The Wire Week: Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale)

Wood Harris knows about paying dues. He’s got a Master of Arts from New York University, and his acting roles range from someone’s sidekick to a crime boss, to the greatest guitarist of all time. Now he’s making his way in the world of music as well, and it’s safe to say that Wood has paved his way to success with calm focus.

After playing roles in films like Above The Rim and As Good As It Gets, and television shows like New York Undercover, NYPD Blue, and Showtime’s Oz, Wood garnered the role of Jimi Hendrix in the 2000 Showtime Original film, Hendrix. He followed with more work in Remember The Titans and Paid In Full, solidifying him as a credible lead actor.

In the past three years, Wood gained an even larger – and more fanatic – audience playing drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in HBO’s series The Wire. More recently, he has been featuring original music on his Myspace page, he and made an appearance on Russell Simmon’s Def Comedy Jam.

To kick off AllHipHop’s “Wire Week,” we took some time with the laid back jack-of-all-trades to discuss the finer points of acting, singing, freestyling (anyone peep his appearance on Wendy Williams’ show?) and the ways that “old heads” are resurrecting Hip-Hop. Obviously Avon wasn’t featured in Season Four of The Wire, but he’s still the looming character, because he represented a lot of the foundation that all of the characters came from initially. How did you feel about the plot development on this season?

Wood Harris: Well to be honest with you, I haven’t watched it. I don’t know the plot that well. I’ve seen a couple of episodes. I really like the kids on the show, and I think it’s very strong what I saw. I’m just not the biggest TV dude. I watch sports, the news, a good show or something decent. But I’m not a big episodic viewer. Did you watch when Avon was actually in the episodes?

Wood Harris: No, I didn’t watch at all, I still haven’t seen Season Three. I’ll catch a couple of episodes just to see how I’m doing, but once you’ve read the script it takes eight or nine days to make each episode. You’re working while they’re airing them and it’s a lot to be done, so I never really sat down and viewed it all. But I know them inside out because I know the scripts. How does it make you feel to have participated in a show that’s had so much impact?

Wood Harris: At the end of the day, it’s a great thing. It’s dope, because I feel like we had something to do with the foundation of the show, and originally we [the street] were supposed to have one year. Me, Stringer Bell… that plot was only supposed to go one year, but we ended up doing three years on the strength of people liking the plot and the storyline. A lot of that had to do with the acting, because we really worked hard to convey what the writers were trying to say. In any communications we might have had, we knew what we were doing better than they knew what to write. That type of chemistry, I think that made The Wire good for viewers.

Having not really watched the episodes, I still be like, “Wow, people really dig this show.” It’s a tripped out experience, because I be off into something else. It’s done already, I did it. In a year you spend 15 weeks shooting it. You got the rest of the year where you’re doing all of this other stuff, then when they air the show, I forget about some of the stuff. I don’t know all the storylines, because it’s quite a few storylines that happen on The Wire. People know sometimes more about it than me. They come to me like, “Yo man, in Season Two when such and such happened…” Then I get embarrassed, I usually chill and say “Okay cool,” as if you know the name of somebody you don’t know – you don’t really wanna say it because you should know the name. That’s how I feel when people know storylines and plots better than me.

Nobody knows the Avon storyline better than me, but there’s other ones with the cops and other people. For instance people I didn’t interact with, I don’t really know their storylines. On purpose though because I’m not studying their storyline, it makes me stay in my character better. There’s certain things as an actor that you have to really exercise so that you convey a realness. It’s true, because if you were on the streets you wouldn’t know what the cops were doing.

Wood Harris: You don’t know any of it, you can guess and you might think you know, but truthfully you don’t really know. You wanna feel a little lost when you play a role, whatever the character is. I interact mostly with Idris [Elba] who plays Stringer Bell, we have a great chemistry and a brotherhood because of that. I just shot a movie with JD [Williams] in Baltimore and L.A., it’s called For Life. I don’t know if it’s gonna remain that name but that’s the current name of it. It’s produced by Tony Austin, he’s the president of Russell Simmons Music Group. This is somebody I’m in cahoots with and working on other things with, it’s a lot going on. I’m happy to be in my shoes. You’ve played a lot of different roles. From Jimi Hendrix, when you came out and did [Paid In Full] – you played the nerdy guy turned street guy. Do you ever worry that you’re going to get typecast as a street guy because of your work with The Wire and movies like Paid In Full?

