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Midway through Wendell Pierce's new thriller, Don't Hang Up, there's a scene that feels like it was ripped directly from this month's headlines. Premiering March 20 at 8 p.m. on Bounce, the film features The Wire star as desperate father Chris Daniels, who receives a phone call from kidnappers claiming that they're holding his adult daughter hostage. The moment he fails to follow their instructions — or, even worse, hangs up the phone — she'll die.
Directing him to the nearest bank, the kidnappers instruct Chris to withdraw a hefty sum from his savings account. But that withdrawal catches the attention of the teller, who has to enlist the branch manager to approve the transaction. Meanwhile, a security officer watches the exchange unfold, adding another layer of tension to the already-tense encounter. It's a situation that Americans recently watched play out when Black Panther director Ryan Coogler tried to withdraw $12,000 from his own savings account, and was handcuffed by Atlanta police officers after the teller mistook him for a bank robber.
Fortunately, neither encounter ended in tragedy. But Pierce — who filmed his scene months before the incident with Coogler — tells Yahoo Entertainment that both moments are a potent reminder that Americans have to stay "vigilant" when it comes to the way Black men are perceived in public spaces. "While this story is fictional, it was very real for Mr. Coogler and he was very much in danger," the 58-year-old actor says. "Thank God it didn't end up the way it could have ended up."
And Coogler was in more danger than initial reports suggested. Body-camera footage from his encounter with the Atlanta police revealed that one of the officers began to draw a gun as he approached the filmmaker. That detail reminded Pierce of his own frightening brush with police escalation. "I've been in a situation of a police officer pulling their gun on me," he recalls. "I was pulled over at a traffic stop in the middle of the day on my way to a funeral. It was 100 degrees, so my windows were up and the AC was on and I had kids in the back.
"The officer didn't use his PA, and I guess he was giving instructions to me," Pierce continues. "I rolled my window down and realized he was screaming at the top of his voice. He had already pulled his weapon and was asking 'Why didn't you get out when I told you to get out?' It just frightened me of what it could have become. When anything like that happens, it's terrifying."
In a wide-ranging conversation, Pierce discusses the real-life virtual kidnapping cases that inspired Don't Hang Up, losing Michael K. Williams ahead of this summer's 20th anniversary of David Simon's classic HBO drama, The Wire, and why his experience making Malcolm X offered a crash course in Hollywood politics.
I appreciate that Don't Hang Up gives you the chance to do your own version of Tom Hardy's performance in Locke.
Yes, it was, man! I actually looked at Locke in preparation to see what I would try to do. It's an interesting acting exercise.
So what's the secret sauce of acting into a phone for an entire movie?
Realizing how cruel the writer is. [Laughs] No, the most important thing with any technology is the human connection, so I actually had someone there off-camera to have the conversation with. This great actor, André Sills, was just off-camera doing the scenes with me, and it was really good to have that personal interaction. He also plays one of the FBI agents at the end of the film, so he did get some screen time.
Is the film based on any specific virtual kidnapping incident?
No, they wrote an action thriller based on several real events and stories. It's actually something that's becoming a real issue — it's really trending up. I read several accounts, and [the kidnappers] prove to the person that they have their relatives. And with that proof, they can control you, because they know anybody will do anything to save their loved ones. The most insidious part of it is making sure that you don't hang up, and that you don't call anyone else, including the police. That's part of the psychological warfare — for lack of the better term — of keeping you hooked into this extortion.
In addition to the thriller elements, it's also the story of a father learning to let go of his now-adult daughter. Did you draw on your own experience for that?
I don't have any kids of my own, but I lost my brother at a young age, and I've been an uncle and godfather to his two daughters. So I drew on that, definitely. We've had our moments of tension, and I've tried to allow them to become the women that they want to become. I understood a father's love for his kids, and the understanding that you would do anything for them. One of the greatest things you can do is trust that they've become the adults you hope that they would be.
Is it harder for parents to let go of their kids in today's world?
Parents always feel that way, but it is harder now because of the immediacy of our technological world makes the margin of error very narrow, you know? That's the thing that makes it more fearful, because technology doesn't have the best interests of your kids and mine. That's the thing that heightens it in this film — that lack of control, and lack of understanding.
This film is a classic thriller in terms of its narrative construction, but the fact that it's about a Black man changes the dynamics in so many scenes.
I think it adds another element to it — you add that element of profiling or racial prejudgement, and it changes everything. I remember when I did Death of a Salesman onstage in London, and there's a scene where I turn to the woman that I am having an affair with, and say: "There may be a law against this in Massachusetts." Because it was me with a white woman, people thought we had changed the script! And I was like, "No, we didn't."
