TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've listened to our show over the years, you know that many of us here were big fans of the HBO series "The Wire," about drug gangs, kids and cops in East Baltimore.
My guest Sonja Sohn played police Detective Kima Greggs. When the series was over, she wanted to help young people in East Baltimore like those portrayed in the series. And she thought she stood had a chance of helping after she noticed that she and her fellow stars from "The Wire" had become known and respected by young people. So with the help of some of her colleagues from "The Wire," she started a two-year pilot program called Rewired for Life, working with kids who had been arrested multiple times and were about to do serious time.
She used scenes from "The Wire" as a jumping off point to help them discuss the problems they were having and how they could change their lives. Then Sohn worked with a second group, a little older, with different needs. They were quitting dealing drugs, had no GED and needed support and advice. Now known as Rewired for Change, the program also turned a church-owned house into a village house, a safe place for members of the neighborhood to gather.
Sohn's goal is to keep Rewired going and expand its reach. She now travels back and forth between Baltimore and L.A., where her current TV series, ABC's "Body of Proof," is shot. She plays homicide Detective Samantha Baker.
Let's start with a scene from "The Wire." Detective Kima Greggs, played by Sohn and Officer Carver, played by Seth Gilliam, have observed a well-dressed man in a nice car being handed a trash bag, so they stop him. Greggs speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")
SONJA SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Step out of the car, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) What I do?
SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Step out of the car.
(as Detective Kima Greggs) Go write him up over here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Man, look, I'm already late.
SETH GILLIAM: (as Sergeant Ellis Carver) Put your hands on the roof, please, sir.
SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Sir, you were observed in one of the city's designated drug-free, anti-loitering zones, where a drug suspect leaned into your vehicle, handing you something. And when we signaled for you to stop, you were leaning over as if attempting to conceal something beneath the passenger-side seat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Come on, now, look, enough of this (bleep), now. Come on.
SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Is there something beneath that seat, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Nah. No.
SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Then you don't mind if we take a look...
GROSS: Sonja Sohn, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, you're an actress. After you were finished shooting "The Wire," why did you want to stay in East Baltimore and work with young people who are out on parole and try to help them straighten out their lives? I mean, that's - you're not a social worker. You're an actress.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: You know Terry, my journey to becoming an actress is not your typical one. I didn't, you know, strive to become an actress all my life. I didn't - it's not some goal that I had. This career, essentially, you know, chased me down while I was on the spoken-word scene in New York. I kept hearing that my delivery of my poetry - which was very personal and cathartic at the time - was, I guess, very moving to folks, and people thought that I was an actress because of my delivery, when I was just dropping into the work and really, you know, pouring out my soul.
It seems like I just couldn't escape this sort of career chasing me, so I decided to stop, turn around and face it. I realized that there's something internal that I could gain from pursuing this career as an actor. However, once I got into the business, I really abhor, you know, what this career can sort of drum up, you know, inside of a person. You know, it really plays on your ego, and I had a really tough time with that, sort of battling that and trying to, you know, balance that out. During the first season of "The Wire," I almost quit. And...
GROSS: Why would you want to quit "The Wire?"
SOHN: It was painful. It was torturous. I...
GROSS: What was torturous about it?
SOHN: By the time I'd gotten "The Wire," I was experienced. I studied for five years in New York and, you know, I was ready. But I got on the set, and I found myself, after hours of preparation, you know, every day, you know, I found myself, you know, blanking out on my lines. You know, and I saw, you know, the reaction of, you know, my co-workers and, you know, the sort of the tension, you know, as the takes are clapping away, you know, and the times, you know, ticking and the money's, you know, being spent.
And I started feeling very humiliated, going, what is going on? Am I really this bad an actress? And I got very disheartened. And I couldn't, for the life of me, figure it out. And I, you know, you know, barreled through. But it was extraordinarily painful for me, because I, there were days on the set where I felt humiliated.
GROSS: Did you ever figure it out, like why were you suddenly...
