Wendell Pierce on Tony Awards, ambition, racism, and ‘communing’ with his dead mother
The Daily Beast
June 9, 2023
Wendell Pierce talks connecting with his dead mother on a Broadway stage, his Tony nomination, facing and fighting racism, Michael K. Williams, and his “hunger” for lead roles.
Every night, as Willy Loman faced the moment of his death, Wendell Pierce—the actor playing him in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman—“communed” with his much-missed mother Althea, imagining how she had felt as she faced her own death. Pierce received an Olivier Award nomination for the role in its original London production, historic for featuring a Black Loman family, and is up for a Tony Award for Lead Actor in a Play this Sunday.
It was a “hypnotic release to fall into Loman’s chasm of defeat, physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Pierce told The Daily Beast. “And in that moment, I felt as though every night I was able to commune with my mother, who passed away 10 years ago. It was the closest I felt to what will happen in that moment of death when you contemplate and face the moment of death. I knew my mother had faced this moment. You think: ‘How did you feel? How did you step through it?’” Pierce said his mother had been treated for cancer, the effects of which had proven “worse than the disease.” Her organs failed.
“My mother was very courageous in her moment of death,” Pierce said. “I remember her saying. ‘Just hold my hand.’ I never forget her saying, ‘Oh you just don’t know, you just don’t know.’ There was a moment when I look into the theater, all I can see was a bright white light. I could not see the stage, I could not see the audience. It’s the most isolating moment for Willy—right before he makes the choice of death. I thought, ‘In this moment this is the most isolated you can be and most alone you probably will be,’ but also in that moment, I knew my mother had been there before.
“It sounds morbid, quite horrible, and horrific, but I would look forward to that moment every night because it was the closest I had been with my mother for quite some time. It reconnected me in spirit with her—and that was something that I had never experienced before. Ever. It was a spiritual epiphany in a moment of a play where the past, present, and future all meet in one moment.”
“When my mother was dying, she wanted to come home, and I came home to be with her,” Pierce recalled. “She told me, ‘Wendell, I’m dying.’ ‘I said, ‘No, you’re going to get better.’ She said, ‘No, I’m dying. Stay close to your brother (Ron). He’s the only brother you have.’ I’ll never forget her saying that.” In one of Linda Loman’s (Sharon D. Clarke) speeches to her sons calling them “good boys,” he heard his own mother’s voice. “That was a moment of union I would look forward to.”
“I would always fumble with my mother when I carried her to bed, but the last time I did it I was self-assured and carried her with confidence and placed her in bed,” Pierce recalled of his mother’s final hours. “And she said, ‘That was a good one.’ That’s what I remember as my last moments with my mother. Looking back, I realize her eyes were fixing. It was happening. And I didn’t know it. I came back a few hours later to check on her as she slept, and she’d gone.
“In the last moments of Willy, as I contemplate death just in character, to fully go there I had to contemplate my own. It made me fearful. I don’t want to induce my own death—but I thought, ‘Go as far as you can, Wendell, go as far as you can, and allow me to step out in faith.’ I knew I was experiencing something and contemplating something that my mother was contemplating in those last moments. I understood her. I communed with her, and it was a very spiritual reawakening to connect with her again.”
“It’s humbling,” Pierce, 59, said of the Tony and Olivier nominations. “I’m honored by them both, and profoundly grateful. My first Tony nomination at this point feels like an accumulation of everything I have put into my career all these years.” Is he competitive? “I always say art isn’t a competition,” Pierce said, noting he has been to many Tony-related events, met other nominees, shared an appreciation of their work, and mulled how they could work together. But, he added with a smile, “You can’t help but see it as a competition, and I think it would be nice to win. I’m not going to lie to you. It would be a real honor.”
For Pierce, Death of a Salesman—and playing Willy—“has been a launching pad to give me the opportunity to go even further and realize my best days are not behind me.” He’s still hungry for roles? “I’m hungrier. I’m even more ambitious. Before, I feel as though I was just swimming in shallow waters. Now, I’m in the deep end. Let’s go out into the ocean.”
