When most people think of Lance Reddick, the 56-year-old actor, it’s because of his stint as The Wire’s Lieutenant Daniels, a tough as hell cop that inspired the fear of god in not only the members of his squad, but also the viewers of the show. Reddick has one of those voices. It booms and stretches; it rumbles and fills the room every time he opens his mouth. It possesses and wields the kind of power most of us only dream of.
His time on The Wire defined Reddick for a generation of viewers, and also, for a moment, restricted him to virtually identical roles. “I was like, man, I don’t know if I want to do this,” Reddick says with a slight laugh and an even slighter sigh, referring to the pilot for Bosch, an Amazon Prime TV series in which he plays (go ahead, say it) another firm, fear-instilling Top Cop. But Reddick can do, and has done, so much more in the years since—it just took the right doors opening at the right time for him.
And opened they did, which is why these days, Reddick might now be best recognized for his portrayal of Charon—the enigmatic manager of the Continental Hotel, a home for the most high class assassins in the world—in the John Wick franchise. Or perhaps as Papa Legba, a terrifying, mysterious figure who controls life and death in American Horror Story. Or even more so as Commander Zavala, an immortal alien warrior leading the last vestiges of humanity in the war against the unending darkness in the massively popular video game series Destiny. And who could forget his almost ethereal portrayal of Matthew Abaddon on Lost? But Reddick isn’t only an incredibly successful actor; he’s also a student of one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. (He spent his early years at the Eastman School of Music). Honestly it all begs the question: what can’t Lance Reddick do?
Wherever he shows up though, he still brings that special voice and that undeniable talent with him. Last month, GQ spoke to Reddick about the variety in his career, working across so many different mediums, and The Wire.
When I look at how prolific and diverse your work is, I’m so impressed. How have you managed to juggle, and succeed at, such a variety of roles across so many different mediums?
Lance Reddick: Honestly I just deal with things as they come up. Music was actually my first love. Once I started acting, I didn’t intend to come back to that. But after about five or six years, after I graduated from drama school, I was walking around the house singing these songs that I had written and my daughter said to me “Dad you should really do something with that” And I said “Ah it’s too late,I’m getting too old for that and I’m an actor now.” Then she just says, “I don’t know dad, sounds like an excuse to me,” and walked away. [Laughs.] But it got me thinking. Over the next few years, I continued to write my own music again, and put out an album. It was a huge learning curve and a pain in the ass, but it was really satisfying project outside of working on movies and television. And as far as video games go, that’s just sort of something that came up in the last five or six years or so.
I feel like more and more, in creative industries, we’re seeing people replicate that formula. It’s useful to have your hands in a lot of different projects across different mediums, to be very front-facing as almost a public figure. How do you deal with that without getting so burnt out?
I try not to do everything at once. I’m trying to think of a good example of somebody who really is doing it all at once—like Jamie Foxx when he was doing that. Jamie is an extraordinarily talented musician and a genius. Like, from me as a trained musician, Jamie is fucking good. He’s also got a shit load of energy and is such an extrovert. I say this from having worked with him. When you say being front-facing and almost a public figure, that’s where I’m still dealing with that learning curve. I’m great at the craft, but the whole “being a star” thing is a whole different skill set. Everybody’s figuring it out though—with the Internet and social media and streaming, it’s leveling the playing field. That skill set can open doors for you to have these creative outlets and to do what you want to do.
Yeah, as a celebrity today, you and your career will be newly accessible to a massive audience who can always be tuned in, whenever they want. I’m actually just now watching The Wire for the first time.
[Laughs.] I get it, I get it. You’re my kid’s age.
What’s been interesting to me, though, is how these shows and projects now can suddenly regain new momentum and have this brand new cycle of viewers of a new generation. They now live free of time and place.
That’s true. However, The Wire is one of the most unique examples of that case that I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the only shows that I know of that got bigger and reached its widest audience not because of promotion or awards or just sheer popular appeal while they’re on. The Wire didn’t have any of those things, but it was so freaking good that it was able to succeed anyways. It came out right when DVDs and binging television shows started to become the rage. It really became a worldwide phenomenon through people sharing the DVDs all over the world.
