Method Man Details The Life Experiences That Influenced His Complicated Role On The Deuce

For 13 episodes of The Wire, Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man played Melvin “Cheese” Wagstaff. Well into a career that included film and television roles, “Cheese” showed Meth build on his portrayal of a Baltimore drug dealer over multiple seasons. He is back at work with The Wire‘s creator, executive producers, and many writers and actors in The Deuce. Set on a notoriously dangerous Midtown Manhattan grid in the early 1970s, the show examines the sidewalk intersection of sex-trafficking, pornography, drugs, organized crime, and a New York City that was expressing itself culturally, including Black Power, Gay Rights, and Women’s Liberation.

In the series, Method Man plays “Rodney” a pimp, with a sense of humor and apparent charm. His role neither vilifies nor aggrandizes the trade. Instead, it’s remarkably human. “That’s what you get when you’re dealing with David Simon, or George [Pelecanos], or Nina [Kostroff Noble] for that matter. When you step on that stage and you see how authentic the set looks, how authentic the costume design is, how James [Franco] is so dedicated to playing dual-roles, as well as directing, and Maggie [Gyllenhaal] just stepped it so far out of her comfort zone, who am I to drop the ball?,” Meth’ told Ambrosia For Heads. “Like seriously. Who am I to drop that freakin’ ball, man? It’s like, you either gotta step up, or step back. I think that I’m blessed enough that I had a gracious unofficial scene partner in Maggie Gyllenhaal, who took the time out, out of her schedule, to rehearse that scene with me, so we could get it just right—not just her, so we could get it just right. I applaud her for that. My hat’s off; if she doesn’t get an Emmy nod, I’m gonna be really pissed.”

Late in the ongoing season, “Rodney” confronts “Candy,” (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a prostitute working 42nd Street who refuses a pimp. If ever a scene could be jarringly tender between such a pair, this scene endures. Gyllenhaal, a Golden Globe-winning actress, is also a show producer. Meth says she and him rehearsed the concrete confrontation multiple times. Elements from “Rodney” that were not in the script made the cut. He describes it as “do-or-die, motherf*cka,” with his scene partner insisting he use what the Staten Island native brought to the exchange.

The MC, born Clifford Smith says he built “Rodney” from real-life experience. “My father, he wanted to be a pimp, but he wasn’t a pimp. He was more of a dope-dealer than anything else. [I pulled from] my family unit, and bein’ around the sh*t most of my life.” Like the series portrays, there is more to pandering than custom cars, tailored suits, and slick talk. “[Growing up around it], you see what people outside don’t see. Like, even when they look at this show, they just see the outer layer: the pimps, the prostitutes, the porn industry, sex trade, whatever. But once you start peeling those layers back and see ‘Candy’ as ‘Eileen,’ you see ‘Thunder Thighs’ as ‘Ruby,’ ‘Rodney’ as [more human]—’cause society tells us that pimps don’t feel any emotion, whatsoever—but we don’t know what goes on behind those closed doors. We don’t know if JAY-Z cries at night, you dig what I’m tryin’ to say?”

The multiple pimps on The Deuce include a stellar cast that also features Black Thought of The Roots (“Reggie Love”), Gbenga Akinnagbe (“Larry Brown”), and Gary Carr (“C.C.”). For Meth’s character, one who is not portrayed using force in season 1, a lot of analysis went into the role. “The first question you would have to ask yourself, is why would somebody want to be a pimp? [Forget] the women, the money, and things like that—what would make someone become a pimp? This is what you’ve got to ask yourself before you approach that character,” he begins. “For me, what would make someone want to become a pimp: attention. Attention. You just want to be that dude. What’s the whole point of the Player’s Ball? To be seen. It’s not about the money, even though that helps. Sure, absolutely—you gotta have some money, but it’s to be seen and look like you’ve got something. At the end of the day, all that glamour and glitz—suits and all that, but what you don’t see at the Player’s Club is the youngin’ in the backseat suckin’ off an old john for $20, that’s the ugly side. That’s in the forefront; that’s what pops up in people’s heads. But when they see that pimp go home and he got kids—’this ni**a got kids, and he takin’ care of ’em? And he sittin’ there doin’ homework with his son and his daughter, it’s like, ‘Pimps ain’t ‘posed to do that.’ Why not?”

Although much later than season 1 of the series shows, Method Man is familiar with the legendary “Rotten Apple” grid. “We used to go on Easter; everybody used go to ‘the deuce’ on Easter—throw on ya best, go to ‘the deuce,’ take those double-exposure pictures and sh*t, in front of back-drops like Mickey Mouse in the Gucci suit—you know, all that old sh*t,” he remembers. “I was part of that culture. Even before that, it was me and my dad, goin’ up there to see different karate movies, Bruce Lee movies, Godzilla movies, things like that. When you’d walk in the theater, it’d actually look like a theater.” Likely, many of those kung-fu films and their influence would inform Wu titles and themes in the 1990s.

The danger of The Deuce is exciting for viewers. Working girls get in cars with Lincoln Tunnel-bound strangers into the darkness, revenge is a real currency, and the clothes and cars all appeal. However, Meth’—who has glorified grime in his lyrics since 1993 makes it clear that the past is the past. “I don’t ever want to go back to that era, ever. Ever, especially for women, ’cause even the johns who goes and sees hookers and he understands the life and all that, he don’t want his daughter out there, does he? For real, that’s the worst feeling in the world to know that some man done got your daughter’s mind, and he runnin’ wit’ it, and ain’t nothin’ you can say or do, that hurts,” he says candidly. “I would not wish that on my worst enemy. But still in all, in that lifestyle, you’ve got people that want to be there, and it’s a life choice for ’em; God bless.” Even today, the strip along Dwyer and the 40s can be dodgy after hours—even if it now lives in a shadow of Disney stores and hit musicals, not HoJo’s and XXX bookstores.

Asked if acting taps into a pool of expression that songwriting and concerts cannot, the multi-platinum #1 MC bluntly states, “[Acting] puts me in a lot more white living rooms, that’s for sure.” When the lights go off on set, the mass public wants a limited personality in its Rap stars. “Honestly, the average American looks at a rapper, what’s the first thing they say, nowadays? ‘Where’s the jewelry, the cars, the loud clothes, the entourage?’ To this day, they still think I’m gonna show up with an entourage; I’m 46 years old. Most of my entourage now is granddads and sh*t like that, they’re not on the road, 24-7. It’s just weird.”

Working with an Emmy-winning team of directors, writers, and actors can pilot a show to great success. However, as Meth’ praises his longtime collaborators, he shows that David Simon and George Pelecanos wanted a lot more than a familiar face, or cross-promotion. “One thing I noticed about David and George, even when I did The Wire, was my first few days on set and stuff, they were just watchin’ me, watchin’ me, watchin’ me. As ‘Cheese’ the character continued on in new seasons, I started seeing more of myself being written into the script. They’re like Redman and Method Man: George and David. They pay so much attention to detail, right, as far as sets and stuff, but they pay attention to the characters that are playing the [series] characters. It’s like a suit that you keep getting fitted until it’s perfect; ‘we got our big story. Now, let’s go inside and [explore] why is this character like this.'”

For nearly 25 years Mr. Mef’ has been giving Heads the raw in his lyrics. On screen, he is doing it too, in one of his best performances to date. For fully-formed human portrayals of figures living outside the tidy lines of American life, it takes no method acting, just a deeper look at the life and skills of Method Man.

Photo by Paul Schrialdi / HBO.