It's because the audience knew the danger it would've meant if a white woman had been seeing coming out of my room in 1945. All of a sudden that becomes a threat, because we know how many Black men have been lynched for what was perceived indiscretion towards a white woman. So without changing anything, we added something to one of the great plays ever written. And in this instance, it's also just an added element. We could have gone further, and the film could have been totally all about that, but it doesn't have to be.
The 20th anniversary of The Wireis coming up this summer. Was it hard to lose Michael K. Williams last year?
It was devastating to lose him. Michael's one of the most talented people I ever met and one of the kindest people I ever met. He was one of those people that made you feel comfortable when you were around him, like you were the center of the world. His work will live on, and give us insight to his love and his spirit. He gave voice to so many voiceless in his work, making sure that their humanity was seen. He was so important to the show, and we'll remember the best of him and let that be a guiding light to all of us as artists. That's what I'm going to try to take with me as we think about the 20th anniversary of The Wire and the passing of Michael K. Williams.
He was very public about his struggle with addiction — did he talk about that with you as well?
Oh yeah. And that's the thing: He had done so well with that struggle. I thought he was at a very good place ... that it was a challenge that he was meeting. It just shows you [what can happen] in a moment of weakness. Lesser folks would've succumbed to the challenge a long, long time ago. I always saw a man who met a challenge, lived a life through it and had gotten through to the other side. In a moment of weakness, it was a fatal flaw.
It's always interesting to me that The Wire and The Shield premiered the same year. Both offer such different views of policing.
Clark Johnson directed both pilots, and I don't think he gets enough attention for that. They had different ways of demonstrating it, but there was a moral ambiguity in both shows, especially for that profession. Both were really good portrayals of that world.
We're wrestling with the idea of "copaganda" in popular entertainment right now. Did you also have those discussions while making The Wire?
You know, in the summer of 2020 when we had that racial awakening and called for police reform, people said to me: "How can you say that when you celebrated police on The Wire?" And I said, "I don't think you watched my show!" [Laughs] The Wire shows the seeds of what perpetuated this. Sure, you're recognizing the individuals that were lost in a system that perpetuated this sort of misconduct, and maybe you had empathy for some of the individuals in that system. But in no way did we celebrate the moral ambiguity, the moral inconsistencies and the failures of the police — quite the opposite. We showed the dysfunction of the police and hopefully awakened people to why it needs to be changed.
Your character spoke directly to that in the final season by questioning the methods of his former partner.
Yes, absolutely. Bunk planted his flag and challenged McNulty [played by Dominic West]. Hopefully that inspired other police officers to be able to do that within their own departments. Plant your flag and say, "We can do better," you know?
Looking around now, are there other shows that you feel are continuing the legacy of The Wire or are we reverting back to copaganda?
I've been out of the country, so I'm not aware of all the new shows and stuff. But I think you can't put the genie back in the bottle, so people will always find ways to explore that. It was always going to be an ongoing challenge of maybe going too far and propping up policing and that "Nuke them till they glow and then shoot them," sort of attitude. There will always be an exploration of how policing can be better in this country, because we've seen such horrible real-life examples of how it can be destructive.
In addition to the 20th anniversary of The Wire, the 30th anniversary of Malcom X is coming up later this year. You have a small, but key role in that film — what are your memories of working with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington?
What I remember most is the entire cast and crew working hard, knowing that it was an important film. Malcolm X was one of the best films of the year, with one of the greatest performances and it was on track to get accolades. Then I saw the politics of that year play out, and saw how the celebration of Malcolm X and his impact on our culture became something that was fearful and could not be celebrated. I watched them all say, "This is the best performance of the year — Scent of a Woman." Those in Hollywood grew fearful of Malcolm X and made sure it wasn't celebrated. So that's what I remember: There's the work, and then there's the business, and you have to remember that as you do both. You have to be protective of your work and do good business to make sure your work is seen.
It's not unlike what happened with The Wire, which never got the awards attention it deserved.
Everyone always said, "Best show on television!" And I'd say: "Man, we didn't get one Emmy nomination." So that's why you have to understand the politics of that and why it's important to challenge those organizations and make sure that they're diverse. Because they are marketing tools of how the business will be perceived, and there are those who don't want certain stories to be told. You have to fight against that intolerance, and you see those as two perfect examples. Malcolm X never received the attention it should have, and The Wire never received the attention it should have. But I guess the ultimate award is that 20 years later or 30 years later, we're still talking about them.
Don't Hang Up premieres Sunday, March 20 at 8 p.m. on Bounce.