Suemedha Sood

April 7, 2008

Felicia Pearson–nicknamed Snoop–weighed only three pounds when she was born. She was a crack baby with no parents. Her biological mother and father were both incarcerated at the time of her birth. Just by surviving, she defied all odds.

It’s no surprise, then, that survival became a way of life for this East Baltimore foster kid. She grew up on the streets, slinging drugs with the big boys. She was a girl and a lesbian in the most masculine of worlds, but she says it was never a problem because she was always herself.

On April 27, 1995, when Pearson was 14 years old, there was a fight. It ended with the death of 15-year-old Okia Toomer, who died of a gunshot wound that night. Pearson was the one who pulled the trigger. She was tried as an adult, convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to eight years in Jessup state prison.

Ten years later, at a club in Baltimore, she was approached by Omar, the gay stick-up boy on HBO’s The Wire–actor Michael K. Williams. The rest, as they say, is history. Now “Snoop Pearson” has become a household name to Wire addicts across the country. Wire fans said goodbye to Snoop and the rest of the cast last month when the popular and acclaimed series, dubbed “the best show on television,” came to an end.

Not all reviews have been glowing, though. The Wire‘s last season raised eyebrows from some critics who said creator David Simon allowed season five to “betray [the show’s] own intentions,” violating the very realism that gained HBO’s baby its cult following. Others said that the season, which took a hard look at the media, became a soapbox for Simon, a former Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter.

Yet it can hardly be ignored that with The Wire creators Ed Burns and David Simon have produced something truly groundbreaking in television history. Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg wrote: “[No] other program has done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” Simon sums it up best talking about his “faith in individuals to rebel against rigged systems”–something we see in The Wire time and time again.

Above all, the show is real. Its characters and stories are drawn from historical Baltimore events and people.

For Snoop Pearson, it’s all too real. But the Snoop on HBO has little in common with the real-life Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, who has taken her life in new and positive directions, and made peace with her past. The two may share the same name and the same streets, but the difference between them is night and day. As she explains, Snoop on The Wire is the character she plays, not her present-day life. This became clear when Pearson talked to Wiretap about how her life has changed since The Wire got her off the streets: her youth outreach work, her memoir Grace After Midnight, what it was like to start acting from scratch, and putting the worst day of her life behind her.

Wiretap: Had you ever seen The Wire when Michael K. Williams first talked to you about auditioning for the show? What did you think when he approached you?

Felicia Pearson

: I hadn’t. We didn’t have HBO. He’s a loving person. He’s always trying to help others.

Were you skeptical at all about going in for an audition?


: I was kind of nervous, [but] I just did it. I was like, forget it, if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, if it don’t, it don’t. But I’m glad it happened. (laughs)

Had you ever acted before? How did you pick it up so quickly?


: Nah, I’d never acted a day in my life before that. I mean, I don’t know, it must have been a given that the Lord shined on me, because I didn’t know I had it in me.

I know your life has changed a lot since you started on The Wire. Can you talk about some of the biggest changes?


: My life changed for the better, you know, for the positive, it changed for the better. And I thank [the] Lord every night and day that I’m in the position that I am in now. I can help kids, you know. They speak to me, they listen. Youth is a powerful thing. Me and Jamie Hector [the actor who portrays Marlo on The Wire] have a [nonprofit organization] called Moving Out, so we’re trying to get that off the ground to work with the kids and everything, and help get them into the [Baltimore] School for the Arts.

When you were just 14, you were charged with second-degree murder. Can you talk about the incident leading to that charge?


: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know, [a] hard head makes a soft behind. Somebody came after me and I shot them in self defense. That was the worst day of my life.

Do you think you should have been tried as an adult?


: No, I was a kid.

The Washington Post did a lengthy feature on you. In that story, they talked about the victim’s family watching your character on The Wire . How did you feel, reading that? Did the Post give you a fair portrayal?