SOHN: Absolutely, I figured it out. You know, I had done a tremendous amount of work, you know, personal work, you know, on my own, you know, because of, you know, the type of, you know, trauma, abuse and whatnot that I had grown up with. And I realized that what was happening was, you know, I was, you know, working in neighborhoods that were very reminiscent of the neighborhoods that I grew up in. I was, you know, seeing, you know, people that reminded me of the people I grew up with, essentially, you know, on some level, you know, you know, experiencing a re-trauamatization. And my brain was just short-circuiting all over the place.
GROSS: So where there particular scenes that you shot on "The Wire" that you realize now were bringing up traumatic events from the past to you and making it hard for you to do your work?
SOHN: It wasn't the scenes so much as it was the location. You know, shooting in the low-rises...
GROSS: These are low-rise projects where, in "The Wire," people are selling drugs. Yeah.
SOHN: The low - right, the low-rise projects. Right. Because the - yeah. I grew up in a sort of a mixed-income type housing where people were - there were some people who were on Section 8 and some people who were - they were the working poor. And then there were folks who were, you know, much more impoverished. But the setting was very similar to the low-rises.
The other thing I was working out that first season was my relationship to law enforcement and police. It was really difficult that first season to play a cop (unintelligible).
GROSS: Well, what did you think of cops when you were growing up? What were you relationship to cops?
SOHN: My relationship to cops, you know, wasn't, you know, a very good one. My perception of cops was that they, you know, came into your neighborhood, they roughed up people that you loved for no reason and took them away. I mean, as a young child, you sort of saw that.
But I think for me, on a deeper level, there were times when I called the police to come to my home because my mother was being abused. And to call the police is a really - you know, it's a really big deal to call the police, because you don't snitch. You don't, you know, that's sort of a culture that you grew up in. You certainly don't want to call the police on your father.
But if I thought my mother's life was in danger, I would pick up the phone and I would call the cops. And at that point, then it's like, oh, I'm calling them, and they essentially didn't do anything about the situation. They would come and, you know, the moment would be, you know, quelled. But, you know, eventually, I did want them to take my father away, because this was, you know, really painful to live with.
And then one time, the last time I called the cops, they came to the house, and it was a pretty serious altercation that day. And I thought surely something's going to happen here. They're going to, you know, take my father away. And I saw the cops look at each other. I saw one cop look at the other one and roll his eyes and smirk and kind of laugh. And that angered me so deeply. You know, I believe that, like, that sealed, you know, the inner sort of dislike and, you know, I would even say hatred, at that point, of the cops. And so I had to overcome all of that to play this cop.
GROSS: Kima really loved the work. I mean, she got shot and nearly died in the course of "The Wire," but she went back to the job afterwards, insisted that she didn't want to just stay put in desk work. She was willing to put her life on the line. She was, you know, on the whole, pretty fearless, responsible, but, you know, not afraid to take risks. How did you physically handle yourself when you were growing up? You're not a large woman. How tall are you?
SOHN: I'm 5'5".
GROSS: OK. Like you're not short, but you're not tall, either. And you're certainly not imposing. Like, no one's going to look at you and feel like, wow, I'm scared, you know.
SOHN: No, especially not running around the neighborhood with two ponytails.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: You know, and all my friends got Afro puffs, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: You know, I'm already sticking out like a sore thumb. So you're asking me, sort of, how did I, sort of, make my way through my childhood? I think I was born with a warrior spirit, if you will. And I believe that that can, you know, fit into, you know, a small, unimposing being, as well as a, you know, an Amazonian type. And I think I projected that, you know, as a young, as a child, but also a lot of bluffing.
You know, I knew that - you know, my sister and I grew up in the same neighborhood. My sister's very light-skinned, and I knew that - and we both had these long ponytails. And there's this whole kind of thing, you know, when you grow up, you know, in the hood, especially back then in the '70s, where you know that being different, being quote-unquote, you know, "light-skinned" is going to make you a target. I saw that, you know, I just needed to appear tough.
