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Clarke Peters: “I don’t feel safe walking or driving in the States”

In a candid interview, The Wire’s Clarke Peters talks race relations, breaking taboos – and growing up ‘in a town of celebrities’

Where I grew up there was an Irish, Hispanic and Italian family. It was all mixed. There was a liberal and accommodating vibe in Englewood, New Jersey. It was deep. Our parents went to the board of education and forced them to integrate our schools, which was unheard of. The community said: “This is bullshit, we all dig each other.”

We had gangs and we’d change sides each week. The kids knew each other’s parents and looked out for each other; we played stickball, jump rope or hide-and-seek until all hours. That is what halcyon days are like. The summer seemed to go on and on. There was a freedom kids don’t have today.

I was at school with John Travolta and the Isley Brothers’ Ernie and Marvin. We were in a town of celebrities. Ben E King lived round the corner, Dizzy Gillespie up the hill. Coming from that environment, you realise you are no different from anybody else. You see Dizzy in the A&P [grocery] store and the next night he’s at Carnegie Hall. That is what cats were doing around our block. We loved them for it but played it cool.

We did all the marching and protesting. I was too young to articulate my political views but my brother was part of Snick [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and Core [Congress of Racial Equality]. They were student activist groups that went to the South to campaign for voter rights. He brought a political consciousness to the house that opened my eyes.

I was arrested protesting against Vietnam. It was a waste of time, life and money. I thought it was a stupid thing we were doing in Vietnam and I think it is a stupid thing we are doing now in the Middle East. That doesn’t make me a bad American.

I had a white girlfriend and we’d walk hand in hand, knowing people would get upset. If someone stared too long, we started kissing – without realising this kind of shit could get us killed. But we felt so passionately. This was the year Martin [Luther King] was killed. Your hormones are driving you nuts at that age anyway but there was a sense of being on a mission, knowing that what we were doing was, to some people’s minds, taboo and that this shit had to change.

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Dominic West is a bad influence, in the best possible way.

I don’t feel safe walking or driving in the States. I know in somebody’s mind I’m the enemy. People say: “Yes, but you have a black president.” But have you seen anyone co-operate with him? No. I’d tell my younger self to be careful – there are dangerous people around. Strangely enough, they’re still around today.

When I was 13, my mother said to me: “You are not my child.” Woah! So my older brother, who says I was found in a gutter, is right? No. My mother was laying the foundation for my spiritual awareness. Our children come through us. Nurture them, see what their propensities are and help them on their way. As a parent, I try to do that.

My mother took me to a burlesque show. I thought, woah, my mother is the best woman in the world, look at these naked ladies. They were shaking, doing splits. Then she told me there was only one woman on the stage. She asked again: Did I really want to do theatre? Yes! There is all manner of life in theatre. If some cat is dressing up like a girl and convincing me, they are a better fucking actor than I am.

My younger self would have been surprised that I wrote a musical and would have loved Five Guys Named Moe. But he already knew he was going to play Othello. I’ve done it twice, the second time with Dominic West [McNulty in The Wire]. That was fun. He is a bad influence, in the best possible way.

I knew I wanted to be in London for theatre but had no idea how I’d get there. Then, in 1973, I signed a contract with Essex Music as a singing songwriter. We formed a group called The Majestics and played with Shirley Bassey. In fact, who didn’t we play with?

My younger self would say: “Wow, you met Ned Sherrin?” When That Was the Week That Was came to America, it was so controversial and satirical. It shaped my political point of view, in a cynical kind of way. Ned was my mentor. I wish he was still here. I miss him enormously, a good cat.

Celebrity was never part of my plan. I didn’t come into this business to be put into a niche.

I would tell my younger self that not every smiling face is a nice person. Be more discerning. By nature I am trusting but there are people who mistake your trust for weakness. They mistake your patience for fear. I ain’t that guy.

The Wire shows the evil mindset of the one per cent who run everything. I’m so glad I was a voice in that chorus, holding up a mirror, showing that not all drug addicts are criminals. More are victims. The criminals are those that take industry out of cities or close collieries and throw drugs into the towns to anaesthetise people left behind.

I didn’t know what fame was until I began to feel like a commodity. Celebrity was never part of my plan. I avoided being pigeon-holed, and had done dramatic, comedic and musicals. So to go into casting meetings after The Wire, and realise, “Oh, you don’t want me to act, you want Lester Freamon”… Sorry. I didn’t come into this business to be put into a niche.

Sometimes we have to prostitute ourselves. I have a son at college and don’t want him coming out with a massive debt. Why would you do that to a child? Give kids a fucking break. I’m now working my arse off so he doesn’t have to go through that.

I had a son who passed away in my arms. My mother’s words helped me – the seeds of that grew into an understanding of the transience of life and laid the foundation for my spiritual journey. Something from my youth carried me through.

I’d tell my younger self to find that spiritual quest you want to go on and do it. Go deeper sooner. That has been part of my life since 1986. I would have told myself to believe the coincidences in your life are not coincidences, believe you have abilities beyond what you think, believe telepathy exists and that premonitions are a part of your life. Believe your thoughts and prayers have an effect somewhere down the line.

Jericho airs Thursdays at 9pm on ITV

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