Pierce, star of The Wire, Treme, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, knew that playing Loman would be “all consuming” when he took the role. At nights, after performing in the show, he would go out “all night long.” Didn’t that make him tired? “Yes, but that’s where Willy was. That was the depth of his exhaustion. We’re talking decades of an exhaustive pursuit of something that was unobtainable. The role had an adverse effect on my health. I had back problems I never had before.”
But, Pierce said, “you tap into something emotionally and spiritually when you get to the point past exhaustion. It’s the ‘brick wall’ that the marathon runner hits, and has to run through, at the 21st mile—the endorphins, they say, that happen at that point. It’s like purely losing yourself. There were moments on stage where I really lost myself, which I knew I would never forget, where I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually open, center stage, in front of 1,000 people. That was so personal and intimate—one of the most cathartic things that can happen, and what we do theater for. And it’s not just my moment, it’s a moment shared by everyone in the theater.”
“Face your anxieties, and work through them”
Pierce revealed that he had experienced depression playing Willy. “But I knew the best thing for me was to go on. The one lesson I did learn from Willy was that to end everything is the worst. No matter how down I got about my own life—thinking, ‘Are my best days behind me?’ ‘Am I worthy of this?,’ all the insecurities that can creep in—the best solution is to marshal on, and not to give into it, because with Willy I see the aftermath of giving into it. That’s where Willy and I diverged.”
His cast mates were supportive as Pierce immersed himself in the role so intently. André De Shields called him “the lion, ” Pierce said smiling (Pierce called Shields “the icon” in return). “When he said that I knew he was speaking for the whole company,” Pierce said. “They were saying, ‘We know the work you’re doing, and how difficult it is to go there every night. Sharon was my foundation and support.
“We wanted to explore Willy and Linda’s love affair, and show a Black family in love in spite of all the dysfunction. Sharon wanted to be an example of a strong Black woman who historically and culturally have been central to Black families in their hardest, darkest days. (Clarke told The Daily Beast she had based her portrayal on her own parents.) She transformed the role and transformed how people saw the play. We see an abiding love, which makes it even more disappointing when Willy gives up at the end, abandoning the very thing that had sustained him for so long.”
Pierce said he shared things in common with Loman. “I think Willy really reflected some of the fears and mistakes I’ve made in my journey being so career-focused and not family-focused. Here I am without a family. And so I wonder if I’ve learned the lessons Willy didn’t learn—that around you are the people who care about you, who are far more valuable than any form of materialism, or professional position you are seeking.
“Like Willy, I’m also wondering if my best days are behind me. That’s why I am trying not to give into the idea that if you don’t win the Tony that’s some kind of testament to you not being worthy. The most profound thing I learned about myself playing Willy Loman is to have courage, and in the face of fear and not the absence of it, recognize that my best days are not behind me. There is a lot more I can contribute, not to do with materialism or position. No matter what position you have, you are of value, and you can impact not only your life but others.”
Of his own life, Pierce said, “Yes, I have love in my life. Yes, I want to have a family. As I have pursued my career—and reflected on the journey I went on with Willy, not wanting to make the same mistakes—as I go into the third act of my life, it will be populated with that love. As I have tried to improve as an artist, I am trying to improve as a man—and I am actively trying to appreciate life to its fullest. You have to examine what that is, and what family means to you, and sometimes I’ll admit I struggle with it as we all do with families. My brother can attest to that, my father can attest to that. But you have to have courage. My mantra is, ‘Face your anxieties, and work through them.’”
Pierce said one problem had been in believing “in this utopian idea of marriage, so I think have been harsh on myself looking for the unobtainable, instead of realizing it was unobtainable. I’ve been tilting at windmills like Don Quixote, or Willy Loman being blind to the real wealth around him.”
