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Photo by Theo Gould, courtesy of Clarke Peters.

Clarke Peters on the Moment He Realized ‘The Wire’ Was Something Special, How Benedict Cumberbatch Convinced Him to Do Netflix’s ‘Eric’

If it seems like you see Clarke Peters everywhere, it’s because, well, he works a lot. When you’re as gifted a performer as he is, it makes sense that you’re going to be in pretty high demand. Since his first major TV role as Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire, arguably the greatest show in television history, he has been a constant presence on both the big and small screens, as well as on the stage. 

No matter the role, the actor brings a level of grace to each performance, and then of course there’s that smooth-as-silk voice. The one that has resonated through films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Da 5 Bloods, John Wick and Harriet. He’s also brought his skills to TV shows which include Damages, Person of Interest, Treme and Foundation, just to name a select few.

With all those credits, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he is beloved by his costars. Take Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the new Netflix limited series Eric, in which Peters has a key supporting role. Cumberbatch loves Peters “to bits,” and the feeling is mutual, as he will tell you himself. He spoke to us from his home in London.

How did you get started as an actor?

I think the bug bit me somewhere in junior high school. I was watching my older brother do the senior play Inherit the Wind. I had never seen my brother transform like that before, and it was nice. We always told each other stories as children, but to see him execute something like that was just icing on the cake.

Somewhere there was a PTA production of My Fair Lady. John Travolta’s mother was directing it, his sister was Liza Doolittle and we were street urchins. (Laughs) So I think that was the fertilizer. I thought, “Okay, let’s go do this.”

So how did that manifest as you got out of high school?

I couldn’t afford to go to college. I did an audit in one class at the School of Fine Arts at Boston University. I had friends at Julliard who kept giving me directions on what workshops to take, what classes to go to, and who was doing something outside of the curriculum, or outside of school and I just followed my nose and continued to today.

Seems to have led you down a pretty solid path, following your nose.

Yes, I think so. If you follow your dreams, I think that you’ll be led step by step to where you want to go.

Black and white photo of Clarke Peters looking stoic. Photo by Theo Gould, courtesy of Clarke Peters.

Was there ever a plan B?

No. I think between my junior high experience and coming into high school, I thought hard about professions. I knew that I wanted a profession that I enjoyed, that had some longevity to it, and where I would be able to explore as much as I could of life in general.

I remember having that internal conversation about what to do, and it was theater. I had some romantic idea about joining a theatre company and traveling from town to town in the foothills of the Caspian Mountains, you know, putting up a tent, doing a show, bringing it on down, going on to the next one. Somewhere that romantic view is still there, and we wind up doing that anyway.

One of the things I’ve liked about your career is how, unlike a lot of actors, you’ve avoided being pigeonholed. How did you accomplish that?

Just by saying,”No.”

I can remember living here in London, maybe somewhere in the early 80s, hearing someone say, “Oh, Clarke Peters, he’s that musical actor.” And I thought, “Oh, no, he’s not the musical actor.”

Then I started working with the National Theatre, and that inspired me to make sure that I use all of my craft, no matter what it is, to explore all of that and not allow myself to be pigeonholed. An actor is just a storyteller. The medium can be stage, it can be film, it can be recording, it can be poetry. If you’re an actor, you use your craft as best as you can. Sometimes the paycheck is good. Sometimes not. But as long as you’re realizing your craft is still moving forward, you’ll be alright. I figured out at a fairly early stage in my career, that there are lots of things that an actor can do, so do as many of them, and diversify as much as you possibly can.

I think a lot of people, whether they’re artists or not, don’t have the wherewithal or the self-awareness to be able to say no like that.

Of course, you go through that, but as a creative person, you can’t stop your creativity. If a writer says they have writer’s block, there’s something else on their mind, all they have to do is just start writing, and it’ll come back. And if they don’t do that, then they might pick up some paint and start painting, or they might go construct a garden. But a creative just does that, and my avenue of creativity is mostly in performance. 

Can we talk about The Wire, the best thing that’s ever been on television?

(Laughs) That was the first TV show that I signed up for five years. I’d never signed up for five years of anything, but for five seasons, I said “I’m going to do this, and it was a learning experience because I had only done a few TV things before that.”

It took me a while to understand that working in film is different from working on stage. But some aspects of it can transcend if you use the tools accurately.

Was there a moment in that first season when you realized, “Wow, this is something”?

No. (Laughs) I was working. I would do six months in America, then come back here and do some stage. I only ever saw the first two episodes of the show, then I would come back for the next season. For the first three seasons, I didn’t see what everyone else had seen. I figured I had read through it, I’ve acted it, let’s get on to the next story.

I didn’t realize something was happening until the third season when I flew into New York. I was walking on Eighth Avenue to go visit some friends doing the musical Chicago. I saw this very agitated man eyeballing me, and I thought, “This is going to be nonsense.” He was rubbing his fingers together and pointing and talking to himself. A real crazy. I knew I was the focus of his attention, and I steeled myself as I was going up the road.

As I get past him. I hear, “Lester Freamon!” When he said that, there were a few other people who clocked who Lester Freamon was, and then I realized something was happening here that was spreading around the populace, and I’m part of that story. That was when I thought, “There’s something in this.”

Was that the role that changed things for you?

Yes, it was Lester Freamon. That changed a lot for me on many levels. As an actor working with an ensemble. As an actor whose voice was able to contribute and be listened to in production.

I was always cast as “the old guy.” I wasn’t “the old guy,” but I guess I was. There was a responsibility that came with the younger actors, and that was a bit of a turning point to seeing where I found myself in my community of actors. Also, the idea of celebrity is not something that’s in the front of most actors’ minds, but it made me realize that there is a responsibility that goes along with almost unavoidable celebrity.

Hopefully, you’re telling a story that people will appreciate, and if they show their appreciation, then you should acknowledge that. It was something that I hadn’t recognized. There was no need for me to recognize that before.

What was it about Eric that drew you to it? I know you and Benedict have worked together before.

That’s the reason why I was working with him again. Sometimes you take a gig because of who’s playing, and so it was like that for me and Benedict. We’ve known each other for years. I knew it wasn’t a big role, but Benedict said, “Yeah, come on, let’s do this.” And we did it. Simple as that. Hopefully, it’ll be as popular as The Wire. (Laughs)

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