Yeah, I got to tell you, there's a moment when my mom sent me out of the house one day with a broomstick. And, you know, a boy had been teasing me and, you know, my mom's Korean, and so I was getting a lot of Chinese this, Chinese that, ying, yang, yang, yong. You know how kids can be, you know?
And I came home crying, and my mom was, like, you know, I'm, you know, I'm sick of this. She gave me a broom handle, and she put it in my hands and she marched me to the, you know, the door and she pushed me out the door and she told me to go beat his, you know, X, Y, Z. And I went whoa. You know, if your mom's sending you outside to kick some butt and you got permission to do it, then, you know, you got to go do it. You can't turn around and run back.
And the boy was sitting at the top of the sliding board, and I marched up the sliding board, and he just did not think I was going to, you know, go through with it. I cracked him upside the head with the broom handle. He went reeling down the slide. And, you know, for the rest of the - I'd say I got a good six months out of that, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: No one messed with me for about six months. The girls were all on my side. I mean, you know, and it's a funny little story, but it's also pretty sad.
GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn. She played police Detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire" and plays Detective Samantha Baker on "Body of Proof." Her community program is called Rewired for Change.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're talking with Sonja Sohn about how her life story relates to her work. On the HBO series "The Wire," she played police Detective Kima Greggs. That inspired her to start a community program in East Baltimore called Rewired for Change, which helps young people try to turn their lives around. Sohn now co-stars in the ABC series "Body of Proof."
I know you've spoken in the past about how one of the problems you eventually got into was drugs, and that's I'm sure another way that you can relate both to characters in "The Wire" and also to the young people you're trying to help now in East Baltimore. What was your story about how you started using and what it was you used?
SOHN: Well, I first smoked pot when I was 11 years old. And, you know, initially it's just, you know, a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds experimenting with pot. You know, a lot of us had older brothers who were drug dealers, and so, you know, we found the weed and we...
GROSS: You had an older brother who was a drug dealer?
SOHN: Yeah. He was five years older than me. And he was selling weed at the time. And, you know, most of my friends had older brothers who hung out with each other, and they were all selling - at least selling weed and participating in other criminal behavior, you know, like theft and whatnot. And so, that's how, you know, we became introduced to it.
But, you know, initially, you're not - you don't think you're smoking pot to, you know, to get away from, you know, stress. You know, you think you're just having fun. But by the time I was 13, I was smoking every day. And I realize now that that coincided with a time in my life when I had just given up on things being any different at home.
I had spent a lot of childhood trying to fix my family and trying to find a way to make this work so that I could be home and I be happy - including, you know, three or four, you know, probably four or five years trying to convince my mother to leave my father and, you know, prior to that I was making practically straight A's in school. I was on this, you know, track to, you know, go to college and, you know, I thought I would become an attorney and a lawyer. You know, there was the whole thing that Sonja's going to go to college. She's going to be a lawyer. But, you know, around about 12, sometime between 11 and 13, I, all I wanted was to be happy. I wanted some peace.
GROSS: So did it just stay marijuana, or did you move on to other drugs?
SOHN: Through like 13, 14, we were doing - we were smoking weed, speed, acid. And then later on in high school, probably my senior year in high school is when I was introduced to coke. And essentially, I would say coke is, you know, what - you know, once I started doing coke, that's when things started to get hairy.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that your older brother and the older brothers of a lot of your friends sold drugs. Your brother I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, was murdered?
GROSS: Would you mind talking about what happened?
SOHN: This was back in 1988. My brother had actually, you know, hit, you know, a bottom, you know. He had had quite a reputation growing up in our town. And - but, you know, in his, you know, mid-20s things started to go sour for him, and you know, which eventually happens to, you know, anyone in that lifestyle. And he decided to move down to North Carolina, where my father had - my father and my mother eventually divorced after I was in high school.