Pierce’s 60th birthday on December 8 will be significant, he said. “My 50th was special and great, and there were plenty of others where I was strategizing or positioning myself where I thought I should be, or hoped to go.” He smiled. “When you’re approaching your 60th it is clear there are fewer days ahead of you than there are behind you. I’ve been telling everyone I’m going into the third act, and asking myself: how do you want to live within the third act of my own life artistically and personally? There is a clear awareness of mortality you don’t want to give voice to.
“We developed this idea of middle life,” Pierce said, with a wry laugh. “It’s not! I’m past middle-aged, so what are you going to do with the precious and valuable time you have left? With this birthday foremost in my mind, I don’t want to make the same mistakes as Willy Loman. I want to learn and not share in his hubris, and maybe rectify some wrong turns I’ve made, and still make and sometimes repeat.”
“From the third row of the balcony, a woman screamed, ‘Noooo’”
Not a word was changed in the script for the Death of a Salesman revival, but the sharpness of certain scenes was accentuated by the Lomans being Black, such as when Loman is humiliated by his younger white boss over a cigarette lighter.
“As actors, we brought to the stage who we were,” said Pierce. “The real abject humiliation of that moment, every black person has felt. We understand not just that humiliation, but the macro and micro racist affronts and traumas that Black folks have gone through and accumulate over a period of time. We understand and feel that pain. The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.
“One night stands out in my mind,” Pierce recalled. “I am asked to bend down and pick up the lighter my boss has just dropped. The moment is filled with trauma and humiliation. From the third row of the balcony of the theater, a woman screamed, ‘Noooo.’ Everyone in the theater knew this was the primal scream of a woman who had been there before. She saw the reflection of one of the most humiliating moments in her life enacted in the play, and could not hold back. You could hear a pin drop after that.
“Blake DeLong, who played Willy’s boss Howard, the nicest guy in the world, said that reaction was the yardstick by which he judged if he had done the part right. We were acutely aware that viewing the play through the prism of Black experience heightened everything. I brought everything to play Willy in the same way others like Dustin Hoffman and George C. Scott did, but who better to talk about the American dream turning to a nightmare than the experiences of a Black family in the 1930s and ’40s? Arthur Miller said in the ’70s he fully expected a Black actor to play Willy Loman, and bring to it an insight that furthers the pain of Willy’s hubris.”
Pierce said he wanted “to go further than repeat” how the role had been done in the past. The natural impulse is to be manic—to fight, fight, fight. A caged animal fights fiercest before death. Willy has no chance at all, but if he can give one thing to his son, he feels he will gladly give up his life to give them some hope. It’s like a psychic break, a revelatory moment. Then Willy rushes off the stage. There is no slow contemplation of taking his own life.
“I read up and did research, and there were people who had attempted suicide, and failed, talking about how they felt they were doing something that made greater sense to them than anything they had done before. I had never thought about suicide that way. Willy thinks it is a gift to his family, but it isn’t—it destroys him and his family.” Pierce said he would like to return to Loman at some point, and change and tweak some aspects of his performance: “I see little clips of it, and I cringe.”
The legendary director August Wilson was against the idea of a Black Willy Loman, Pierce said. “I agreed with him when he said it. The reasoning was we don’t need to validate our humanity by just playing the Black version of something that has been classically done. Instead do things your way, from your community. We have our own stories. This season on Broadway in the diversity and multitudes of stories shows this—with productions like Ain’t No Mo’, The Piano Lesson, and Between Riverside and Crazy. To be in this season gives the freedom to not be prohibitive when it comes to interpreting Death of a Salesman in a new way. We should be open to everything, and to really show that we have a diversity of voices within marginalized communities. The more contributions we have, the more growth we have.”
Of Broadway itself, Pierce, who is a member of Black Theatre United, said much progress had been made around issues of race and racism, with more work to do. “We came together in the midst of pandemic and the racial reawakening that followed the murder of George Floyd to address some of those issues. We would hope everybody in all industries would stop and think about where discrimination is happening in their ranks.” On Broadway, Pierce said theater owners had been receptive, and the work so far productive—the renaming of theaters honoring significant Black figures had taken place, as well as other initiatives and objectives.
