Acclaimed actor Clarke Peters has had an amazing career, spanning five decades and consisting of 110 TV and film credits.
His roles include a recurring part on HBO’s groundbreaking series, The Wire where he played Lester Freamon. He is also known for creating memorable characters in Endgame (2009), John Wick (2014), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Harriet (2019), and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), the latter of which earned him a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
A conversation with the 70-year-old artist is filled with sage wisdom. Fueled by perseverance, Peters still refers to himself as a “student of the craft of acting,” and consistently reminds the audience that they are more than human beings with his powerful work.
This theme rings truer than ever with his latest project, Showtime’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, which premiered last Sunday. Based on Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel, which also inspired the David Bowie film in 1976, this is a classic story is about an alien (played by Dr. Strange’s Chiwetel Ejiofor) who arrives on Earth at a turning point in human evolution. Ejiofor’s character must learn what it means to become human, even as he fights for the survival of his species.
Peters plays Josiah Falls, patriarch of the Falls family, father of Justin Falls (Naomie Harris) and a gifted scientist and engineer whose surprising relationship with Ejiofor’s alien brings about the next step in human evolution. Watch the trailer below:
Speaking from Portugal, Reel 360 News chatted with this incredible artist on the eve of his Showtime premiere.
You’ve had such a rich career. What came first, theatre, film or TV?
Theatre first. Always. Film came after. But I had a desire to perform and was inspired by old films from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but the theatre was my first teacher and I always go back to where I started.
What was your training like?
The schools I wanted to attend, I couldn’t afford. So, I read books. I read every book I could get my hands on. About acting. The stage. Stanislavsky. As soon as I could, I got on the stage. The stage taught me how to act as an apprentice and allowed me to make both mistakes and succeed in front of hundreds of people. The stage is the crucible that galvanizes you. I still feel like I’m learning as I go along – like an actor on a mission. Always training. Always learning something new.
You’ve done so much, do you have a favorite production?
The production of Othello, with Dominic (The Wire and The Affair’s Dominic West) was a great time. We had a great time. Dominic is so classically trained. Sometimes we would work the meter, and other times we would work the poetry, but we always told the story.
Another one that is special to me, was my first play in London. I was the first Black man to play Skylar in Guys and Dolls. I felt the world needed that change and it opened up the world to me. It made sense to me, because Skylar was an outsider, and who is more of an outsider than a Black man? I knew I could bring that to it and I did.
Speaking of outsiders, you certainly deal with that subject matter in your new series, The Man Who Fell to Earth. What drew you to this project?
I am always drawn to projects that vibrate a truth within myself. The truth was reflected in the script and it asked the kinds of questions humanity is dealing with right now. It says even if you are in the minority of opinion, be the world you wish to see.
I like roles that are helpful, and that are going to make people think. This role had the wonderful challenge of transformation, of morphing from handicap to healed in a place I’d never explored before.
I also wanted to work with the wonderful writers of the show and always wanted to work with Chiwetel. He and I had a lot of fun. We got to play a lot in these roles.
In all your work you have such an incredible stillness. Would you attribute that to training or part of who you are?
I think I truly learned stillness on the set of The Wire. I had done so much movement on stage and realized on that set let the camera do its job. Stay still. With stillness you let the camera work for you. I had to find that stillness within myself. I do a lot of meditation so I found that stillness was within me, I then brought that on set and to the camera.
You’ve been a working actor since the 80s, what has been your driving force?
Sometimes, it’s just a bill. ( Laughs.) Paying a bill will keep you motivated.
What has truly kept me going, are stories and roles that fuel me. I’ve been going a long time, but at this age, I would actually like to slow down and be very particular with what I work on.
What is a cherry-picked role/project you would like to work on?
I’m interested in historical figures. I would really like to do the story of Fredrick Douglass. That speaks to me.
I could absolutely and would love to see that.
I’ve had a great run and I’m really grateful for all the opportunities.
What has been your favorite opportunity thus far?
I would have to say, this project, The Man Who Fell To Earth because it’s such dense storytelling- and I’m not just saying that. The project is so intellectually rounded and this opportunity to transform into a character with such an arc was an actor’s dream.
What’s next for you?
I’m flying to London to work on the British TV project. That’s about all I can say about that.
So where are you currently?
I’m in Portugal.
For another project?
No, actually I bought a lavender field, out in Portugal. I’m learning a lot about agriculture. I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years. It’s not a fad to me, but a way of life, so this is an expansion of that and of slowing down. At this age, it’s important for me to enjoy other aspects and passions in my life. When I’m not acting, I spend my time just looking at the stars at night and the clouds during the day.
You can watch Clarke Peters be otherworldly in The Man Who Fell To Earth, streaming on Showtime and Amazon Prime now.
Megan Penn reports on the indie film market and anything that empowers women and underrepresented groups.