Sonja Sohn Looks Back on 'The Wire' and Talks About Diversity in Hollywood

by Dino-Ray Ramos 11:45 AM PDT, June 03, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

It's been 13 years since the first episode of The Wire aired on HBO and changed the landscape of storytelling on television and served up a world of characters that no one has ever seen before. It not only blurred the lines between bad guys and good guys, but it gave us an all-too-real portrayal of the drug world from many different perspectives that intertwined with each other with such complexity and intrigue. The show, which can currently be found in its entirety on Blu-ray for the first time, has become a staple in pop culture -- and Sonja Sohn was in the thick of it all.

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Sohn played Detective Kima Greggs, the only female in a group of detectives in the Baltimore drug scene. Her character was, at the time, one of the few strong female characters on television that got her hands dirty, if not dirtier, than her male counterparts.

ETonline had the opportunity to interview Sohn about the impact The Wire had on television, what she misses most about her character and what she thinks about the current state of ethnic diversity in Hollywood. 

ETonline: Were you surprised about the reception that The Wire received when it came out and how it still has a strong following today?

Sonja Sohn: I guess in one respect I am surprised. In another respect I'm not. Being a part of the show, we all were very conscious of the importance of the stories that we were telling. There was a point when I was questioning whether or not we were perpetrating a stereotypical image. Very quickly, within a few episodes, I saw that the depiction of the type of behavior -- let's say the lifestyle in black urban communities -- was actually a deeper depiction that showed the reality of those lives from many different vantage points which made the show all that more important. It made the depiction of what could first be perceived as stereotypical images much more important because it's something that could resonate with anybody who watched the shows.

What was it about the show that you think resonated with people all these years?

The stories were not typically about black urban life or the life of dysfunctional urban cities, but it was really about human stories -- life and death-type stories. I personally am not surprised that it has resonated so long. When you look at the evidence while the show was on air, it wasn't heavily viewed. It never won any awards. That's the kind of show that you don't think will have such a lasting legacy. There wasn't a show in history that didn't have the viewership or awards that resonated with humanity and had a long life. I think The Wire was one of the first ones. That and Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights.

If The Wire was being made today, how do you think it would be different?

Honestly, I don't think it would be any different. I'd love to say that we live in a post-Wire era, but we don't. For instance, the things that happened in Baltimore a month ago, I feel like The Wire lit the match on that. It exposed that there was trouble in the waters -- and not trouble that the people in these urban environments aren't used to. This is a legacy of sorts of slavery, white oppression, institutional racism, and structural racism. This has been ongoing. The Wire put a light on those issues. To me it was a pebble in the pond that continues to resonate today, not only in Baltimore, but throughout the country.

It did seem that there were times when the show just got too real.

There were people who wouldn't look at The Wire because it was just too painful to look at. I don't want to look at that. Some people were like, "I lived that. I don't want to see it on TV." It's now lighting a fire on your doorstep. It's like a Molotov cocktail in your living room every night. You can't escape it. 

It seems that despite the technology, the show is, for the most part, very timely.

Yeah, you point out the only way that I think it would be different. The technology is very different. Technology was going to be different anyway, with or without The Wire, but I think that technology on the street and the way the police handled drug crime changed drastically because of The Wire. I think that the street game changed drastically because of the technical revelations that were shown in the show.

Photo: HBO

What do you miss most about playing Kima?

That's a really good question. The first thing that comes to mind is just having a job with a group of people that you feel incredibly bound to on a deep soul level. To be a part of a project that you feel is bigger than you and your little career. To be a part of a project that makes you as an actor, and your work, and your career, feel small. To have a job that fulfills me in a way that's healthy. That's the reason why I'm an actor, is for a bigger reason. That's kind of the biggest thing I missed. There were so many stories that were always being told [on the show]. You wouldn't say that Kima's storyline was one of the premiere storylines like Omar or Stringer. Kima was sort of the heart (of the show). David (Simon) once said to me that she was the moral compass of the police department. I feel that in a sense she served as the moral compass of the show. If there's something I miss about playing Kima, it's I miss playing a character who had principles, yet still had conflicts within her, within her whole relationship within the police department.

What was it about her that intrigued you?

It was a character that I was allowed to actually touch the many factors of her life. Oftentimes in TV, your character serves a storyline and there's only sort of so much room to dive into the deeper aspects of that character. You play what serves the larger story, but you don't play the full truth and totality of the character. I had the opportunity to do that with Kima.

If you could play any character other than Kima on The Wire who would you play?

I want to pick an unusual answer to be honest with you. Omar and Stringer are the easy answers. I mean I love Stringer's arc and Omar's story arc, but to me, the most unsung and the most fascinating character in the show was Brother Mouzone. He's the most mysterious character. His storyline to me was very, very unique. He had a perspective that I wish had been sort of mined a little more deeply.

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It seems that Hollywood is moving forward in terms of diversity. At the same time, there are moments when they are taking huge steps back. What do you think is the current state of diversity in Hollywood?

I think it's come a long way as a result of Empire, How to Get Away With Murder, and Scandal. The queen of diversity, Miss Shonda Rhimes -- she changed the game for African Americans, you know what I mean? I think that the rising population of Latinos in America is changing the game a bit. And I think Asians are sort of the last ones on board. There are also Native Americans -- but we don't even see their stories. Given that, there's a lot more room for growth in terms of diversity but I would be hard pressed to not say that for African Americans there's a light. There's definitely been some improvement, but there needs to be a lot more so that African Americans also don't have to tell simply African Americans stories and experiences. I think that it would be nice to see more African Americans in shows that are predominantly white.

I'm a mixed race person. Rarely, if ever, will I get a chance to play a mixed race person because of my skin color. I will have to play black. I'd like to see more sort of mixed race roles, where the fact that they are mixed race is woven into the character. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

The Wire: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray and is streaming in full on HBO Now.