The Deuce premiered Sunday, sliding into the new HBO weekly rotation with an impressive cadre of creators and co-conspirators. It’s a period drama on HBO—arguably the second helmed by David Simon for the channel, after 2015’s Show Me A Hero—with a fearless gaze fixed on the kickoff years of pornographic video, and its birthplace in New York City’s hustling Times Square in the 70s.
A luxuriantly detailed but often ugly story about a very ugly time and place, appreciating The Deuce’s visual splendor might depend on one’s predilection for the smudgy glow of neon-bathed slums and side-streets, for the unpolished corners of the New York City experiment. For me, it presents an endless bounty, down to the diegetic era-relevant music, something I would consider to be a Simon hallmark by this point. Snatches of songs rattle dashboards in 70s caddies, purr out of bar speakers, or tingle out of tobacco-stained sleaze shops.
Vincent Martino is a WYSIWYG New Yorker who often self-describes as “just a dumb guinea from Brooklyn.” Earnest and loyal but not without his own set of mysteries, he’s the straighter-laced, professionally responsible counterpart to his predictably problematic twin brother Frankie, with both roles played with amplified gusto by James Franco. Joining him on the show’s top marquee (though rarely on-screen beside him) is Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose portrayal of independently pimp-less sex worker Candy is an inspired tour de force. Where Franco is given ample room to magnanimously strut for the camera as the twins, the demands on Gyllenhaal’s single character are much more severe and meaty, and she meets every conceivable challenge. One of the interesting things about Candy is the considerable respect she garners from many of her street-level colleagues, and her closeups detail transformations that bend to each scene’s assortment of players; the character and the actress, both, are consummate performers (no pun intended).
With ensemble affairs, my inclination is to consider the lead actors as guides, who might then draw me to a particular perspective or sensibility. This is a fairly unreliable approach to The Deuce, or any production associated with Simon & his cohorts, including frequent collaborator but first-time showrunner George Pelecanos. The talent assembled by these creators expands significantly past the storied leads, including rappers Black Thought and Method Man, and emergent actress Dominique Fishback as Darlene; the latter delivers what might be my favorite performance in the show, and is a new name we should keep our eyes on.
What these creators have accomplished with The Deuce deftly circumvents every perceivable period piece pratfall, dismissing inclinations to kitsch or slobbery nostalgia and designing a multifaceted, knotty, but altogether compelling narrative that goes soup to nuts on porn’s origins.
We want to thank HBO for allowing BlackGirlNerds to spend some time with The Deuce’s amazingly talented crew.
Leonardo Faierman, BGN: What are your feelings on the show’s approach to sexuality? It seems like it avoids basic titillation in most cases.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I do love the audience having to walk that line. “Is this something that’s going to bend me? Or are they just trying to turn me on?”
I like it when we make the audience nervous for a second, because it always resolves into something really real, really complicated, really interesting and politically minded. Always! So, if you push on the other side for a minute and make people go “Oh shit! Oh no!” I’m secure that the car’s not going to turn over, ever.
It’s the same with The Honourable Woman, which is a show about Israel and Palestine. There would be moments on the show where it would almost shift a little bit more to one side or the other, and I wondered [what effect this had] because we were really trying to lay out an evenhanded story, or just lay out all the complications of a very fraught situation. I would wonder, “Oooooh, how are people who are steadfast in their position here feeling now?”
BGN: How do you react to and perceive the camera’s role in The Deuce? As in, the way it moves, and how you move within its reach?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: It doesn’t have so much to do with exactly where the camera is pointed, although I’m often aware of that aspect, and do feed off of it. How far or close, or if it’s on the side of my head.
As an aside: there was a movie I shot this summer where they did a lot of those slow 70s-style zoom-ins, and I would just always say to myself DO NOTHING DO NOTHING DO NOTHING! [laughs] You don’t want to have a quivering chin when it happens! That’s not what you want. And I think dealing with that does come with experience.
Pornography is so interesting, isn’t it? Of course, you can’t make a show about pornography and not have some huge element of it also be about misogyny and exploitation. At the same time, everybody is interested in pornography. Even if it’s something that makes some groups of people say “We hate this with everything we have, it’s the most disgusting thing in the world!” Because that’s a very strong feeling. I think watching sex, and sex in general, is compelling to most human beings. It ends up being both, right? It’s an exploration of sexuality, and it’s an exploration of misogyny.
