Jim True-Frost Interview

Jim True-Frost

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Although some still look at Jim True-Frost and immediately recall his small but memorable role in one of Cameron Crowe's earlier flicks, that number is growing smaller and smaller with each successive season that he plays Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski on HBO's acclaimed series, "The Wire." We spoke with True-Frost on the occasion of "The Wire" being selected for the top spot in the latest edition of Bullz-Eye's TV Power Rankings – an honor he deemed "fantastic" – and it gave us the opportunity to ask him about the surprising arc of his character over the course of the series, how he came to play the part of an inner-city teacher so convincingly, and whether or not he likes Johnny Cash as much as Prez does. 

: Hey, Jim, how’s it going? 

Jim True-Frost: Hey, how are you?

BE: Not bad. 

JTF: Good. 

BE: I don’t know if they told you in particular why we wanted to talk to you, but, bi-annually, we do TV Power Rankings on our site…and “The Wire” is #1 in our new edition. 

JTF: Fantastic! 

BE: Well, to start from the beginning, I should probably come clean admit that, when I saw you on “The Wire” for the first time, my immediate thought was, “Oh, my God, it’s the dude from ‘Singles’ who lives his life like a French movie!” 

JTF: A-ha-ha! Not many people remember that! Well, thanks a lot for remembering. Yeah, actually, just the other day in the supermarket, for the first time in years, somebody said, “Hey, I recognize you from ‘Singles’!” Once in awhile, that happens… 

BE: Well, you were really funny in it. 

JTF: …but I get recognized a lot more for “The Wire.” People are really starting to watch it more and more. It’s great. 

BE: After “Singles,” though, with the exception of “The Hudsucker Proxy,” it seems like you stuck pretty strictly to drama after that.  

JTF: Yeah, I mean, I do like comedy, and I do some on stage sometimes, but with theater and film, I guess I’m falling more into some more straight, serious stuff. 

BE: How did you come to get involved in “The Wire” in the first place? 

I don't think Prez learned any more about teaching fractions from being a police detective, but just in a personal way, I think it really helped to stand him up on his feet.

JTF: I was living in New York when they were holding casting sessions there, and I just went on a regular audition call and auditioned for David Simon and Ed Burns and Clark…who was directing the pilot… (Pauses) Who am I thinking of? Did I get it wrong…? Our director was… (Pauses again) I’ll think of it. Anyway, they knew me from an episode of “Homicide,” where I just sort of did a guest spot on an episode, and so I’d had a brief introduction. And, y’know, I just kind of…got a callback and got the role. I can’t think…I hadn’t even read a whole script, y’know? There were just a couple of scenes; they had these decisive moments from the first season for me to read. One was where Prez goes out with Herc and Carver and raises hell and sort of starts a mini-riot at the housing project and gets involved in some violence early on… (Chuckles) …and then a few episodes later, the scene where Prez succeeds in cracking the code that the dealers are using on their pagers. So I knew from those a little bit about what this character’s story would be…but, obviously, I had no idea all the twists and turns that would happen, and it really turned out to be a great ride for me. I really loved the character. 

BE: By the way, it was Clark Johnson who directed the pilot. I just looked it up. 

JTF: Oh, thanks! Don’t quote me as having spaced that out! 

BE: Ah, it’s been awhile; you’d be excused, I think. 

JTF: Yeah… 

BE: So how do you see the evolution of your character over the course of the show? I mean, when it started, he was kind of a screw-up who got onto the force mostly through family connections, then he became a master of desk work, and now he’s left the force and become a relatively successful teacher. 

JTF: Right. It was…it seems like one of those stories that, like a lot of the ones on the show, they had very carefully plotted out from the very beginning. They didn’t tell any of us what was in store, but they really thought very, very carefully in the very early stages about what the shape of the overall story was going to be in the long run, and I think Prez’s kind of convoluted past was part of that. Obviously, Ed Burns wanted to tell the story about the schools from early on because of his experience as a teacher after he retired from the police force, so his role as our writer and producer shifted into really high gear after we started on the… (Pauses) I shouldn’t say “shifted into high gear” because his work doing… (Laughs) …wire-tap investigations was also pretty key all the way along! I should just say that it changed gears, because it went into a side of his life that hadn’t really entered the story up until that point, when we moved into the schools. So I really enjoyed working closely with Ed and talking with him, even on a week to week basis, as episodes would come along and I would talk to him about his experiences that mirrored, that we reflected in things that we were showing on the show in a given episode.  

