WASHINGTON - It's enough to give an actor whiplash, going from Michael Lee, the hardened, tragically street-smart Baltimore teen at the center of Season 4 of HBO's The Wire, to Dixon Wilson, adopted son of rich Beverly Hills parents on the CW's 90210.
But Tristan Wilds shrugs it off as no big deal. Acting is something he's good at, and playing characters who seem polar opposites is just part of the deal. Besides, he says, Michael and Dixon aren't as dissimilar as they at first appear.
"It's weird," says the 19-year-old actor, dressed all in black and sitting in a Georgetown hotel room. "The two characters, they're very far away. It's two completely different shows. ... I always think of Dixon as Michael with a better chance.
"He kind of grew up the same way. There was a bad environment where he was growing up, and he had to grow up by himself. But Dixon was adopted, so he's gotten his second chance. This is his second chance to make something of himself, the second chance that Michael always wanted."
Wilds is in Washington to promote his role as Zach in the film adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's beloved novel The Secret Life of Bees, which opens in theaters Friday.
The mainstay of high-school reading lists centers on Lily (Dakota Fanning), a motherless young white girl who forms an unlikely bond with a trio of black sisters in early-'60s South Carolina. Wilds' Zach serves as both Lily's love interest and her harsh introduction to the brutal realities of life in the civil rights-era South.
Wilds' performance represents yet another sharp turn in his acting resume. In just over a year, he's gone from playing a shell-shocked moral casualty of Baltimore's drug wars to a confused but determined victim of racial bigotry to a rich-kid-in-development among the elite of Beverly Hills. Or, to put it another way, he's gone from being a murderer to a beating victim to the kid who mans the stage lights at Beverly Hills High.
That might seem like a lot for a kid from Staten Island, N.Y., to wrap his arms around. But Ed Burns, co-creator and co-executive producer of The Wire, doesn't doubt for a second Wilds' ability to pull it off. The kid works hard, he says, and is determined to be good at what he does.
"Tristan was probably a godsend," Burns says. "He's warm, engaging and very smart, feels very confident with himself. He's a good listener. He will take notes, he will think things through, and bring something of that to every scene he is in."
Wilds smiles widely when asked about his time in Baltimore shooting The Wire. Burns and his partner on the show, former Sun reporter David Simon, "were like my second dads on the set, seriously," he says. "To have them both on the set was pretty dope, pretty amazing. It's like family; they jump on you for what you're doing, poke fun or whatever."
That sense of family clearly means a lot to Wilds. His maternal grandfather, Ellsworth Mitchell, sits in on his interviews, clearly both proud and protective. That sort of love, Wilds say, really helped him connect with Zach.
"The love he gets from his family, I was able to click with that very easily, because of the love that my family gives me all the time," he says.
In fact, Wilds says, that sense of family loyalty extends all the way to Baltimore. Although he'd never been to the city before being cast as one of the four teens at the center of The Wire's fourth season, he quickly grew to love the city - and defend it.
"Some people just think Baltimore is just this big, mean place that you can never go, and I'm like, 'Baltimore definitely has some good spots.'
"If anybody would like to buy me lunch," he adds with a big smile, warming to the side of Charm City that The Wire didn't always show, "I'd really like a lump crab cake ... or if I'm back in Baltimore, some Tyrone's Chicken."