“We have to be ever-vigilant,” Pierce said. “People assume when you make strides ahead that it’s over, done, taken care of. That’s the wrong way to look at it. Every generation has to earn the reformation that we all want. The change that you want you have to earn with every generation—because with every generation there will be those who do not have our best interests at heart, and who will perpetuate discrimination and bigotry, and take the practices of that bigotry and morph it into something new. We have to be vigilant because the barbarians are always at the gates. We have to constantly re-evaluate where we are, test ourselves to go further with it, and hold people accountable who would take us back.”
A key remaining challenge, Pierce said, was that Broadway needs to market the shows to communities “who traditionally don’t come to Broadway, to show that it is not just for the privileged. We will lose our way if Broadway is not affordable for everybody. We cannot expect to grow Broadway audiences if the average price of a ticket is $150.”
“Imperfection is what life is, and what our humanity is”
Pierce grew up, the youngest of three sons, in New Orleans; his father Amos E. Pierce Jr. is a decorated war veteran who became a maintenance engineer, and his mother was a first-grade teacher.
“They were great parents, a man and woman who instilled in me the great importance of education and confidence. We had a mantra in the family: ‘Can’t die three days before the creation of this world.’ It means: Don’t tell me you can’t do anything. It was a saying my grandfather said. My mother was a teacher for 40-plus years. She and my father met at Southern University. My father had just come back from World War Two, and came to New York and studied photography.” The photo studios he worked in died out as more people purchased cameras, and so he became a maintenance man.”
Pierce grew up Catholic. “I’m still working through that,” he said, laughing. “This ideology that is placed in your head so young. I was very fortunate to grow up as a Black Catholic in the South.” He laughed again. “With every homily the church itself contradicted itself. I didn’t embrace it wholeheartedly. You always knew there was something a little suspect here.”
Pierce recalled that when his parents first moved to their neighborhood, they went to the local Catholic church, sat where they used to like to sit, only for the usher to say to them, “Excuse me, the negro pews are at the back.” Pierce said, “My mother said, ‘What? Well, I am going to keep on walking,’ and left that church to find another place to worship.”
His parents told him to “try and figure out your relationship with God, but understand that the church is man-made, so there’s that which is divine and that which is man. Discern the two. The reverence held towards the priest was never something that was taught in my household. He was a man just like you, who had some insight and had made a devout commitment—but he was still a man, so you could put him in check if he said something wrong.
“But that judgmental nature still seeps in there. I judge myself harshly and judge others harshly. Subconsciously, that’s down to the Catholicism I grew up with. Imperfection is what life is, and what our humanity is, and our belief is too. I’ve seen the most priestly and religious of people be the most judgmental and imperfect and sinful and violent people—and people within the Catholic church have been especially complicit and turned a blind eye to so much abuse for all these decades, allowing it for years to go on—and as its congregants, we’re as much to blame.”
Pierce’s parents were supportive of him becoming an actor, but his dad sternly told him he would not take him to rehearsals anymore unless he “committed to it 100 percent.” Pierce laughed. On the opening night of Serious Money on Broadway, Pierce asked his dad if he recalled that moment. His dad did. “I said, ‘I want you to remember tonight as much as you remember that.’” His dad told him how proud he was of him, and, now 98, was also at the opening night of Death of a Salesman.
Pierce honored “all the love and time he gave me” that night with the gift of a special watch. It was also “full circle” for his dad, who had been in New York in 1947 when the play was originally written. “My father now can barely hear anything. For him to stay up 3 hours straight was amazing, but he loved it. He was so proud. It was absolutely wonderful to have him there.” (Pierce is spending much of his time right now in New Orleans to be with his dad.)
Pierce has said that while his dad had loved his country, a racist America had not loved him back. “That’s the continuum in America, and we always have to be vigilant about it. At that time it was codified in law. There was the Double Victory campaign—Victory Abroad and Victory at Home. The first was about fighting fascism overseas, the second was about fighting for equality at home. My dad came back from war poor.”
