David Zurawik

Wendell Pierce on 'Ray Donovan,' Jon Voight and his 'personal trifecta'

There was Wendell Pierce last Sunday night, sitting at a bar, pounding down drink after drink and getting kind of emotional as he talked about how messed up things had gotten in his life.

Shades of Bunk Moreland, of "The Wire," to be sure. Only instead of Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty matching him drink for drink, it was Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan sitting next to him.

Still, the character, Ronald Keith, a parole officer in Showtime's "Ray Donovan" series, was played just as winningly by Pierce.

There are a lot of good reasons to like "Ray Donovan," a dark drama about a man who makes a very good living cleaning up messes and fixing mistakes made by the rich and famous in Los Angeles.

Start with Schreiber, the star, one of the most compelling and intense actors on television. And then, go to Jon Voight, who plays Ray Donovan's scamming ex-con of a father, Mickey. At the age of 75, Voight, whose legacy of brilliantly idiosyncratic performances stretches back to "Midnight Cowboy," brings an energy and edge to the series. There isn't quite anyone like him on television, and he has been rewarded with a recent Emmy nomination for the role.

And now comes Pierce as Mickey Donovan's hardboiled parole officer. The scene last Sunday was near the end of Season 2's second episode. The two met in a sweat-stained tank of boxing gym in an encounter that had enough electricity to power Manhattan – for a week.

Voight played Mickey as the lovable con artist who suddenly senses he's up against someone who might be a match for his best game – but is not going to back down. Pierce played Keith as a law enforcement officer trying to instantly establish dominance and bend this new parolee to his will. It's all about dominance and submission – only neither wants to give in.

"He is an absolute American icon," Pierce said of Voight in a phone interview last week. "This has been the defining moment of the year for me and a high point of my career to work with him."

Pierce described Voight on the set between scenes as "always inventing, finding out what he can do better."

"You know, sometimes you can get in a rut as an actor and say, 'I'll just go out, do my lines, do my job, hit my mark and go home,'" Pierce explained. "It's not like that for him. It's always, 'Let's see what we can do with this scene. What's at stake? Let's see if we can make this thing tighter, better, stronger.'

"After a while, once you are out of school and working professionally, you can kind of forget what made you so enjoy being an actor. And Jon Voight makes you remember."

I have never seen Pierce, 50, play a one-dimensional character – even in last year's now-canceled "The Michael J. Fox Show," on NBC, in which he portrayed the news director at a TV station where Fox's character worked. His role in "Ray Donovan" is no exception.

Moral ambiguity is the order of the day in the noir-ish L.A. of "Ray Donovan," and Pierce's character, who is bribed by Donovan to be his out-of-control father's parole officer, is steeped in it.

"Ronald Keith, like most of the people in Ray Donovan's world, has his flaws," Pierce said. "His flaw is gambling. It has really compromised who he is personally and professionally. When we meet him at the bar, he's put himself in a financial bind because of his gambling."

Which makes him easy pickings for the cold-blooded Donovan.

"Ray is very good at exploiting peoples' vulnerabilities and using them for his benefit," Pierce added. "I happen to be one of the people who falls into his web and is used. A desperate man does desperate measures and will consider compromising his job. Ronald Keith has lost his true north and who he is as a parole officer because of his gambling debts. He's willing to conspire with anyone to get out that bind."

The distance between a network sitcom and the kind of complex characters Pierce has played on premium cable series like HBO's "The Wire" and "Treme," is supposed to be incalculable. And the conventional wisdom is that there's nothing on network TV that can compare to a series like "Ray Donovan," least of all a sitcom.

But Pierce doesn't buy that.

"I think it's dangerous that people start to see network shows as not having the luxury that a cable show has and, therefore, being a network show suddenly becomes something less," he said. "And that's kind of demonstrated in how 'The Good Wife' was overlooked this year [in the Emmy nomination for best drama]. Now it's like, if you really want complete artistic autonomy, you need to be on a provider that can stream a whole season like Netflix."

But, as Pierce sees it, "Those are just delivery systems. It's like when you get out of acting school, I was a theater snob. I just wanted to do classical theater on the stage. But now, it's all about the story. I just want to do a good scripts, good stories.

"Can you believe if I still had that attitude that I don't want to be on television, I would missed out on 'The Wire' and 'Treme,'" he continued. "I would have missed out on 'Ray.' I would have missed out on the film I just finished doing, 'Selma,' a wonderful film about Martin Luther King and LBJ and the voting rights movement in Selma. I play Rev. Hosea Williams, one of Martin Luther King's lieutenants, who was actually leading the march with John Lewis on Bloody Sunday [in 1965] when they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge."

Paramount is opening "Selma" on Christmas Day. That's the kind of high Oscar hopes the studio has for this docu-drama from the Civil Rights era.

Pierce, who holds a bachelor's of fine arts degree from The Juilliard School, still makes time for the stage. It's part of the "diverse mix" he said he wants as an actor.

"In March, I'm going to be doing a play in Brooklyn in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant] at The Billie Holiday Theatre," he said. "It's called "Brothers from the Bottom." It's a play I really like. I'll be finished by that time with 'The Odd Couple,' a sitcom I'm doing for CBS, and I'll have a little down time, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a play. So, here I am going into the heart of Bed-Stuy to a small, off-, off-, off-Broadway community theater and doing a play that I like."

Pierce, who has homes in Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans, says he likes where he's at professionally.

"I try to do what I call my personal trifecta every year: a play, television and film," he said. "And I haven't done a play in over two years, so it is time. And now, I can do it. Things are good."

Pierce said he owes much of that success to what happened to him on "The Wire."

"When you're on a high-profile show like 'The Wire,' that kind of lifts the bar a little bit, and people who never followed your work before, suddenly pay attention," he said.

"I'd be naive or crazy if I didn't think because of 'The Wire' my profile was lifted and people wanted to work with me, write stuff for me, things of that nature. You look for a defining role or a defining show to put you in that position, and 'The Wire' put me on the radar, on the map, like never before."

And the time he spent in Baltimore making the series?

"Baltimore felt like home," the New Orleans native said. "It reminded me of New Orleans – the wonderful things about New Orleans, the negative things, you know, everything. We share the same issues: a church on every corner, barroom on every other, love of our sports teams, a real sense of community. Yeah, Baltimore definitely felt like home."

"Ray Donovan" airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime.