It feels as though Wendell Pierce has always been a part of our lives, captivating us with his incredible talent as a thespian. From his unforgettable performances in HBO’s “The Wire” to his iconic stature in the cultural landscape, Pierce has consistently delivered excellence throughout his illustrious career. Notably, his roles in acclaimed films such as “Ray,” “Selma,” “Malcolm X,” “Waiting to Exhale” and “Get on the Bus” have solidified his reputation as a versatile and highly skilled actor. His exceptional portrayal in “Clemency” earned him the prestigious Sundance Grand Jury Prize, and his performance in “Burning Cane” garnered him the Best Actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival. However, it’s his role as James Greer in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” that Pierce intertwines his political views and mastery as an actor, leaving an indelible mark on American culture.
Beyond his remarkable talent on screen, Pierce demonstrates a fierce commitment to social justice and the advancement of Black voices within the entertainment industry through his role as a founding member of Black Theatre United. With his extensive training, unwavering passion and remarkable talent, he continues to captivate audiences worldwide with his unforgettable performances.
In this exclusive interview, Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur engages in a conversation with Mr. Pierce, a self-proclaimed jazzman, delving into his character’s journey, why he loathes Clarence Thomas and his insightful pearls of wisdom for the younger generation.
Read on for the full transcript of our conversation.
AllHipHop: It’s good to see you, Wendell. I met you years ago at the DNC, the first DNC with Obama. Tell us a little bit about this season of “Jack Ryan,” the final season and what can we expect?
Wendell Pierce: For my character James Greer, all of these years while I’ve been doing the show, I had a consultant that I worked with an African-American, retired officer. The one thing he always would remind me was how difficult the work was on your family, holding your family together, and the stresses of that. I shared that with the producers and they were really kind enough to roll that into my final season, the final part of James Greer’s journey. You see that I am trying to salvage and redeem myself as a father. I love that. I love that the most this season. That I’m doing my work, but at the same time, trying to salvage my family.
AllHipHop: Is there any family unit that you guys have formed on set, or are you guys sad that the show is coming to an end?
Wendell Pierce: It’s sad, it’s bittersweet that things are coming to an end, but at the same time, we had a blast, man. Our friendships will go beyond the filming of it. I realize now that we finished almost a year ago, and I keep forgetting that because we’ve been hanging so much since we finished filming. It’s evident that we are going to still have close relationships as friends. We will have the lasting memory of traveling the world, and I mean literally the world, 10 to 20 countries, all over it. We just had a blast, man.
AllHipHop: I have to ask you, playing a CIA agent and considering your philanthropic and political leanings, do you ever feel any personal conflict with the professional role?
Wendell Pierce: No. The great thing about doing this role, and I’ve tried to put it into the role, my consultant, as I said, is an African American retired officer, and I challenged them the first thing. I said, “How can you be a CIA officer knowing what this agency has done in our community?” I was thinking of Malcolm X. I specifically said, “What about Malcolm X?” And he said, “Wendell, we would fight racism, right?” I said, “Yeah.” “We’ll do anything possible to try to stop it?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I feel the same way, and I just chose to try to do it inside the CIA, instead of outside of the CIA.” He said, “Now, I hear you call yourself an American, right?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, how can you call yourself an American knowing what this country’s done to our community?”
He said, “It’s because you know you can have an impact still. That we can still make it a more perfect union. The fact that we haven’t given up on it is because we know we can impact and affect change. And that’s why I felt as though I could do it inside the CIA, than outside the CIA.” And that’s how I think [my character] James Greer is. I tried to put that in the role, when I talk about having to make choices, find my moral compass, there’s a gray area that we deal with, and I teach that to Jack [Ryan]. That’s the difficult place to be, so you have to find a way to be more exact about who you are and what your values are in this work. Don’t live in that gray area. That’s how I reconcile it. It’s not an either/or, and we shouldn’t play in that gray area. Be decisive.
