Jim True-Frost is best known for the five seasons he’s played cop-turned-middle-school-teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski on HBO’s The Wire. But he’s also a stage actor with extensive credits as a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He lives in Cambridge with his wife, the legal scholar Cora True-Frost, who is teaching at Harvard Law School. And beginning February 9, he’ll play Brutus in the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, which is staged by French director Arthur Nauzyciel and set in the JFK ’60s. Jim and I talked at the ART rehearsal space in Cambridge.
So, is Prez over?
Yeah. For all intents and purposes. They do check in as a sort of “Where is he now,” and one of my former students is still involved in the story and he comes to see me. But there’s nothing too much about my story.
It’s unusual, even in a TV series, to have characters develop over time like that. Did you ever have disagreements about, “gee, I don’t think Prez would do this or say this”?
No. You can tell because you’re a fan of the show how meticulous the writing is, how carefully planned it all is. It’s not like each week they’re asking, “What should we have him do this week?” It’s more like they have the whole season planned. And what we know now is that David Simon actually had all five seasons planned. And his genius is such that no one ever questioned it — not out of any kind of intimidation, he was actually open to talking to everybody all the time — but everybody trusted that he was the last arbiter.
Where did your name come from?
My name was Jim True. And almost all of my credits for movies and TV before 1999 were as Jim True. My wife’s last name was Frost, so we both took the hyphenated name True-Frost when we got married in 1999.
Usually you hear of that when a couple has a child, but not when they’re getting married.
We’re both feminists, and Cora didn’t particularly want to take my name. But we both liked the idea of the change of identity that happens when you get married. So combining the names seemed like a good option. It’s rife with complications — if we have kids and their names are hyphenated, and they marry someone else whose name is hyphenated, what are they supposed to do, have a four-barreled name? But we’ll leave that problem for them.
When did you move to Cambridge?
Fall of 2005. Between 1994 and 2004 I was mainly in New York. After doing a lot of theater work in Chicago and starting to get movie parts there, I moved to New York and did things like Affliction, the Nick Nolte movie, and Singles, the Cameron Crowe movie, and The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers movie.
I was looking at your history and seeing you’d done all kinds of theater . . .
but no Shakespeare.
That’s what I was curious about. I saw The Rivals and thought, okay, there’s Sheridan . . .
The Rivals and Playboy of the Western World, the Synge play, those are the two forays into style and language, but Shakespeare was sort of the frontier that I was waiting to explore.
Can you compare it to anyone else’s language that you’ve worked with?
I’ve worked a lot with poetry and song. I set poetry to music, so I’ve worked a lot with Yeats’s poetry and e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas.
So you’re a musician as well?
Yeah, I’m a guitar player and singer.
Do you play in a band?
No, I don’t play out very often. I’ve had two or three one-off concerts where I’ll put a band together and do a couple of nights of music on stage. Otherwise I just play solo. I’ve been playing some open mics in town.
The Lizard Lounge. It’s close to where I live, so I pop over there on Monday nights once in a while.
Can you talk a little bit about how you’re finding your way into the characterization of Brutus?
Most of us are trained in the Stanislavski-type Method of thinking about your character’s motivations and your character’s history and making up for yourself all the details of this very real, very specific character in order to present a very lifelike impersonation. Whereas Arthur really just wants to stay with the text. [laughs.] His mantra is, “Just say the words, it’s all in the language.” And that doesn’t mean it’s without emotion or without feeling. But the whole theatrical event is sort of . . . a much more mysterious one. It’s not just a fictional story of how it starts and what city it’s in and what happens in the course of the play — it’s more a question of what happens when we put on this play, and there’s sort of an awareness of the theatrical, presentational nature of the event. If you go back and read it and don’t think about the production in togas that you saw in junior high school and look at the words that are there, a lot of strange things happen in this play.
JULIUS CAESAR | ART AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER 64 BRATTLE ST, CAMBRIDGE | FEBRUARY 9–MARCH 16 | 617.547.8300