BE: I was going to ask if the producers always planned on keeping Prez as a major character, but given Ed’s experiences as a teacher, I guess they always did! 

JTF: I guess so, yeah! I didn’t hear about it until Season Three, when they said, “Well, a couple of episodes from now, something pretty serious is going to happen to your character.” And they were talking about me getting involved in an accidental shooting, where I kill another police officer, and I thought, oh, no, that’s it, I’m done on the show! 

BE: (Laughs

These guys and girls playing the school kids really had a real respect for the seriousness of the show and the seriousness of the craft.  It was just like working with any other bunch of actors. They were just a little bit shorter. 

JTF: But they gave me a hint that there was something around the corner, and that they were going to change directions for me in the next season…and I couldn’t have been more happy. I mean, I really missed working with some of my friends on the detail, the actors like Clarke Peters and Dominic West and Sonja Sohn…we got to be good friends over the years. Lance Reddick. But I hardly saw them at all last season. But on the other hand, the story entering the classroom was really, really meaningful for me. I mean, I think a lot of viewers felt that way, too. It’s just that the huge numbers of city kids who are left behind and are underserved by the educational system, and the teachers who are, in many cases, really doing heroes’ work to try to keep these kids from going astray for good…those are stories that I think are just so important to tell, and, well, I was just really proud to be a part of it. 

BE: You went from interacting strictly with adults to dealing mostly with kids. 

JTF: Yeah! 

BE: Was that a challenge as an actor? 

JTF: Um, it might’ve been in another situation, but these guys were just total pros. I think, just like the rest of the cast of “The Wire,” these guys and girls playing the school kids really had a real respect for the seriousness of the show and the seriousness of the craft. They took acting very seriously and did their homework and, you know, it was just like working with any other bunch of actors. They were just a little bit shorter. (Laughs) You know? They were really great scene partners, all the way along. 

BE: Did you do any research with actual Baltimore teachers to prepare yourself, or did you kind of rely on Ed’s experiences to guide you? 

JTF: Uh…how about I’ve been married to one for seven years? 

BE: That’ll do it! (Laughs) That’ll help! 

They were talking about me getting involved in an accidental shooting, where I kill another police officer, and I thought, oh, no, that's it, I'm done on the show!

JTF: My wife, when we met…she is not now a Baltimore teacher, but when we met ten years ago, she had just finished a two-year stint as a teacher for Booker T. Washington Middle School, in Baltimore, and had gone on to teaching two years in Harlem, at a middle school in the public schools in Manhattan. So she had an identical experience to Prez. She was…the school Prez teaches in might as well have been the exact same school that she taught in, so I had had… (Laughs) …I had heard quite a lot of stories and tales and lessons from her long before this acting part even came up. And once it did come up, yeah, she was a great resource. She would talk about the scenes with me before I shot them and give me…not acting advice, but just talking about what her experience was like. And 99 times out of 100, she’d hear about a story that was coming up in a script and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right on the money. That’s exactly the kind of thing that happens…and exactly the kind of thing that happened to me!” So, you know, from violence in the classroom to students using 20-year-old textbooks that have half the pages ripped out and not even being able to take them home before there aren’t enough books, and all the things that the lack of resources and the lack of support at home that a lot of the kids have, and the troubles that they bring from the street right into the classroom…those are daily occurrences.  

BE: Prez kind of gets lectured on sticking to the curriculum, and that’s something that my mother – she’s a retired teacher – often found herself battling toward the end of her career. What are your personal thoughts on teachers being permitted to venture outside the box? 

JTF: I’m not… (Hesitates) This is where I feel like I have to say, “I’m not a teacher, but I play one on TV.” (Laughs) So I don’t have the expert knowledge. I don’t know what the proper… (Hesitates again) I think it’s undeniable that the circumstances in city schools are special, are so dire that nobody can tell the teachers how best to do their jobs…because you don’t know unless you’re standing up there in the classroom. If everything else was equal and things were regular and could be counted on…things like resources, kids having enough to eat and getting sleep at night, and things like that…then you might able to say, “And this is the way you should teach them, and this is the way you’re required to teach them.” But all those things aren’t that way. There’s too much chaos, and so I think that each teacher’s really on his or her own to try to find a way that works. And, yeah, sure, that means bucking the system a lot of the times. I’m sure. I would never fault a teacher for going outside the curriculum or whatever they need to do to try and get a result. 

