SALON TALKS

Jon Bernthal embedded with Baltimore police to play city's dirtiest cop in HBO's "We Own This City"

On "Salon Talks" Bernthal reveals he spoke to the real Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in prison, victims & friends for the role

By D. Watkins

Published April 25, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

Jon Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in "We Own This City" (PAUL SCHIARALDI / HBO)
Jon Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in "We Own This City" (PAUL SCHIARALDI / HBO)

The countless online videos of police brutality and African Americans dying at the hands of police officers have led to deep conversations about America's policing problem and TV portrayals. One side of the argument is committed to the idea that all cops are inherently good — brave men and women who dedicate their lives to keeping us safe. The other side of the argument believes that all police officers are oppressive, terrible people who are dedicated to ruining the lives of Black people. Both sides are right, which makes the argument even more confusing. 

Yes, a cop can be good and bad. Both of these things can be true. We see that clearly documented in the new HBO six-part miniseries, "We Own This City," which centers on Baltimore cop Wayne Jenkins, played by Jon Bernthal. I first met Bernthal when he started reading my writing covering these issues in my home city. We connected later when he signed onto play the lead actor and I joined the writers' room. Bernthal and I sat down on "Salon Talks" in New York last week to talk about his lengthy preparation process and the personal effect the role has had on him.

These cops stole from civilians, sold all kinds of drugs, committed massive overtime fraud and sent a large number of innocent people to prison

Most people are only able to critique police officers through the lens of their own experiences. If you grew up in a neighborhood where cops show up two minutes after you call them, and even stick around to make sure you feel extra safe, then you probably think police officers are heroes. And if you grew up like me, in a neighborhood where police officers were hungry to grind their boots into your gumline, steal your money and harass you for no reason other than the color of your skin, then you probably think all cops are a**holes. The problem is that both sides struggle with the ability to be able to accept the other side's experiences — good or bad. People only believing in their own experiences is childish, extremely dangerous, unfair and will never lead to any real understanding. If police haters or apologists were open to different arguments, they will learn that their limited critiques lack the way in which some police departments reward police officers who appear to be good in certain communities for doing all of the wrong things – making those cops both good and bad. 
 
"We Own This City," created by David Simon and George Pelecanos ("The Wire") is based on the book "We Own This City" by journalist Justin Fenton, which tells the story of Sergeant Wayne Jenkins and The Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a group of elite cops in Baltimore who had special privileges because of their abilities to get guns off of the street. What their bosses didn't know is that one of the reasons they were so good at getting guns was because they were planting them on people. These cops stole from civilians, sold all kinds of drugs, committed massive overtime fraud and sent a large number of innocent people to prison. 
 
Cop lovers saw these guys as heroes because they were always touted as the best at getting weapons and dangerous criminals off of the streets – cop haters knew they were frauds, because of the way these guys terrorized Black communities for generations. It's all perspective solely based on your color and zip code. Jon Bernthal star of "The Walking Dead," "King Richard," and "The Punisher" plays Wayne Jenkins, the golden boy of the Baltimore City Police Department. 
 
Jenkins had sappy dreams of being a square police officer at the beginning of his career but realized stealing from Black people in oppressed areas was a lot more lucrative than what he brought home after two weeks of work. He also realized that if he made cases, he could quickly move up in rank, stash a whole lot of cash, still be considered a hero to cop lovers and have a pretty good life. Jenkins did this for years, collecting constant praise and privilege. He even received a bronze star from then-commissioner Kevin Davis for his efforts in helping out injured officers during the Freddie Gray unrest. The funny part is that the department was so proud of the way Jenkins brought encouragement, water and food to cops, aiding them during the protest – while during those same protests – he ran up inside of looted pharmacies and stole opioids to sell. One side saw him going above and beyond to help his fellow officers, as the other side saw him stealing. Both things can be true and we can't have a real conversation until we fully acknowledge that. 

Jenkins was sentenced to 25 years, back in 2018. However, there are still some people who believe that he is innocent, even though some of his crimes are caught on tape, even though a bunch of officers testified against him, even though he confessed to his crimes.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Jon Bernthal here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to hear more about playing Jenkins, how he addresses "The Wire" comparisons and what he learned working side-by-side with Baltimore City Police officers, many who knew Jenkins, to prepare for this complex role.
 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

My great friend, my brother, Jon Bernthal. How you doing, man?
Man, it's great to be here with you guys.

