A couple of years ago, Wendell Pierce was in town to portray the late Rev. Hosea Williams in “Selma,” which filmed largely in metro Atlanta. He was back last year for another role based on actual events, a project he approached in a very different way.
He appears as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in “Confirmation,” debuting at 8 p.m. April 16 on HBO.
“It’s a great responsibility, first and foremost,” to portray an actual person, he said during a red-carpet interview Sunday before the Atlanta Film Festival’s advance screening event. “With Hosea Williams, it was someone I revered long before I got the role. With Justice Thomas, I have to admit that I had some preconceived notions about him.”
In researching the role, Pierce made a discovery that surprised him.
“What happened was a great epiphany. I learned that it’s not how little we have in common, it’s how much we have in common,” he said. “That really opened up a window in how I would approach the role.”
Kerry Washington appears as attorney and professor Anita Hill, who testified during Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings that he had sexually harassed her with unwanted overtures and lewd comments. Thomas, a Savannah native, vociferously denied the allegations and was confirmed.
Pierce said delving into Thomas’ past was an enlightening approach to preparing for the controversial role.
“His family was like my family: a legacy of five generations of African-Americans in the South, from slavery to (farming), then putting a high premium on education as a key to improving one’s life,” he said. “That we shared in common. This was really an opportunity to play a man who, at the pinnacle of his career, when he was about to mount the summit to the highest seat in his profession, was challenged and had to deal with a relationship and events of the past.”
He was thrilled to work with Washington, who made a visit to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights during her time in Atlanta.
“She’s very intelligent. She’s very talented,” he said of the star of the hit show “Scandal.” “I watched her testimony (scenes). That really was the fuel that fed me as I stepped up to do my testimony scenes.”
Pierce, who now has four Georgia filming projects under his belt, looks forward to more.
“It is truly now part of Hollywood South, along with New Orleans, where I’m from,” he said. “They are places that the Hollywood establishment looks forward to coming and shooting.”