So [the question is], how do you shoot that? You do your best, in every moment, to be honest with yourself about what feels really human. This becomes a constant conversation: “How do people have sex?” In some ways, what’s interesting about the show for Candy is this dichotomy.
At times, I kept open the possibility that [the sex work] was turning her on. I mean, if you’re really good at this job, are you sometimes turned on? Are you sometimes having a great night, and sometimes having the shit beaten out of you by someone who’s insane? What are the possibilities? I just allowed any possibility to be there, although I found, for me, the transactional “Hi nice to meet you, let’s go do the sex scene” with someone you never met before…I never found that particularly sexy or all that interesting to be honest.
BGN: How did you prepare for your character? Was there any instruction given to you, and how many Iceberg Slim books did you read in preparation for this role?
Gary Carr: Quite a lot! What has been effective was meeting some real life pimps, one-on-one direct. Like with any role, I love doing the research and going gung-ho about it. I like documentaries, but I also always like to research outside of the topic itself, and more of the world [around it]. The people are who I’m interested in. It’s kind of the wrong thing to say that I “get off” on that, right? [laughs]
That, to me, is what really builds that character [of C.C.], rather than me just going to play a pimp. I want to play a guy who is in this situation, and he has these girls, but he’s a professional, he has a job. I read a lot of books, watched a lot of documentaries, about life in the United States for an African-American man as well. [Gary is an actor from London, by the way -Ed.]
BGN: Do you consider C.C. a pure predator?
Gary Carr: Going in to play a character like this, I never think to myself “Oh he’s just a bad guy.” Doing a lot of the research, I found that a lot of these people have experienced neglect, are really misguided, have sort of been rejected by the world. So the way they behave and act is a result of that. I try to not judge C.C. on that alone. This is the world he knows, and one that he was introduced to at a young age. So it’s a response. I think everyone has the ability to be redeemed…at least, I want to say that, which is kind of a loving answer.
BGN: In all of your roles, I want to say that you’re never quite typecast. There’s been a lot of diversity in the characters you’ve played.
Lawrence Gilliard Jr: I try to do different things. That’s what we want to do, as actors, to dig into as many things as we can. And I feel fortunate and blessed that I can, and that people don’t [typecast me]. Some can, but for the most part I’ve been able to play doctors, cops, drug dealers, lawyers, etc.
BGN: What’s been your previous relationship to New York, in advance of The Deuce?
George Pelecanos: For me it’s through the movies, through 70s film. I was a teenager and I was into, you know, The French Connection, Mean Streets. I never went anywhere when I was a kid, because my dad had a Greek diner and he never closed it. So I never got to travel, and [movies] were my window into a bigger world. I always wanted to make a movie like those movies.
It wasn’t until I published my first novel in the early 90s that I started coming to New York regularly, because the publishing business is here.
BGN: So you dodged the Times Square that we’re talking about here, completely?
George Pelecanos: Completely. All I know is this shitty one that we’ve got now. I’ll do anything these days to avoid it.
BGN: I’ve noticed that in The Deuce there is much less of a constant focus on murder or threat of death, in the story, than I might’ve expected.
George Pelecanos: That’s accurate. It’s not the drug game, but it’s still about money, about territory. You’ll see as we go forward in the show that there’s going to be a lot more of that.
BGN: Did members of the cast receive required reading, like Iceberg Slim books? Was anyone given instructions to watch a certain movie or read a certain book?
Lawrence Gilliard Jr.: I did read some Slim, watched some 70s films, and listened to a lot of 70s music. I read a lot on the internet about things happening at the time in the police department, and I watched some cop shows. They let the actors find the characters on their own, and we’re all together, and we usually just go to anyone with questions.
George Pelecanos: We had consultants, too. We had a police officer who was there, for all of Lawrence’s scenes, and he could always ask him anything. He was a cop in the 70s and 80s. There was little stuff, like “Do you wear your hat during roll call?” That kind of thing is hard for us to find the answers to, so having a police officer give you that answer in the moment is really helpful.
BGN: The Deuce is a show with really fine details, and I want to say that there is more of a focus on poignant visual details than in something like The Wire.