First I want to tell all our viewers that I worked on "We Own This City" too, as a writer. I covered the story for a long time and I wasn't even thinking about who would play these characters and who can pull it off. Then when Jon and I met, I was like, "That's the guy." How do you decide what role is for you?

There literally is not a day that goes by that I don't feel deep, deep gratitude and feel how blessed I am to be doing something that I love and being able to support my family from it. The way things were starting in my life, it did not really look like things were really working out, and I found this, I fell in love with it and I put everything towards it. I never, in a million years, thought I'd be in a place where I actually get to make choices. And that's the blessing of all blessings in this business.

For me, there's really nothing strategic as far as career stuff. I'm never saying, "Well, I've done some action stuff, so I need to do a rom-com, I need to be in this market or that." I just never have thought in those terms. For me, it really comes down to a few criteria. And that is if I read the words and something happens to me, if my heart is affected by it, I want to get in there. If it scares me, if it's something that I feel like I can't do, I want to run towards it. If I get to work with people that I really respect and admire, and I'm just chomping at the bit to get in the box with them, then I run towards it.

"It's just a bunch of flag-waving and agenda-driven sort of spoon-fed information."

To be honest with you, with this project in particular, this checked every single box. It was working with heroes, working with people I deeply respect and wanted to get in the box with. And it also covers issues that are enormously important to me, near and dear to my heart, things that I'm fascinated by, troubled by, has caused enormous amounts of pain in my life. And I felt like this was an opportunity to explore these issues and dive into the gray, dive into the wound, explore them with all the nuance that these issues deserve because so much of the discourse around these issues in this country right now is just being led by the polls. 

It's just a bunch of flag-waving and agenda-driven sort of spoon-fed information. I knew that this piece was going to be driven by journalistic integrity and trying to tell the truth and to not shy away from how complicated these issues are so this was a no-brainer.

I imagine it's difficult in these times to take a role as a police officer because you have one side that's pro-cop, you have another side that's anti-cop, and you have to be able to walk that line and find that balance and do something that's complex and nuanced.

I think if you're going to do it this is the group of people to do it with. This is the city to do it in, with these people. I really believe that we told this story with the city of Baltimore, for the city of Baltimore and by the city of Baltimore. I feel like there was such reverence and respect to the folks that this story was about, to the victims, but also to the BPD and the good folks that still are on that job. And I got to, it's my job.

This was one of the things you and I first connected to, with your writing. I feel like you write with empathy. I feel like your description and your dive into Danny in your piece, you went above and beyond and out of your way to get to know who he was, to get to know his pain, to look at him as a human being, not just as this archetype or this, you looked at his flaws, but you didn't judge him. You question your own judgment. I have so much respect for that as an artist. That's what I had to do.

RELATED: Thanksgiving and "The Wire": My true Baltimore story about the streets, writing and TV

You play Wayne Jenkins, an ambitious supercop. He was the cop's cop, right? He was the guy they looked up to and then he goes on this dark spiral. Let's start at you trying to figure out how to portray that. Walk us through your research process, because I heard you mention Donny Step, who was his best friend.

My first conversation with David Simon, he said, "We can't just make him a monster," and everybody, from Donny Step, who he used to sell drugs with, to other officers from GTTF, to the gentleman he used to coach youth football with, I got to know everybody in his life, as many people as I could, and to a person, every single person said he was a committed father.

He put his kids above everything else. And for me, that's something I can really relate to. I'm a father before I'm anything else. I needed a hook into this character, to something that I could relate to and kind of believe in, and I feel like there is this crux, this conflict that I believe exists in all of us. How could you be that committed your children, but yet engage in this kind of activity that is going to eventually, and ultimately separate you from them for most likely the rest of your life? That pressure and that conflict was something that was with Wayne at all times. And through all the stories and all the footage and everything I saw, I always saw that conflict present in him.

He coached football too, right?

