Back in April, Public Books co-sponsored a conference organized by The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University about the legacy of The Wire, the critically revered HBO series that feels just as relevant eight years after it ended its run. On one panel, Jamie Hector—who who gave an unforgettable performance as rising drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield—talked with some of his costars about their community activism projects. Last week, we caught up with Hector about his recent work on Bosch and All Eyez on Me, the nonprofit he founded in Brooklyn, and what it was like to play one of the greatest TV villains of all time.
Liz Maynes-Aminzade (LMA): A lot of people first encountered you as Marlo Stanfield on The Wire. What was your acting background before that?
Jamie Hector (JH): I first started acting in a theater company when I was 17 years old—a community theater called Tomorrow’s Future. That’s where I caught the acting bug. After that, I went to study at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute for two years. A little later—19, 20, 21—I started auditioning for television. I worked on a lot of the New York-based shows: Third Watch, Law and Order, The Beat, New York Undercover.
LMA: Do you miss the stage, or do you like film and TV acting better?
JH: You know, I truly enjoy all mediums. Whenever I miss theater, I go back. Recently I played the title role in a production of Othello. That was meaty, great work.
LMA: How did playing Othello compare to playing Marlo?
JH: They both hold that strength and discipline and leadership. But definitely two different mindsets in regards to lawlessness. Marlo is somewhat of a sociopath. For him, everything’s all about power. I don’t think Othello is looking for power and only power.
LMA: When you were playing Marlo, did you think of him as a sociopath?
JH: Well, that was one of the layers of his psychology. But my approach was not to judge him going in. It was only after watching him that I was like, “okay…”
LMA: When you first read the script of The Wire, do you remember thinking, “I know exactly how I want to tackle this role”?
JH: Not at all. But I do remember reading the material and realizing that Marlo was a man of few words. He wastes no words, down to his first line: “Do it or don’t. I’ve got places to be.” It was very evident that he didn’t waste time, didn’t waste words, didn’t waste energy. That right there shaped everything else for me.
LMA: That’s so interesting. Your point about Marlo’s reticence makes me realize how important physical presence must have been to that performance. Was that something you thought about consciously?
JH: For me it was more about his internal presence—that inner strength. What’s behind his mindset that he’s unbeatable? Who taught him, who raised him, what choices did he have to make growing up? All of that stirring up inside of him is what allowed him to express himself the way he did. All those things created the spaces between his words.
LMA: As viewers, though, we don’t get a lot of Marlo’s backstory, compared to some other characters on the show. Did you or the writers imagine a backstory for him?
JH: Absolutely. I created an entire life for him. It was interesting because when Tristan Wilds came on [as the character Michael Lee], his upbringing was similar to the one I had created for Marlo. I had two yellow constructions pads full of who Marlo was, who his mother was, who raised him. I would always refer back to his story, always read it before I went to work, so that I didn’t forget.
LMA: Do you remember the story you created about his parents?
: His parents were not fully addicts, but his mother would entertain men in the same bed while he was there. He would be asleep in bed very young, but he would know what was going on. And it made him tough. To escape that, he would play the streets. And when you’re around, people find stuff for you to do.
I wrote a little piece about his transitional period. Two guys he admired ran out of a Chinese restaurant after sticking it up, trying to get away, and he was young, so they passed him the shotgun. That was, like, his moment. He was who he was because he grew up around older guys who were in that lifestyle. All he did was be quiet and listen and pay attention. And when it was time for him to speak, he sounded like an old man.
: That’s a sad story. It seems connected to some of the community work you’ve done outside your acting career. Can you talk a little about the nonprofit you founded, Moving Mountains Theater Company
JH: Moving Mountains started in 2007. Before that, I had mentored young kids in the arts, martial arts, and drama, and when I went to shoot The Wire, that just stayed in my mind and my heart. So I reached out to Ally [Roberson] and decided to start Moving Mountains. It’s a theater organization that focuses on helping young artists develop the skills they need, while building character in the process. We focus on drama, cinematography, vocals, and dance. We try to make it an all-around experience as well as a pipeline into the industry.
We work out of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn right now, and it’s a really fun experience. It’s springboard for going to study the arts. We emphasize how serious that process is: it’s a lot of practice, hard work, and dedication. But at the same time, if this is what you wanna do, you can really enjoy the process. Moving Mountains is about understanding that through your journey in life, your journey in the arts, you will have obstacles ahead of you, and your job is to move them out of the way.
LMA: Do you get a chance to work closely with students there?
JH: Absolutely. When I’m not working on set or on stage, I’m there.
LMA: What’s the best part of it?
JH: All of it. But especially seeing young artists achieve what they want to achieve. I have a few students who just graduated from Purchase and Buffalo, and some that are going to Howard University. And just hearing those stories, and them coming back with bachelor’s degrees in Fine Arts—you know?
It’s rewarding to help them understand the entire process. And that they have to pursue acting for real. It’s like, if you’re gonna do it, then really do it. There’s no halfway doing it.
LMA: When you were growing up in Brooklyn, did you get that kind of mentorship in the arts?
JH: Oh, there were people involved in my life throughout my entire journey. A lot who don’t even take credit for it. Along with the fact that I really had the drive—I really wanted it, and I prayed a lot—there were a lot of people in my life who were very involved. Even if it was just a word, like, “don’t stop.”
LMA: Do you remember there being a moment or a role you got that felt like your “break”—like you’d finally made it?
JH: I think it’s important to be vulnerable: to stay in this place of, like, you never really made it. Because nothing lasts forever. Being aware of that will keep you sharp.
LMA: You just finished shooting All Eyez on Me, the Tupac biopic. Are you allowed to talk about it?
JH: I’m not sure exactly how much I can say about the film. It’s directed by Benny Boom, and the young lead playing Tupac is Demetrius Shipp Jr. I play his stepdad, Mutulu Shakur, who’s currently incarcerated. He was a revolutionary, and he was the one who allowed Pac to understand that he was also a revolutionary, but for another generation.
LMA: Were you drawn to the script because you’re a Tupac fan?
JH: Oh yeah. I’m a big hip hop fan. Tupac, he did something. He was gifted. He was a writer, he was a motivator, he was inspired…But I would have been drawn to a Biggie film just the same. He was an artist, he was a lyricist.
LMA: So you don’t take sides between Biggie and Tupac?
JH: Oh, you can’t! [Laughs] If you’re taking sides based off music, you just can’t. They both did so much.
LMA: And it’s like apples and oranges.
JH: Yeah. It’s like Nas and Jay-Z, it’s just different. One is a poet and one is a riddler.
LMA: Do you have a favorite Tupac song?
JH: Ohh…I don’t know if I can say a favorite. “Dear Mama” changed my life. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” opened my eyes. “Smile for me Now”…He had an endless amount of material that was just classic. And when you read the script, you find out the fight that it took for him to just get his songs played or his records cut.
LMA: I can’t wait to see it. And you’re currently playing a detective on the Amazon crime show Bosch, which got renewed for a third season. What has that experience been like?
JH: With Bosch, Amazon is doing something great. The difference between Marlo and a police officer like Jerry Edgar, the character I play on Bosch, is both large and small. They both have a high level of respect for work and a determination to be successful. But Marlo will break the law, even murder, to get what he wants, whereas Jerry is trying to stop that from happening. They’re on opposite sides of the law, but if you put them in the same box, they’d have a respect for each other.
LMA: If they did a Bosch and The Wire crossover episode with Jerry Edgar pursuing Marlo, who would win?
JH: [Laughs] Who would win—that’s a good question. Well, what is winning?