NEW YORK — “I’ve always wanted one thing,” says Wendell Pierce. “To have a diverse career, to be a journeyman actor.”
Mission accomplished this fall. With no fewer than four projects in release, Pierce will meet himself coming.
Earlier this month, he made his latest appearance in a recurring role on the USA law drama Suits.
He has a new film opening, an edgy indie drama titled Four wherein he plays a family man who keeps his homosexuality secret while he hooks up harmfully with a teenage boy through an online dating site.
In December, he returns as fancy-free jazz trombonist Antoine Batiste on HBO’s glorious New Orleans series Treme, airing its final season.
And that’s all on top of Pierce’s dandy new role on The Michael J. Fox Show, which premiered on NBC Thursday at 9 p.m. in a special hour-long edition.
“This,” Pierce sums up proudly, “is the diversity I always wanted.”
On the new comedy, Pierce summons his rascally charm to play Harris Green, news director of a New York TV station and longtime pal of former anchor Mike Henry, played by Fox.
Mirroring Fox’s own real-life plight, Mike suffers from Parkinson’s disease, but, after several years retired from the anchor desk at home with his family, he is persuaded by Harris to return to work (just as Fox is returning to full-time acting after a dozen years of limited performances).
Even though Harris sees Mike as his meal ticket (“Guaranteed ratings!” he crows when Mike agrees to come back), they are truly friends, and, reflecting that, Pierce and Fox have forged a chemistry that pops on screen.
At one point, Mike needles Harris about his resistance to settling down with a woman and being a dad.
“Thirty years of lovemaking, not even one slip!” boasts Harris. “Not even a scare.”
“Maybe you’re doing it wrong,” Mike offers.
“It’s like this — right?” jokes Harris, deadpan, demonstrating with his index finger passing just outside, not within, the circle formed by his other index finger and thumb.
It’s a delightful bit of comic business, which Pierce says he and Fox invented on the spot.
“Michael has a really wonderful sense of timing, and he’s really authentic,” reports Pierce. “We’ll do a take and I’ll say, ‘Ah, I feel like I’m in a vacuum.’ And he’ll say, ‘I like working that way! Stay in the moment and the moment will inform you.’
“Michael has helped remind me of that: You create all those memories that in your real life you take for granted. In your heart and your mind, you create a world for your character so strong that it INDUCES your character’s behavior.”
Pierce had been filming that morning, but, unexpectedly granted the afternoon off, he has joined a reporter at a sidewalk cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where, clad in a polo shirt, chinos, and sandals with black socks, he nurses a beer in the late-September chill.
He’s a guy you like hanging with. With a full frame, a broad sweet face, and a mischievous magnetism, he’s good company.
Consider the role for which he is perhaps best known: as Bunk Moreland, the dapper, dry-witted detective on HBO’s epic urban drama The Wire. A series with dense storylines and grim twists, it was given its essential heart in large part thanks to Bunk’s partnership with Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West).
Pierce even infuses with intermittent charm his character in Four, a somber drama about living a lie and the damage that results.
“I’ll answer the question that you really want to ask,” he chuckles when the film is broached: “WHY? Why did you do it?”
He explains he had seen the play and admired it, then was “shocked” when he was asked to play a role in the film so far outside his norm.
“The character explores the ripple effect of abhorrent behavior,” he says. “As an actor you’re always a student of human behavior, and to study this sort of behavior is why I took the role.”
Pierce, who turns 50 in December, got into acting as a youngster growing up in New Orleans. He attended a theater camp at the University of New Orleans, and liked it, then enrolled at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Then he headed to New York and Juilliard to further hone his technique (including a speaking voice that, in its full come-hither mode, could rival Barry White’s).
But Pierce has never lost touch with his home town, helping spearhead projects that include a redevelopment effort to build new homes and a chain of quality supermarkets in neighborhoods that need the nutrition as well as the jobs.
And through it all, he has forged an acting career he is proud of — especially this fall, he says, toasting himself with a sip of his beer.