Clarke Peters has had a hell of a career. You probably know him best as the eternally wise detective Lester Freamon in The Wire.
But the New Jersey actor also created smash-hit West End musical Five Guys Named Moe. He starred as menacing pimp Anderson in gangster classic Mona Lisa. He’s a civil rights campaigner who was arrested for protesting against the Vietnam war. Hell, Clarke Peters even sang backing vocals on Heatwave’s disco classic Boogie Nights.
Peters is nominally talking to Loaded to promote his role in The Tunnel: Sabotage, Sky Atlantic’s gripping thriller based on BBC4’s Scandi noir classic The Bridge, starring Clemence Poesy and Stephen Dillane as cross-channel cops. Peters plays intellectual college professor Sonny Persaud, whose estranged daughter Rose is suspected of blowing up a plane.
But it’s half-an-hour into our interview before The Tunnel is even mentioned. Before then, Peters wishes to discuss the state of civil rights in America and the prospect of Donald Trump becoming President.
“Trump as President is an idea that scares the hell out of me,” admits Peters in that velvet voice familiar from The Wire. “If I didn’t have hope about the world changing, I’d have put a gun to my head a long time ago.
“But hope is like a pendulum. Things go forward, things go back; the sun comes up and it goes down. And right now, American politics is coming into a very cloudy time thanks to Trump.”
Peters was arrested in 1971 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war and has remained outspoken about civil rights ever since. “Why should we even be thinking about voter registration in America in this century?” he sighs. “The fact it’s still an issue when we’ve been fighting to get people to register for three centuries shows that not a lot has changed in America.”
The father-of-four moved to Britain the year after his arrest, and has lived here ever since. He believes he’s had more success as an actor here than he ever would have done in America, saying: “At a very young age, I could see I wasn’t wanted in America.”
But Peters recognises that “The opportunities for people of colour are about the same in the UK and America. I recognise England is classist, and I succeeded because you didn’t know me in the UK. So you didn’t know my class background. Black actors from England can succeed in America – so long as they can adopt a public-school accent. However subliminally, America loves all things British as it’s still the mother country.”
That passion for equality even informed Peters’ decision to accept the role as the troubled Sonny Persaud in The Tunnel: Sabotage. Persaud may be a brilliant professor, but he failed as a father to Rose.
“I could relate to Sonny,” Peters admits. “The black intellectuals of the 1960s started as politically militant, because they were demonised by the authorities. Whether it was Malcolm X or someone more passive like James Waldron, they were people do something for the community. That frustrated the police, so the police demonised these leaders.
And Sonny is an echo of those civil rights leaders. Through his first-hand knowledge, he’s able to articulate something that his daughter can’t.”
This isn’t, let’s be clear, the answer of an actor choosing a role because “I’d just done theatre, so I wanted to do some telly.”
Peters is even honest enough to admit he recognises the troubled relationship Sonny has with Rose. Peters’ own daughter China, an architect, is a leading gay rights campaigner in the US.
“She’s a bright spark,” enthuses Peters. “She’s pretty revolutionary herself. We aren’t always on the same page politically, and having a child who’s revolutionary is difficult for any parent.
“But when China was born, I prayed she be a woman who men would have to reckon with.” He gives a big, booming laugh. “I got my prayer answered by the dozen.”
Since The Wire finished in 2008, Peters has maintained a sturdy career. He recently took the lead in ITV western Jericho, following roles in HBO dramas like Person Of Interest and The Divide.
Peters has also maintained a strong relationship with The Wire creator David Simon, appearing in both the writer’s major post-Wire shows Treme and Show Me A Hero.
“What I bring to David’s scripts is probably so fragile I shouldn’t even talk about it,” he chuckles. “But I’m certainly grateful it’s there! My ego would like to say that I might be able to articulate what isn’t on the page in David’s scripts, but which he implies. I can add another dimension, maybe. I understand David, and we share a lot of the same philosophies. We want to affect change through our art, and we don’t see art as just as a commodity. Not everyone in this industry is in it for Hollywood.”
Peters reveals he hasn’t been contacted by Simon for the writer’s latest as-yet-undisclosed project, which begins filming in May – “He usually contacts me way upfront, saying ‘I’ve written this piece and I can see you playing this in it’” – but he’d certainly go back to The Wire if Simon ever felt the urge to revive his revered Baltimore police drama.
“I’d absolutely go back to The Wire,” states Peters. “Oh, absolutely I would, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful story and Lester Freamon was the first character to bring me such wonderful success.”
The end of The Wire saw Freamon happily indulging in his hobby of building dolls’ houses with his young partner Shardene. What would Lester have been up to since we last saw him on screen.
“He’d still be making doll furniture with his young lady,” he laughs. “But he’d also still have his eye on what’s happening with the money in Baltimore. He’d be looking at something corrupt and going ‘You fucker. How’d you get to do this…?’ The dolls’ houses are just something for Lester to meditate with.”
When The Wire finished, Peters admits he came as close as ever to selling out. He briefly moved to California, but all he was offered were rip-off roles identical to Freamon.
“I’ve got a child in college and I don’t want him to take out stupid loans,” Peters admits. “So, sure, Hollywood was a temptation. But the scripts I was sent was stupid and I’m fortunate I’ve never had to make those compromises. I’d been spoiled by David’s writing – it makes people smart.” A pause. “But if anyone said ‘We can guarantee this show will run with you for a hundred episodes’? Then of course I’d have done it. Where do I sign? I’d have kept my mouth shut, taken the money and run.”
At least the 64-year-old is smart enough to be able to write his own parts. He talks excitedly about writing a prequel to his successful 1990s Olivier Award-winning musical Five Guys Named Moe “about how those guys got into radio”, as well as planning another musical with Gareth Valentine, a musicals arranger who works with Stephen Sondheim.
Then there’s an epic Peters is writing about an alchemist which he envisages as “maybe an HBO series” spanning continents from the French Revolution to the US Civil War.
“I could write a great part for myself in something,” he acknowledges. “And maybe I am! But I need to get it set down on paper. Meantime? David Simon always has something good.”
Peters chuckles and namechecks his former Wire co-star who got his break playing Stringer Bell in The Wire. “Ever since Idris Elba got his OBE and became Sir Iddy to me… Yo, Sir Iddy, homie: help me out with a part!” He laughs again. “Congratulations to Idris, man. So well earned.”
You can tell he’s joking. Clarke Peters is a man who doesn’t really need anyone else’s help to get by.
The Tunnel: Sabotage starts tonight on Sky Atlantic. All eight episodes will then be available on demand. Clarke Peters is also starring in boxing drama The Royale on Broadway.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn