Lately I watched The Wire for the first time since it screened in 2002–08. It holds up really well, thanks to its wealth of characters, superb writing, and enduring political relevance. Afterwards, I read Jonathan Abrams’s acclaimed All the Pieces Matter (No Exit Press, 2018), an oral history composed of carefully interwoven interviews with the show’s cast, crew, and creators.
The Wire is set in Baltimore and is suffused with Baltimore culture, including its language. Two principal characters, Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, are played by British actors, Idris Elba and Dominic West, who had to adjust their accents to be authentic in their roles. This led to some difficulty, as Abrams’s book reveals.
Co-creator Ed Burns said that West spent a lot of time going over the accent with David Simon: ‘“Now, say it like po-lice.” “Police.” “No, po-lice.”’ Others helped out as well. Peter Gerety, a veteran of stage and screen who played Judge Daniel Phelan, said West asked him for guidance:
He said, ‘I need you to listen to me. I’ve got to get this Baltimore accent down,’ because, of course, he’s British. He actually does a really good American accent, but I sort of sat with him, and he just worked through stuff for a couple of days, just to get his Baltimore accent closer. Not that I was all that great with it, but I think I helped him a little bit.
Dominic West elaborates on the challenge (profanity warning):
It never got any easier for me. It was a real problem for me, actually. I worked pretty hard on it. I think the producers felt that, eventually, perhaps I wouldn’t need the coach anymore, but I did. I needed it right up until we wrapped the whole series, and it was a constant effort particularly any time he [McNulty] got emotional or you started shouting. That’s when you lose the accent and start going into your own accent. I always dreaded those scenes, and it was a pain in the ass.
It would have been so much easier to have done it in my own accent, but I suppose that wouldn’t have necessarily sounded right. I do remember meeting Idris for the first time, and he’s got a London accent, and I was saying to him, ‘Fuck, what about this accent?’ Actually, I didn’t realize he was English initially, because he was talking the whole time in American and he was living in New York at the time. I was chatting to him, and eventually he said, ‘Look, you’ve got to stop talking in that English accent because you’re fucking me up.’ He was trying to do American the whole time, as a proper actor should, so we had to keep clear of each other for the first few weeks because we’d fuck each other up.
Idris Elba, whose audition for The Wire was a last-ditch effort to remain in the US – his visa was coming to an end – shares his side of the story:
We would laugh about it. There was only one scene where we actually worked together, and as soon as he walks in, he was talking in his English accent, and I started talking in my English accent, and I said, ‘Mate, we’re never going to be able to pull this off.’ He was laughing about it. I never really said to him, ‘Don’t do it.’ It was more of a joke. It was really hard working with an English actor and you’re both playing Americans. It feels a bit fake.
Andre Royo, who plays the much-loved character Bubbles, also chimes in:
They were battling over who would lose their accent first. Idris won that bet. Dom would go in and out all over the place. Maybe he’s Irish. Maybe he’s from Baltimore. Keep him drinking. Get some Jameson into him and cover up his accent.
If you’re a fan of The Wire, All the Pieces Matter is a great read, full of insight and detail on the complex creation of a groundbreaking show. If you’re just here for the linguistic stuff, well, now you have it. And if you want to tell me what box sets you’ve been watching in the pandemic, do.
P.S. All the Pieces Matter featured in a book spine poem I made last year. I didn’t want to read the book before revisiting The Wire; now I’m glad I did both. The archive also has a few other posts on acting and language.