His passion for change was definitely there but it wasn’t on kind of an intellectual route, if you will.

The way the dialogue is written, he’s not a man of that many words – you know there’s a lot going on with him but he doesn’t like to speak a lot. I would say it’s just a hybrid of a lot of different sounds that make up Cutty, because you can’t necessarily say who he may have encountered while being incarcerated, it’s not necessarily that he just hung out with everybody from one particular region.

AHHA: Exactly, and I think in a certain way that it was good that they didn’t make him some kind of dude that… I mean he definitely came out with a vision of wanting to do something different with his life and make something out of himself, but at the same time they didn’t have him come out being some super enlightened ‘I’ve been reading all the law books’ guy.

Chad: At the same time too, there are certainly those who do and who have, that’s for sure. The thing that’s interesting about the character, what makes it compelling is he’s unsure, he doesn’t know what to do. It makes him all the more human, he’s growing – you’ve watched him grow into a certain level of assuredness. That’s what’s really cool about it, because you get to follow someone that there’s no idealism involved in it at all.

AHHA: I loved it that they showed that kind of back and forth, ‘Do I wanna get back in it? Do I not wanna get back in it? The community’s all f*cked up but what can I do? I can’t even get a job.’ Simple everyday things that everyone takes for granted that this guy has to struggle with, and I think they did a really good job of showing somebody who’s got a good heart and who wants to change, but everything points back to ‘What else do I do?’

Chad: That’s absolutely right, what are your options and having it all play out in sort of a real time circumstance as opposed to some kind of quick fix? That’s what I encounter in the streets of New York everyday. Brothers that just want to come up and just say ‘Thanks man, that’s me I’m dealing with that right now, stay strong, keep doing it’. That’s the reality, just like the guy on the shows that say, ‘Yeah it’s hot, it’s hot out here everyday, you know this is as good as it gets right now, and if you don’t understand and accept that first, you’re not gonna be able to move any further’. That’s powerful because you’re used to fast money you’re used to certain lifestyle, and that can only be achieved criminally, and if you really need to change…

That’s the thing about Cutty, I just think that’s the amazingly beautiful thing about him, in the midst of all of that he still makes his decision. But at the same time you can tie it in as, well, like he was into boxing, he’s a Golden Globe boxer, it’s not like someone like Mike Tyson. Mike has chosen from having been around Don King and around probably some Muslims to try to achieve a certain kind of communication skill. Cutty’s not that way about it, even though I think his level of communication has certainly expanded and is improving as he tries to deal with these young kids, you see that happening, you see him starting to be able to really kind of talk to these kids. You really don’t know where his growth curve is, you never know where Cutty may end up.

AHHA: Exactly, I think that’s the excitement of it though for the fans, everyone really likes that character. I’d say next to Omar he’s probably the favorite. Omar… that character is probably like one of the most complex and unique characters that I’ve ever seen on TV. Cutty’s right up there though – you really never do know where he’s gonna show up next week.

Chad: Right, you don’t know what he’s gonna do and that’s beautiful because that really hits home with a lot of people. The things that we take for granted, a certain level of intellect, a certain amount of moxy and how to deal in life, and all these things that we take for granted are really things that you really have to work on, people have to be helping you implement that at a very early age for it to come to some degree of second naturedness. It’s not even totally that, we all struggle too, we all struggle but the struggle maybe doesn’t appear as dire. But we all do, we all struggle with elements of character and right and wrong and purpose, and what we’re going to do with our lives and all that stuff.

AHHA: There are obviously a lot of parallels in what happens on the show to real life situations. For instance Avon funded the boxing ring for Cutty, obviously there’s a situation there where Cutty kind of basically said when he left the operation, ‘You’re my guy and everything, but I don’t wanna be involved in this anymore’. Avon saw what he was trying to do and was like, ‘Here you do something good with this money’. Yet the money is drug money. Is there any moral dilemma on the part of you as an actor to say ‘Are we saying that this is okay by showing this kind of thing on TV?’

Chad: That’s a very interesting question. I think that is the thing – to show a certain level of irony. It’s just not black and white, so to present that to the audience – it’s for them to have to wrestle with that. I don’t absolutely have the answer to it. The producers of the show are obviously saying something right here. Cutty’s just aware as anybody else that there are very little options and help out there for the state that these people are living in, so you can’t make the same moral and character choices that someone else does. That’s something I’ve always found extremely compelling, because the people who are assessing the situation grew up a whole different way. They’re living by a whole different set of rules.

Now Cutty, even in trying to change, understands that he’s still playing in a different playing field. So to say, ‘I’ll remove myself from doing drugs and I’ll try to do something positive with my life’ doesn’t mean that I just flip the whole thing over into a whole different level of morality. How he rationalizes it is, ‘I need help and I don’t have any other sources’, or he says to himself, ‘Hey I can go out here and get two dollars, three dollars here, but at what point is that gonna have an impact on these kids? I’m trying to deal with these kids here and now.’ To have that paradox to me is okay.