Brits doing Baltimore accents in The Wire

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.

Book cover shows three characters from The Wire: McNulty and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are in a car, Greggs looking ahead and Mcnulty looking out his half-open window, his left hand on the steering wheel. Reflected in his window is Stringer Bell. Behind the car, blurred, is a Baltimore street and overcast sky. Below them all are the book title and author name in white and blue sans-serif caps.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.

Jimmy NcNulty and Stringer Bell sit in a courtroom, both wearing suits and facing front. Bell is a couple of rows in front of McNulty.

Dominic West (‘Jimmy McNulty’) and Idris Elba (‘Stringer Bell’) cross paths in the first episode of The Wire

8 Responses to Brits doing Baltimore accents in The Wire

  1. Kati says:

    Great tip, Stan, thank you! I loved The Wire – it’s still the gold standard for me after all these years – but similarly to Dominic West I struggled too: I had to keep the subtitles on almost all the way through. 😂

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m not surprised, Kati – it could be fairly tricky! Especially when combined with the use of slang, some of which I had to look up. It’s top-tier TV for sure, definitely among my all-time favourite dramas.

      • Kati says:

        I fear that nothing of this calibre will ever be made with the race for attention across TV, streaming etc. Mind you I felt they should have stopped after Season 4, which was the best.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I don’t know about stopping after s4, but I did feel that s5 was less effective. Showing how the news media fits into the ecosystem was a welcome move, but I just didn’t find those storylines as involving.

          • Kati says:

            I should (and will) re-watch it – you’re probably right about the final season. I just found Season 4 so amazing (and depressing) that I found the final season a bit of a letdown. But that didn’t make me stop thinking ‘this is the best I’ve seen so far’.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Season 4 was amazing, to follow that group of youngsters down the various paths. I also found that I enjoyed season 2 much more this time; first time round, I was a bit thrown by the radical change in lead characters.

  2. Thank you for these details, Stan.I still say “5-0” and “fresh eyes.”

    You asked about box sets: last year my wife and I rewatched the complete run of the television series Naked City. We have the DVDs, but it’s all on YouTube. Mid-century NYC, an endless array of famous or soon-to-be-famous actors, many New York accents, and at least two language curiosities: “hurrah’s nest” and “TL” (trade-last).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Michael. I’ve heard good things about Naked City (and liked the film that apparently inspired it), so I must keep it in mind. I’ve never heard the phrase hurrah’s nest spoken, but I remember it being raised on the A Way With Words podcast, whose hosts speculated on its origin. It makes me imagine a creature from Dr Seuss.

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