This year’s NAACP TV drama competition reveals that law enforcement provides ample opportunity for thesps of color to act with distinction. In addition to HBO’s “The Wire” being nommed for outstanding series, all four acting categories claim at least one nominee in possession of a gold shield. Time was when minority actors were consigned to play nothing but criminals. Those days are happily long gone, but who could have guessed that the seesaw would tip in the opposite direction?
Thus at the 38th annual Image Awards, Jesse L. Martin (Detective Ed Green on “Law & Order”) is up for lead actor; CCH Pounder (Detective Claudette Wyms on “The Shield”) and Roselyn Sanchez (FBI Special Agent Elena Delgado on “Without a Trace”) are up for lead actress; Gary Dourdan (forensic specialist Warrick Brown on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) and Wendell Pierce (Detective William Moreland on “The Wire”) are up for supporting actor; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (FBI Agent Vivian Johnson on “Without a Trace”) and S. Epatha Merkerson (Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order”) are up for supporting actress.
Ironically, that deluge of law enforcement makes Michael Kenneth Williams’ actor nom for “The Wire” something on an anomaly, for he plays Omar Little, a drug dealer. Yet even here — perhaps especially here — there has been progress: Omar, despite his hard-as-nails demeanor, street cred and tough talk, is gay.
The singularity of combining these seemingly disparate elements has not been lost on Williams, nor, apparently, on viewers. “It’s kind of funny,” says the actor. “I have alpha males coming to me in the streets saying, ‘I love Omar.’ ”
Part of the reason they do, according to Williams, is that he has integrated Omar’s sexuality into his portrayal. ” ‘You worried about who I’m in bed with?’ ” says the actor, imitating Omar to make his point. ” ‘This shotgun is what you really need to be worried about.’ And I think that’s made people accept him.”
Williams is well aware of how a character’s atypical attributes can be used to a thesp’s advantage. “In the beginning, I used his homosexuality as a way to stand out among a lot of really good actors,” Williams says, referring to his talented colleagues on the show. “I immediately embraced it knowing it could be a benefit if I could play it right. I just didn’t want him to be comical.”
Avoiding stereotypes is perhaps a special concern for actors of color, and the challenge is that much greater when facing multiple preconceptions. Pounder knows all about that: As Detective Wyms on “The Shield,” she exists in a world not especially sympathetic to either women or minorities. In fact, Pounder’s role was originally written for a man, and only through her agent’s chutzpah and her own formidable talents did she persuade the show’s creators to give her the part: an older cop on the way to retirement. Pounder took the character as conceived and turned it into something never before seen on TV.
“I wanted Claudette to have all the trappings of a man,” Pounder says. “No fear of the guys. I wanted her to feel she can handle anyone and anything. She started at the bottom, and she’s earned it every step of the way. By the time you see Claudette, she’s granite formed. She’s one of the guys. In other words, nobody would walk by Claudette and look at her butt and look at her cleavage. It’s that kind of situation.”
The challenges facing Jean-Baptiste may be the same as those facing any actor in a police procedural in which viewers never see a character’s home or personal life; “Without a Trace” focuses on finding abductees. The case, not the characters, are at the center of the drama.
“It’s much easier to play a character written with a lot of emotional indicators,” says the London-born actress. “It’s much harder to do procedurals. Reading off credit-card numbers, you continually have to dig deep. With Vivian, I’ve been known to do her grocery list while interrogating someone. I’ll do anything to keep that internal life going. Did she go to the gym? Has she seen her son? The American accent also keeps me on my toes, although as soon as I put my suit on, that’s second nature — which means I cannot wear a suit in real life anymore. And I used to like suits.”
Martin has been nommed six times as lead actor for playing Detective Green on “Law & Order,” but he’s never won. The real reward here, obviously, is portraying a character Martin says has evolved during eight TV seasons.
“When he came in, he was very green and extremely cocky,” the actor says. “But over the years, he’s learned that you get more with candy than with vinegar, and so he’s learned not to bounce of the walls all the time. He’s learned to do his work and keep it positive, almost the reverse of what he started with.”