Alyssa Rosenberg (c) 2014, The Washington Post. For CCH Pounder, the voice often comes first.
“I’ve always been conscious about people’s sounds, and I’ve always been fascinated by it,” the veteran character actress, who stars as coroner Dr. Loretta Wade in “NCIS: New Orleans,” reminisced when she called me from the show’s set in the Big Easy. “I remember as a kid, I was always called the Parrot. I was always good at imitating the way that people spoke.”
The British actress has an eclectic resume that includes her stint as Detective Claudette Wyms, the secret heroine of FX’s hard-boiled cop drama “The Shield,” multiple stints voicing DC Comics supervillain Amanda Waller for animated series and video games, and turns on cult favorites like SyFy series “Warehouse 13″ and HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” Now, she is helping to anchor the latest installment in the franchise born from what CBS president Nina Tassler brags on as “the most watched show in the world.”
Claudette Wyms initially had another first name when showrunner Shawn Ryan first conceived of the character for “The Shield”: It was originally Charles. But when Pounder won the part, she asked the writers not to change her lines.
“I want to do it just the way you wrote it for that man,” Pounder remembered. “I want to be able to have those words come out of my mouth. And it gave me a wonderful challenge, because there were things I was saying, as a woman and myself, I would not speak this way. So it actually kind of pushed me into character by having to say those words in my mouth. It was a great lesson in the fact that we are servants of our environment, we become part of our surroundings.”
Pounder’s performance as Claudette stands out as an important exception to what has become the rule in the Golden Age of Television. Rather than being the nagging wife of an anti-hero like Walter White or Tony Soprano, Claudette was a colleague of corrupt cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). And instead of being dragged down with him, Claudette beat Vic, ending his time running wild on the Los Angeles streets.
That does not mean that fans necessarily embraced her any more than they did Skyler White (Anna Gunn) or Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco).
“With ‘The Shield’ there were two leagues. There were the people who were the Michael Chiklis characters fans, because they wanted him to get away with it,” she said. “Through Michael, they got to live out this fantasy that empowered them some way. … They would heckle me. And real officers were going ‘This is so real, it’s crazy, you’ve got to get him’. It’s kind of like football, and choosing teams. That was the biggest part of how I dealt with that.”
Pounder’s performance as Amanda Waller, by contrast, has won her a legion of dedicated fans.
“I always considered that my invisible work, and I can’t tell you how many young men I’ve met, who (fter hearing Pounder speak) have said, ‘Wait a minute! Are you Amanda Waller?’ You’ve got to be kidding. It’s three words. But they say, ‘I know that voice.'”
To nail Waller’s voice, Pounder says she uses her own body, and tries to imbue her lines with a sense of how Waller would be moving and acting.
“I create Amanda Waller physically. She’s a big woman. She’s big. And she’s gotten bigger over the years in the cartoon. I create her physically, in the sense that when I’m sitting in the room, it’s not just my voice. My physicality becomes her,” Pounder explained, saying that technicians sometimes tell her she has put so much into the performance that she has gotten away from the recording sweet spot. “I sometimes wish they could come up with a mic that is on your head or that is attached to you so you could actually do the movement around instead of having the three mics in front of you and having that pure, un-rustled sound.”
Her stint as San Joaquin District Attorney Tyne Patterson on biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” was a different kind of challenge. Pounder came in late in the series’ run as part of a plot arc in which a young boy commits a deadly school shooting with a gun trafficked by the titular motorcycle club. Patterson targets club president Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam).
“She is still to me an undeveloped character, because I think I came in in season six to do a job,” Pounder told me. “I came in like gangbusters, methodically going after this man, and seeing something in him, a kernel of — I wouldn’t call it doubt, but purity maybe — that she kind of niggled away at, a little opening, and then he clammed shut again.”
Playing these authoritative figures has sometimes left Pounder feeling a little type-cast, though she says the way casting directors see her has forced her to reach for new opportunities and to deepen her approach to new characters.
“For instance, I might have to go to the theater to really get something really sexy, sassy,” she said. “It’s a wonderful transition of going from a younger actor who would say ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to change, I’m tired of playing women of authority, they have no husband, they have no children.’ To come to this place where it’s like girl, just get in the door, the character that you want to play with or without children or husbands or extremities, you put out she seems like a woman with a whole bunch of kids. … You just try to create it in your head and it just kind of manifests in reality.”
(Optional add end)
What drew her to “NCIS: New Orleans” and to the part of Dr. Loretta Wade was partially her sense that New Orleans has a transforming effect.
“I used to come here for the Essence Festival a lot,” Pounder said. “A lot of straight-laced people become other personalities here. It allows you to be that other person within you. I wanted to portray a bit of that, where (Loretta) is a little bit dogmatic at her job in terms of getting to the bottom of the mystery, but outside of her job, she can still cut a rug on the dance floor, she can still have a kind of life force that you don’t necessarily think (of as associated with a) coroner.”
For Pounder, shooting on location in New Orleans has been a gift, whether for the alligators, tour boats and barges that end up in shots by happy accidents, the architecture that makes for fabulous background shots, and even the quality of the light. “It’s like they took all of those New Orleans beads and brought it down to a color that was realistic without being macabre,” she says.
And once again, it all comes back to the voice.
“Now that I’m here, I realize that what we imagine to be New Orleans is kind of like when I grew up in England, what we imagined America to be, that everyone spoke with a Texan drawl. That was what we practiced as young acting students, we had this terrible, awful Texas drawl that we called American,” she explained. But once she got to New Orleans, she realized, “There really isn’t a wrong accent. By the time that Polish, German, African, French mix gets into the gumbo, it’s all gumbo but you can pull out a different taste every time you take a spoonful.”