He coached youth football. He coached his sons and he was extraordinarily passionate with it. He fought MMA. Look, I think there's nobody better than David and George in terms of their track record, being able to explore systematic, systemic issues and how they affect the individual.

Absolutely.

"We can't just make him a monster."

Policies go down and they tear up people's lives. To do it on both this sort of macro level, but then to get down to the nitty-gritty and how lives are destroyed because of these policy decisions. So I think it examines kind of the culture of policing, what's so present, especially in that department. I think to find, to track his journey through, I think it's really important to dig in to his life as much as possible.

You were everywhere.

Everywhere around that city, Middle River and then I was doing three months of ride-alongs in really every district. A lot of those plain-clothed flex unit squads have been disbanded, but a lot of the guys from the Gun Trace Task Force, they're still working. A lot of their careers have been completely upended because of their proximity to Wayne. There's a few guys in particular – Tony Maggio and Sergeant Nagavich and Keith Galliano – guys that I got to know really, really well, who still police in that sort of similar way. 

They're all guys that are from the community. They grew up in the community. I believe they're policing for the right reasons, but they still police. They still, in their terms, police aggressively. I really wanted to understand what that meant. I think when you police aggressively, you lead to a lot of fourth amendment violations, period. It's like, if you're out there, you're not waiting for the crime to happen. You're going there and you're trying to take the fight to the criminals. Just the idea of that, it's an us versus them mentality, which oftentimes is a fertile field for tragedy and trauma. And unfortunately, in Wayne's case, it was a fertile field for corruption.

That's the most difficult part of the conversation is everybody wants one thing. You just talked about how good of a father this guy was. You can be a great father and you can do all those other things, too. Both things are true. We have to tell the whole story.

Absolutely. You can try to police in a certain way. Your intentions could be good, but what you do in that process could be f**ked up for somebody else. Right?

Destroy people's lives.

You brought up George Pelecanos and David Simon, the creators of the show. They are the two people who have the power and the patience and the love and the research ability to tell this story. You worked with them before on "Show Me A Hero. "

Yes, sir.

RELATED: "Democracy is never perfected": David Simon on his new HBO series and the 2020 "s**tshow" election

What makes a David and George project special?

Look, George Pelecanos, his relationship to the city of Baltimore, to that Baltimore-based crew that he's been with now for over 20 years, it's the same crew from "The Wire." Kids that grew up on that show were coming back and playing young men. He knows people's family members. He knows intimate details. It's clear people eat together. They stayed in contact. 

This entire piece, again, was made with reverence for the sensitivity and the vitality of the story. As you know, man, Wayne Jenkins, that's a household name in Baltimore. That first night you and me hung out, we were just asking people, saying, "Hey, man. You know Wayne Jenkins?" People know who he was. That story is alive on the streets. You walk around on those streets with that name tag, that W. Jenkins, you meet people who were victims of his. People have stories about him, everyone. 

Because it's those guys [Pelecanos and Simon] and because there's so much resonance of "The Wire" in that city, the only way I really know how to work or want to work was I needed to go into the BPD and I needed to be able to dive in. I needed to be able to get to know them. I needed to be able to, and honestly, if you're telling a story about one of the ugliest chapters of the Baltimore Police Department, it's really hard for them. You're playing one of the most vilified and vile characters that have ever been in that department and say, "Hey, I'm here for research." Why should they open up their arms to me? Why should they welcome me in?

Why did they do it?

Because of David and George and because of the respect that they had for telling the truth. I think you only get one go-round. Your reputation as a human being is just as important as your reputation as an artist. if what you do is you tell the truth, that's what you're trying to do, that's all you're trying to dig, I think that has real resonance with people. Keith Galliano, who was a protege of Wayne's and is an unbelievably wonderful cop, he's policing for the right reasons. He's enormously successful within the department. He watches "The Wire." He says he re-watches it every single year to remember you cannot take things personally on the street. You got to divorce that. When someone's running from you, they're not running from you, they're running from the badge.

