This weekend could be life changing for Wendell Pierce.
The actor—already a favorite of some of the best directors ever to get behind a camera—is up for an Independent Spirit Award for his work in Four, a film that critics describe as a study in human behavior that delves into the dynamics of how loneliness can really tear a person’s spirit. The award show—and as little known commercially as it is, it’s hugely respected in Tinsel Town—airs Saturday on the IFC.
The nomination is a huge coup for Pierce, and not only because he’s in good company with other lead actors Jack Black, Bradley Cooper and Matthew McConaughey. The truth is that this weekend, much will be discussed about the lack of diversity with actors Sunday at the granddaddy of all awards shows, the Academy Awards; the two critically acclaimed films that aim to tell our story—Django Unchained and Lincoln—are both devoid of best actor nominations for actors of color.
Pierce says that the independent film community is where Black actors have a chance to thrive best. EBONY.com speaks with him about the significance of the nomination, his career and how he’s rebuilding his native New Orleans.
EBONY: What is the significance of an African-American actor being up for an award that we don’t often pay as much attention to as we would the Oscars?
Wendell Pierce: The independent movie scene is actually where most actors of color get their opportunity. We are stereotyped and locked into generic roles in mainstream movies a lot of the times, and what happens is only those independent thinkers and independent filmmakers have that thinking outside the box that they want to use actors no matter who they are and give more opportunities to actors of color. The fact that I can be in the company of Matthew McConaughey, Cooper, Jack Black and John Hawkes—who get more opportunities and are further along commercially in their career—is huge.
EBONY: That said, you are an actor that some of the most revered directors of our time happen to be in love with. Why do you think you get the phone calls from the Taylor Hackfords of the world over and over again?
WP: I have always approached my career to make sure that I had the ability to be as diverse as possible. I do theater, television, film, comedy, drama. I do contemporary work, classic work. I always knew that as an actor of color, I had to give myself many opportunities to work, and that’s why I decided to be classically trained at Julliard. That’s why I try to do a play a year. I try to go outside of the country to work. I’ve worked at the National Theater of Uganda as a producer there. I’ve worked in Greece at the foot of the Parthenon. I have done radio plays for the BBC. I have a film out right now in Paris called Mobius. The diversity comes from making sure that you have the facility to do a multitude of different things, and I think that has been the key to my success.
EBONY: Your career feels like it’s art imitating life and life imitating art all at the same time. You’re opening up a chain of grocery stores in New Orleans. And I know that the series you’re on, HBO’s Treme, is about restoring New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.
WP: Yes! Doing Treme was art imitating life and life imitating art. My family lost everything in the floods of New Orleans, and I came back to do the show, and also to rebuild my neighborhood and the city and help recovery.
During the course of that I discovered that there were food deserts, areas in the city where people had to go over half an hour to get to a decent grocery store. Some grocery stores hadn’t come back to certain areas. And it was also a problem prior to Katrina, something that the First Lady recognized in her initiatives of asking businesses to come back to underserved communities and working to eliminate food deserts. I heard Mrs. Obama’s call to action, realized that we had an opportunity here in New Orleans to do something about it. And that’s when I decided with partners to start a new grocery store chain called Sterling Farms. Sterling Farms’s mission is to bring fresh food grocery stores into food deserts in underserved communities. We are opening our first grocery store next month, in March, in Marrero, right here in the New Orleans metro area.
EBONY: Sounds like this was one of those divinely designed events.
WP: My family is here and we lost everything. In great times of need, you have to step up to the plate. I looked around the city and realized the city that I love, the city that I grew up in, was destroyed. Twenty years from now, there are going to be kids who ask, “Mr. Pierce, in New Orleans’s darkest hours, what did you do?” And I want to be able to have a really good answer for that. I wanted to be able to say, “This is what I did: artistically, Treme. Civically and commercially, Sterling Farms,” and to be able to rebuild my neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park where my parents lived.
EBONY: Treme is going to come back for one final season. Can you give us any juice about it?
WP: There’s not much I can tell you, but you see where the characters’ lives come to. You see where Antoine comes to, and how he has evolved into a man that he didn’t expect to become. Even though our series comes to an end, you get a sense that all of these people and these characters that you met in New Orleans, like the city itself, will be going on.