Wood Harris: I don’t get really worried about it, because if you look closer it’s not that hard to see more than that. I’m fortunate to be Jimi, Remember The Titans, those are big things. Even Paid In Full is a true story too, so is [Avon] Barksdale. Those were based on real people, I think what happens is over time you start to have an identity that people recognize. It takes time though, you’re able to govern it. You’re able to shape it, obligation to me as an artist is to pretty much do whatever I wanna do.

I have integrity; it’s great for me to play those roles because I’m able to give them a different kind of brain because I’m a different type of actor. Paid In Full – they could have went with anybody to do that and made a whole different type of movie, but a lot of what you see is me making the character basing it on the real A.Z. Hanging out with A.Z., being just like A.Z. and getting really lost in it so that I’m able to watch it and feel like I’m watching a film and I ain’t lookin’ at myself. As an actor you wanna feel like I’m getting lost enough to watch this. On the Wendy Williams show, she put you on the spot to rap. How does that make you feel when you tell people you do music and they’re like, “Sing for me; rap for me”?

Wood Harris: I don’t really have a problem with it at all. I’m not looking for no validation so it doesn’t really matter to me. She just said freestyle, I ain’t expect it. She told me to put the headphones on, I put the headphones on and there was a little beat in the headphones. She said “I heard you can rap and you do music, freestyle.” So I did a real freestyle off the top of my head and if they did jokes, I just went off of them. It’s nothing to me, everybody rhymes so I’m not selling rap. Rap sells itself, they can say rapper or MC. I’m not trying to sell none of that, I’m just me. I just hold the integrity of that, I’m not a character I’m really me. Music is something that makes you feel good.

Wood Harris: Yeah! I’m high on it, I’m a creative person. That’s a gift, I feel high off creating and being creative. I do my own stuff, I feel very empowered by that. True old school artists, every generation gotta have ‘em. You make yourself what you are, I’m in my generation and I’m one of them. These are the steps that I take, they can have judgment but I don’t have to bear witness to it because I don’t care. Whatever you do, you may be a great dancer. What do you care about what somebody says about your dancing? I’m “bring the noise” style; you can diss me because I don’t listen.

Hip-Hop is in a place where it’s evolving, number one, I thought it was dead, but I think there’s resuscitation on the rise with Jay-Z and Snoop. I think their albums sound great. I’ve talked to Jay-Z, when he first went and signed to become CEO over there. I sat with him one-on-one alone for about an hour, I played my stuff for him which he really liked a lot. Now it’s more on the other end, I think I have a cool relationship with him. I told him “You can’t retire Picasso; you must paint until you’re 75 or 80 or die.” It depends on the person; some people ain’t gonna really do that. I like Lupe Fiasco, I’m from Cape Town the west side of Chicago where he roams the streets – we’ve been under the same skies. But Jay-Z, that album is amazing. I’m not usually a fan of any rappers, I don’t really listen to rap anymore. Hip-Hop is a totem pole, it has faces at the top, middle and bottom. You make up your mind who’s at the top. What were your top three Hip-Hop albums of 2006?

Wood Harris: It’s hard for me to say that, I spent a lot of time on the East Coast, in DC and in Cali. The big music out here was E-40 with his album [My Ghetto Report Card], we was feelin’ him for so long. Then Too Short did his thing with the Blow The Whistle. The old school has took the crib back, they said “F**k being the old school, we are the new school”. They’re saying “We’re the new school forever, there’s no more schools. School is out now, let’s get grown.” School is out because motherf**kers is wearing their pants around their f**king thighs. I listened to Lupe’s album [Food & Liquor] the other day, I love Lupe; he’s dope. I’m such a critic. I got it set up in my head sometimes when I listen to music. My son is nine, I play music to him and I get the opinion from the most innocent ears. I can’t let him hear all of the songs because they’re profane, I get the clean versions.

The Game surprised me with his ability – I think you’re being dishonest if you can’t agree with that. It’s not like I didn’t see [Game’s talent] before, but sometimes that’s what a sophomore record does, it’s either gonna connect you in deeper or push you away a little bit. Mos [Def] is my homey, I sat in the studio months ago hearing some of his new stuff that he’s putting together and it really is some defining stuff in there. Mos is one of the smartest, he’s in his thirties. That’s a great song by Jay-Z, [“30 Something”]. It’s because school is out. He’s honest about [his age] on the record, Hip-Hop is dishonest a lot. The magic of what Jay-Z is saying is pretty empowering. Embrace it because that’s powerful, I love it. The Hip-Hop artist has to communicate life truthfully in order for Hip-Hop to sustain.

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