Wendell Pierce On His 'Elsbeth' Character And The Accolades That Really Matter

The legendary actor says his roles haven't gotten much industry attention during his 40 years in the business.
Wendell Pierce as Capt. C.W. Wagner in Episode 2 of "Elsbeth."
Wendell Pierce as Capt. C.W. Wagner in Episode 2 of "Elsbeth."
Michael Parmelee/CBS

Wendell Pierce has been in the entertainment business for almost 40 years and has delivered powerful scenes with role after role. Pierce, 60, has graced our screens in shows and films like “The Wire,” “Brown Sugar,” “Suits,” “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and many more.

His most recent credits include the Starz hit series “Power Book III: Raising Kanan” and the CBS dramedy “Elsbeth,” which returns Thursday night with two new episodes. On “Elsbeth” ― which continues the story of Carrie Preston’s character Elsbeth Tascioni from “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” ― Pierce portrays Captain C.W. Wagner, a revered and charismatic NYPD leader. Wagner has a beautiful wife, Claudia Payne (Gloria Reuben), and a mysterious past, and wants to do right by his community. Pierce stars opposite Preston, whose Elsbeth is a zany attorney turned NYPD observer responsible for monitoring the department after a wrongful death lawsuit. Wagner and Elsbeth make for an interesting duo, with his straight-laced attitude and her wildly entertaining yet successful tactics.

Pierce says portraying Wagner is a bit different from the role for which he’s probably best known, Detective William “Bunk” Moreland on HBO’s “The Wire.” Bunk had a sharp demeanor and was far from a habitual rule-breaker, but he’d do so if it meant he’d be able to find justice. Wagner is more “forward-thinking” and “political,” Pierce told HuffPost in an interview. Though both characters work to protect their communities, audiences will see the possible hidden truths about Wagner as the season unfolds.

“I am trying to develop C.W. Wagner in the image of the men I know who have been where Wagner is before and have worked in law enforcement,” Pierce said. “I know those men exist, and I do it in their honor.”

HuffPost caught up with Pierce to talk about his role in the series, the values his late father instilled in him, and why it doesn’t bother him not to receive nominations and accolades in his decadeslong career.

Share a bit about “Elsbeth” and how you made your character, C.W. Wagner, your own.

You have to come from a place of authenticity. The best place to start is to really connect to your own humanity and then add other elements to it. I think of all the Black men who became police officers and who shared with me while I was doing my research as to why they became an officer. One of them became an officer because of the impact that crime has on their community. I think about Mr. Joes and the Ms. Anns and all the hardworking people who get up every day and try to live their lives and help those who are adversely affected, which I would say is the driving force of my character, and being political in that sense while trying to improve people’s lives.

I love the idea of the thriller on this show, and each week, my castmates make fun of me because there’s some comedy in the series and I tend to forget. [laughs] I am trying to develop C.W. Wagner in the image of the men I know who have been where Wagner is before and have worked in law enforcement. I know those men exist, and I do it in their honor.

There’s a scene in the first episode where Elsbeth shares that you can tell a lot about a person from their medicine cabinet. What would someone say about you if they looked in yours?

They would say, “He needs to throw some of this stuff out.” [laughs] They may peruse and see that I may get some coughs, since he has cough medicine and his thermometers and aspirins. “He’s prepared for anything.”

People tend to always refer back to your iconic character on “The Wire,” Det. William “Bunk” Moreland. You now also play C.W. Wagner on “Elsbeth” and Snaps on “Raising Kanan.” What have been some of the pros and the cons of playing a “good guy” and a “bad guy”?

Pierce as Ishmael "Snaps" Henry in "Power Book III: Raising Kanan."
Pierce as Ishmael "Snaps" Henry in "Power Book III: Raising Kanan."
Cara Howe/Starz

There’s pros to it because it shows range, and I love how the characters are able to exist at the same time. I’ve been able to work with crews from the same sets, and I have had background actors share with me how I am totally different playing Snaps on “Raising Kanan” than I am playing C.W. Wagner on “Elsbeth.” For me, that’s a compliment, and that’s the thing I enjoy about having these shows exist at the same time, because of my range. If they didn’t exist at the same time, you would have to battle the stereotype where I can only play one thing.

Over the course of time, hopefully there’s a difference in a future role I play that’s unlike my characters on “Elsbeth” and “The Wire.” I want to make Wagner more political, ambitious and forward-thinking than Bunk was. I also love that I’m able to show Black love at its best.

You portrayed Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway in 2022. How did it feel to bring that character to life in your own way? Could you talk about the joy you find in acting on screen versus how it feels to act on stage?

Willy Loman is a high-water mark in my career, and one of the greatest roles in the American canon. It’s a challenge, but if you face it and embrace it, it will change you forever, and that is what that role has done for me. You think about the character and where he is at the end of his road, where he feels those best days are behind him, in addition to the impact he has made in his life and the lives of others ― which were things I considered in my own life and journey.

To be able to do the role in London and on Broadway was such a transformative moment for me. There’s a lot of self-care that I never subscribed to before taking on this role, where you get so deep into a character and may be so impactful, you can’t detach yourself from it. I never gave any sort of attention to that until I played Willy, because it deals with your psyche in that way. You have to do some self-care and make sure you don’t make the same choices he made, which is to take his life.

