Actor James Ransone, the Baltimore native best-known for his portrayal of tweaked-out stevedore Ziggy Sobotka on season two of HBO's "The Wire," now stars in another project from the creative team of David Simon and Ed Burns.
Ransone, 29, plays Marine Cpl. Ray Person in HBO's "Generation Kill" (9 p.m. Sundays), a seven-part miniseries based on the nonfiction book by reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Ransone talked recently to The N&O about his experience in Africa during the shoot last year, and his feelings about the Marines and the war.
Q: How are you doing today, James?
A. Good. A little bit out of breath. I just got done at the gym.
Q. Are you trying to stay in shape after that tough boot-camp preparation for the show?
A. Oh, dude. The craziest thing is like, I'm maybe even 20 pounds heavier than the first episode. It was really [expletive] up. Like, I've never worked out a day in my life. And I got to Namibia, and they put us through the boot camp, and it was a [expletive] total nightmare. I was like, well, I'm playing a Recon Marine, and I look nothing like a Recon Marine. My natural body is really, really slight. And then, so, for about a month I was working out and eating. And all of a sudden, I just felt so awesome that I l kept going.
Q. What was boot camp like?
A. it was not as much physical stuff. It was a crash course in military history and vernacular, and how Marines, tactically, how we'd do stuff. It was about two or three hours of working out a day, and then a lot of book studying and weapons training, radio training. We went through what you would go through in the Marines in the course of a week and a half.
Q. There wasn't somebody standing over you and screaming insults?
A. Oh, no, no. Rudy did most of the physical training, and he's really good. (NOTE: Sgt. Rudy Reyes, who was written about in the book, plays himself in the miniseries.) He's like, a less-gay Gene Simmons. Or, more gay, actually. `Cause he's more, like, Chelsea gym-queen gay.
Q. So, all that back-and-forth "boy-banter" in the script rubbed off on you guys. I guess.
A. I think most of the reason for the boot camp is so that we could all start to get along as a group and share some of the stress. And then when you start to shoot together, I think it makes the performances flow a little bit easier, because you have a shared experience and a reference point. It's the basis of a relationship. as opposed to throwing as bunch of strangers together.
Q. By the way, I really loved you as Ziggy on "The Wire."
A. Oh, thanks. I'm like, so happy to be doing this with David. Because, the thing about having the built-in audience of 'The Wire, — I'm finally happy to put the Ziggy character to bed, you know what I mean? It's flattering when people are like, 'Hey Ziggy!' But I'm like, 'Dude, that was, like six years ago.'
Q. Did you ever meet Cpl. Josh Ray Person, the character you play in 'Generation Kill'?
A. I never met with Josh. Josh and I talked, and still talk today. I really like him. I get along really well with a lot of the Marines who are military advisers. They actually became really good friends with me. But I sort of made a point not to talk to Josh until after we started filming. It was too big of a head trip, just because of the size of the part. I didn't know, when I was coming to Africa, that my part was going to be as big as it was. When I got there, there was actually some significant revamping that I did with that character. I kind of, originally, was playing him a little more white trash, a little bit more southern.
Q. What made you alter your portrayal?
A. Just being around the other Marines. And realizing, for their sense of humor and stuff, they're actually really, really smart. And [the show's military adviser] Eric Kocher sort of telling me stories about Josh. I was starting to get a different feel for him altogether. I think actors have a tendency, when they're playing soldiers, to have this like Southern accent. Actors live in coastal cities, where it's like (pompous voice) 'Oh, I would never join the Marines, and I'm a thespian. If I was a soldier — (hick voice) Well, I got mah chaw!' That's so [expletive] far off base.
Q. You probably never met Pinkie Bannion, the real-life inspiration for Ziggy either, did you?
A. Well, he died. I do know a guy who used to buy drugs off of Pinkie Bannion. I met a guy who used to buy heroin from Pinkie, who was a stevedore. I met him when i was in Baltimore. I met him out one night. This was a couple of years after [season two].
Q. How did reading 'Generation Kill' affect your perception of the Iraq War?
A. My perception of the Iraq War has not changed. But I think, for most people who say, 'I support our troops, but I do not support this war,' it's a very, like, 'I've got a black friend' thing to say. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people I know in more liberal cities don't really come into contact with veterans of this war. And it totally changed my perception of the modern soldier. I still don't support the reason why we're over there — not for any greater cause. I think I'm really pragmatic about it. Our economy's so [expletive] up. Our education system's so [expletive] up. I'd rather be fixing [expletive] here than trying to fix it somewhere else. But as far as the soldiers that I came into contact with, I [expletive] love those dudes. They're like the funniest, sweetest — I don't know. man. They've really, really lived, to a certain extent. There's no real rites of passage into adulthood in American society. And there's no initiation into manhood. And I feel like a lot of these guys, in some form of another, got that through being in the service. You just come off respecting them.
Q. A lot has been written about the failure of depictions of the Iraq War in films and on television.
A. And it's understandable. I think they're written by people who — I don't know if they have a political agenda, as much as they have a very highbrow view about this war and what it does to soldiers. The tendency is to either make them monsters, or pity them. And that is without nuance at all. An audience can read into that really, really quickly. And I think the difference with this series is that, here's a bunch of real guys. We're not talking about the politics. This is stuff that happened. Let's just tell their story, and it doesn't have to be any deeper than that.