So, a few years ago there was this little show on HBO that people seemed to be really crazy about, that I sadly just never got around to watching called, The Wire. Ever heard of it? Well, of course you have heard of it, every-damn-body has! But in this day and age of binge watching television shows at one’s leisure, some shows never seem out of reach, or impossible to appreciate many years later. And The Wire is absolutely not exception. When I finally got around to engrossing myself in one of the greatest stories ever told on television, I learned that they hype that the show had earned was entirely justified, for this was a damn great show! And, hands down, one of the top reasons were well written characters that were performed by just the right actors and actresses. And of my favorite characters, as I usually seem to enjoy, was a snide little side character who seemed to sneak his pesky little self into scenes more and more as time went on. His name was Maurice Levy, Attorney at Law. And he was portrayed by the brilliant Michael Kostroff.
As we are prone to do here at TWS, I decided to look into a bit more about this character I truly enjoyed hating so damn much. And just as I expected, Mr. Kostroff has turned out to be one of the nicest actors I have spoken with since I began interviewing them at random. But, really, I find it hard to believe that anyone could be as snake like and despicable as Maurice Levy, but in all honesty I don’t really know that many lawyers so I could be wrong. Anyway, Mr. Kostroff has turned out to be a brilliant actor of the stage, film, and more television with a career that expands far beyond his stint on The Wire. So, of course we want to learn more about this brilliant fella, as well as maybe ask a few questions about his time on of the most highly regarded television shows of all time. So ladies and gentlemen, Michael Kostroff!
Looking back so many years later, what was your personal experience like for you on the set of The Wire? And was there any specific time that you realized you were a major part of something pretty magical?
The truth is, I think I was just glad to be working. Naturally, I loved the role, and found the writing engaging and intriguing, and I was inspired again and again by the outrageously skilled actors with whom I got to work. But I hadn’t an inkling that I was taking part in TV history. Really, the show’s popularity snuck up on me. Originally, Levy was only going to appear in two episodes. They seemed to like the character, and kept writing him in. Even still, until the final season, the offers came one episode at a time.So I wasn’t even around often enough to get a real sense of the show we were shooting, or its impact.
I think the turning point was when people started recognizing me out in public. I don’t remember when that started, but it continues to this day, and I’ve had many opportunities to hear first-hand how highly regarded the series is. People want to talk about it. And I love that. (I will say, though, that the fact that lawyers seem to particularly love Maury Levy is just a tad troubling.)
How does one prepare to portray a greedy and smug son of a bitch character like Maurice Levy? When you first found out about this part, what were your thoughts on Maurice?
There was one phrase in the script for my first episode that told me a whole lot about Levy. The phrase was “you people.” Now, because I grew up around a lot of black folks, I know all too well what “you people” means. It’s a phrase that leaps out to those of us who hate prejudice. It means the speaker has pre-formed opinions about a whole group and feels qualified to talk about that group right to their faces. In this case, Levy might have meant “you Barksdale gang members,” but I don’t think so. I think he’s a rich, privileged white man who works for an all-black organization, takes their money and advises them, but privately thinks of them as animals. It’s a very ugly thing to know about a character, but one that really clarifies who he is. I fed off that information for the whole five seasons.
The smugness is something that was evident in the writing as well. It’s another trait that makes us really despise the character. But I think it’s realistic. I’ve seen people like this, lawyers and politicos especially, people who don’t just want to win, but who also want to show you how cleverly they’ve done it. Levy loves the chess game. He likes to say, in essence, “See what I did there?” Ooh! What an asshole! It’s kind of making me mad thinking about it.
People who know me in real life know how different I am from Levy. And that was part of the fun. I spent the whole five seasons amazed that I was getting away with convincing viewers I was this horrible bucket of slime. Viewers hate me. And I think that’s an accomplishment.
still from “The Wire”
The show has been off the air for a few years now, and has entered legend status. In your personal and professional opinion, what is it about The Wire that makes it continue to be such a popular show that is surely never to be forgotten?
Well, I think there are a lot of theories on that. For me, in addition to the extraordinarily brilliant writing, there are two things that come to mind:
First, it’s the nuances in the characters. They’re not simply good guys and bad guys, and they aren’t categorized by race, social status or profession. I think, in the past, members of a drug gang were simply portrayed as “the gang,” and the police were “the cops.” On this show, we have a drug dealer who has an interest in business, and another who takes meticulous care of his tropical fish. Some are reckless; some live by strict codes. Others would like to get out of the game. We have a hero who’s an irresponsible parent who drinks too much, but who’s also truly noble in a lot of ways. We have gay characters who aren’t all about being gay. We have cops interested in the status quo, and cops interested in making things better. And we have characters who change and grow. Levy is the only recurring character I can think of who is strictly a bad guy. Most of them are multi-faceted.
The second thing I think accounts for the show’s legendary status is its compelling stories of how broken our systems are. Well-meaning characters are thwarted again and again by red tape, apathy, greed, cynicism and some people’s investments in the failure of others. I’m not sure we’ve seen that story told in that way before. At least, not since Dickens.