I say to people, “We should never lose the right to be offended.” That’s what I always tell people who may be critical of the choices that I make. “It’s good. I’m glad. Now why? I just want to hear why, and I want to see what are you going to do?” That’s how you affect change. So, the answer my consultant gave to me really clarified playing the role. Then I went to the CIA. And the most surprising thing, Chuck, the most surprising thing of this five year journey is when I walked in the building, it looked like the country.
It looked like the country. I was surprised. I was surprised. I was pleasantly surprised. What he said just became even more clear to me. Yeah, that’s how I do it, bro.
AllHipHop: Moving on to another iconic role of yours, Bunk from “The Wire.” What is it about Bunk that we love so much?
Wendell Pierce: Bunk is an every man. He’s the uncle at the cookout. He’s your father when he gets in your butt, tells you what you need to do. If you don’t have a father, he’s that cat on the playground, the cat on the basketball court, who’s running all the games on Saturday, but say, “Hey man, that was wrong. You know that was a foul.”
Wendell Pierce: Right? He’s that guy, that appeals to our heart and our comfort, but appeals to our mind as well, because he’s a straight shooter, and we know so many men like that in the community. That’s why he’s been a lasting impact, having a lasting impact. I’m so thankful that he got that recognition, because those are the men that we seldom give a platform to. Because they don’t need it, they just want to make sure you do right. I’m sure, Chuck, you can look at the men in your life that would bring you to the ownership of your own company, gave you vision, gave you focus, who gives you reminders of how to move forward. That’s why we like Bunk. Because, same time, we know he’s flawed. We know he’s flawed, and he’s not perfect, but Bunk is the one, the guy who wakes up every day and says, “You know something? It’s another day to try to get it right.”
AllHipHop: Do you have any thoughts about Clarence Thomas? You played him as well, and he’s a bit of a scoundrel to Black folks nowadays.
Wendell Pierce: Yeah. When preparing for Clarence Thomas, we were living parallel lives, really. Black, from the South. Grandparents were farmers. Poor. Understood the value of education, the premium value of education. Your first wealth in life is education, before you get any sort of monetary wealth. First wealth is education. Catholic, Black Catholic, from the South, all the similarities. Went to school. Actually, very active in college. Clarence Thomas wanted to be a Black Panther…
Wendell Pierce: He was marching and had his beret. It’s very interesting that Affirmative Action is the linchpin, because he benefited from Affirmative Action. He had no problem with it, until he returns home to Savannah, Georgia, and he wants to join one of the established law firms there. And here he is with his Yale degree, from the community, smart as can be, and they wouldn’t accept him. He could not get hired at a law firm in Savannah, Georgia. It shows you the insidious nature of racism. The most racist, discriminatory practice, of a Black man with a Yale law degree not being able to get a job. That wouldn’t even get him a job. He was denied his job. And the insidious trauma of that, in Clarence Thomas’ head, turns it into, well, it’s not because they don’t like my Black ass, it’s because they don’t think my degree is valuable because I got it with affirmative action.
Wendell Pierce: That’s the nexus in his life, where you see us part ways.
Wendell Pierce: Where he didn’t see that this, the slightest attempt, Affirmative Action is at rectifying centuries of disparity, brutal violence, prohibition of denying us the right to education. You would be killed if they caught you reading in your shack, and you don’t understand the connection with that, when we are only two generations from slavery? My mother’s grandfather was a slave. I damn near met him. So, for him to think that way, I realized that the abhorrent way that he thinks, that has turned to some sort of self-hatred really, shows you the depth of the trauma of racist practices.
AllHipHop: Yeah. Definitely.
Wendell Pierce: Racism destroyed Clarence Thomas back then. And the only person that could get him a job was this senator from Kansas. $11,000 a year. He drove out there and he started. The one thing about Conservatives, while we differ in opinion, I wish we had this in our playbook: loyalty.
Clarence came on board and it was just like, if a Black Conservative was told, “You’re going to make it. We’re going to put you here and here and here, you’re on track,” then you’re definitely going to make it. They live up to it, “If you just stick to our principles…” not even principles, “our playbook,” really.
