In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Though he’s best known to A.V. Club readers for his work on The Wire and Treme, Wendell Pierce is also an author. His new memoir, The Wind In The Reeds: A Storm, A Play, And The City That Would Not Be Broken, details the actor’s involvement in the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina and focuses specifically on Pierce’s belief in the healing power of the arts. As he puts it in the book, art has the power “to renew the vision of people in danger of perishing. And not just to renew vision, but to impart a spirit of resurrection that proclaims in the face of the hurricane, ‘Yes, these bones can live.’”
Pierce will expound on both this belief and his career Sunday, November 1 as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Tickets are available now.
Wendell Pierce: Wow! I’m so thankful when I have a job. I would say the worst job I ever had was the one I quit after the first night. I was an overnight restaurant janitor. And it wasn’t because of the job. We had to do four restaurants in the night, overnight. But I was working with a den of thieves. I just quit the next day.
The A.V. Club: What do you mean by “a den of thieves?”
WP: The little crew I was working with was just robbing these restaurants blind. I got the job and someone was like, “Hey man, can I borrow your car keys?” So they would make me drive and constantly through the night it would be, “Can I borrow your keys? I want to put some of my stuff in your car.” And they were just robbing the places blind. I’m sure the employees think that I was the one, because I quit the next morning. When I dropped them off in the morning they were like, “Hold it, hold it, I’ve got something in the trunk.” And they were just pulling out all this stuff.
WP: When I graduated from Juilliard, I had such a sense of accomplishment. I’d been studying for seven years at that point. From the New Orleans Center For Creative Arts in New Orleans and then coming up to New York and going to Juilliard, I really felt this sense of accomplishment. That’s a better word than success.
AVC: It wasn’t that you had jobs lined up, right? Just that you were done?
WP: No, it was just one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. There were so many times I doubted myself, doubted whether I was going to finish, doubted if I wanted to go on, and then when I completed it, I had a real sense of accomplishment. It was the first time I knew that, in spite of everything, you don’t give up. Because ultimately when you get there, you will appreciate the difficulty of getting there.
WP: I would rule the world to eliminate war.
AVC: So you’d be kind of a good supervillain.
WP: Yeah. A good supervillain. Ultimately it’s bad, because you don’t want one person ruling the world. I would rule the world, but I would end war. And make everyone listen to my music.
AVC: There you go. That’s villainous. What kind of music?
WP: It would be whatever suited my fancy that particular day.
AVC: There’d just be one radio station, your station, and that’s what everyone would listen to.
WP: You’d have one radio station, yes. The Emperor’s Radio Station. There’d be a lot of jazz on it, and teenybopper music. It would be John Coltrane and Paramore.
WP: I was gregarious, fun-loving, curious. I grew up in New Orleans. I had a great, eclectic group of friends, loved a variety of different things. I loved wrestling and I loved jazz. I loved going to museums and I loved playing football and being on the Little League team, and I had a great curiosity about different things. I loved to play with my brother’s science kit, and loved riding my bike, and loved my brothers and my friends.
AVC: It sounds like you were a good kid.
WP: I would get in trouble because I was a prankster, too. I loved to tease, and that can get on people’s nerves. And I always heard, “You don’t know when to quit.” I always took jokes too far and things like that, so I could be a pain in the butt at times.
WP: One of my earliest celebrity crushes was Diahann Carroll in Julia. That’s telling my age. You don’t even know who that is, do you?
AVC: No, I do.
WP: Yeah, yeah. I bet. You don’t know. Julia was a television show. Diahann Carroll was the first female African-American TV lead. She was beautiful. I also had a crush on Janet Jackson when she played Penny on Good Times. We were the same age, and I thought, “Oh, if I met her…”
AVC: “She would fall in love with me for sure. I just know it.”
WP: “Fanfare For The Common Man” by Aaron Copland. I love it. It’s majestic. It’s beautiful. I’ll never forget when I first drove out west to see Monument Valley. I grew up in New Orleans always thinking of the western canyons and mountains, mesas, and Monument Valley. I literally had it queued up for when I first drove and saw Monument Valley, and I played it all the way driving into Monument Valley. [Singing] “dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun-dun, boom boom boom boom…” You know the song?
AVC: I do.
WP: It’s beautiful. And I cried. I said, “this is so beautiful!” I cried like the double rainbow man on the internet. “It’s so beautiful!” [Mimicking crying.] You know the double rainbow man? That’s how I cry when I hear that song.
WP: I have been doing interviews about my love of art and my book, The Wind In The Reeds. I’ve been telling people about the power of art, and the power of the culture of New Orleans. So that’s what I’ve been doing all day.
AVC: What have you been telling people?
WP: People forget that art is not just a piece of entertainment. It is the place where we collectively declare our values and then act on them. That’s one of the most powerful things we have as a community: our culture and our art. And it’s the intersection between life and how people deal with life. It’s the most important thing we do.
WP: All the time. I open most of my speeches with, “Hi, I’m Wendell Pierce. I am not Cedric The Entertainer.”
AVC: Have you ever met him?
WP: Yes. I know him. Great guy. I don’t mind looking like him, but I don’t think we look that much alike. I see the resemblance, but no, I’m not Cedric The Entertainer.
AVC: Do you usually correct people?
WP: Yes. At least once. When the people are still going on about it I’m like, “Yeah, you got me.” You know? Because sometimes people don’t want to accept that they’ve made the mistake. So I’ll say, “Okay, you’re right.” Or I’ll say, “That’s my brother.”
WP: I would say business development, because I do have other businesses. That’s something I’m trying to do now, develop my businesses. Actually, that’s something that was out of necessity in New Orleans. We had to bring back whole communities. There were so many things that you needed to do. So I put together a company to build houses, I put together a fresh food company, with grocery stores and convenience stores. So if the acting dried up I would say business development.
WP: I have wanderlust. I like to travel. So whenever I go someplace I always buy something, collect something, to help me remember the trip. So I guess I collect mementos from my many travels. I also collect visual art. I have an art collection. I have James Bearden, I have Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, pottery from Uganda, a piece of art from Cuba…
AVC: This question’s a big one for someone from New Orleans. You don’t have to limit it to time and space, so if you want your grandma’s gumbo and then you want a dessert you had in Paris, that’s totally fine.
WP: I would do a multicourse meal. I would do my mother’s stewed okra and shrimp, the pigeon from Agape in Paris. Ooohhh, that’s good. I would also love some boiled crawfish.
AVC: Drinks or desserts?
WP: I would love a Rose Cremant sparkling wine and for dessert, bananas foster from Galatoire’s in New Orleans.
Bonus 12th question from Tommy Chong: How long are we going to have to endure Donald Trump?
WP: At least until the South Carolina primary. They always go for the crazy candidate, and I know he wants to win at least one primary. And if he hasn’t won one up until that point, which I don’t think he will, he’s going to wait it out until the South Carolina primary. And he’s going to win the South Carolina primary. And so then when that’s over, then he’s going to just go away. His numbers are going to drop as quickly as his popularity rose.
AVC: And then what do you want to ask the next person?
WP: If there were no repercussions, who would you like to make love to the most, right now, in the world?
AVC: Who would you pick?
WP: Right now, I’m looking out of a window in Philadelphia and there’s this woman walking down the street who is absolutely gorgeous. Her. I don’t know who she is, but that beautiful woman walking outside my window in Philadelphia. Wow. She’s pretty.