When David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of HBO's "The Wire," were casting young actors to play a band of inner-city street kids, they knew what they didn't want -- hip-hop cliches.
"Hip-hop is so prevalent," Burns said. "Almost every kid read the part the same way, with the same gestures, the same [inflections]." Eventually, after throwing their net farther and wider, the pair found actors who didn't automatically slip into stereotypes to play urban black teens. Those boys, ages 13 to 17, were the ones who eventually won the new roles of eighth- graders in the watershed between innocence and hard reality in inner-city Baltimore.
Largely through the eyes of these youngsters, the creators explore the decay of the public education system in a big city like Baltimore to show where, what and how the children of the underclass really learn. In the casting, Simon said Burns, a former policeman turned Baltimore school teacher, was trying to "recognize certain souls" to portray an abused child, a foster child, an outcast, and a convict's son.
With the season wrapped, Burns said the boys performed so well, "you think they're not acting.... You can see Jermaine [Crawford] disappear within Dukie. You can't see him anymore."
Although the actors had lived in big cities, none had any experience with the raw conditions of ghetto life portrayed on the show. To inhabit their characters they had to look intently at lives lived in poverty, a dark world many adults would rather not consider.
Maestro Harrell, 15, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and plays Randy, a foster child, called the experience an "eye opener." He said he wondered whether the houses in which they were shooting were sets until he was told people actually lived there.
"It really made me feel like I have to portray this character well because somebody out there is living this," he said.
His character learns to sell candy in the black market. "Randy feels that the money can isolate him from the world that he's come to know that he's not happy about. He never got into the drug thing because he doesn't want to go back into a group home, his worst nightmare," Maestro said.
Other aspects seemed familiar to Julito McCullum, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Students curse out teachers in Brooklyn just as they do in Baltimore, he said. Julito plays Namond, a smart but socially inept outcast who clings to the other street kids for protection. "He relies on these people to take care of him," he said.
Tristan Wilds, 17, plays Michael, the unspoken leader of the group.
"I give them backbone and they give me backbone," he said. "We all back each other up." In playing Michael, a boy abused by his stepfather, Tristan said he even came to understand how homicide might appear to be a reasonable solution to an otherwise hopeless situation.
"I had to put myself in their shoes," he said. If an abuser "wanted to get close to my little brother, I'd want to protect my little brother."