BE: Do you think Prez is a better cop or a better teacher?  

JTF: Teacher. I mean, he did things…there were things he managed to do successfully that really contributed to the police work, and that was a great part of the character for me, when he would succeed by following the paper trail and really listening, paying attention to Detective Freeman’s advice and his training as a detective. So he had aptitude and ability…but he didn’t have the profile. He just couldn’t fit. The way some teachers can’t fit in the box, he couldn’t fit in the box. He couldn’t…he had trouble with authority, and he had trouble managing his anger. (Chuckles) Some of the other cops, like McNulty and Freeman, they’ve been through it year after year, they’ve bucked, but they find a way to dodge the bullets and work around the system. But Prez was just too excitable, so between punching out his father-in-law… (Laughs) …and punching that kid in the riot, and, finally, the totally accidental shooting, he just…the writing was on the wall. 

BE: So I’m guessing you don’t foresee him returning to the force. 

JTF: Not gonna happen. 

BE: (Laughs

JTF: I think they really laid that in nicely. There’s a couple of scenes, like…near the end of the season, when Freeman and Bunk come to Prez’s classroom looking for information about a murder, Freeman looks around and says, “I’m glad this is working out for you.” And I think there’s another moment, where Prez is at home with his wife, puzzling through one of the classroom crises, and his wife says something like, “You’re a teacher. Period.” So I think those are the signals that the writers are sending, that Prez has kind of found his niche. 

BE: Do you think Prez's experiences have helped him in the classroom?  

JTF: Yeah, definitely! I mean, I don’t think that, on the first day of school, when you see all the chaos and the kids screaming and all kinds of abuse hurled his way, I think if it had been four years earlier and he was the same Prez that went out and punched the kid in the face just for leaning on the hood his car, Prez wouldn’t have lasted a day in this classroom. He would’ve either gotten himself in big trouble, or he would’ve just left and said, “This isn’t for me.” But I think, yeah, he got seasoned by his exposure to some more cautious, wiser teachers on the force…so the other cops on the detail, I think, helped him deal with some of his own issues, helped him be a more serious person, a more mature person. As for the police work itself, I don’t know. I don’t think he learned any more about teaching fractions… (Laughs) …from being a police detective. But just in a personal way, I think, yeah, I think it really helped to set him, to stand him up on his feet. 

BE: Okay, and just two quick ones to close with. 

JTF: Okay. 

BE: Prez is an established Johnny Cash fan. Did that come from your personal tastes in music…? 

JTF: Uh, no, David Simon, I think, is the musical guru whose great and quirky and sort of spot-on choices for the music in the show inform all of those things. But I will say that I’m right along with him on almost all of his choices. I love Steve Earle, and I love the Blind Boys of Alabama; I love the Neville Brothers, and I love Johnny Cash. So it might as well have been me choosing the music for Prez! 

BE: And since you’ve just brought up David Simon, it leads right into my last question, which is that he’s said that the fifth season of “The Wire” is going to be its last. Do you think there’s any chance he’ll back off on that, or has he already got a vision in place for how the series will play out? 

Just the other day in the supermarket, for the first time in years, somebody said, "Hey, I recognize you from 'Singles'!" Once in awhile, that happens…but I get recognized a lot more for "The Wire." 

JTF: I think the answer is “no” and “yes.” No, I don’t think he’ll back off, and, yes, it’s because I think he does have a vision. Like I was saying earlier in the interview, I think he’s had the vision – he and Ed and the other writers – and have mapped out the show. I think if you’d told them five years, “Hey, turn it into a seven-year show,” then maybe they could’ve done it. But at this point, I think that things…it has a certain arc to it, and that arc is going to come a logical conclusion. So I doubt that you’re going to see anything beyond Season Five. 

BE: Are you going to miss playing Prez? 

JTF: Oh, yeah! I’ve really enjoyed it. I love working with the rest of the characters and actors, and the producers and the writers…and I love Prez as a character. He’s been a lot of fun to play. A lot of challenges, a lot of humor, and a lot of sort of rough edges that are fun to play. 

BE: All right, well, I really appreciate you speaking with us for a few minutes. 

JTF: Sure, my pleasure! 

BE: And I’ll send you the link to the piece as soon as it’s live. 

JTF: Great, I’d like to check it out, yeah. Thanks a lot!