George Pelecanos: We were more attuned to it because we’re doing a period show. With The Wire—and this is going to sound flip, maybe—we just turned the camera on. If somebody, like a Baltimorian walked out of their house in the background? We kept that in there. But there couldn’t be any bogeys like that in this. It’s hard to do a period show, especially in New York, where Times Square doesn’t exist anymore.
BGN: Do you think, as a period piece, that the show communicates something important about our present or future that you’re looking to highlight?
George Pelecanos: The theme of misogyny, which is a big theme of the show, and gender relations and things like that…what’s happening now is probably a direct result of 50 years of porn into the consciousness. When I was a kid, pornography for me was finding Playboy in my dad’s drawer; and that was just basically looking at breasts. Now, that same kid opens a laptop and sees women getting f**ked, sees all kinds of violent images. It can’t help but permeate the consciousness. And now you have a candidate talking about grabbing a woman’s pussy and he still gets elected.
Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.: You can see a billboard now while driving your car and see breasts!
George: It’s all relevant, we all have kids.
BGN: Do you think porn can empower, or do you see any positive potentials within porn?
Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.: I’m sure it’s positive for somebody.
George Pelecanos: It’s a job, it employs people.
Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.: It’s a lot of money. Hopefully some of that money is going towards good stuff, helping people rise above their station.
George Pelecanos: Hopefully.
We’re all for freedom of speech, but the reality is: you look at porn today, for example, and a lot of the women in porn started out in prostitution. They came up from the same trail that guns and drugs come up from, in South America and Central America, and are working off the debt they incurred coming to this country. It’s hard to find a golden nugget anywhere in there.
BGN: How did your involvement in this project begin?
James Franco: I originally met David three and a half years ago, when I was doing Of Mice And Men on Broadway. We were talking about a different project that, ultimately, I couldn’t do, but I remember telling him that I’m such a huge fan of The Wire, and wondered if there was anything else that he might have for me? He said “Well, coming down the pipeline, I have this thing about New York in the 70s, 42nd Street.”[Sidenote:] I like to say that David’s porn is “exposing political corruption.”
David Simon: By the way, it takes me a really long time to jerk off. At least 8-10 episodes.
James Franco: Nowadays, he’s got sex addiction! [laughs]
So, anyway, he’s like, “It’s about the rise of the porn industry. But everyone is going to be expecting some stylized, gratuitous, sexy kind of thing. I’m not going to give it to them.” So I kinda thought, in the back of my head: one of the things that I love the most about David Simon’s shows, is that they show all sides of an issue. The revolutionary structuring thing of The Wire is that it’s not just about the detectives. They show all sides.
Long story short: I read this book called Difficult Men that maybe has some weird inaccurate facts about personal lives, but what I really loved about that book is the way that it broke down long-form storytelling. I had, up to that point, done mostly film, and I really loved this idea of fewer episodes in a season, which would enable you to shape the arc of a whole show. More money could be spent on each episode, because there’s fewer of them, and that also, in particular, all the adult dramatic content that I loved from American film in the 70s had shit that could transfer to television. This was everything I dreamed about as a young actor.
BGN: Did he think, “Well, I’ve seen your moustache before, so I think you could pull this off?”
James Franco: We didn’t know about the moustache! It was untested. [laughs]
David Simon: We hadn’t seen the porn-stache yet.
BGN: Do you think of the show as being totally unromantic?
David Simon: I think the only place where we tried to make the sex, filmically, romantic in any way, is when it wasn’t a transaction. There are a few moments where there are two people being genuine with each other, and we granted that all the attention it requires. For everything else, the camera needs to be blunt, and not slip into gratuity, and at the same time not be elusive. You can’t be coy about what pornography or prostitution is. You have to be blunt.
James Franco: I’m going to take a little tiny bit of credit: we had discussions after we did the pilot, and after we got picked up and were back. I remember having conversations with David and George about whether we needed more sex scenes. The danger on the other side of not being too gratuitous is that it becomes a fairy tale. You don’t feel the impact of what these women go through on a nightly basis.
David Simon: Being with 8-10 men a night? We needed to be direct. But you really are trying to stay on the fence, more than any project I’d ever been on. We were discussing scenes on-set in preparation, and in the editing on a shot-by-shot basis. You had to think about where you were landing, since either side was so fraught. The middle was the place where the piece could live, if you’re not being prurient. If you f**ked up in either direction, shame on you.
BGN: Do you think pornography be potentially empowering, or has any positive aspects?
