Video by Shruti Parekh
The theater lights in the auditorium at Columbia University’s Teachers College dim. Jamie Hector, the actor best known for his role as Marlo Stanfield in HBO’s The Wire, stands directly in front of the stage. Two teens are beside him, waiting for direction. “You go this way,” he says, pointing to stage right. “And you, up that way!” The music begins. “I like the Island Manhattan,” sings the young woman who plays Anita in Hector’s production of West Side Story. The actor is looking intently upon the stage, he’s making sure the song and dances are tight and ready to go for the showcase later that day.
Hector founded the nonprofit theater company Moving Mountains in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 2007. The organization, says Hector, harnesses the talent of “young aspiring writers and dancers and actors,” and also teaches participants about the business side of the entertainment industry.
In between a panel discussion on community activism with his fellow Wire castmates and his West Side Story showcase, Hector sat down with me and talked about the struggles of being a black actor, his inspiration for Moving Mountains, and what political issues are most important to him. “The challenges are that there’s not enough material,” he said of being a black actor. “The challenges are that we’re sometimes considered one-dimensional.”
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Collier Meyerson: There’s been a lot of talk recently, obviously after the Oscars, about limited access for people of color in Hollywood. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your own experience trying to find work, what roles you’ve been offered, and how it’s generally been for you as a black man actor.
Jamie Hector: My experience trying to find work—as all actors, especially African-American actors—has been a struggle. Just trying to find good material. And also making sure you get in the rooms and get acknowledged. I don’t really think it’s easy for any actor, because I know friends of mine that are very, very successful, and their journey from the beginning has also been a struggle.
The challenges are that there’s not enough material. The challenges are that we’re sometimes considered one-dimensional. They don’t feel like they can write an array of roles that can tap into our lifestyle. Not even our lifestyle, just the human experience.
So you founded Moving Mountains, a non-profit that helps inner-city youth learn about the creative process and also about the corporate side of things. Talk to me about why you started it.
One, I was part of a theatre company called Tomorrow’s Future Theater Company, which changed my life and was a springboard for me and my career. And two, there was just the need for it. There just weren’t enough organizations or theatre companies or programs for youth to help nurture and cultivate budding talent.
I was in Baltimore working on The Wire and the executive producer Ed Burns says, “You can kick a rock in any direction out here and you won’t find anything that’s working and helping the kids.” So I wanted to be sure that this organization was effective and that young talent, young aspiring writers and dancers and actors, young creators can come in here and not only learn the craft, but also learn the business and then go out there and pursue it if that’s what they really wanna do.
How did you decide on Crown Heights?
I decided to plant it where I grew, so Crown Heights was the place. But they—students—come from five boroughs and beyond. On a Saturday morning, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, 150 to 200 students are here working on developing something that they’re passionate about.
You’ve gotten political too, stumping for Obama with some of your Wire colleagues. Who are you supporting in this election and why?
I don’t really get that political, especially when I don’t feel like—I’m just watching right now, in all honesty. I’m not an independent. Put it like this: I’m gonna vote, and it’s not gonna be for Trump or Ted [Cruz].
But in the primary between Hillary and Bernie?
But in the primary between the two—I’m really, really watching them right now.
What issues are important to you?
You know, all issues are important to me but specifically issues that I’m seeing taking place in the black community like the school-to-prison pipeline. This issue is very important to me, because I’ve watched it happen. I’m watching it happen every day in my face— the people that are affected the most are young, black, African-American males. That issue is important to me because I was working in Baltimore and they said one out of two African-American males that walk down the street, one is a felon. And then you come into all these inner-city communities, you know, you see what’s going on, and I really want a president that’s gonna get on their knees and try to figure out how to solve that problem.
And between Hillary and Bernie, neither one of those appeals more to you?
They sound good, you know. Both of them. For me with Hillary, the reason why I would possibly vote for Hillary is because she’s under the umbrella of President Obama right now, and he had to have had an effect on her. He was the first president to actually visit a penal system, right? He had to have an effect on her one way or another in regards to how young, African-American men are treated in this country. So I’m leaning towards her, but I don’t really want to get too political about this. But I’m watching it very closely which this is a conversation myself and the team have every single day.
And what are the kids saying?
For me, with them it’s just like, “When you’re 18, you register to vote and you set yourself up for college. And you make sure you set yourself up for college and you don’t fall into debt.” But in terms of politics…Don’t just watch CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. You read about it, you know, and you learn about it. There’s more issues, but that right there is very specific to me.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.