His father had even been denied the wartime medals he had earned for valor. It was many years later that Pierce finally managed to retrieve them, and ensure he got them. It was a “full circle moment,” Pierce said, when his brother Ron graduated from West Point, to have his medals pinned on him by his father, and for Ron to then pin his father’s medals on to him.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Pontchartrain Park, one of the first suburban-style subdivisions developed for African Americans in the segregated South, where Pierce was raised. “It was devastating for everyone in New Orleans,” Pierce said. “I saw it as what a nuclear winter would be like after a blast. My goal was to get my parents back into their home before they died. We rebuilt it block by block, house by house, and in 2020 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I got them home before they died. My father is still with us, in the home that he fought so hard for.”
“‘The Wire’ changed the way we tell stories on TV”
As a little boy, Pierce wanted to be an architect or lawyer. He played football and Little League. His eldest brother Stacey (who later passed away), was a studious, academic kid who—with his microscope—would show Pierce the amoeba that lived in ponds outside. (His older brother Ron is “a military man” who graduated from West Point, and now works for the government, and is “very proud” of Pierce’s acting achievements.)
Pierce performed in his first play in sixth grade; a graduate student was looking for a child to play a role, which he got. He knew he wanted to become an actor as a freshman in high school, and attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and began to perform in community theater projects.
A trip to London sealed his ambitions. “I saw Kate Nelligan in As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I thought, ‘Wow, I can be a professional actor now.’ I never thought I would be able to understand Shakespeare. I thought it was archaic literature. In this production it came alive. I also saw how theater was an industry with people forcefully committed to making it and attending it. I also saw Evita at the London Palladium, and Yul Brynner in the umpteenth revival of The King and I. I saw the time, energy, effort, dedication, and discipline you needed to be a professional artist.”
Pierce became a presidential scholar in the arts, and then auditioned and got into Juilliard. He said he had faced racism “every step of the way” in his career, “even doing Death of a Salesman. This was just yesterday. Someone said to me, ‘They didn’t have Black salesmen in the 1940s, that’s a fantasy.’” He recalled performing in a TV show with Gregory Hines in the 1990s. Hines’ character would kiss his son and other male family members. At one read-through, Pierce recalled, an executive said, “Everything’s great. I just have one question, and don’t take this the wrong way…’ And that phrase was always the telltale sign… ‘But do Black people kiss their kids?’ I’ll never forget that.”
As Pierce was preparing to leave Juilliard, a casting director said there were “all kinds of things” he wouldn’t be cast in. “It’s like I couldn’t cast you in a Shakespeare play or film because they didn’t have Black people back then.” Pierce paused. “Those were his exact words. I told him, ‘Shakespeare was brilliant, but he couldn’t just make up Othello.’ He must have seen a Black person.” Pierce used to carry around a postcard showing Peter Paul Rubens’ “Four Studies of the Head of a Negro” (dated 1617-1620), “so if I ever saw that casting director again I could say, ‘See, there were Black people then.”
“That ignorance is perpetuated when you eliminate education or don’t teach Black history as certain people in the southern coastal regions of this country want to stop,” Pierce said. He had recently heard of a student at a major university theater program who had said in a class that “Black people are more athletic than white people because they have an extra muscle in their butts, and that extra muscle comes from where their tails used to be. The teacher then had to explain the history of this ignorant, racist trope—and this was in a university. In the 21st century, we have to remain ever more vigilant about these ignorant ideologies and racist people. The teacher used it as a teachable moment in that class. You have to deal with racism at every stage—and I have dealt with it at every stage of my career.”
That career built to playing Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire—“an absolutely significant defining moment of my career,” Pierce calls it, adding with a laugh that “it will be in the first line of my obituary too. I knew right away The Wire was good, but it was so different I didn’t think it would go anywhere.
“Slowly but surely we gained an audience. It went on to change the television landscape and the way we tell stories on television. David (Simon, creator) knew he was writing a visual novel, with characters and stories that developed over chapters. At the time, TV was neat and procedural—introduce something at the top of the hour, catch the criminal, wrap everything up at the end of the hour. That wasn’t how life is. Bunk Moreland defined my career. It gave it its north star, it was the high watermark.”
