Just about every part of The Deuce, HBO’s new flagship drama that premiered this weekend, has the feel of an Oscar-level movie. Between a star-studded cast headlined by James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the lightning-sharp dialogue typical of David Simon and George Pelecanos, and the massive-scale recreation of the scumminess of 1971 Times Square, The Deuce has a cinematic vibe from top to bottom.
Simon and Pelecanos, who previously teamed together on HBO’s Tremé and most notably on The Wire, are masters of their craft; they’re on an extremely short list of storytellers in the industry who would be given the green light to bring whatever topic they want—in this case, the birth of the modern porn industry—to fruition, invoking complex characters, detailed storylines, and stunning tension along the way. Lawrence Gilliard Jr. is one of the stars of The Deuce, and having played the iconic role of D’Angelo Barksdale on The Wire, has worked with Simon and Pelecanos longer than most anyone else.
While Gillard’s Wire character was a good person stuck in the flux of a broken system in the Baltimore drug trade, his Deuce character jumps to the other side; he’s a good person—seemingly, at least—but is stuck in the system of one of the most notoriously unscrupulous eras of police corruption in the history of New York City.
Set primarily in Times Square, the show gets its name from a commonly-used moniker for 42nd Street, coincidentally not far from HBO’s midtown HQ where Gilliard and I had our conversation. Of course, since that area has transformed so much from the time in which the show’s events occurred, the Times Square that The Deuce depicts was actually built and filmed up in Washington Heights—not quite 42nd Street, but a world that nonetheless feels real. That realness that comes along with a David Simon/George Pelecanos project is something that Gillard and I would chat about, along with character building, being directed by James Franco, and David Simon’s on-set intensity.
Brooklyn Magazine: I know that you’re from New York City—how did your experience growing up here translate to working on the show’s set?
Lawrence Gilliard Jr.: Oh man, it was amazing. I was a young kid in the ’70s, so just knowing the city a bit from that time helped immensely. It was also amazing just being on set and seeing how they transformed it back to that time. I mean, of course it just brought me back in time almost—the feeling of it, having the cars and having everyone dressed in the period clothing. But yeah, it absolutely helped because I can recall, you know. I remember what it looked like back then. I remember what it felt like back then. And whenever you have that, if you can have that experience, that past where you have experienced that kind of stuff, you can always use it as an actor. You can use it for your character.
I was thinking about this as I watched it, but, like.. It’s supposed to be this scummy New York City…
Yeah, that’s what it was.
But the set that they built, and the fact that it’s so accurate is almost beautiful in a way. When you were acting on this set, in these scenes, did it feel like you had been transported to another time?
Oh yeah. I’m walking around, I’m looking down, there’s newspapers all over the ground, and I’m thinking, yep, that’s what it was.
It was right around here [HBO’s midtown offices]; 42nd Street, right?
It was right down the street, dude. You know, it’s grimy, and it’s all that, and…that’s the feel. That’s just…that was the feel. So it just lends to what you’re doing when you’re surrounded by it and when it’s right.
So what was it initially that attracted you to joining this project?
Well, a few things. One, just the experience. Well, not the experience; just the opportunity to work with David and George and Nina. You know, I love them. Just to work with that crew—they’re the best of the best. Also, the opportunity to work in New York, to work in the city. I love the city. And also I love period pieces. I didn’t know a lot about the character going into it, just that he was a cop, and so I was like, well, that’d be good. It’s always good to sometimes be on the other side of the law. Sometimes I’m on the not-good side of the law.
It was a while ago that you worked with David on The Wire, and you were a criminal in that. And now you’re on the other side. Did anything translate from one performance into the other?
There was nothing, really. I think the only comparison you can draw between the two characters is that they both have good hearts. They’re both trying to do right in a system that is…well, ’70s, New York, it was one of the most corrupt police departments at the time. I was talking to some cops— the things that all cops share is that they all want to protect and serve. They have this overwhelming drive and desire to just protect and serve. That’s why they do what they do. So they want to do good, but they’re in a system that’s corrupt. D’Angelo was a guy who wanted to do good.
And you know how David works—everything is about institutions. It’s about institutions. D’Angelo was in the drug dealer institution, or the institution of drugs, or whatever. But he was a good guy in a corrupt system. This guy, Chris Alston, is the same thing. He’s in the institution of the police department. He’s a good guy who’s in a corrupt system, who’s trying to do good.
Yeah. And it kind of seems like it was building towards what you’re getting at just in the first episode. Some of the dialogue between your character and your partner in the station…I don’t know, it wasn’t like anything was laid out explicitly—it’s almost an underlying feeling—but you kinda get that sense that there’s…
Exactly. At the same time as you have these character intricacies, there’s also such a big cast. I’m sure you’re going to interact with way more characters than what we just saw in the first episode. Did you have a favorite scene partner?
