Wendell Pierce has made a career playing lawmen. As an FBI parole officer on Ray Donovan, Detective William "Bunk" Moreland on The Wire, and Suits lawyer Robert Zane, audiences have grown used to see Pierce onscreen in a suit and tie.
Pierce suits up for law enforcement once again in the Amazon espionage series Jack Ryan, which stars John Krasinski (The Office, A Quiet Place) as the titular hero and Pierce as CIA straight man James Greer. But unlike previous iterations of Clancy's famed character — portrayed most notably by James Earl Jones in The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994) — Pierce's Greer is a multi-faceted, complicated character in a not so black-and-white world.
James Greer might be yet another lawman in Pierce's repertoire, but he approached the role with vigor and the desire to set him apart. He spent time meeting with and learning from former CIA operatives to better understand his role as the Agency's Deputy Director of Intelligence.
**SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains minor spoilers for the first episode of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.**
SYFY WIRE spoke with Pierce ahead of the premiere of Jack Ryan to talk about his time studying with former CIA operatives, his relationship with Tom Clancy fans, and deepening the character of James Greer through his own religious background.
Right off the bat, have you read any of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels?
Yes. I haven't read all of them. I saw all of the movies, but I never grabbed the books until I got the role. I kind of did it backward. But I was a fan, definitely.
James Greer is a pretty prominent character in the novels and the movies based on those novels. Did you take any notes for how to play him from those?
I mean, you read the novels and they give you the mood and who the person is. But what was great about what [showrunners] Graham [Roland] and Carlton [Cuse] did was they opened up who James Greer could be and they weren't constrained by what was in the book. [This is] an origin series... where you're kind of going back and seeing how these characters in this world [were] created and this working relationship that turns into a friendship between James Greer and Jack Ryan started.
It gives you more opportunities to add things that work in the book. So while some people might say, "You know, that wasn't in the book!" I proudly say, "I know it wasn't," but this gives us an opportunity to put in things that go beyond the limitations of just that world. That's the thing I'm proudest of when it comes to James Greer. It kind of fleshes him out and makes [the story] a lot more three dimensional.
Fans of TV shows and movies that originally come from books can be a little bit nitpicky. Was that a concern?
No, to me it wasn't a concern. You know you want to be just truthful to characters. Whatever you develop, [you have to think,] is that something that would be truthful to who this person is?
The opposite of loving something is not hating it; the opposite is indifference. So when a fan expresses something they have an issue with, it's just a different expression [of love]. It lets you know they still care about the piece. They still care about the world, they still care about the characters.
So if they didn't say anything, then that would concern me, if they were indifferent about it.
What I hope happens — and I think will happen — is it opens you up to the side of James Greer that people didn't expect and didn't know about: being a career African-American officer of the CIA, a man who you see, as the series progresses, a lot more of his personal life, which is a lot deeper than it was in the books.
And so it opens up the world. It doesn't close it all.
What makes James Greer different from the other lawmen you've played before? Because you've played quite a few.
Well, first of all, you know, when you're working in television, the running joke with actors is that you're either gonna be a cop, a lawyer, or a doctor... What's really different about this one is he's an officer of the CIA, which, through my research, I've learned goes further than just the protocol of your work.
[CIA officers] are students of human behavior. They are psychologists and historians and archivists, along with being tactile and strategists and a law officer. That's what I found so fascinating in doing my research. I'm still in touch with a particular man that I did my research with. He, as a human being, is so interesting. It's just closer to psychology than I thought. And just the physicality of being in law enforcement... that was the most interesting.
You actually studied with a former CIA operative?
Yes. We had the great fortune to work with the CIA. I was introduced to a retired officer of the agency who I'm still in touch with today and through him I've met other men and women who have been at the agency… I've worked with and have met some of the best — it's an amalgam of talent and an amalgam of skills. I actually met some people who were on the team that found Bin Laden and who worked on finding Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Fascinating, fascinating people. A lot more diverse than I expected to be. [They are] some of the best and brightest who have the ability to be singularly focused at what they do.
The one thing that I learned was, there's a fabric that weaves the agency together and everybody's thread is important. It adds to the strength of the fabric. Everybody's thread makes a contribution and everyone understands that everyone has a contribution to make. And when you put all of those together is when you get a clearer picture. And the specificity of that was very fascinating.
The show really leans into the complications of not only the team but James Greer himself. Your character is probably one of the most complicated on the show. He practices Islam while helping the U.S. government track down Muslim extremists and terrorists, but also has his own personal doubts with the institution of Islam.
That's one of the things that I'm proudest of. We actually make him a lot more three-dimensional and that's what happens.
Who he is personally and that conversion of his religion is something that is not uncommon. And that is not uncommon with the men and women of the CIA and it's that sort of complexity of the people that are there that actually gives you insight into the specificity and the awareness that they have.
Everyone has something to contribute.
And [Jack Ryan] actually is a more authentic view than what has previously been seen in Hollywood depictions of the CIA. It's not just the big, square-jawed guy going out there and fighting the world, fighting the evil in the world.
You just look at that conference table of people at the beginning of the show, that's reflective of the men and women that are there and that we met and we try to reflect that in the show. But it's also the "human intel" as they call it, it's really mining who people are as human beings and taking advantage of that and benefiting from that. Everyone has a unique perspective and has something to say.
What helped you play to the complications of that? Are you a religious person?
Yeah! First of all, yes, I am a religious person. I'm Catholic and that gave me a great perspective… As a Catholic, you realize the conflict I have with my church right now. So I understand how someone can attempt to be faithful but still have issues with the institution that he is trying to be faithful in.
And also I have a member of my family who practices the faith that James Greer practices, [Islam]. So I had an understanding and appreciation of [that] religion.
That also gives a perspective to the men and women of the Agency as they work for the President of the United States... Understanding that you can still have love of country and still have issues with policy. It shows you that they are more fully human. And a lot more complex than just, you know, red-white-and-blue, straight-ahead patriots.
They deal with the history of our country and where our country has taken a wrong step. They're patriots… trying to find the way to do the right thing and live up to the values that we have. And understand that that's a vigilance that you have to stay with to make sure that that happens because it's so easy to make a misstep.
Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan premieres on Prime Video on Friday, August 31.