From the creator of “The Wire” David Simon and Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis (“Crash”), comes an important new mini-series “Show Me A Hero,” which premieres tonight on HBO.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, this six-part miniseries explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, New York. In an America generations removed from the greatest civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the young mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) of a mid-sized American city is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
On working with the stellar creative team, Oscar Isaac said, “It was great. It was an insane schedule, we had three months to shoot a six-hour film. We were shooting in Yonkers and wildly out of order and the fact that Paul and David and Nina and Bill Zorzi could wrangle the whole thing and deliver something very powerful and also very relevant. I mean this stuff is happening right now in Westchester.”
LaTanya Richardson Jackson added, “This was a dream team. Not just the actors, because everyone wants to know which actors you’re working with, but working with David Simon and Paul Haggis was the dream. It was the best gift I could’ve been given because they were thorough in their pursuit for the truth and had such a handle on creating art, that anyone who wants to be involved in a situation that is totally artistic and yet has something to say — you want to work with them.”
Nay Noe Wasicsko (Nick Wasicsko’s widow) spoke about seeing her story come to the screen.
What does it feel like to have your story come to the screen”
Wasicsko: It was really emotional but I was excited because Carla Quevedo, who is the actress portraying me is so professional and she put a lot of work into it. And I’m excited that Oscar Isaac who is portraying Nick is bringing his story on screen. And now the nation is going to see what Nick Wasicsko was like. He was mayor of Yonkers during a really tumultuous time, he was 28 years old and it was a really, really, tough time and I’m excited that we’re going to see it tonight. And look, we have a dream team. David Simon, Paul Haggis, Nina Noble, Bill Zorzi. Who could ask for more? And I’m super excited to see this tonight and unfortunately Nick Wasicsko is not here tonight but I’m here to speak for him and I wish he was here.
Can you speak a bit about the story?
The story is about the fact that Nick was the mayor and that he was handed down a court order to build 200 housing units in the east side of the city. And the east side did not want the housing to happen. And he was a lawyer and he said, “Ok, let’s appeal.” And the court said, “Sorry, you can’t appeal.” And so he finally said, “We have to build this housing, let’s go ahead and do it.” And the residents of Yonkers were against it. And as a result of the fact that he voted to have the housing built, the residents of Yonkers were against him. People sent bullets in the mail, hate mail against us, we had 24 hour security. It was tough, really tough. So it was a really difficult time that we lived through day to day. And while he was in office he received national attention because Yonkers was almost bankrupt because they had refused to build the houses. The judge said, “Ok, you guys don’t want to build houses? I’m going to fine the city a million dollars a day. So build the housing.” So they had to do it.
What’s Yonkers like today?
We have a great mayor, Mayor Spano. The housing was built years ago, the city is booming, we have a great waterfront, and he is very proactive mayor. I actually went to high school with Spano, he’s a great guy.
David Simon spoke about why this was an important project for him to produce. He said, “I read the book years ago, it seemed like the perfect allegory for the dynamic we have in this country where we’re not quite able to share with people who are the most in need, there’s a portion of our political dynamic that seems to believe that we can have two separate Americas and that we can maintain that and that not everybody shares the same national experience, or at least have a share in it, and I think that’s a recipe for a second-rate society. I think Yonkers found that out at great cost and ultimately it’s still going on, never mind the stuff that’s getting the headlines, Ferguson or Charleston or Baltimore. Right now, two towns North of Yonkers in Tarrytown, same fight is going on, same rhetoric, same demagoguery, same fear is being elicited, as if the lessons of Yonkers are disregarded. The cost of building 200 units of scattered housing on the white side of the Sawmill Expressway, to have it be what it was is outstanding and it signals that while I think there has been racial progress we got a long way to go.”
Hero screenplay writer William Zorzi and longtime Simon collaborator added, “The reason it came to us – it was via a book which was a book of the same name from a then New York Times Reporter, Lisa Belkin, and she’d published the book back in 1999. Gail Mutrix who is also an executive producer had worked with David Simon on Homicide, which was the fictionalized account of his non-fiction book … and she brought him the book and said this might be something you want to look at … I was working at the Baltimore Sun where I worked with David, and we had many excellent adventures … 14 years ago. He called me on deadline because he had apparently forgotten what it’s like to be on deadline and said I want to get your opinion on this book, and I said, “Ok, will do.” He called me back a couple weeks later and said “have you read the book yet?” again on deadline, and I’m on the desk, at this point, I’m an editor at this point and I’ve got nothing but young troubled reporters around me, looking for a God among men, and he said you got to read the book … and I said “ok, I’ll look at it” and he said you better because we have an appointment with HBO in three weeks and that’s literally the boring beginning of the story.
Speak about working with this great team.
McCullum: When David Simon calls, you answer. And I’m happy he called me again.
How did it go the second time around?
McCullum: It was dope. It was short-lived, I’m not on it that long but I’m blessed. David is a person I’ve been looking up to since I was a kid, I’m so happy that he chose to continue working because he’s so successful he doesn’t need to do anything else, but he does and it’s something so important like Show Me a Hero especially this time we’re going through with all of the tension. It’s still relevant, and I’m happy we got to do it.
Talk about working with him the second time around versus the first time.
