The Wire's Clarke Peters in Fringe run of Five Guys Named Moe
The Wire's Lester Freamon stars in the musical he wrote
This article is from 2010.
Clarke Peters, best known for his role in US cop show The Wire, talks to Kelly Apter about taking time out to appear in the hit musical he wrote himself
Most people are guilty of taking their work home with them from time to time. When you’re an actor playing a police detective on the drug-ridden streets of Baltimore, however, it becomes a little more problematic. Stretched out on a leather sofa in Edinburgh’s Hotel du Vin, my recording device resting on his chest like a baby, it’s fair to say Clarke Peters is relaxed. Regaling me with a tale of after-hours police activity, his low, mellow voice carries you along like a lullaby – even when he’s talking about a stabbing incident.
As Lester Freamon, the veteran detective on the phenomenally successful TV show The Wire Peters is known for his methodical approach. And that’s not easy to switch off. Sitting in a restaurant on Hallowe’en night, he became aware of a fracas across the street, which ended in a young man being hurt.
‘He didn’t realise he’d been stabbed but I could see it immediately, and Freamon took over,’ says Peters. ‘So I went out to see if I could help and told one of the kids: “You’re walking all over the crime scene!” And the rookie policemen were walking over it too, so I spoke to the detective in charge. When I went back inside the restaurant, my wife said, “Who do you think you are, Freamon?” But it’s what I learnt – and we were still shooting The Wire at that time, so when I’m in it, I don’t like to be too far away from it, and sometimes I do carry it home.’
On stage and screen, Peters has immersed himself in a remarkably diverse collection of roles. Prior to Freamon, he played his polar opposite in David Simon’s excellent drama, The Corner. Both as Fat Curt the drug addict and Freamon the detective, Peters was utterly believable. ‘Well ironically, moving from Fat Curt to Lester Freamon was not that great a stretch,’ explains Peters. ‘Because they were both sides of the same coin. By the time I got to Freamon, I’d already spent time in that environment as Fat Curt – so I knew that side of Baltimore life.’
Elsewhere in his career, Peters has played Nelson Mandela in Endgame, a newspaper editor in Marley and Me, a Vietnam vet in K-Pax, a shady lawyer in Chicago, the devil in Witches of Eastwick – the list goes on, with precious little similarity between them. In almost 40 years of acting, how has he managed to sidestep the pitfalls of typecasting?
‘By not going where they wanted me to,’ he says simply. ‘I started out doing musicals, and then I went to the National Theatre in London and they wanted to stick me in more musicals and I said no. So they asked me to do Othello instead. And that’s what actors should do. Don’t take the easy way out and just go for the money because the industry wants you to always be the bad guy or the romantic lead. I wanted to be an actor so I could play as many different people as possible, and be learning for the rest of my life.’
Peters started his career backstage, so he could ‘learn the whole thing’. If you need a button sewn back on your costume, he’s your man. Then, in 1990, he added another string to this theatrical bow when he sat down to write the musical Five Guys Named Moe. Unlike his acting roles, the story required little research, centred as it is around a man with relationship woes – something Peters was experiencing at the time. Instead, he devoted his time to exploring the music of Louis Jordan, a pioneering jazz musician from the 1930s and 40s.
‘The majority of the show’s dialogue is in Louis’ lyrics,’ says Peters. ‘So the research was listening to hundreds and hundreds of songs to find out which ones worked and which didn’t. And how they could be placed – whether the song is used ironically or as a comment or instruction.’ He must have chosen well, because Five Guys Named Moe went from a low-key opening at the Theatre Royal Stratford East to runs in the West End and Broadway, garnering Olivier Awards and Tony nominations along the way. Did Peters know he had created something special?
‘I had a sneaking suspicion,’ he says. ‘Louis said that he never wanted to sing songs that made people feel sad, he always wanted them to feel good and have a great time. So if I remained true to that, I thought we’d be alright. And when we first performed it in London, by the third show there was a queue around the theatre. So I knew something really good was happening.’
Aside from Jordan’s witty and uplifting songs, one of the musical’s biggest selling points is audience engagement. As Peters says: ‘For most people, if you’re sitting there watching a musical, at some point you want to be in it.’ Hence the now legendary conga-line, in which audience members dance round the theatre, across the stage and back to their seats. Including one woman on crutches who could barely walk.
‘I thought, “That’s what this is about,”’ recalls Peters. ‘It was just the most wonderful moment, and that lady was changed when she got up. It ain’t Macbeth, but when you get that coming back from the audience, or you see someone sitting out there three times, singing along, those are the rewards.’
Taking a break from film and TV to spend three weeks inside an inflatable cow (aka the Udderbelly) at this year’s Fringe, Peters is more than happy to be back at his spiritual home – the stage. ‘I love the theatre, because it’s so immediate,’ he says. ‘There’s instant gratification and you know whether they like it or not so you can adjust yourself accordingly. When an audience trusts you to take them on a journey, and you hand it back to them and say wasn’t that nice? And they go, yeah! There’s nothing like that, nothing in the world.’
Clarke Peters CV
1952: Born in New York City and given the name Peter Clarke.
1970: Graduates from Dwight Morrow High School in New Jersey. Moves to London soon after to pursue a career in theatre.
1983: After a few small film roles, makes his TV debut in The Professionals on ITV. Goes on to have a varied British TV career, appearing in French & Saunders, Jonathan Creek and Dr Who: Dreamland.
1990: Garners critical acclaim with his stage production of Five Guys Names Moe (which will go on to win an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment); follows it up with much-lauded roles in Chicago and Porgy and Bess, and breaks new ground to be come one of the first black actors to play both Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and Daryl van Horne – aka The Devil – in The Witches of Eastwick.
2000: Stars in HBO mini-series The Corner, based on a book by former Baltimore policeman Ed Burns and crime journalist David Simon. All the characters are based on real people: some of them, including one Tyreeka Freamon, make small cameo appearances in the show. Peters take the surname for his character Lester Freamon when he re-unites with Burns and Simon two years later, for The Wire.
2009: Takes on the role of Nelson Mandela in Endgame, a film about the end of apartheid, alongside William Hurt, Mark Strong and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
2010: Teams up with David Simon once again in TV series Treme, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Five Guys Named Moe, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 08445 458 252, 7-29 Aug (not 12 & 27), 5.15pm, £15–£17.50 (£14–£15). Previews 4–6 Aug, 5.15pm, £10.