Wood Harris Reminisces on ‘The Wire,’ Acting With Cam’ron and Tupac, and Playing Spencer Haywood in ‘Winning Time’

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A lot of the real-life people associated with that Lakers team are not happy with how they were portrayed in Winning Time, but Spencer is. How does it feel knowing that he’s satisfied with your interpretation of him?

I had to show a lot, so I’m so happy that he’s pleased with what I did. But I do understand the opinions of Jerry West if that’s not how he is and everyone says that’s not how he is. So I feel like, in a sense, you are doing a disservice to him. But the actor is at fault for being so committed to his idea of the portrayal. So if there’s anyone at fault for making Jerry West feel the way he does, it’s the actor—and, of course, the writers and producers—but it’s sort of the actor’s job to be close to the personality of Jerry West. If that’s not how Jerry was, and everybody says that’s not how Jerry was, I think that’s a problem.

But the other side of the coin is that this was based on a true story. You could also say: “Jerry West, take it easy. It’s just TV.” [Laughs] There are so many examples of things that are inaccurate and harmful—we could go crazy with that stuff, right? There’s the Jerry West side: “Man, you did me wrong. That’s not me and I don’t like it.” And if he says that, he must mean it. You can’t really argue that. Then there’s the other side, where you could say: “Even though you have that opinion, you’ve probably enjoyed lots of things that are inaccurate portrayals.” But having played a lot of real-life people in my career, I learned that early. Even Azie in Paid in Full—I didn’t want him to feel like I did him a disservice, because people love him and love that movie. That’s how I want things to go.

Even Jimi Hendrix [who Harris played in the 2000 TV movie Hendrix]. You can’t get that wrong.

Oh, especially Jimi Hendrix. That’s where it started, because I think that was the first time I played a real-life person. And it’s super-challenging, but it set me up to portray real-life people like Julius Campbell in Remember the Titans. Ace in Paid in Full. Even Spencer. At this point, I’ve probably played more real-life people than most actors. But starting with Jimi Henrdix set me up for it, and it’s a lot of hard work, but I think I’ve been fine-tuned to do it.

I want to talk about Above the Rim. Your character, Motaw, was extremely antagonistic, but did you, Pac, Duane Martin, and Marlon Wayans hang out while you were filming?

Nah, we didn’t really hang out. I hung out with Marlon once. I can’t say I hung out with Tupac, but I was there the night that he was at Nell’s when he got in trouble. But that was the very first movie that I ever got, so it was a surreal thing to me. And Tupac wasn’t the iconic Tupac at the time; even though he had music out, that was only like his second or third film. But during the time that we were shooting Above the Rim, it was really the heyday for hip-hop. It felt good to go on set and work with people. It was fun, youthful, and upbeat. We felt like rockstars; filming a movie in New York will make you feel like that. I’m a hooper, so I was able to show out all the time. I met cool people and pre-9/11 New York was really poppin’ back then. It was like a renaissance of artistic energy.

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