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Jamie Hector on loving The Wire and building his own backstory for Marlo

When it comes to a show as gritty as The Wire, the suggestion that it might look better in HD might’ve caused some fans to balk, fearing that the process might somehow accidentally damage the magic. But if any of those fans have been fortunate enough to see how the series looks now, they’re no doubt apologizing for ever questioning HBO’s decision to go the extra mile. In conjunction with the HD upgrade, Jamie Hector—who played Marlo Stanfield—reflected on his time on The Wire, discussing how he came into the series, how much effort he put into building his character’s backstory, and why he never worried about the lack of awards won by the show.

AV Club: So what were your first thoughts when you heard that they were going to be remastering The Wire for HD?


Jamie Hector: My first thought was, “It gets better than this?” [Laughs.] And then I got a chance to peek at it, and I understood why. You know, the crazy part about it is, I totally understood, because I shot a short film. I executive-produced a short film and went through that entire process—color-correcting and sound mixing—and I understood the reasoning behind it. So I thought it was a great move.

AVC: You came into The Wire a little bit into its run. Had you been watching the series prior to joining the cast?

JH: I watched a few episodes prior to getting involved. One in particular that caught my attention was when Wallace’s character was taken out by his best friend, and how that decision was made. [That would be “Cleaning Up,” the penultimate episode of season one. —ed.] That’s when I realized, “This is a serious show.”

AVC: How did you get involved in the show in the first place? Was it just a standard audition, or did they come looking for you specifically?


JH: It was an audition situation. I was fortunate to be a part of an amazing short film called Five Deep Breaths that traveled the entire film festival circuit. The people in position, they laid eyes on it, and it got me into the room. And it kept me in the room.

AVC: How much of Marlo Stanfield was on the page when you were cast, and how much were you able to bring to the role? Because it’s not like they were hurting for good writers on The Wire.


JH: Yeah, you had some real decent writers on that show. [Laughs.] And to be 100 percent honest, I never had to change a line. Or even add a line. All I had to bring was the character, and then let the material play itself. And that’s a testament to the writers. We had amazing writers on that show, and I think the proof is what they went on to do. Because they’re still doing it.

AVC: What did you think when you first read the script? Did you have immediate ideas of how you wanted to play it, or were you just excited to get in there?


JH: When I first read the script—on most shows, you only get one script at a time, and they hadn’t signed me on as a series regular, but I only had one statement—“Do it or don’t, I got someplace to be”—and that was it. So based on that, I had to figure out who this person was and what he was trying to say. I understood he was in a leadership position and trying to gain power, but I wasn’t given too much information at all. So I sat down with a friend of mine, and we just started asking questions, and one thing I realized was that he was very economic. From that, we decided to just create this character that wastes absolutely nothing, not even words.

AVC: Your character was at least loosely based on a real person. Did you look into the real Stanfield at all, or did you just stick to the script?


JH: Well, stories change, you know? Originally I wasn’t too sure if it really was based on a real person, but everyone I met in Baltimore told me it was based on a real person. One person told me the guy was doing life in prison, and then there were other people who said it was basically pieces of real individuals. But speaking to the writers—Ed Burns and David Simon—they told me that where it was going was exactly where they wanted it to go, so I was cool with that. I’m not saying I wasn’t curious. I would’ve loved to have met the individual it was based on while I was doing the project. But that’s not the way it played out. So if I had any questions, I asked the people closest to the character, which is the people who created the character. But that’s one thing that I’d love to do, given the opportunity, with any project: If the person exists, I’d rather just spend some time with the person.

AVC: They didn’t really explore Marlo’s backstory a huge amount. Did you work out in your head who he was before we met him on the show?


JH: I not only worked it out in my head, I transferred it to paper. [Laughs.] So I had at least two pads full of who he was in his life before he hit the screen, and then as we fast-forward, it was just so amazing to me that I actually had to go to Ed Burns and say, “Were you peeking at my material? Because the life that Michael, the character that Tristan Wilds is playing, is experiencing 85 percent of the life that I created for Marlo Stanfield!” And, you know, I didn’t really think he peeked. I was just paying homage to the work and the writing that he’d done for Michael. Because in creating and contemplating Marlo, I thought, well, he hung around with older guys when he was 12 or 13 years old, his family was probably addicted, his father was absent, he was on the street—all of these things, but it was even more detailed than that to describe who he was before he stepped onto The Wire’s page.

AVC: Before you were hired, did you have to do a chemistry read with Gbenga Akinnagbe (playing Chris Partlow)?


