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Treme – Wendell Pierce on his dilemma

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Treme - Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffins and Wendell Pierce
Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffins and Wendell Pierce © Blown Deadline

When Wendell Pierce was offered the role in the new HBO series Treme, a drama set in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina, he had a dilemma on his hands. Ray Romano had just written a part for him in his new series Men of a Certain Age. As the actor was from New Orleans there was no question which project he would choose.

In Treme (pronounced trem-AY), he portrays Antoine Batiste, a smooth-talking trombonist who is struggling to make ends meet, earning cash with any gig he can get, including playing in funeral processions for his former neighbors who died during hurricane Katrina.

Treme is created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, whose HBO series The Wire was critically acclaimed, winning the Peabody Award. Wendell Pierce worked for five years on The Wire playing Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland.

David Simon always used to say that if he didn’t set The Wire in Baltimore, he could have told it in Cleveland or some other city. Is there a universal story in New Orleans? Or do you see the gift of Treme being a very specific story about a very specific town and culture?

Treme 1.01 - Wendell Pierce
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce on trombone) © Blown Deadline

Treme 1.01 Do You Know What It Means – Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce on trombone) of the Treme Brass Band in the funeral march as it continues on to the cemetery in Scene 82 of the pilot episode © Blown Deadline

I think it’s a very specific story. New Orleans is one of the most unique American cities, one of the most unique cities in the world. And we were uniquely a part of one of the greatest disasters in the country, and I personally believe that the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.

I think that people will see in the stories of Treme as struggles that they may identify with, and have a better understanding of the humanity that happened within this disaster, and also an appreciation of culture and how culture serves a role in everyday life. And I think that we in New Orleans display that more than any other city. Culture is an everyday thing. We sing when we say hello.

Being from New Orleans, was there anything about the series that worried you?

Treme - David Simon, Wendell Pierce, and Eric Overmyer
Executive producer David Simon, actor Wendell Pierce, and executive producer Eric Overmyer © FilmMagic

As a New Orleanian, I was concerned, like all New Orleanians, about the authenticity of it. A lot of times you see bad TV movies about New Orleans where it’s Mardi Gras every day, and everybody is dressed up, and outside the window you see a parade going by. I knew that David had a unique ability to find the specificity in a culture and depict it in a way that was authentic.

So that’s happening, and that’s evident, and I’m happy about that. New Orleanians are very protective about their culture, and I think they would be happy about the specificity in the show.

Most actors have trouble finding one job. Ray Romano was writing the role of Owen Thoreau Jr for Men of a Certain Age with you in mind at the same time that this came about. How did you choose one?

It was a great honor to have two roles written specifically with you in mind, and I was very happy that Ray wrote the role in his show for me. I worked five years with David on The Wire. I’m from New Orleans and we lost everything. And to have a moment in time to work with such a great creator of material, to say something about the city that I love and its darkest hours and darkest days, it was clear the decision I had to make.

Mr Romano was very understanding of that and appreciative of it. I just told him that this was more than just a job for me. It’s one of the most cathartic moments in my life, art imitating life, life imitating art, and I just hope years from now that when some young kids asks, ‘In New Orleans’ darkest hours, what did you do?’ I will be able to hand him about six seasons of a television show.

What is the state of the city now? Shooting the show there, can you see a tangible economic impact?

Treme - Wendell Pierce
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) © Blown Deadline

Someone from The Wire crew actually said, ‘You must be excited about being home and working on this show.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. And a part of me is a little embarrassed.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘All of those years in Baltimore, I used to talk about New Orleans, and now you guys are here and you’re seeing a damaged city. I’m a little embarrassed that this far down the road we still haven’t gotten it together to recover as much as I would like to see.’

Are you also involved with helping restore the city?

I’m involved in a recovery effort in my neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. Resident-initiated, we put together our own redevelopment plan. But there are so many obstacles that are placed in front of you, and it’s like pulling teeth to get back up on your feet in New Orleans. There are those who don’t have your best interests at heart. So it’s a little embarrassing that it doesn’t take that much art direction to make it look like three months after hurricane Katrina.

When we were preparing a street for shooting, instead of someone saying, ‘Well, this is obviously just a set,’ people didn’t see it as a set. They can still, four and a half years later, possibly think that this is debris being brought from another part of the neighborhood, another part of the city there. So that says a lot about the slow pace and the slow nature of the recovery. It really is post-war Europe for me still.

The series premiered on HBO April 11, 2010, with an 80-minute pilot episode, the first of a 10 episode season. On April 13, 2010, it was announced that HBO had renewed the show for a second season.