My brother moved down to North Carolina to essentially change his way of life. My father had found God and joined a church down there and my brother was starting to, you know, investigate, you know, more spiritual side of himself. And, you know, we were hopeful. But, you know, he had some moments where he backslid here and there, but, you know, we had never seen him this broken, but you know, we had also never heard him talking so deeply about change.
At any rate, he was living with my uncle and my uncle lived next door to a young woman whose boyfriend was abusive to her physically. And from time to time, my brother would see her on the street and would talk to her. And the boyfriend knew this and essentially told my brother to stay away from his girlfriend. And my brother wasn't trying to date her or anything, but he was consoling her and was, you know, essentially giving her some advice and whatnot.
But, you know, essentially a jealous boyfriend, you know, shot my brother and killed him.
GROSS: How did it affect your life when your brother was murdered?
SOHN: You know, to be honest with you, I had – you know, my brother said something to me when he was in his early 20s. He said that he had this deep feeling that he was not going to live to be 30. And I had a tendency to kind of see my siblings as, you know, being a bit, you know, self-pitying at the time. And this was, you know, me in the middle of my own stuff, like I can be a judge of anybody's character. But I just, you know, thought - my brother was extraordinarily talented.
He was a gifted athlete. He was an amazing artist and he could sing. But he felt very deeply somewhere inside himself that he wasn't going to live to 30 and he died when he was 29. My mother was just devastated. My brother was born in Korea and my mother was just beside herself because she kept saying, he didn't make it, he didn't make it. And my sister and I were going, no, he didn't make it. I mean, what is she saying?
And she finally just said, you know, we came from Korea together and he didn't make it. And my mother – my mother took him from Korea because, you know, a mixed kid in Korea, you know, my brother was born in 1959 and, you know, even today, you know, a mixed kid in Korea goes nowhere.
GROSS: Your father fought in the Korean War, right?
SOHN: I believe it was just after the Korean War that my father went over there.
GROSS: So he was stationed there, in the military, the U.S. military.
SOHN: He was stationed there, right.
GROSS: Okay, yeah.
SOHN: Uh-huh. And so, you know, what my mother didn't understand was that in this country my brother's considered, you know, a man of color. He's black, and he was going to have to face, you know, all the injustices that come with that, you know, the racism, and he was, you know, basically put in a comparable situation there to what he would have been in had he stayed in Korea.
GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn, best known for her role on "The Wire," as detective Kima Greggs. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn. We're talking about how her life story relates to her work. On the HBO series "The Wire," she played a cop. After that, she started a community program in East Baltimore called Rewired for Change and she now co-stars in ABC's "Body of Proof." You had mentioned earlier that before you were cast in "The Wire," you did slam poetry and you co-wrote and starred in the movie "Slam."
And that's how you were kind of discovered as an actor, that people saw you performing your poetry and thought you should be acting because you perform it so well. Could I ask you to do something from that period for us to give us a sense of...
SOHN: Oh, my goodness.
GROSS: ...what you were writing and what you were thinking at that earlier phase in your life when you were first starting to perform and to articulate your thoughts?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: Sure, Terry. I can't say that I will remember an entire poem, but I can give you a little tidbit.
GROSS: A little tidbit is fine.
SOHN: I had actually left the poetry scene to study acting, and after five years my coach said to me that she thought I was ready and that she was convinced that if someone saw me, that they would give me an opportunity. And she said, you've just got to get on stage any way that you know how and you know how to get on stage. And so she sent me back to the poetry scene and I was just appalled.
But, you know, I, you know, looked up to her and so I decided to go back. And when I went back, I basically had to bring out the old work. And this is a poem that I read on stage nine months after she sent me back. And Mark Levin was in the audience. He was there to see the young man that he had chosen to be lead of the film, "Slam." And when he heard this poem, he realized that it resonated the theme of the film.
And they were looking for a female lead for the movie and that's, you know, that's how this poem is actually sort of responsible for my career. And it's called "Run Free." I feel like my back is against the brick wall and I got a Mack truck two inches from my face. Every cell in my body is screaming, run, but I can't. My mind drifts. I think about the last time I ran, left my baby with two coke-heads on acid. Okay, that's the beginning.
