JUSTICE FOR ALL
‘Confirmation’ Star Wendell Pierce on Finding Empathy for Clarence Thomas and the Sorry State of the Supreme Court
Before he took on the role of the Supreme Court justice in HBO’s Confirmation, the actor had to find empathy for a man whose politics he disagrees with.
Confirmation is arriving on HBO at exactly the right moment. As President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland languishes on the sidelines and Republicans refuse to even hold a hearing, the public’s mind is on the Supreme Court. And with FX’s smash hit The People vs. O.J. Simpson finishing its 10-episode run this week, TV viewers are primed for another true story from the Before he took on the role of the Supreme Court justice in HBO’s Confirmation, the actor had to find empathy for a man whose politics he disagrees with ’90s teeming with racial and sexual tensions that feel just as relevant 20 years later.
The compelling new film chronicles the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas and stars Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, the woman who reluctantly came forward with sexual harassment allegations that almost ended her former boss’s career. But while the Scandal star delivers an impressively nuanced portrayal of Hill, Wendell Pierce — best known for playing Detective “Bunk” Moreland on The Wire and trombonist Antoine Batiste on Treme — may have the harder job. He has to make viewers sympathize with Clarence Thomas.
Ahead of Confirmation’s premiere next Saturday, April 16, Pierce spoke to The Daily Beast about taking on the role of a man whom he had long ago written off based on political differences alone. He also discusses the GOP’s current obstructionism on the Supreme Court vacancy and the state of the 2016 presidential race.
Below is the full transcript of our conversation.
How did the part of Clarence Thomas come to you?
The director Rick Famuyiwa called and said they were interested in me playing the role and I had a meeting. They told me Kerry Washington was producing, so that was great, and she was going to be in it. It was a classic, “You know, we just want to have a meeting,” but I’m a realist. I brought the script and said, “Hey, let’s just read a couple of scenes.” And that kind of sealed the deal for everyone.
Justice Thomas hasn’t spoken much in public recently. Did you examine old footage of him to capture his essence?
Yeah, I had the confirmation tapes, which I looked at intensely, almost like a score of music. So I wanted to make sure that I had the exact phrasing, the exact inflections that he had and that actually opened up doors into how to play him. The most iconic line—“high-tech lynching”—you see that he probably wouldn’t have said it. He sits back in his chair and you see that he has a moment of revelation. And he comes back to the mic and says it. To kind of study all the behavior opened the door to that sort of thought. And then internally I thought, it’s really not a political journey for him. It was a personal journey. It was a man at the height of his career, about to mount the summit, to go to the highest position in his field. And an event from his past comes back to haunt him, and possibly take that opportunity away from him. I knew he was self-reflective about it because he said it himself in the confirmation [hearings]. He said, “I deny each and every one of these allegations.” He said, “But, if there is anything that I said or did to Anita Hill or any other woman, I apologize.” And anyone who would say that means that they’re reflecting on what’s happening. So that made it a personal journey for me. While his public persona we know, his personal persona was an enigma.
And that phrase, “high-tech lynching,” do you remember when you heard that for the first time and how you reacted to it?
I distinctly remember. I was glued to all of the hearings and used to watch it late into the night when they had all the different witnesses come in. I appreciated where it came from. Like many people, it was curious to me how he could understand institutional racial attitudes, but he would never allow in cases or in his legal briefs, and he would never allow anyone to use that same argument when it came to the defense of Affirmative Action. That’s where the conflict comes and the attitudes and community of people who really have strong feelings against him, it really comes from that. How you can understand it when it personally affects you, but never allow it when a plaintiff comes before you? So, that was the thing that struck me then, too. Like, wow, he has an understanding of it, but he doesn’t share that same belief when someone asked for redress of a slight or a discrimination with Affirmative Action or other ways that we have collectively tried to redress racial issues.
But even all of that aside, for me playing the role, I looked into how he came to that point. This is a man who is not only going through racial incidents at school, where no one believed him and called him epithets and told him he sounded stupid. But he was also seen in his community as country or “geechee,” so he was kind of ostracized on both sides. So that would make someone a little cautious when it comes to trusting people and a little defensive when people attack them and who they are. His family puts a great premium on education and that’s how he was brought up, so he relied on that to embolden him, to defend himself at all costs. So I saw it as a reaction of that man, a man who is very protective of his character and integrity, and more importantly, his love of family and the relationship he had with his son. Because it really concerned him how Jamal would see him, how he looked in Jamal’s eyes. So that was the personal thing that I tried to connect with.
Did you find it easier to empathize with Thomas as you inhabited the character compared to when you were watching him on television?
I’ll be the first to say that I had preconceived notions about the justice. All of my preconceived notions come from the political side. It’s an open secret that we don’t share the same politics, so that’s why people always ask me, “How did you take this role?” He’s a man first and so researching him gave me a broader view of who he was personally. And I found out something that was a surprise. It wasn’t how little we had in common but how much we had in common. African-American families from the South, five generations back from slavery to the violence of Jim Crow, who valued education. My family’s from a little place in Plattenville, Louisiana. We value education so much. The area is called College Point. Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, we sought to go to college. My grandfather used to be ostracized and made fun of because they would say, “You’re wasting time sending all those girls to college.” That was frowned upon to send girls to college when it was illegal to go past the sixth grade for blacks in Louisiana. We had all of that in common, so it really opened the door to who he was as a man, for me.
