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Interview with Michelle Paress

Michelle Paress interview

HBO

Playing Alma Gutierrez was your first big TV job  were you freaking out a little?

Paress

I've done theater and I've done independent film. So doing TV, the pace is just crazy. You get one rehearsal, and they're marking all your lines. And I'm like, "Wait a minute. I don't know if I want to actually put my elbow there, and I don't know if I actually want to stand this way." So it kind of freaked me out there, just having to think very fast and on my feet. You're moving on to the next scene, and you're like, "Holy shit, what happened?" So it was like a crash course in television acting for me.

HBO

The Wire creator David Simon is known for his very specific casting. Any idea how you ended up in this role?

Paress

Well they called me in to put myself on tape for Carcetti's secretary and the counselor for season four. Then they sent my tape to David and Nina [Noble, producer], and David offered me Alma Gutierrez, which was more than I was expecting. I was looking to just get some work on my reel and possibly get my SAG card. I guess he saw something in me that he wanted for Alma.

HBO

Did he ever give you any idea what it was that he liked so much?

Paress

No, he didn't, but I've spoken to my husband, Larry Gilliard, who played D'Angelo Barksdale in the first and second seasons, and he pretty much said that David likes to cast people if he sees something in that particular person. They have to have some sort of quality or essence that is the role. I think maybe that's what happened, but I don't know for sure.

HBO

Was your husband already on the show when you met?

Paress

We were already married with a daughter when Larry got The Wire. And then after they shot the pilot, I became pregnant with our son. So, Larry and I have been together for about 15 years.

HBO

What's your acting background like?

Paress

I've done some off-Broadway plays, off-off-Broadway. Some PSAs, commercials, some industrials and some independent films  but this is my first really big, big, huge gig.

HBO

How did you react when you got the call and found out that you went from hopefully playing somebody's secretary to landing a major role for the final season?

I wasn't expecting to get this role at all, and when I heard that I had gotten it and how big the role was...it was pretty amazing.

Paress

I didn't jump up and down and go "Oh my God!" and scream through the house. I think I was just really shocked at how it all played out. I wasn't expecting to get this role at all, and when I heard that I had gotten it and how big the role was ... It was pretty amazing. But it was just more internal for me, just the feelings and the struggle and how long I've been trying to get my foot in the door. So when it finally happened, there was a lot more going on inside than I was letting on outside.

HBO

How would you describe your character, Alma Gutierrez?

Paress

Our backgrounds are totally different. She grew up in a household with two sisters and one brother, and she is the youngest. I am the oldest. She grew up with her mom and her dad, both were professionals, and I grew up in a single-parent home. As far as being ambitious and knowing what we wanted from the start, we are similar in that way. But she's a bit more free than I am and just more of a light-hearted extrovert. She believes in doing the public a service as a reporter, and she is not willing to make up facts or any type of story to get ahead.

HBO

Have you had any experience with journalism, maybe in high school or college?

Paress

I have no experience with journalism. I have tried to write things in the past, but it's very hard. [CHUCKLES] Writing takes tons and tons of dedication and time, and you really have to want to get up in the morning and write stuff. And that's not me.

HBO

What kind of research did you do to familiarize yourself with the field?

Paress

I read up on a lot of things; I watched a lot of documentaries and movies on journalism. I met with the police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and he gave me tons and tons of information. I was able to sit in on a lot of their editorial meetings at the Sun, so I was able to get a little peek. It's nothing like it is in the movies, where you walk into a newsroom and everybody's screaming and yelling and running around with telephones going off the hook and craziness. Maybe I went on slow days.

HBO

Were you around for any breaking stories at the Sun?

Paress

Yes, actually. It was a really horrible story. A father killed the children and then committed suicide. It had just broken, and someone came in and told one of the editors. So we were sitting there listening, and it was pretty horrific. You could be talking about the weather, and then all of a sudden, someone comes in and tells you something like that. It was kind of, "Wow, this is what these people do." Anything can come through that door, so that stuck with me for a while.

HBO

Do you have a favorite newspaper?

Paress

I'm not a big newspaper person, because you watch the news and it's nothing but tragedy and sad shit. I don't believe everything I read, so I'm pretty selective as to what I'll pick up. Every now and then I'll pick up a New York Times. I'll pick up the Village Voice or the L.A. Times. Something that I know I'll possibly get the most truth out of. But for the most part, I really don't read a lot of the newspaper. I know that's so bad, but ... Life is hard enough without people just shoving extra negative things into your mind.

HBO

David Simon worked as a reporter at the Sun  did he give you any journalism pointers?

Paress

I did approach him a few times with some questions, and he answered them as best as he could. But for the most part, I got a lot of my information from Bill Zorzi, who played Bill Zorzi on the show. He was my go-to guy if I needed to clarify something. Bill is just a great guy. As far as correct pronunciation of certain words and newsroom jargon, he helped me out a lot.

HBO

Anything in particular?

Paress

Well, a contributing line is called a "contrib line," and I was saying "CON-trib" instead of "cun-trib." I was like, "Well what's the difference?" But they were very, very specific about my pronunciation.

HBO

The Wire is so popular in Baltimore, did you feel like a big star while you were living there and working on the show?

Paress

No. My husband is the star of the neighborhood. Larry grew up on a street where he has a lot of family that still live there on that same block. I was staying there with his family. They were excited, like, "Wow, that's great; that's awesome." But ...

HBO

"... but we've already got D'Angelo Barksdale right here."

Paress

Exactly.

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