Pierce’s close friend and Wire co-star Michael K. Williams, who died of a drug overdose in 2021, “was a unique star,” said Pierce. “He was such a great talent, and he was also one of the kindest people. He really spoke to everyone’s heart. If you met Michael, you became friends immediately. Our Wire characters (Williams played Omar Little) had a unique relationship—his was a homicidal Robin Hood, mine was a detective from the same neighborhood who chose a different path, ‘but there but for the grace of God went I.’
“We developed a friendship off-screen. Michael was always asking me how to develop characters and scenes. I said to him, ‘Michael, you need to stop coming to me. You’ve surpassed what I’m even attempting to do. You’re so gifted.’ Michael gave voices to men who TV never gave voices to. He gave them humanity. I was aware of his personal struggles too, which he fought valiantly and had overcome to some extent. We all have slip-backs. He had overcome his. That made the shock of his death even harder. I knew how clean he had been. He was so talented. I was fortunate to have been able to tell him how much I cared about him, and how talented he was, before he died.”
Playing trombonist Antoine Batiste in Treme was a “gift I’d wish for any actor,” said Pierce. Co-creator Simon told Pierce he was writing a New Orleans-set drama, and knowing Pierce was from the city asked him to read a particular scene he had written. “He had named a character Wendell, and that’s how he told me he was writing Treme for me. I was like, ‘David, man, that is touching.’ Then it evolved into something totally different. It was a chance for me to go home, and to be at home in the darkest hours of New Orleans trying to rebuild the neighborhood I grew up in. And I got to spend the last three years of my mother’s life with her. My parents were getting older, and Treme gave me a real gift. I don’t think of it as a TV show, I think of it as my luckiest moment as an artist.”
“If The Wire was the canary in the mine making a commentary on the dysfunction of American culture,” Pierce said, “Treme was a celebration of American culture, and a cultural document years from now people can use to see how New Orleans emerged from its darkest days, and why culture is and should be important in all our lives. If The Wire was a visual novel, Treme was a visual report.”
“Let us make the most of it before it is too late!”
Pierce has said he wanted to make his mark with Death of a Salesman; playing a memorable lead role, the audience, critical reactions, and Olivier and Tony nominations, he hopes, all set the seal on his next, high-profile professional chapter.
“I’m looking forward to the next challenge,” Pierce told The Daily Beast. “Professionally, I want to follow up with a major role on Broadway, something substantial and unique.” (He was due to do a reading for a new Broadway production a few days after we spoke, but declined to say what the role and project were.) He said to have met the challenge of playing Willy was “so gratifying that the professional accolades that have come are an addition to a real special sense of knowing I achieved something that is so complex and so difficult.”
Pierce next wants to play some of the great roles: Richard III, Walter Lee Younger in Raisin in the Sun, the father in Bill Gunn’s Black Picture Show, and Lopahin in The Cherry Orchard. “I was considering Dr. Stockmann in Enemy of the People, but then heard another Broadway production (starring Succession’s Jeremy Strong) was coming up. Maybe I could do it in London, I’m certainly keeping it at the back of my mind.”
Pierce will soon appear as James Greer in the final season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and will also be appearing in Raising Kanan, playing Ishmael “Snaps” Henry, as Deadline put it—“a living legend on the street, former bank robber, and OG dealer who now acts as a mentor and financier for up-and-comers like Kanan.” “People have never seen me like that. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“Subconsciously, as actors, we have insecurities,” Pierce said. “When I was first offered the role of Willy, I asked, ‘Willy Loman? Is there another character named Willy Loman?’ I couldn’t believe I was being given the opportunity. Those insecurities sometimes raise their ugly heads for all actors. But this experience has given me the backbone, resilience, and understanding that anything is possible.
“It makes me think of those lines from Waiting for Godot, which Didi (Vladimir) says: ‘Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance… at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late!’”
Pierce paused and smiled. “And so I’m going to act before it’s too late.”