Do you have to know in your mind whether Thomas is guilty of sexually harassing Anita Hill in order to effectively play him on screen?
Like I said, that window of self-reflection that he opened up for me made me realize that he was thinking about what had happened. Being a student of human behavior as an actor, you always realize, even when you’re accused of something, the first rational impulse is always, “I didn’t do that, I couldn’t have done that.” Because even if a person had, they rationalize whatever their behavior was. If they did do it with full awareness, I think that’s pathological. “Yeah, I did it. And I’ll lie about it, I don’t care.” He’s not a man of that sort of pathology. He’s a man of strong principles, whether you agree with him or not.
And I’m sure that his self-reflection first came from a place of, “There’s nothing that I could have done. I did not do this, I disagree with it.” He says it in that statement: I deny all of these allegations. And then upon self-reflection, he considered the possibility of him not being aware of it. He said, if I did do something, I apologize for it. And I think that was the journey that he took. And it’s the same journey that I took. My opinion gets in the way of playing the role. You try to inhabit the role by putting yourself in his position and approach it like a psychologist would. What are all the things that would influence his opinions about it? And his self-reflection has nothing to do with my opinion of him. Afterwards, I look at now and I kind of agree with the fact that he did not feel that he did anything and he was looking for a way to be aware of what possibly could have happened. If anything happened, it probably happened without him being aware.
A couple of Republican senators who were on the Judiciary Committee have lobbed complaints at HBO, saying the film makes them look bad. Do you think their objections have any merit?
No, they’re knee-jerk reactions. They’re protecting their political agenda. They’re protecting their viewpoint. Some of the complaints of how Angela Wright was handled, that you don’t know exactly what happened, and it didn’t happen the way you think it did—what they were complaining about not being in the film is actually in the film. So you knew, immediately, they didn’t see the film. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that I expected, [with the film] being political and being historical, people are going to try to protect how they’re viewed.
Since then, some of those same Republicans have seen the film and said, “Oh no, OK, it’s fair.” What I hope for the film is that people see it and realize the real importance of confirming Supreme Court justices. Because generations are affected by their decisions. And I hope that we would be able to learn also from this film that it is in no one’s best interest to have the level of political discourse that we have now, with this partisan back and forth. There’s a scorched-earth policy now. “If we can’t win, let’s just burn the whole thing down.” That doesn’t work for anyone. I would hope that in their own self-interest, even then, people say, “We can’t burn the house down. Let’s figure out how to work this out.”
We’re seeing that even now with Republicans in Congress refusing to even hold a hearing for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. What do you make of that decision?
They should at least meet with him. They should begin the process. Do your condemnation within the process. Don’t destroy the process in the attempt to uphold your agenda. Allow the process to happen and you have a multitude of variables and places where you can condemn the nominee and actually stop the nomination. But people believe that it’ll work to their benefit in this election year, so that’s what it’s all about. Right now, I never thought I’d say this, but I feel for Paul Ryan. Because right now that’s their brightest spot. There’s a civil war going on in the Republican Party. But you know, it’s nothing new.
Do you think Obama made the right call in nominating someone who is a little older and more moderate or do you wish he’d taken a bigger swing?
I don’t know enough about the nominee. I’m glad that he made a nomination. There are some people on the Democratic side who don’t like the nomination either, because they do think he’s too moderate, that he may not be the justice that they think he is. I think his nomination is really close to who Anthony Kennedy is. He’s going to be a swing guy that we don’t know about. It will be really interesting to see his confirmation hearing.
If it ever happens.
I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because the Republican senators are entrenched.
You said you make no secret of your own personal politics. You have been a little critical of Bernie Sanders on Twitter, questioning how realistic some of his bigger promises are. Where are you in the Democratic primary between Bernie and Hillary?
That was one tweet, c’mon. Someone attacked me because I said something nice about Hillary. I said, just consider this, young people. I love the fact that he’s engaged young people and got them active. I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s really great that he’s gotten them involved. But there’s a consistency in challenges of all the candidates. Trump being off-the-cuff and kind of wild and out there to the right. Cruz having burned bridges with everybody in his party. To Hillary, people say “I don’t trust you” or whatever. People are consistent with their complaints. And with Bernie, it’s the facts. Yes, he’s great, I love a lot of things he says. But he’s spent 30 years in Congress and how many bills have you offered? It’s the same complaint. We all know about the three bills, two of them that moved a post office in Vermont. You would hope that somebody offered more bills [that became law] than that in 30 years, that’s all.
I have not made my decision. I’ve contributed money on both sides of the aisle, actually. I’m going to let this primary season play out. I know the media is enjoying it because it’s the most active participation and ratings and readership and everything. People are going to see an open convention for the first time, and not just on House of Cards. It’s going to be very interesting. I’m just happy that our film is coming out with a heightened sense of civic awareness that’s happening now. People realize the responsibility that we have as citizens. They work for us. People have to be actively involved. Like I tell people all the time, there is blood on that ballot box, of people who died overseas and people who died on these roads of Mississippi and Alabama to give us our right to vote. So we should exercise that.