Don Harvey, who plays my partner, he’s great. He’s fun to work with. Natalie Paul, who plays my love interest. She plays a reporter. Everyone…I mean, the thing about working with David and George and working with this group of people is everyone’s gonna bring their A-game.
So everyone wants to get it right. No prima donnas on set. Everyone’s just there to work and try to create the best show that they can.
The climate that David and George and Nina create on set—it’s one that is very easy, it’s very loose. It’s about creating—everyone having a good time and trying to enjoy themselves while creating. It’s about collaboration. And so that makes it easy for everyone to just be cool and have fun.
I think another thing that’s so interesting about the series and a lot of David and George’s work in general is that it doesn’t necessarily need to dive right into what the plot is about all the time.
It builds the characters, it builds the world, which I think is such an important thing, especially for a TV series.
Yeah. That’s another thing I love about David and George—they’re not afraid to take their time. You know what I mean? Because so often on TV, it’s about let’s move it along, move it along, let’s get toward…or we’re gonna lose the audience. People want to get that payoff right away. I love that David and George aren’t afraid to just take their time, build the characters, build that exposition.
Because the payoff is gonna happen, it’s gonna come. But they earn it. And the audience, the viewers have to earn it, too. They have to earn it by following, paying attention, and taking time with the show.
In addition to starring in the show, James Franco also directed a couple episodes. What was it like working with him in that capacity as opposed to playing off him as an actor?
It was cool! I didn’t get to do any scenes with him this season, so I only worked with him as director/actor. And he was great, man.
It’s weird. You never know what you’re gonna get when you have an actor directing. But he was very smart, and he was very good. Very good with just allowing actors to be free. Coming in, give a little note if he needs to, and then letting you do your thing. It’s what you want as an actor in a director—direction when you need it, but not…just play and have fun and see what comes out. He was very good at that, and he was easy to work with. I enjoyed working with him as a director.
Having worked with David and George in the past on The Wire, and now working with them, years later, have they changed or evolved at all in terms of writing, in terms of how they kind of work with you guys?
As far as writing, I think it’s still brilliant. Whenever I read anything that they’ve written, I’m like wow. I read a lot, so I read a lot of TV stuff and script stuff. And you can tell the difference when you read a David Simon/George Pelecanos piece.
I don’t think that’s changed in any way. It’s still great. The way they just write prose—that’s one thing that amazes me about those two, man. Their prose writing is just so on point. I’m just like, how do you know? But they do. So I wouldn’t say that changed in any way.
They seem a bit easier—just a bit because they’ve done it so many times now. They’re a little more chill than they were when we did The Wire. Also, they’ve known the actors for a while. A lot of us they’ve worked with before. So it goes beyond, at this point, just boss and employee. It’s like friends on a certain level.
Can you give an example? What was different with The Deuce?
Well, David was just a little more intense on The Wire, you know? Of course I didn’t know him as well. Like, now I know the cat. Back then, he was just a little more intense. I was a little bit afraid of him back then! For one, because his writing was so damn good. I’m like, how does this Jewish dude…how does he know how I speak? How does he get it on the paper? Something wicked about that—I don’t know about this dude, you know? So, yeah, he was just a little more intense. Now it’s like, we laugh, we joke around on set. He’s just a different guy.
Just a different relationship now. And to somebody who’s new, who’s just meeting him, I don’t know. You gotta ask Gary Carr or somebody else who’s just working with him for the first time. Maybe to them, they’re like, “Oh shit, David Simon, we’re afraid to talk to him.” I don’t know.
You’ve done a lot of TV—Walking Dead notably— in between the two times working with David. What is it that sets David’s work apart?
It’s just so earnest, so sincere. It’s just so true. I mean, I don’t want to be cliché. Everyone says it, but it’s just so real. That’s literally the only word I can think of for it. Whenever I’m playing a character or doing something that David and George has written, I feel like this person exists in the world, and I feel like I have a duty to do that person some type of justice. You know what I mean?
Whereas with other parts, I feel like it’s fiction. I feel like I’m playing a character, and I need to create this character. But when I’m doing one of these pieces with these cats, it’s like, this person is real.
This person exists somewhere, and I have to tell that story. And…that fulfills me in a different way as an actor. You know what I mean?
Yeah, of course.
So that’s what’s special about it for me personally.
Definitely, of course. I get that. I have to imagine as an actor that’s sort of what you’re always looking for, for something that feels real.
Absolutely. That’s what you want to do, you want to communicate. You want to tell stories. What you want to do is hopefully, if you get the opportunity, you want to uplift. You want to uplift people, or educate somebody. Make somebody feel better about themselves, or maybe they’re down, how they can overcome some adversity or something. That’s what I personally want to try to do.
Photos courtesy of Paul Schiraldi/HBO