Age & Hometown: 41; Chicago, IL
Current role: A Broadway debut as Stanley's kind-hearted friend Mitch in Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire.
West Side Pride: At home on the West Side of Chicago, Wood Harris’ parents wouldn’t have guessed that two of their sons would become professional actors (older brother Steve is best known for TV's The Practice). “We had a very normal, sort of ghetto, urban upbringing,” Harris recalls, “My father was a bus driver and my mother was a seamstress and a substitute schoolteacher, off and on. So, that all adds up to no money.” This self-described shy kid got into the arts around age 12. “My first artistic love was drawing and painting,” Harris remembers. He decided to audition for the theater program at Northern Illinois University after landing his first paying gig acting in vignettes about substance abuse aimed at corporations. “I made a lot of money doing that!” he exclaims. “Once I learned you could work and possibly afford school that way,” he continues, “I rode that horse ’til the shoes fell off.”
Learning Curve: Harris landed his first film, Above the Rim, while studying at NYU's graduate acting program, but was kicked out for tardiness, to the chagrin of his pals in the program. “My classmates petitioned the university and won,” he says. He was reinstated just in time to star in August Wilson's Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “which I'm pretty sure is still the highest grossing school production they’ve had to date.” He also had his greatest (“until Streetcar!”) stage experience, a 1997 off-Broadway production of Waiting for Lefty with Marisa Tomei, directed by Joanne Woodward and rehearsed at Woodward and Paul Newman's apartment. “One day I’m going to rehearsal, and Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier come into the elevator laughing together,” Harris says. “So I’m quiet, trying not to act like a fan of two of my favorite actors, and Paul Newman turns to me and goes, 'You’re doing a great job, kid.’ I was like, 'I need to write that shit in my diary!’ I don’t even have a diary. It’ll have one page and it’ll be from Paul Newman.”
No More Mr. Tough Guy: When Harris landed the role of drug kingpin Avon Barksdale on HBO’s The Wire, he didn’t have an inkling the show would become an enduring hit. “With film, you can feel confident that you’re doing good work, but never know what it’s going to look like,” he points out. “Now The Wire is regarded as the great show ever, and we’re all like, 'Yeah, what’s up!'” And yet Harris was determined not to get pigeonholed in gangster roles: "If you overdo something, you end up typecast. You always have to expand.” His mild-mannered Streetcar character filled the bill. “Mitch is wonderful because he’s so not what I often do,” Harris says. “And he has the love story of [the play]. Stanley, he ain’t necessarily loving Stella, and his brand of love comes with a smack. But Blanche and Mitch, it's love at first sight.” Harris is now considering moving his California-based wife and two kids to New York, though his current digs are less than ideal. “I love New York, but I’m living in midtown,” he groans. “Hell on earth, too many people. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen when it was actually Hell’s Kitchen. Now it’s something else. It’s hell’s bathroom.”