Without a doubt, Dominic West as James McNulty is the face of the iconic HBO series The Wire. The show is interested in analyzing how crime and the police force of Baltimore co-exist, but as each season focuses on a different aspect of crime, new characters are added and others leave or are killed off. It’s hard to imagine The Wire without West’s complex performance as McNulty; he’s the ultimate anti-hero, the messed up, addicted detective we root for from start to finish.
A new oral history of the show, All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams, which includes wild stories from nearly everyone who worked on the legendary series (including the story behind a very famous season 1 scene between McNulty and Bunk) shares a major casting bombshell. A new excerpt of the book published in GQ reveals that the show’s creator, David Simon, was seriously considering someone very different from West to play the central McNulty role: John C. Reilly.
You’ll probably recognize John C. Reilly from his silly, over-the-top starring roles in comedies like Walk Hard, Talladega Nights, or Step Brothers. You might also know him from his current starring role in the ridiculous Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule TV show. Of course, many will also recognize that Reilly is more than just a terrific comedic actor: he has appeared in significant supporting roles in acclaimed movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Days of Thunder; he’s worked alongside Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York as well as The Aviator; he’s even won an Academy Award for his support role in Chicago.
So, let’s not write off Reilly as someone who would be incapable of starring in what many have called one of the best TV shows of all time. But also, let’s be real: can you imagine Reilly playing the intense and morally conflicted McNulty in the heart of the crime scene of Baltimore? David Simon thought Reilly could “carry all of the excesses and vices of McNulty in a different way.” Apparently, Reilly eventually admitted to West that Reilly’s wife refused to move to Baltimore.
But West had his own charms. For example: West is from England, and much energy has been spent over the ears dissecting his American accent on the show. According to the book excerpt, his taped audition for The Wire was his first time in an American accent. Spoiler: it was bad. “It seemed to be there were shades of sort of New York De Niro-isms,” Simon remembers. “But it was really good acting.”
In contrast, West didn’t even know Idris Elba, who played the pivotal role of Stringer Bell, was originally English because his American accent was so good. “I was chatting to him, and eventually he said, ‘Look, you've got to stop talking in that English accent because you're fucking me up,’” West said of an interaction with Elba.
Elba, who was living in New York when he auditioned for The Wire, admits that his audition was a kind of last ditch effort to make it in the States. “This was literally the last audition that I was up for that could change my life,” Elba recounts. “It was in December when was I auditioning. In January, my lease was up, my daughter was about to be born. It was like, Get this job and you stay. Don't get this job and you won't be able to afford to stay and you'll go back. The day my daughter was born was the day I got the job.”
The excerpt also sheds light on how yet another iconic The Wire character, Bunk, played by Wendell Pierce, was cast. Simon says he nailed his audition because he’d arrived after getting in an argument with a New York City cab driver. “He was harried, like a bear who'd hit the hornet's nest,” Simon said. “He had to focus on the scene, and he was apologizing for what he thought was a bad read, but it had that air of Baltimore—put-upon workaday Baltimore—homicide detective.”
Here’s another mind-blowing detail: Michael B. Jordan didn’t get the role of Wallace the first time he auditioned because he originally auditioned for Bodie. He was bummed, but eventually got the role of Wallace.