Pernell Walker Thinks We All Should Have a Little Thunder in Us
By Olivia Armstrong
The actor behind fan favorite Thunderthighs, whose real name — Ruby — is revealed to us in a heartbreaking flash, reveals how she found out about Thunder’s fate, the care that went into crafting her personality and why we should all take a note from her character’s book.
HBO: How did you come across the role of Thunderthighs, aka “Ruby?”
Pernell Walker: I had an appointment through my agent, manager and the amazing casting director, Alexa Fogel, who was in charge of the appointment. I knew I physically fit the role, and I thought it was a really great project. I’m a student of David Simon’s and George Pelecanos’ style of storytelling through being addicted to The Wire all of those years. I was excited to go in in my hot pants, show what my Momma gave me and just embody the character.
HBO: What were your thoughts when you first read the script?
Pernell Walker: I thought it was very specific and well-written. It’s not an exploitative porn story. From the start, it felt like a safe space. I liked how Thunderthighs was described and loved learning the details about how they named her. Lisa Lutz and the other female writers asked if Thunderthighs could have a name. They said her story was true — what happened in the finale really happened to this woman — but they didn’t know her name, and wanted to create one for her. It’s telling of the humanity they give these characters — that they took the time to name her Ruby.
I was listening to an interview David Simon on NPR and he explained the importance of women being in the writing room, especially on this kind of project, so it doesn’t seem like a boy’s club telling of porn. You’re dealing with women’s bodies and sexuality, so I really appreciate they had the foresight to balance it out and have women behind the camera.
HBO: Did knowing your character was based on a real woman change the course of your research in any way?
Pernell Walker: From what the writers gave me, I knew she was most likely in her thirties, in the business of sex work for a long time — assuming at least fifteen years, but they don’t specifically say. It feels that way, given her experience level and the thick skin she’s developed. Being a heavier woman, she has to have even more confidence to go out and find people who are into bigger girls and big, black women. For my own use, I assumed that Ruby came to New York in the ‘60s. I base this on my mom. A lot of women in my family, and other families from down south, were part of this great migration north back then.
Now, her attitude and opinions? They wrote those in! She actually reminds me a lot of my aunt who passed away — who didn’t have a conventional station in life. She was very tough and observant, but was more nomadic. Her life was not smoothe. For a lot of black southern women in my family, there is this boldness and audacity to exist and this sense of If I exist in this realm, I will own my space and body in a way that I won’t be ashamed or have any qualms about it. For this, I love Thunder. She wasn’t just a sassy, black female character. She had an opinion.
HBO: When did you first find out about Thunder’s fate?
Pernell Walker: Oh man, I got a phone call from George Pelecanos and could tell right away something was wrong. It felt like he was giving a eulogy. I could tell he loves that character, so it sounded like a funeral for both of us. After he told me, I was a little shocked, but then I thought, if she’s going to go out, this is the way to do it — and have Michelle MacLaren film it, since she’s the badass queen of directing episodes where characters get killed off. I was just really grateful because I started off with only two scenes in the pilot and wound up being in seven out of eight episodes. I didn’t know what was going to come of this.
HBO: Can we talk about that last scene?
Pernell Walker: That john, who says some racially-charged things in the end, really goes in on his white privilege. He takes what he wants and leaves her with nothing and insults her, expecting her to take it — but Thunder doesn’t take it. And we see how that ends. It was very emotional on set for everyone that day. Though I was amazed by how it was shot and by the stuntwoman. I also thought Candy wearing Thunder’s leopard print jacket at the end was a nice touch. Nina Noble has one of her own, too.
HBO: What do you hope audiences will take away from Ruby’s journey?
Pernell Walker: There are layers to her story we didn’t necessarily expose that come through in her actions, and how she tries to mentor and connect with people on a human level. They should learn to be comfortable in themselves — and whatever they have to go through, go through it with confidence. And have some swagger. With Thunder it was this sense of, Yeah, I know my white panties are hanging out of my damn shorts. But we’re going to make this work.
Every episode of The Deuce is available on HBO.