You seem to be portraying a whole lot of attorneys since your days on The Wire…. do you ever feel pigeonholed in this respect? How do you do it differently each time, or is a repetitive gig?
Yes and no and yes and no. I’ve certainly played a lot of attorneys since The Wire, and actually, even before The Wire. I look like what viewers think of when they imagine an attorney. While stereotyping is a very bad practice in real life, it can be a very helpful practice in visual storytelling.
Yes, I’ve sometimes been a bit pigeonholed in my TV career. But you know what that means? It means I have a TV career. And that’s a great and very lucky thing. Over the years, I’ve played a dull lawyer (King of Queens), a compassionate lawyer (Law & Order: SVU), a laughing lawyer (Liar, Liar), an upscale lawyer (Studio 60), a lovesick lawyer (Cold Case) and on and on. The stories make each one different. Still, I admit, there have been those occasional times when I felt like I was punching a clock, putting on the suit, and doing what has become for me a no-brainer role.
Two things balance that out. One is that I do theatre, where I don’t think I’ve ever played a lawyer. I’ve been a disgusting tavern owner (Les Misérables), a hapless gambler (Guys and Dolls), an unhappy comedy writer (Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and so forth. The second welcome contrast is that in the past few years, TV casting directors have started putting me in roles that are vastly different from my usual fare. The most amazing one was the Cinemax series, Banshee, in which I played a reckless, longhaired, tattooed, Southern ex-con. I smoked, I drank, I got in a fight, I snorted coke. I have no idea how they thought to cast me in that role, but it was a blast. Overall, I think I have nothing to complain about.
In the theatre world, you starred in the hugely successful hit brought to the world by the legendary Mel Brooks, The Producers. Again, how was this experience for you? Was it frantic playing a dozen different characters?
Well, I have to take issue with the word “starred.” I hardly starred. I was a proud member of the ensemble (or “chorus”), those musical theatre performers who run around changing costumes and continually showing up as different people in the story. I loved playing a dozen characters a night, from a stern judge to a swishy costume designer to a bad tenor to a cruel, demeaning boss to a Bavarian peasant and on and on. We worked, singing and dancing our asses off. I also understudied the huge, exhausting, never-leave-the-stage starring role of Max Bialystock. It’s the role that Nathan Lane won a Tony for, and one I’ve since played in various productions around the country. The job was a dream come true, my first time in a big Broadway show, albeit the touring version, and I treasured the whole adventure. I related my tales of life on the road in my book, Letters from Backstage.
Looking back on your long and extremely impressive career, when the time comes to hang up your hat, what would you say you are most proud of when you do so?
Wow. Am I retiring? Actually, having any success at all started late for me, so it doesn’t feel like it’s been a long career just yet. I feel like I’m just getting going.
So… You want a really honest answer? I’m most proud that I braved what I knew was a daunting and discouraging profession, and did so because to not do so would have been to go against my own DNA, my calling. I’m proud to be an actor. We’re a noble and embattled tribe. And I’m proud of all the tables I waited, all the temp jobs, all the growing pains, all the therapy, all the battles with my own depression and low self esteem, learning to present myself at auditions without panicking, surviving bad productions and unkind directors and somehow, miraculously, getting to the point where someone would want to interview me.
What inspired you to pen your book Letters From Backstage? What was it that you truly wished to accomplish with this book?
As I mentioned earlier, scoring a job in the touring company of The Producers was a dream come true for me. What I really wanted was to take my friends along for the ride. So that was the inspiration. For each tour stop, I wrote kind of a short story about life on the road, sharing what was happening with the show, what the city we were in was like, funny travel mishaps, weird audience encounters and so forth and e-mailed them to all my friends. They started e-mailing them to their friends. Strangers wrote to me asking to be included in the mailing list. These e-mails became the book, Letters from Backstage. My favorite comment I’ve gotten from readers is that they feel like they’re right there out on the road with me, and I couldn’t ask for a better response.
What does the future hold for you? Any other projects in the works you would like to pimp out?
I’m finishing up a book I’m excited about, based on my very popular workshop, Audition Psych. 101, which is all about the mental side of auditioning (www.auditionpsych101.com). I’ve offered the workshop all over the country for almost a decade now and have found that actors derive tremendous benefit. The book will allow me to reach even more of my fellow thespians. I expect to have it published early next year.
But next up, I’ll be doing a much-anticipated revival of Can-Can at one of my favorite theatres, The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, with a Broadway run expected to follow next year. This time, I’m a dry, gay, sarcastic French waiter at a scandalous can-can club. It makes a nice change from the pinstripe suit and the courtroom.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
The other day I was walking in my neighborhood when a woman stopped me. Her: “You’re that lawyer from The Wire!”
Me: “Yes, yes I am.”
Her: “Wow! Are you really a lawyer?”
Me: “No, no. I’m just an actor.”
Her: (Hugely disappointed) “Damn. I really need a lawyer.” (Then, begrudgingly) You were good on the show, though.
I smiled all the way home.