We understand from the beginning, due to the title of the play, what will happen, so it’s a cautionary tale for not only the audience, but the actor playing the role, that your best days are not behind you. Make sure you take care of your heart, soul and your psyche.

At the Emmys, Tisha Campbell shared in her bit with the “Martin” cast reunited on the stage that despite being Fox’s top comedy at the time, they walked away with no Emmy awards. This opened up discourse on social media, with people sharing how “The Wire,” arguably one of the best series in TV history, was only nominated for outstanding writing and no wins. When you see how certain series are treated, does it bother you? Or is it fueling motivation?

The true accolade is to be a part of a show that received one writing nomination and no attention, but wherever I go in the world I receive accolades, whether it’s Morocco, Budapest, Paris, London or Montgomery, Chicago or New York. I have received accolades that go as far as a golden trophy that should’ve been given to us during our run. Without going to Google, you don’t know who won best drama in 1976, and you may have to guess that, but almost every day I meet someone who loved my character and “The Wire.”

Out of your catalog of work, is there a role you feel should’ve earned you an Emmy, Golden Globe, etc. award nomination?

It may seem that I have an adverse effect on the Emmys or something, because my roles haven’t received any attention. [laughs] Winning would be appreciated, and I would let that be an example of the person that gives me the nominations. It would come off as, “I would like to express an appreciation for your work, Wendell,” so the nomination would be received with honor and a greater appreciation, because it’s a group of people saying, “At this time and place, we appreciate the work that you’re doing, that you’ve done and what you’re going to do.”

Whenever that time comes, they would all receive that appreciation, because it would be a reflection of my work from all times before, and I would accept that humbly.

“Raising Kanan” (and the “Power” universe as a whole) is some really great TV, and has attracted huge audiences. Why do you think it’s possible a series so big isn’t considered to be a part of those award conversations?

It’s the ugly side of human nature that our humanity isn’t given the attention it deserves. It’s also the business, where people are focused on how they want their work to get the attention. I was nominated for “Death of a Salesman” [for a Tony award], and I can’t tell you the amount of people that stopped me and with quiet whispers said, “I voted for you and I’m so glad you got this nomination.” It felt like they were doing a drug deal. [laughs]

You could say it loud and proud, but I realized when I didn’t win, they were telling me that during this live telecast, but also telling me, “I didn’t vote for you to win because I have money in this other show, or your show isn’t on and this one is, so I want butts in the seat.” I realized there’s other variables that come into play when making those decisions.

But art isn’t about competition. The best thing about these award shows is you get a chance to go around the room and express your love for someone’s work. I was able to tell Ava DuVernay during award season how much I loved “Origin” and how impactful that movie will be for years to come, even though it didn’t get any attention during award season. The other thing is, the first lesson you learn as an actor is: Get the free meal, drinks and the wonderful parties.

Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni and Pierce as Capt. Wagner in the first season of "Elsbeth."
Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni and Pierce as Capt. Wagner in the first season of "Elsbeth."
Michael Parmelee/CBS

It was recently announced you will be joining the “Superman” universe portraying Perry White, editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet newspaper [in James Gunn’s upcoming movie]. How excited are you for this upcoming role, and how did it come about?

You probably know more about it than I do. [laughs] It was exciting to hear the news, and I’m in discussion with the creators as we speak. I’m just beginning this journey, and it was a pleasant surprise, but a wonderful journey that I just began. I could already tell that it’s going to be great. I get to appreciate this because of Bill Nunn, who was a dear friend of mine and played the role in the past, who has passed on. I think of him as I set to participate in one of the most popular franchises in American culture and world culture. I’m honored to join the ranks like Bill Nunn, who was Radio Raheem in “Do the Right Thing.”

You recently lost your father, sharing a beautiful caption on Instagram. He fought in WWII, as well. How was your father able to have so much passion to fight for a country that doesn’t always fight for us? Do you have any favorite final moments?

I had the great blessing that at the moment he left this world and earth, I was holding him in my arms and was able to kiss and hug him in the most spiritual goodbye. I will cherish that moment and reflect on it for eternity. He did everything for me, like my mom did, so I owe them a great debt.

My father taught me that he loved this country because he built it. America owes a great debt to Black people, so he said, “You can’t get lost in America” — he was reflective of all the men and women who gave their lives to a country that was not living up to the promise that itself has memorialized in the documents of its founding. The country has never lived up to its own clarion call of equality and treating people fairly. While the country failed to deliver those values, there’s a lot of Black folks since the beginning of time in this country who gave their lives for these values and to hold them accountable.

My father fought, with all those who challenged America to live up to what it can be, for a more perfect union. He would say, “You can’t give up that birthright, because that’s what those who don’t have our best interests want us to do.” America’s not apple pie and baseball; it’s sweet potato pie and dominoes. He said, “Those of you who can’t accept diversity, equity and inclusion are not American, so bye.” That’s what I think of when I think about my father. He wasn’t beholden and beloved to the country that it never was. It can be so because we built it, and we will make it what it should be.

“Elsbeth” airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on CBS and Paramount+.

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