It was huge in Sweden and the United Kingdom before it was big here. I mean, we almost got cancelled—twice. And it wasn’t until the last season that everybody in the industry started talking about it.
I’m sure you’re sick of talking about The Wire at this point.
I’m not, actually! You know, it’s an iconic piece of history and I feel very fortunate and proud of the work we did with that.
With a lot of your more recent projects though—like American Horror Story, John Wick, and Destiny—you’ve been able to play these characters that are so different. When you got approached for these characters, were you excited about how different they were compared to previous roles you’ve played?
Well with Destiny, I wasn’t really looking to get into games as a voice actor but the project was so big and there were so many other celebrity names attached to it. There was so much buzz about how big it could be, so I signed on to it. I didn’t actually start recording until a year later, and then it was a whole year after that until it came out, and when it did it was like this huge worldwide phenomenon. I was like “What the fuck is this? Holy mackerel!”
Were you skeptical about it when they approached you for the role?
It wasn’t that I was skeptical. I guess I just didn’t have that much attention on it. At the time, it was just a job. But it seemed like a cool project, so I went for it. In its initial iteration, Peter Dinklage played the Ghost character. It was one of those things where I had no idea that it was going to be as massive and cool as it has become, or that it would also become such a huge part of my fan base.
Destiny was actually the way I became familiar with your work, and after that I started to realize just how many other massively prestigious projects you had been a part of that I had just missed out on because of my age.
Well I noticed that was the first thing you brought up; the other one that you asked about too was John Wick. All of these things kind of happened at the same time for me. I did The Guest, John Wick, and American Horror Story all in the same year. Believe it or not, I also shot the pilot for Bosch that same year too. That was the only thing where I was like “Man, I don’t know if I want to do this.” you know? I had basically spent ten years playing the same guy, that sort of “Top Cop” thing. There were little personality things that I could change, but in the way of how the character moves and speaks, there wasn’t much room. Having all of these other things like Zavala, Papa Legba, and Charon all in the same year, it was like “Oh good! Yes! Now I get to do some different shit!” And they all ended up being really cool! With Charon, it was this really cool take on this story that I’ve never seen before, and that I never get to play. Of course I want to do it! That was one of those other things that I never would have guessed would turn into this phenomenon.
Oh I mean we’re huge fans of everything John Wick and Keanu over here.
[Laughs.] It’s hard not to be a fan of Keanu.
Those franchises are all so stylish and over the top. They lend themselves really well to characters that are similarly wild and risky, and lets everybody take these big swings at whatever they want to do.
Absolutely. Even just as late as last year, I would meet people and they would be shocked because those characters were me.
Was that kind of satisfying to you? Would you be like “Oh, you didn’t know I could do all of this?”
I’ve got mixed feelings about it. On one hand I’m like “That’s really cool, they didn’t know that was me” and on the other it’s like “Shit man, they didn’t know that was me?!” [Laughs.]
Jumping from Charon to Zavala to Papa Legba—was that difficult to manage, or was it just fun to flex?
Actually it was both. Zavala was more straight Shakespearean, you know? But with Charon and Papa Legba, I was swapping between a Kenyan and a Haitian accent and those characters were just massively different than anything I had played before. I really had to figure out the rhythm for both characters. It really was similar to my experience doing repertory theatre when I was in drama school. There I played lots and lots of different and varied characters, and it really prepared me for stuff like this. That’s acting to me, is when I get challenged like that.
Before you started doing voice acting for games, did you have any interest in them?
The only ones that I really played before that was Street Fighter and Halo. Halo was the first one that I really got into. I came to the game stuff as another job and role I could pick up, since all of the production and development is so far outside of my field.
Have you become more interested in them now though that you’ve gotten to see that process?
Yeah, totally, I really like the Assassin’s Creed series. What I’ve found out though is that I don't have the attention span to play games where you have to like, figure shit out. I just want to point and shoot and run.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