Clarke Peters: From The Wire to Nelson Mandela

He’s a shadowy figure lurking in the background in the corporate law drama Damages, initially a slow-burner in The Wire and a man alone with his thoughts playing Nelson Mandela in the forthcoming Channel 4 drama Endgame.

In person Clarke Peters is almost an open book. It’s him, not his PR, who greets me after I ring the doorbell of his London home in Queens Park where he lives with his wife Penny and his son Max who has appeared as the young Michael Jackson in the West End production Thriller (he has another, older, son Joe Jacobs, from a previous relationship, who is also an actor). Peters leads me through to his garden where we sit for over an hour in bright sunlight to pick over a career that took him from his native New Jersey to London’s theatreland and has found a new lease of life because of US TV show The Wire.

Professional parallels with the character he played in that show, Lester Freamon are irresistible to me, a patient wait after former glories (writing the book for the musical Five Guys Named Moe being an obvious high) to have his moment in the spotlight again. Peters laughs at the suggestion, perhaps part in recognition but part knowing that he was never banished to the actors’ pawn shop equivalent. Unless, of course, you believe that theatre plays pawn shop to TV’s homicide unit.

I try not to talk too much about The Wire, no easy task as, like Peters (born Peter Clarke in New York in 1952), I agree that it is so successful at holding up a mirror up to a slice of life so I can’t help wondering if his character reflected him. Talking to him I see that, while his roles play to his measured, contemplative nature, he’s not just playing himself. However, despite wanting to avoid being typecast Lester untapped a new line of work for Peters:

“Playing Lester meant that the industry sees that I can resonate the kind of character that has some gravitas, so the next time they see something like that they says ‘lets give Clarke a call’, ‘yeah I’ll do that and if you have any more like that…’”, he finishes launching in to a parody of his own voice and one of a few examples where he peppers his speech with mimicry during our meet.

Gravitas is a theme that links the last few TV roles he has played but I wonder if the exhaustive root and branch exercise of The Wire has steered him towards projects with a social conscience that would also include Treme, the yet-to-be filmed David Simon project about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Though not emphatic in his answer, arguing that political work has found him as much as he has sought it, Peters sees that this it had a role to play in pushing his career along. His first professional job was for a production of Hair in Paris in 1971, a musical he describes as “everything theatre should be, the voice of the times”, and a show he had auditioned for repeatedly in New York, Boston, Washington and California, to the point where he parodies what others must have thought of his efforts as if he was viewed as some kind of X Factor disaster.

“It might sound pompous but if this [acting] is a gift that came from god and this is what he is asking me to do then I am going to go ahead and do gigs that resonate with that. I know how that sounds but I’m not attaching any arrogance to that. I don’t care if I am the good guy or the bad guy as long as a good story is being told, though I am not necessarily looking for social commentary as good stories.”

Peters is up front about his spirituality, even flagging it up in his PR material. Since 1986, after a painful break up, he has, at first studiously and then more loosely, followed the teachings of the Brahma Kumaris, a monastic, millenarian religion of Indian origin: “I may not be the best example of a Kumari now but then I jumped in with both feet the meditation, the celibacy, the non-drinking, I was already a vegetarian. For a short period of time I felt like my whole being had been driving this mini and all of a sudden I was driving this Rolls Royce Phantom. I freaked me out.”

Most importantly, for Peters, the Kumaris chimed with Peters long held view that nobody should own the idea of god. As an acolyte in Episcopal church when he was young he remembers questioning why people needed to keep coming back to hear the same message and that he wanted “to find out who this cat Christ was.” He duly read up on all religions but says “I was not interested in being part of a group that says they own God that I just acknowledged that it is there.”

That the young Peters had the freedom to wonder about spiritual matters rests in the context of a liberal upbringing in Englewood, New Jersey. He calls it ‘Angel Woods’ believing that he grew up in the best part of America at the best time:

“It was full of artists, Dizzy Gillespie lived there, I went to school with Isley Brothers, John Travolta and I used to ice-skate as kids…it was a community trying to live out the American dream; little league, boy scouts, memorial day parades, talent shows, movie houses. That type of middle America doesn’t even happen today.”

The artistic cache was matched by the local education system which had been lobbied by parents to integrate: “While I was aware of the civil rights movement I was too young to engage intellectually with it and besides I grew up happily with Italians Chinese, Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Chinese, and Japanese.” At high school Peters studied Ionesco and Albee, beyond the texts by Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams that, he points out, you would expect.

Completing the nurturing circle of his early life was Peters’ family who put up little resistance to his theatrical ambitions that began in earnest when he was fourteen. His father was a commercial artist and Peters believes his “bohemian attraction to the arts”, including his immersion into the Greenwich Village jazz scene, is what drew his mother to him. She, he admits however, “was not always as generous as he was and probably would have preferred to have a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant in the family.” She was thwarted though as Clarke’s older brother in Paris was a choreographer, he’s a younger brother in the UK who is a bass player, and another younger brother in New York who he describes as “a security guard and also a photographer.”