GROSS: Okay, okay.
SOHN: Now, you know, I jump all over the place. But that's the beginning of that.
GROSS: Sounds good. Had you actually left your baby with two coke-heads on acid?
SOHN: One was my sister and the other my best friend. That's the next line. Yeah, and it's something about what was I thinking, kind of like my brain was busted, frying on the hot concrete of my life run amuck, dripping down the dead body of my soul, collecting into pools of blood at my feet. I'm kicking and stomping and running and jumping, wreaking all kinds of havoc, creating a bloody mess. And I am going nowhere. Somewhere in my mind, I am moving.
Somewhere in reality, I am running. Somewhere inside myself, I am oh so still, quiet, dead. My soul is not rising. My heart is not lifting. My life is not living, but I am running, moving through the universe, a whirling dervish with no end, no purpose, no means, no life left to live and yet still I want to go to that place where I can run. Run free, my mind tells me.
But those two words cannot occupy the same space in reality. Run free. My back is against the brick wall. I got a Mack truck two inches from my face. Well, run free, baby, right now. Just turn around and go. Clip all the wires, hookups and hang-ups and then you're home free. You can give birth to an excuse so easily you'll believe it's always been there, part of the natural order, made to order by your forever clever mind.
Constantly making you believe in things you no longer need to believe in, and I believe. I believe like a holy-roller singing, sweating, preaching, go tell it on the mountain, diving at 10,000 feet of baptismal water without a life preserver. I believe like my bullet-ridden brother out there somewhere dying, bleeding, gurgling blood through his last breath, spitting out a red ripe prayer so new, so sweet, so baby fresh he thinks he can save his life.
Brutal honesty won't knock down the doors of heaven, but it will damn sure crash the gates of hell, so I believe any and everything that sprouts from my colossally imperfect mind because in this moment I have a Mack truck two inches from my face and a brick wall kissing my ass. God does not exist in desperation and hope is lying dead somewhere in the sewer down the street around the corner underneath the feet of someone in the alley - da, da, da, da, da.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SOHN: Whew. It's been a long time. It's been a long time, Terry.
GROSS: That sounds good though. Wow. So that poem launched your career because that's how you were discovered, basically, as a performer and as an actress. So that's how you got your role in "Slam," which you ended up writing part of as well. And did that lead to your role on "The Wire"?
SOHN: No. "The Wire" came a couple years later. That just got me in the business. You know, it got me to Sundance. The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. I got an agent, a manager, and that started, you know, that's how I got into the business. It took two years, maybe three, before "The Wire" came along.
GROSS: So what lead you, along with other cast members from "The Wire," to create a program, a community program for at-risk young people and, you know, a program to bring the community together? Why did you want to do this?
SOHN: Well, it all started back in 2008, during the 2008 election cycle when we were asked to do some voter empowerment work with Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, to educate, you know, folks on their voting rights and whatnot. And, you know, during that time that we discovered that we had quite a bit of influence in these underserved communities.
GROSS: So this made you realize that you has some power, you had some...
GROSS: ..some influence.
SOHN: At that point we just thought, you know, we couldn't, you know, just kind of use this kind of, you know, social capital to promote our careers. It just seemed so small. And so when I came up with this idea that we start this nonprofit, the fellows all liked the idea and they said, listen, we don't have the time to run it, but if you can run it, we got your back. We'll always be there.
And they became the founding members of the organization. Wendell Pierce and Michael K. Williams are on our board. David Simons is an honorary chair of the board. So everyone got behind it.
GROSS: Sonja Sohn, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
SOHN: Thank you, Terry. It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Sonja Sohn plays Detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire." She now plays Detective Samantha Baker on ABC's "Body of Proof." She co-founded Rewired for Change, a community program based in East Baltimore whose goal is to help young people at risk try to turn their lives around. You'll find a link to Rewired for Change and links to our interviews with other cast members of "The Wire" on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.