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Jim True-Frost is best known to fans of The Wire for his role as Roland Pryzbylewski, or Prez — the lousy cop turned empathetic teacher in Baltimore city schools. Now, True-Frost, a longtime member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, is on Broadway playing another lovable loser of sorts: Little Charles in the Tony-award-winning play August: Osage County. The actor spoke to Vulture about his new role, the intricacies of eating (and faking piano-playing ability) onstage, and how it felt when his Wire character finally came into his own.
So, this is an early-morning interview, given that you’re on Broadway every night until 11 p.m. or so.
Actually, I just got out of an audition for a voice over for a radio commercial.
But you’re Prez and you’re on Broadway! Do you need to be auditioning for radio?
Obviously right now I’m doing great, but I’m not going to turn off the spigots to the other faucets because it all goes into the same well. I actually just did a Burger King commercial, which fell into my lap because Spike Lee was directing it. He was a big fan of The Wire and he requested me for this. I thought, It’s a national campaign and might keep the baby in diapers for a little while. We have a baby coming in November.
Congratulations! So … the play. We saw it last night and couldn’t speak for a while afterward.
You were really affected, that’s great. It’s funny because it has such a horror-show quality, but at the same time, it’s recognizable for everyone.
Little Charles is a pretty sad character, not entirely comparable to Prez but there are similarities…
And not just the costume, which could be worn by both characters. Yeah, to both of them there is a little bit of the misfit. They are both well intentioned but have trouble making themselves understood: Little Charles with his mother, Prez with his father-in-law. Little Charles has got a lot of heart and a lot of strengths, but he has trouble finding his groove or something.
What do you think that’s about?
I don’t know. It’s time for me to play some heroes! But it’s really fun to play the character who has nooks and crannies.
Have you any missteps onstage?
The thing that is trickiest for me is the song [he sings a love song to his secret girlfriend]. I’m a musician, a guitar player, and a singer, but I’ve never played a note on the piano. I had to learn that by rote. I put colored masking tape on the keys so I knew which to press down and it still has a feeling of a little bit of the amateur about it.
In the dinner scene, you guys are actually eating, right?
Yeah. I’ve altered my daily caloric intake quite a bit. Especially on two-show days — I basically eat two extra meals a day. We actually eat exactly what the housekeeper says we’re having: “Roast chicken, fried potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing…” and grits or something.
Corn? The character who plays Jean, your young cousin, was shoveling the beans and corn in. It was really impressive.
I’m glad you didn’t say that about me because actually last night I had just worked out, and I was making a very careful effort to eat as much as I could without looking like it. I was cutting very large pieces of chicken.
Do you get nervous about getting something in your teeth?
Every night I’m like, my line is coming up: swallow, swallow.
Looking back on The Wire, were you happy to switch roles from loser detective to generous teacher?
It was actually my great fortune. I loved that development. My wife, Cora, had taught for two years as a Teach for America corps member in a Baltimore city school, teaching students exactly like the ones Prez taught. We would watch early episodes together and my wife would be slack-jawed, saying, “Oh my God, those are my kids.” So we had this deep connection with these kids long before I knew that I was going to play the identical role she had lived.
Do people ever call you Prez on the street?
They do. After the year of Prez being a teacher, people came to identify with him a little better. Which is nice because even after the first few seasons it was still “You’re that guy from The Wire.”—Emma Pearse