Wendell Pierce talks COVID-19, “Jack Ryan,” “Burning Cane,” and WBOK in interview with Kristine Froeba
New Orleans native, “Treme” and “The Wire” actor, Wendell Pierce is coming off of one of the most exciting periods of his career. And although COVID-19 has created a lull in almost everyone’s life and career, Pierce seems to be as visible as ever, both on the ground in New Orleans and on our collective streaming services.
It is also Pierce’s instantly recognizable, dulcet tone that narrates the new Popeye’s NOLA Strong campaign released last week. It’s a video that caused more than a few locals’ eyes to well up. When the restaurant chain created its NOLA Strong family meal box, directing all profits to benefit the non-profit Second Harvest Food Bank, they called on Pierce. Through the campaign, Popeyes also vows to deliver one million meals to New Orleanians in need during the pandemic.
“This is NOLA, but what happens when things get hard in
The Big Easy…?”
– Wendell Pierce
Pierce’s voiceover speaks of a city born and reborn in hard times, evoking shared memories of the Katrina aftermath. It follows the well-known flow of how New Orleanians always come together as one to help one another, both when times are hard and on any typical weekday. He is one of us.
Pierce, who was raised in Pontchartrain Park, is still a part-time resident of New Orleans. He is well-known for returning to his roots to pitch in when locals need a leg up. The video narration is only a fraction of the story.
This past year saw the acclaimed actor wowing the London West End as Willy Loman in the groundbreaking African-American adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Pierce also recreated his curmudgeonly take on CIA analyst James Greer, the iconic Tom Clancy character, for Amazon’s hit series “Jack Ryan” and starred in several internationally lauded films—one created and executed in Louisiana.
But surprisingly, after discussing his recent acting work, watching the Saints in London, and his thoughts on Hollywood South, Pierce was adamant that what he is most excited about is his new ownership in New Orleans legacy radio station WBOK-1230 AM.
“It’s very important in the community there. It’s been a mainstay in the African-American community for 70 years in New Orleans,” said Pierce. “I’m very excited that I’m one of the new owners.”
The historically African-American owned and run radio station is his pet project and an obvious labor of love. Pierce announced he will host a monthly show on the newly reconfigured WBOK called “Wendell Pierce’s Profiles.”
Pierce, whose history as a radio announcer goes all the way back to his school days in New Orleans, will use his seat at the mic to conduct in-depth interviews with both local celebrities and Hollywood figures.
Last week, Pierce called in to participate in UNMASKED: A COVID-19 TOWNHALL, presented by the NAACP. Pierce used his celebrity to shine a light on the glaring racial disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic in the African-American community, with an emphasis on his hometown. New Orleans has been a center of the pandemic, and up to 70% of Louisiana’s COVID-19 victims have been African-Americans.
Before the pandemic, and after a late night on the London stage, Pierce spoke to us about his latest projects and his hopeful vision for the future of Hollywood South.
At the time, the New Orleans film “Burning Cane” was being honored at multiple film festivals around the world. Pierce had just won Best Actor for the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the film was being feted at the Venice Film Festival and the London Film Festival, before appearing at the New Orleans Film Festival.
The film’s then-17-year-old director and writer is New Orleanian Phillip Youmans. He won the award for Best Cinematographer and Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca for “Burning Cane.”
“He sent me the script, and I thought it was going to be a short, and then it turned out to be a feature film,” said Pierce. The actor explained that both he and the director are alumnus of Ben Franklin and NOCCA.
“It’s always important to help out a young artist in the beginning while they’re studying,” Pierce added.
The movie is a drama surrounding a Southern alcoholic Baptist preacher in rural Louisiana cane country, as portrayed by Pierce. The movie was filmed in New Orleans, Thibodaux and in Larose in Lafourche Parish.
“No matter how young or old you are, quality work gets rewarded. I’m really happy to be a part of his first film at the beginning of his career,” said Pierce.
Pierce is also listed as a producer on the film, which shows how much time and effort he put into the project. That one of Hollywood’s renowned directors, Ava DuVernay, the award-winning director of “Selma,” “When They See Us” and “A Wrinkle in Time” distributed the film speaks volumes. “Selma” starred actor Pierce and he won several awards for his performance in the film.
“It’s important to recognize the talent that’s coming out of Louisiana, I think,” said Pierce.
When house-bound viewers are streaming movies, a thought-provoking choice featuring Pierce is “Clemency,” an award-winning death-row drama by actress and filmmaker Alfre Woodard. Pierce plays the loving but distant husband to Woodard’s prison warden in the award-winning, and gripping psychological study. Pierce is proud of the film.
” ‘Clemency’ won Sundance. It screened at Toronto, and also here in London,” said Pierce. “It did really well.”
He is quick to point out the small film’s achievements and talked about a personal wish for an Oscar nod for Woodard that didn’t happen. “Clemency” took the top Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films at Sundance and was a winner at numerous other film festivals. It was also screened at last Fall’s New Orleans Film Festival.
Pierce had no projects scheduled to film in Louisiana before the pandemic but says he’s always on the lookout to support the local film industry. An industry whose crews and movie trucks were seen in the neighborhoods of New Orleans right up until the recent COVID-19 related government shut-downs.
“I think the Louisiana and New Orleans film industry are definitely growing, but it can also easily go away if we choose not to support it,” Pierce said.
“You know, we come up with the subsidies for oil and gas. And hope that Louisiana doesn’t make that mistake. We’ve already lost so much production. I think the film industry in Louisiana is very important. Louisiana is seen as a great place to make films by Hollywood.”
Pierce is concerned that Louisiana might follow suit and hurt the burgeoning local industry that currently supports hundreds of locals.
“I remember when I first started out, Hollywood South was Wilmington, N.C.,” said Pierce. “All of the films were being shot there. This was in the ’80s and so many TV series were being made there that they built studios there.”
Only a few years ago, Wilmington was buzzing with multiple productions, large studios and hundreds of professionals who had built their lives around a sub-economy for more than three decades.
Then the North Carolina state legislature rescinded it tax credits for film productions. Overnight productions moved stakes to New Orleans and Georgia, resulting in a crushing blow to Wilmington’s economy and housing market.
“It was because of North Carolina’s mistake in judgment that the film industry even came to New Orleans,” said Pierce. “We’ve now had the time to replicate what North Carolina built up over decades and lost.
“Ultimately, we have to be very careful of the film industry still here. We’ve already lost so much from Louisiana that’s moved to Georgia,” said Pierce. “If the government cuts back on subsidies toward cultural production, even just the talk of something like that, it could kill the industry in New Orleans.”
Hopefully, that won’t happen, and film production will soon be back on its feet, in both Hollywood and Hollywood South.
Wendell Pierce Selected Filmography
The movie “Clemency” is currently streaming on Amazon and iTunes; “Burning Cane” and “Selma” are available on Netflix; and two seasons of the limited series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” are available on Amazon Prime Video.
Wendell Pierce is also well known for his work on “The Wire” “Treme” “Suits” and “Chicago P.D.” — all popular shows that are binge-watch worthy during self-isolation.
The “Burning Cane” official trailer can be seen here.