David Simon: I come out of journalism, so I’m a First Amendment guy first and foremost. I don’t see a legislative or judicial solution here. But I think, for the most part, whatever pornography became has coarsened us, as a society, and I don’t think it’s done a world of good. Has it been empowering for certain people? It’s certainly been profitable for a select certain number of them. Has it been empowering for some of the people engaged in it? Well, we met with a lot of the so-called “survivors.” Now, that’s weighted, because these are the survivors standing up 35 years later like, “Yeah, I’m one of the pioneers in porn.” So we have some of the narratives of those people who did it and came out the other end. But there’s also a lot of attrition and a lot of casualties, probably moreso than a normative profession.
I don’t think anybody can pass judgment on it by citing the anecdotal, that’s probably a bad way to proceed. I think the better way is to look at it and say, we did a piece that is not particularly obsessed with explaining whether or not pornography or prostitution is moral, immoral, good, or bad…I’m much less interested in that, than: “Where does the money go? What happened to the people?” That’s way more interesting to me. In the same way that The Wire wasn’t concerned with whether drugs are good or bad. For the most part, illicit drugs are bad; let’s leave morality aside and talk about the structure here, of what it’s done to the American city.
James Franco: Rashida Jones produced a documentary that came out at Sundance a few years ago called Hot Girls Wanted, but the main critique in that is that this is an unrestricted business. These women have no union, and they are unprotected. One thing that our show exposes is unrestricted capitalism, and how you tend to see very few people coming out on top, with the rest of the people left under the bus.
David Simon: It’s always weighted. If you’re talking to someone who did porn in the 70s, and they’re standing up and talking to you about their experiences, that’s a resilient person, regardless. They probably handled it, and acquired whatever empowerment they did, maybe not because the industry is so benign, but because that’s who they were.
BGN: While I find a lot of it unromantic, there is a sense of romanticism/nostalgia for Times Square, and the show is very visual. Are these aspects that you write into your scripts? I know that, typically speaking, you’re a writer, first.
David Simon: You gotta leave room for the art department, you gotta leave room for the director, all the various constructs. When I wrote my first script, I remember putting all kinds of camera moves in there and describing people’s wardrobes down to a T. Tom Fontana, on Homicide, took me aside, and said “Okay, you’ve basically just insulted all the professionals working on this show.” Less of that is more, even down to the parentheticals before a line read. Sometimes a line is truly sarcastic and you need to make it clear, with “sarcasm” or the word “laughter.” Sometimes, though, an actor will come up to me like “What, you think I’m no f**king good? Like I can’t read a script?”
Tom Fontana is the guy who mentored me, he’s the guy who taught me how to do this. He once said to me “The most fun you’re ever going to have is being a story editor; you have authority but no responsibility. But…you’re going to have to be a producer.”
I said “Why, if I’m having fun now?”
He said “Because you’re going to eventually want to protect the writer.”
So you need to show up on set, but you have to be open for those moments when you’ve written yourself into a corner, where you haven’t thought about something, and in the course of the blocking or the prep or the actor reading his lines for the fifth time, someone comes up with the f**kup or the hole or the disaster, and says “What if we try this, or do this?” You have to be open to the transitional change, because it’s film-making. It’s a collective. You can’t treat the script like an urtext, but neither can you treat it like a jumping-off point.
James Franco: The great thing that I experienced on this—and it happens in movies, but they’re not really long enough for it to work in the way that television works—is how David will go in with like only three episodes written on purpose. Because it is a growing organism. Everything influences that, the personalities of the actor, coming up with things as you go along, seeing how things play out off of the page, all of those things develop. The writers, then, feed off of that, and learn.
David Simon: We’re watching the dailies like “More of that will work, less of this.”
James Franco: To go in with everything calcified and set in stone? That’s also death.
THE DEUCE was created by David Simon and George Pelecanos; executive producers, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Nina K. Noble, James Franco; co-executive producer, Richard Price; producers, Marc Henry Johnson, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The series airs on Sundays at 9pm EST, and will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.
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Leonardo Faierman is the senior film editor at Black Girl Nerds. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, Bar Mitzvah'd at Young Israel, buried under student loans. He writes video game, music, film, and movie reviews, as well as poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. He's 1/5th of the comics podcast #BlackComicsChat and 1/2 of horror film podcast The Scream Squad.