Hassan Johnson has developed a knack for being a bad guy. Not in real life, of course, however the popular HBO series The Wire, in which Hassan plays the incarcerated schemer Wee-Bey, is full of characters so richly well developed – it’s got to feel good being bad on such a hot show.
While still in High School in Staten Island, New York, Hassan landed a role in Spike Lee’s 1995 film Clockers. He appeared on a few episodes of New York Undercover and NYPD Blue, as well as a few other short-lived television series. In 1998 he starred in Hype Williams’ visually stunning film Belly, and most recently appeared in the Damon Dash produced film Paid In Full on the big screen.
Now that The Wire is heading into the final episodes for the third season, Hassan is turning his focus to his production company, Autumn Leaves, and to his rap career. He called AllHipHop.com Alternatives last week to chop it up about the concept of image in his bad boy roles, and the inspirations behind his life, acting, and music.
AHHA: In the type of roles that you’ve played so far, have you had any concerns about being typecast?
Hassan: I mean whatever concerns I’ve had or haven’t had, it’s pretty much a wrap. I’ve been acting now nine years, so you pretty much can say I have been, but I try to provide such a natural feeling to the character that it’s just someone you can relate to. It’s not a villain, he’s not a thug, he’s not anything. Don’t even try to itemize the type of person that the character is, just somebody you can relate to in a real situation and [I try to] come across authentic. That’s what I try to do, [authenticate] the characters. They’re pretty much the same, they’re street characters, one might be a little more hardcore, one might have a little bit more of an in depth look to a situation. So it depends on how much you get with the character [and what] they go through that makes you typecast. You could be that on the surface hard rock type of guy that’s just the ‘shoot ‘em up bang bang thug’ or you could be the three dimensional thug that has a mom he loves, that has a wife and kid at home and is loyal to his boys. Some people might say I am [being typecast] and it’s cool. I’ll take that because at the end of the day I’m an actor, and I gotta do what I do best. If playing a villain is what I’m good at, then let that be what I’m good at now.
AHHA: Do you ever worry about criticism from the public about playing roles that are negative, or the impact that it might have on the community or the kids?
Hassan: Well, what’s funny is I’ve been to a few schools strictly in the Baltimore area where we come and talk about the show, and the parallels between that and real life, and the pros and the cons of street life. Really there aren’t any pros, but we still give ’em a good and a bad outlook on it. For some reason, as genuine as the show is, it hits so home with people that it’s not a problem, you don’t really get that criticism. The producers anticipated that, but we never really caught that flack. I’ve read a lot of interviews and reviews on the show, and we just get critical acclaim, and I guess it’s for the writing and the actual material and the way it’s written and presented. It’s just so raw and to the point, people accept it like that. You get to see both sides of the fence, it’s an honest outlook on how the police informant looks at the inner city youth.
AHHA: We interviewed JD Williams a while back and he was telling us how you guys actually talk to people in the community and the drug dealers, and some of them are used as extras in the show. How much do you take away from people in the streets in Baltimore regarding your role and how you play it?
Hassan: I think they supplement some value to the role and how we play it because, to get down to the nitty gritty, a lot of us on the show with principal roles aren’t from Baltimore. That’s one respect – they do give us that love that you probably wouldn’t ordinarily get not being a native of that town.
AHHA: Have you found that they’ve been pretty open with you about urban life in Baltimore?
Hassan: Yeah, very open. The only thing I’m probably upset with myself about is I’ve tried to gravitate and cling on to the Baltimore dialect. We [got away with] a lot in the beginning, but then it got so deep and then the dialogue switches up a lot, and there’s other things we have to stress and point out. So we kind of veer off that, and I’m just upset that we as craftsmen didn’t keep that end of the bargain up, but other than that everyone doesn’t have a problem, they’re pretty open to it. They love the job we do, they really do.
AHHA: The show is in the third season right now. Things have changed up a lot. It went from the first season being really about the towers and the streets, then it went into the docks, now we’re back with the focus on the streets. Do you feel that in the second season a lot of the street characters were jilted on lines and storylines in general?
Hassan: Somewhat, on the surface, yes, but technically no, because if you really took a strong look at The Wire‘s second season the writing was incredible. I didn’t like what was going on at face value, but the couple of episodes I did take time out to look at and analyze, it was some good material. There were a lot of informative things going on, they provided a lot of information so to speak. On the surface it was an A and a B plot. They went totally 180 degrees from what was going on in the first season and now they’re back 360 on the third season.
AHHA: Since your character Wee-Bey has been locked up we haven’t seen much screen time with you. What will we be able to expect from your character?
Hassan: Well without giving anything away I’ll just say that Wee-Bey is definitely doing a 25 to life bid for Avon Barksdale’s organization, but he won’t be in there alone for too long. That doesn’t mean that he’s coming out, but that definitely means somebody’s going in. [laughs] We’re showing a lot of weakness in the organization, things you never thought you’d see. So the idea was to reconstitute the organization from inside along with Wee-Bey.
AHHA: Talk to us a little about your music and the direction you’re taking.
Hassan: The direction I’m taking with the music is M Media, M stands for music, movies, mayhem – whatever you want it to stand for. I don’t know what type of vibe to really explain our flow, but we’re a little new wave Tribe Called Quest, I like to call it. Idris Elba who plays Stringer Bell is the in-house producer, and we also have Diverse The First who’s an emcee, wonderful lyricist and we have a lady by the name of T-Ray who does vocals on our records. We got a little bit of everything, down south flavor, some garage music happening from London, because that’s where Idris is from, and then we got that just all out east coast.
AHHA: How long have you been rhyming?
Hassan: I been doing that on and off now since Wu-Tang been around, cause I’m from Staten Island. I grew up with Meth and RZA’s litle brothers and cousins. Them cats is only a few years older than me, but we really grew up around one another so I know their history. I go back that far, those are the influences of course and the Big Daddy Kanes and the Kool G Raps, anybody from out of New York who was rapping in the late 80’s/early 90’s.
AHHA: How do you find creatively the energy to make your music when you exert so much into your acting as well?
Hassan: It’s a cross motivation, because where I might not have what I need or what how I’m feeling to continue what I want with the acting – like me and Idris also have a screenplay [we’re working on]. However I wake up feeling that day, if I happen to end up in the studio that’s the only difference with the way we make music. We do have a sound, I gotta give us that. We performed at last years H20 Film Festival and that was kind of fun. Check out for the Flip The Script – I think we might be up to volume 3 – that’s Idris on the deejaying and a couple of freestyles by myself, [and] Diverse The First.
AHHA: How did you come up with [Autumn Leaves] as the name of your production company?
Hassan: That’s my daughter’s name, so we’re just gonna keep it tight in the family, it’s symbolic.
AHHA: How do you juggle having children and doing what you do?
Hassan: That part I don’t know, I ask myself that one. But through the grace of God that’s just really giving me the strength because it’s sometimes I really don’t understand or fathom how I do get by, and I’m really involved in my daughter’s life.
AHHA: If your daughter wanted to be involved in music or an acting career, what advice would you give her?
Hassan: Steer clear of the bullsh*t, use your intuition and your third eye. Mind your business and just be real aggressive, that’s what I try to tell people. Basically at the same token, what works for me don’t work for you, so come up with your own ways of doing things. Conventional methods might work, and some new things wouldn’t hurt either.