McCullum: The first time, it was scary because I was a kid and he’s a very nice person but such a big creator, but this time around we just talked and laughed and had good times. It was lighter and we had a good time.
Talk about what attracts you to a role.
McCullum: I want people to go to the theater and take something out of anything I do, I want you to have a conversation after and that’s what draws me to projects, to stories. As long as the story is something I believe in and something people can take from, I’m happy, that’s why I work.
Tell us about your character.
Nicholls-King: I play Janet Rowan, she is the mother of Billie Rowan who is the young girl who gets pregnant and has the boyfriend and they have that tempestuous relationship and I try to get her to do the right thing.
Speak about working with this team.
Nicholls-King: Well I worked with David before on The Wire so it was just awesome to come back, it felt like I was just coming back to work with family again.
What does a hero mean to you?
Nicholls-King: There is no one hero in this, I feel like everybody just tries to make their lives better and have the kind of experience they want to have and make a difference in their own lives, so everyone’s a hero in their own way.
Are you a big HBO fan?
Gómez: I am, I am! Since back in the day.
What’s your favorite HBO show?
Gómez: The Wire, and I’m not lying. When I heard I was in this show … I had a moment because it was David Simon and I was like “Oh my God, the sky’s the limit.”
Who’s your favorite character on the Wire?
Gómez: I don’t want to say McNulty … it’s actually Idris Elba’s character. I’m not going to say what season or anything just in case, but just watch it.
Can you tell us about your role on Show Me A Hero?
Gómez: I play a Dominican matriarch [of a] family struggling in public housing trying to get into housing that’s been built into the community to get further ahead and have more opportunities. And I actually met her and she’s a person who has a joy of life and has actually managed to move forward and get a better life for her kids.
Tell us what else you have going on?
Gómez: We’re shooting OITNB season four which is exciting. Show Me A Hero adds to my happiness and I just had this short film that I directed and produced and we started submitting to festivals. And I have been accepted to my first festival – I can’t say which but I just got the notification and I’m so excited.
Ilfenesh Hadera plays Alma Febles.
Tell us about your character.
Hadera: This is based on true events and real people … She’s a single mother of three young children, really hard working, very protective, and she’s really hell bent on getting her family out of the housing projects on the west side of Yonkers and into the newly built townhouses.
Can you talk about how it was working with Oscar?
Hadera: It’s so funny. The political side of this show is so different than the Schlobohm Side. We were in the same room once out of the whole October, November to January. So Oscar is lovely what I know of him but I never got to work with him. Paul and David and Bill Zorzi are a dream to work with. If you’re a Wire fan, it doesn’t get any better. And Paul Haggis then with Crash – it just doesn’t get any better than this team.
This show is so relevant today.
Hadera: I mean this show is timeless because as long as there is homelessness, as long as there are people in shelters, as long as the 60 year old man in my building is having to leave now because Harlem is too expensive to live in – this show will be relevant. So it’s stuff that everyone’s dealing with – it’s all walks of life. You don’t want it to be timeless but you get the sense that these are issues we’re going to be facing for a long time unfortunately.
What does a hero mean to you?
Hadera: A hero for this woman … is someone her children can look to as a source of strength and pride and security and really someone people can lean on as a pillar of support, even when they don’t want to be that. It’s out of necessity, it’s cause you’ve got to be a hero.
Fishback: I play Billie Rowan. Billie is one of the four main characters of the story and she enters at episode three at eighteen, full of life, full of energy, full of anger. And by the end she’s not so full of life because life has kind of beat her down, but that’s an experience that a lot of people have.
How was it like working with Oscar?
Fishback: Oh my God Oscar was so great. You hear about famous people and for me, this was my second TV booking and he showed me that I could be, like “I’m here, I’m Dom, what’s up?” He’s definitely supportive and Catherine Keener – everyone was really supportive. Wyona Ryder, everyone was so nice – it was great.
The show is called Show Me A Hero. What does a hero mean to you?
Fishback: A hero means someone who has heart and stands by what their heart tells them.
What else are you working on?
Fishback: Well I’m living the actor’s life, you know auditions and stuff, that’s still part of the process. But I do have a one woman show that I wrote called Subverted and that’s about the destruction of black identity in America and I’m hoping to bring that back next year.
Tell us about your character.
Josh Salatin: Michael Wasicsko is Nick Wasicsko’s brother. He helps Nick out, he’s not a massive character. There’s a lot of characters in this series; I’m sure you guys have figured that out by now and he’s a bit sarcastic but his main role is helping his brother out.
Tell us how you got involved and what the process was like.
Salatin: I auditioned. I auditioned and David Simon was nice enough to invite me to be part of the show.
What drew you to the character?
Salatin: David Simon. David Simon and working with David Simon and Paul Haggis and Oscar Isaac and everything else and the whole thing.
How are those guys?
Salatin: Wonderful. David Simon is a very relaxed man … He’s very low-stress on set, very good working environment. Oscar is obviously fantastic, he’s a man who prepares when he comes in and he does his job. And Paul is great; I really liked working with Paul. He’s a man who voices his opinion which I like.
The show is called Show Me A Hero. Tell me a hero when you see it.
Salatin: A hero to me is somebody who does the right thing and sometimes that is a very difficult thing to do. That to me is a hero.