“You tell the same lies, say I’m sorry for it.” Now, here’s the interesting thing. For that, I don’t hate Clarence Thomas. You know why I hate Clarence Thomas?
Wendel Pierce: Clarence Thomas is a part of a cabal of men who were paid lobbyists by the apartheid South African government. Black men in America who were being paid by the apartheid government to lobby Congress in their behalf to make sure that they didn’t divest, that they wouldn’t come against apartheid. He was a part of that group. For that is inexcusable, and I hate him. His sickness of just being self hating and destroying Affirmative Action, that’s a trauma that happened a long time ago, but when you are actually fighting to ensure that Black people are killed and enslaved the way they were in apartheid South Africa, and you took that blood money with no problem, for that, there’s a special place in hell for you.
AllHipHop: That’s wild. I didn’t know about his connection to the apartheid government. It’s disheartening. On a different note, do you have any pearls of wisdom for people who might feel discouraged in the entertainment industry or the world in general?
Wendell Pierce: Well, listen, in entertainment, we have a great power. We have the greatest power in the world. We have the platform and the attention of the world. That’s the role of art. That’s why I don’t even call it entertainment. Entertainment is a byproduct of what we do. We are artists, and what artists do is, we are to the world what thoughts are to the individual, the place where you reflect on who you are, decide what your values are, and then go and act out on. That’s what we do as artists, to try to have an impact on people’s hearts and minds and make them collectively come to a value system that we all agree on and go out and act on those values, fight for those values.
We can move people, even people we disagree with. Ronald Reagan was an actor who moved people of a Conservative generation. Like [L###] Wałęsa in Poland, a poet can move people in solidarity movement in Poland, so that they can have their democracy. Martin Luther King and all the artists of that time. Martin Luther King was a poet. He wrote, he’s a writer. He was a great writer, besides a minister, theologian, and then a political leader. Political leader was almost third, tertiary. He was the one. So you have a great power, and right now, don’t squander that power, young people.
I don’t know if you were in New Orleans this weekend? I don’t know when this is going to come out for [The Essence Festival].
AllHipHop: I wasn’t. That’s too much trouble. But yeah.
Wendell Pierce: Jill Scott said it in her set, “When did we become b######? When did we just always become b######? I’m a bad b####. I’m a smart b####. I’m a sexy b####. I’m that b####. What happened to the sisterhood?” We always have to celebrate thuggery.
I’m not a Hip-Hop head. I’m a Jazz man. The three of us did Jazz. I remember Guru. I met Guru, man, God rest his[soul]… He spoke truth, man. Chuck D and all of those. Where are those cats? Right now it’s all about thuggery. We celebrate as if that’s the best of our community…”I’m going to crush you. I’m going to carry around big bags of cash because that’s how I roll.” I always tell youngbloods, I say, “Here’s a pearl of wisdom for you. Rich men, they seldom see cash. The richest men and women in the world seldom sees cash. They go, “Make this digital movement and we just paid $5 billion,'” or something.
You see documents and you see computers, you seldom see cash. We’re now getting to that place where you can walk in the store, get your stuff and walk out, and just look at your phone and go, “Okay, yeah. They got everything.” I say that to say we have a great power, and nothing challenging us today could ever compare to what our ancestors went through.
AllHipHop: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Wendell Pierce: How dare we step back from the challenge. How dare we say “It’s tough,” when right now we have so much power, more power than we’ve ever had. So while it’s challenging, we’ve been here before, and here’s the smartest thing you’ll ever realize. With every generation, you have to fight and win the battle for your rights. We always make the mistake of going, “Oh, that’s taken care of, been there, done that.” Or, “Man, we’re still going through it.” Yes, because it’s a chronic disease. It’s something that every generation should look at the past generations as a wonderful, wonderful blueprint of how to fight. Now, I’m taking on my battle and I’m ready to fight now. All right.
AllHipHop: Thanks a lot. I appreciate you.
The Final Season of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” is now streaming on Prime.