The task of workshopping the roles with the four actors fell to Burns and a familiar Wire face, actor Robert Chew, who plays the indelible Proposition Joe in the series. Since 1993, Chew has worked with the youth theater program at Baltimore's Arena Players, the United States' oldest still-active African-American community theater company; he's currently its music director. And Chew saw his job as to help the actors find their roles inside themselves.More on Chew's work with Baltimore's child actors here.
"If it's not real, it's not believable--that's my main motto with children," Chew says over the phone.... "Tristan had to find Michael as an actor," Chew says. "Michael really has a lot to do with looks and hardly any dialogue, a character who is sheltered and quiet, and he knows he has to take care of his little brother, so he's slowly building up inside. And Tristan just knew how to get there without having any experience in that matter at all--he has a great family, I met his father and his brothers. But he just really did his homework. He would ask, ‘What's this guy like?' And I would tell him, ‘Think of a time bomb. Think of steam getting kept up.' And every day he would just come to rehearsal and get closer to and closer to that."
More, Baltimore Sun obit:
"Robert was not only an exceptional actor, he was an essential part of the film and theater community in Baltimore,” David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’ said in an email Friday. “He could have gone to New York or Los Angeles and commanded a lot more work, but he loved the city as his home and chose to remain here working. He understood so much about his craft that it was no surprise at all that we would go to him to coach our young actors in season four. He was the conduit through which they internalized their remarkable performances."
In terms of what Mr. Chew brought to Proposition Joe, Simon said: "The Wire cast was an embarrassment of riches and it was easy, I think, for outsiders to overlook some of those who were so essential as supporting players. Robert's depiction of Proposition Joe was so fixed and complete -- from the very earliest scenes -- that the writers took for granted that anything we sent him would be finely executed.”
Pointing to a scene that indicates the range of talents Chew brought to the production, Simon said, "Late in the run, almost as a tip of the hat to the work that Robert had done for us, I wrote up a scene in which Proposition Joe -- in order to determine whether someone was a police officer trying to infiltrate his drug crew -- gets on a pay phone and in rapid succession imitates four different characters in four different voices. If you remember that scene and Robert's performance, you know everything you'd need to know about how good an actor this man was.”
"And apart from that, he was a fine and generous man," Simon concluded.