: People always talk about paying your debt to society, and after you do, people always want to throw it back in your face. That was the worst day of my life and I regret it each and every day. Imagine you reliving the worst day of your life over and over again, you can’t get past it because people keep bringing it up.

What do you think the show does for young people whose lives are affected by the drug trade?


: It’s just acting. That’s what I tell people. It’s just acting. That’s why I try to push forward about the kids. The show does get their attention, and then they see me in person because I go talk to them at schools and all that. So I tell them, that’s just acting. That aint the way you need to be. Because if you really do look at The Wire, look at how Stringer Bell ends up. Look how Weebay ends up. We don’t wanna end up like that.

Do you think the show can make a difference for young growing up in the same environment you grew up in?


: Yeah, it can. That’s why we doin’ it now. That’s why we got Moving Out. I’m not even gonna say it can–it is. It is gonna make a difference. Because I come from the streets and I know how hard it is to be out there when nobody pays you [any] attention. I already know how it is. So we is gonna make a difference.

When you were dealing, were you openly gay? Did you ever run into any ignorance or discrimination?


: I was always who I am. Nah, I never ran [into] problems.

We all praise the show for being ultra-realistic. How does the show compare to your experience growing up in Baltimore? How close is it to real life?


: I mean, the show relates to a lot of cities, not just here. It’s based on the city of Baltimore, but The Wire just puts everything out there. Other cities [are] going through the same thing. Everybody gonna relate to The Wire , that’s why it’s a brilliant show. It’s real life, period. You can’t get no closer than that.

Was your role an easy one, since you grew up in a very similar world? Or is it difficult sometimes feeling like you have to relive your past?


: Ain’t nothing easy about the cameras all in your face–that’s hard. And you still gotta react the way you’d be outside. It’s very hard. Some of it easy, and you got some of it that’s hard. But I’m learnin, and I’m a fast learner.


: I just put my past behind me, you know, it’s the future. So I don’t even think about the past no more. The past is the past. I’m tryna change some things from the past, but you know, the past is the past. I’m working on my future. That’s why I named my memoir Grace After Midnight because I came from midnight and now I’m in grace.

Are you anything like the character you play?


: Nah, I’m nothing like the character I play on the show. The character Snoop that I play on the show is a cold-hearted person. If anybody know me, know anything about me, they know I’m a fun-lovin’ person–I love to smile, I just want positive energy around me.

The author Stephen King called your character “perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series.” What do you think about that?


: I was just amazed that Stephen King even thought about saying my names! I was just happy with that.

Your first scene in The Wire–in the hardware store, when your character is introduced in the show–that’s one of my favorite scenes. Was that a fun scene to do?


:Yeah, but when I first seen the script, I was like, “What is this?” And Mr. Ed [Burns] had came to me, he was like, just read it. I said, yeah I got it down pat, but I don’t have an understanding, because I don’t know nothing about these type of tools. He was like, just go ahead and just act like your grandfather is with you. Because like I said in my book, Grace After Midnight, I used to help my grandfather–he used to fix houses and everything. [Burns] just gave me a word of encouragement and I did it and it came out wonderfully.

Who’s your favorite character on the show?


: Everybody. I got a lot of favorites, everybody. Marlo, Little Michael, and Omar. And Method Man [who plays Cheese]. But we’re all a big family. But Marlo is number one. I mean he’s real, man. It can’t get no realer than that. He’s a brilliant actor, he’s gonna be like Denzel [Washington] one day. He’s up and coming. Just like Idris [Elba]–Stringer Bell. He can get into all types of roles, he been teachin’ me, you know.

What’s on the horizon for you as an actress? What projects are you working on?


: I am constantly auditioning for different roles. You will see me soon–you might not recognize me, but it will be me.

Anything else you want to add?


: I want to say thank you for the opportunity, and ask everybody to allow me to get beyond my past. I wrote the book so that I won’t have to keep explaining. I love all y’all.

Selected Snoop Videos

Snoop Talka About Her Memoir


Snoop Radio Interview


Snoop Buys a Nail Gun

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributer to WireTap.