It was his older brother in Paris who was to enable Peter’s first professional foray into acting initially making costumes for Hair before starring in the musical. Meanwhile, his first memory of stage time was aged twelve a PTA production of My Fair Lady, set in the city he was eventually to call home. “There was a suspension of reality that had an England of little black kids running around Covent Garden playing street urchins. Wrong! But it was playing and storytelling and felt like something you were privileged to be part of.”[could cut italicised portion if needed].

An apprenticeship in theatre preceded Paris and London, the ultimate aim for his designs on theatre, came a few years after that. Once arriving in London in 1973 he formed The Majestics, a soul band who notched up a number of TV appearances meanwhile Peters lent his voice to backing vocals for hits like Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection and Heatwave’s Boogie Nights as well as a number of David Essex songs. Despite having a foot on the ladder Peter’s is emphatic that music was never going to divert him from his stage ambitions.

A friendship with the late impresario Ned Sherrin (Peter’s performed at his memorial service last year) helped push Peter’s fledgling career into a number of West End musical roles in I Gotta Shoe (1976) and Bubbling Brown Sugar (1977). Minor roles in TV and film followed while his stage career really found its feet from the mid Eighties. He played Skye Masterson in two National Theatre productions of Guys and Dolls, appeared in the Vietnam War drama, Dispatches also at the National and enjoyed acclaim in Trevor Nunn’s 2006 production of Porgy and Bess. On Broadway Peters has played smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago (he also appeared in the West End production) and was Joe Mott in Kevin Spacey’s production of The Iceman Cometh.

With other theatre credits ranging from penning Five Guys Named Moe to taking the lead in The Witches of Eastwick, Peters believes that he has opened doors to black actors in commercial theatre as well as inspiring a new generation of black actors. This perceived legacy is a source of pride to him as much as his career progressing without much in the way of formal training is a nagging doubt.

Peters spurned opportunities to study at Juilliard and with Anna Sokolow at the Berghof Studio and the consequent academic malaise is something his is up front about: “What you see is an insecure academic finding ways to justify his intelligence through his art.”

To further remedy this Peters has went back to university following a creative writing course. This started in earnest during the second season of The Wire and was thus spread over London and Baltimore. “The first year was one big party, Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty) and I spent time and money in the pubs carrying on.” Assured the series had legs Peters then used the downtime for more cerebral pursuits: “It was an effort to credentialise myself and articulate myself and prove that I am not a dimwit and get over all those insecurities that actors have.”

Peters has applied a similar academic rigour to his role as Nelson Mandela in Channel 4’s Endgame, a thriller dominated by the relationship between William Hurt’s Will Esterhuyse and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Thabo Mbeki as they engage in secret talks that bring about Apartheid’s end. Though a minimal role in speaking terms Peters pored over Mandela’s speeches rather than video footage:

“I listened more to his mood in his voice, keeping in mind the situation he was in when he made the speeches. I once directed a man in role of Martin Luther King. The actor would talk about him in third person and I would say ‘you are not getting what I am saying I know he meant a lot to you, but how would you do what he did? I don’t want you to play the end of it’. The challenge was to be as ordinary a person as you can but one on a mission.”

Peters recalls refusing to tour Sun City in the early 80s (“who wants to be an honorary white for a week?” he said of the invite) and Equity-led demonstrations and lobbying about the links between the arts and South Africa. Throughout the interview we bat back and forth the underlying theme of political consciousness running through his career. It arrests itself at various points, not least when he describes The Wire as “just a job” when I ask if it had a politicising effect on the cast.

From a personal perspective the end of the show meant “little deaths” for Peters who had bonded with cast members in a range of different pursuits, for example spending time with Dominic West outside of the bar by horse riding together. His riding partner’s recent assertion that the British can’t do contemporary drama sees them part company slightly as Peters, who still feels that he has a foot on both sides of the Atlantic, canters towards the issue while West went off at a gallop:

“I put it to Dom that it’s a different psyche you are dealing with and you have to put it against that backdrop. If you can do great period pieces then you can do the rest. It’s true that on balance you look to America for those kinds of things, and America looks to you for those period pieces. I agree with what Dom says to some extent but would like to put it in proper context rather than to just sweep across the board like that. Besides, he’s no dummy, he can write it!”

Even if The Wire hasn’t heralded a core unit of actors that will forever be the standard-bearers of political drama - and even write it - it has left each and every cast member better prepared in a number of ways. Outside of more work and fame for Peters it has given him “a sixth sense of peoples intention approaching me to rob me or just too shy to ask for an autograph” as well as “new found respect for police.”

“I know how difficult their job is now and the training has meant that I still look at peoples hands when I am walking down the street! I did have one experience where my wife had to claw me back and say ‘no Clarke you are not Lester Freamon, let the cops handle it’ and I am saying ‘but they are walking all over the crime scene look at this!’”

Endgame starts on Channel 4 on Monday 4 May. The Wire continues to be aired on BBC 2, weekdays.

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