JH: No, I didn’t.

AVC: Well, it obviously ended up working out, anyway, because you certainly had chemistry.


JH: We did! I mean, we were men of few words. [Laughs.] I think those kind of people understand each other. You have two ears and one mouth, so you listen more and speak less.

AVC: How much fun—or how disconcerting—was it to play a bad guy, so to speak?

JH: It’s always fun. [Laughs.] It’s always fun to play the bad guy, because you get a chance to do things that most people only think about doing—or at least some people think about it, anyway—and you get to do it on-screen. What’s even more exciting than that is to be able to play a bad guy that redeems himself, or is redeemed in some way or another. But playing the bad guy, you get to say things and look at people and—well, imagine playing a guy like Iago. I mean, he’s good to Othello until he becomes bad, but—he was always bad!


AVC: Did you have a feeling that Marlo might find redemption—or some semblance of it—by the end of the series, or was that a surprise to you?

JH: [Long pause.] No, I didn’t know which way it was going, because you don’t know who’s living or who’s dying when you’re trying to live a life out of the game. And the game has different rules. That game in particular, when you’re in the streets. So I didn’t know if he was going to die or going to live, so whether he was going to redeem himself in some way, in other words, wasn’t something I was thinking about a whole lot. I was hoping he might. Because I believe in that happening, and I’ve seen it happen. In my years on this planet, I’ve seen people go from bad to righteous. And I’ve seen it go the other way, from good to bad. So I was hoping he would transition that way, and I was thinking that it might happen, but—he was a huge part of the show, but at the same time, he was still such a small part of a huge project.


AVC: Marlo and Chris were obviously tight, but was there anyone else within your circle of characters that you thought Marlo played off of particularly well?

JH: Snoop, I felt. Marlo played off of her particularly well because he understands what she was fighting, also. They had same background, so they had that similarity. But she’s a firecracker. [Laughs.] And you just need to understand the people that you’re around. But I felt like we played really well off each other. For the most part, I think everybody else was kind of kept at bay, at a distance, and just close enough to say, “Okay, I understand what you’re saying, that’s cool.”


AVC: How did you feel about the relationship between Marlo and Michael?

JH: I felt like that was a relationship that could’ve developed, and that it would have developed, because of the great potential. It’s like Google buying an upstart, you know? [Laughs.] It’s, like, “Oh, I see great potential in that company, and that company could be very competitive if I don’t step in there and basically make them a part of me.” And I saw that with Michael. And with me understanding me, I understood him, and I knew where he’d be trying to go with it. So with that, it’s just—I felt like our relationship, if given the opportunity, would’ve developed into something, either love or war. He’s the kind of dude that, if Marlo were to get locked up and then come back home thinking he was still the boss, there would’ve been a serious war between the two of them.


AVC: Did you feel like the series could’ve gone on longer, or were you happy with the way it ultimately wrapped up?

JH: I know it could’ve gone on longer, but I’m happy the way it ended up, because—you have to leave people wanting more. If you have a set goal in mind and you wrote it for five seasons, then you stick to your goal. Yeah, people fell in love with it, and it took a while for them to really grab hold of it, but when they did, it took on a life of its own and was considered the best show on television. But if you stick to those five seasons, then people will constantly watch those five seasons, instead of going six, seven, eight seasons and having people say, “It was good the first couple of seasons, but then it fizzled out.” If that happens, then what they’ll remember is that it fizzled out. But if you stick with the plan, then they remember the greatness.


AVC: When The Wire entered its last season without having won any awards of note, Dominic West said—and Wendell Pierce echoed his sentiments—that “we were really just hoping that we would get absolutely none.” And when that turned out to be exactly what they got, he said, “That was quite gratifying, because then you can think, ‘Okay, well, the awards are stupid, then.’” Did you feel the same way?

JH: [Laughs.] You know, the funny thing about awards—some people are, like, “Well, it does validate the quality of the work or the show,” but that’s not what validates it for me. It’s just the opportunity to be working on a show and checking the audience’s response. The people that decide on whether the show is considered the best show is not only three or four people, you know? So I was never one that thought about the awards, whether it was win or lose. For me, it was, like, “time will tell.” So I was never truly concerned about the award aspect of it, because it just didn’t make or break the show, or the acting on the show, or the way the audience viewed the show. People loved it. And I loved it. I loved working on it, and I built great relationships from working on the show. We’ve developed good relationships. So, no, awards or no awards, that was never a concern for me.


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