The lessons that were imparted in that story have deep resonance within that department. The police officers that I really responded to were the ones that really looked at the police's responsibility to look at the mistakes they've made and accepting them and call them mistakes because there's so much pressure to just deny culpability at all costs. And you're never going to move on from that. And I think, it's what I say to my kids all the time. When you have a problem, if you want to fix it, the first and most vital step is realizing you have a problem. And I think one of the most, one of the best things that we can do as artists is show a mirror to society and show society, "Hey, this is a problem. We're showing it for all its nuance and all its detail." And I think once you see it, and you can understand it, you can start really trying to figure out ways to fix it and understand its complexities.

"Keith Galliano ...  re-watches 'The Wire' every single year to remember you cannot take things personally on the street."

 

Some of those police officers you mentioned got a chance to participate in the show. A lot of people who were victims of the Gun Trace Task Force also got a chance to participate in the show, in front of the camera and behind the camera, for both sides.

Yes, sir.

That is something that should be talked about because you're telling the story and trying to honor the victims. It's that kind of truth that scares people and it is a beautiful thing. This show is a vehicle and a mechanism that can unite.

It's cathartic, it's therapeutic. I do really believe in the power of art in that way. It's something that I hold near and dear to my life. I feel like my life was saved by art and finding this. And the fact that people could sit down and make this piece of art when it was so unbelievably personal to them, it changes the air that we breathed on set. The vitality — it's exactly how I like to work. I'm so grateful for that. I'm so grateful, when somebody opens up and somebody's willing to tell you their story, let alone come and then participate in the telling of it, that's sacred.

I feel 100% confident that we honored that and that we treated the city of Baltimore and the folks that this story's about, and the people that came in to come participate with us, we treated it with the right reverence, and that's really the culture of how George and David and that team, that's how they work. And so I'm grateful for that.

This year alone there have been several television shows where actors were tasked with playing living people who have done some terrible things. Do you feel like your position as an actor changes after playing something like this? Do you see it in a different way?

"My heart has been completely broken as we have more and more examples of people who have suffered at the hands of corrupt police."

I don't really think about position as an actor, that hasn't really crossed my mind. Look, more than anything else it's, I'm not trying to be political with it, but it's gratitude. As you know, these are issues that have deeply affected my life and I really care about, and I feel like I was able to have kind of a front row ticket to so much of this and to really understand and get into the city of Baltimore, to meet so many wonderful people, to have people share their stories with me. Look, Wayne, I talked to Wayne and we communicated from prison. I got to know and ride out with so many of the people whose lives he affected.

My heart has been completely broken as we have more and more examples of people who have suffered at the hands of corrupt police and weak police and cowardly police who have engaged in brutality, and people's fourth amendment rights that have been violated. My heart breaks for those folks. The one thing I really learned on this project, in spending so much time with this department itself was this whole other set of victims that I really didn't have any access to, and that is good police, people who are policing for the right reasons. They are less safe. Their careers are upended. Their daily lives are affected by, also by the actions of these corrupt police. And that's a whole other group of victims that I didn't really know about.

Are you worrying about the 20 million "Wire" comparisons?

I did "The Sopranos" movie and now this. I don't think about those terms. For me, I felt about it in the day to day, tactical, being there every day. I was walking onto a set with you and with George and with David and Nina and Miss Debbie and these folks that have that created, in my opinion, the greatest show of all time. That's a family, and they opened their arms to me and they welcomed me in. I knew I was in someone else's house the entire time and I just wanted to come in there with respect.

The Wayne that I think that I portrayed, he kind of does his own thing, but I knew to commit to that fully, that was my way of honoring the city and honestly honoring the victims, to go full out.

And I just want to say, Ray Green, Reinaldo Marcus Green we had come off "King Richard" together. He's my brother. He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for that film and what he was able to accomplish there. I would walk anywhere with that man. For me, to take on something like this, knowing we were going into it together, it filled me with so much confidence just knowing I had this support system. I think he's one of the best filmmakers in the world, and honestly of all times, so to know that I had him there with, getting my back and by my side, that filled me with gratitude and confidence.

"We Own This City" premieres Monday, April 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO and streams on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

Watch more "Salon Talks" episodes with D. Watkins :


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW dwatkinsworld


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hbo Jon Bernthal Salon Talks Tv We Own This City