Actor Josh Charles has been in some of the most memorable ensemble pieces throughout his three-decade career. Some might know the pop culture gem the 1991 comedy Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, which featured a 20-year-old Charles riding around in a clown car. There’s also the undeniable classic Dead Poets Society, featuring Charles as the boyish, hopeless romantic.
In the late 90s, viewers got to see Charles all grown up in the cult favorite, albeit ill-fated show, Sports Night as sportscaster Dan Rydell. Later, the actor was launched into a different stratosphere and exposed to a larger audience with the hit series The Good Wife. For five seasons, he played Julianna Margulies’ on-again-off-again love interest and colleague Will Gardner.
His latest ensemble piece is HBO’s limited series We Own This City, created by George Pelecanos and David Simon (of The Wire fame). Based on the book “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption” by reporter Justin Fenton, the show tells the story of the corruption and abuse of power embedded in the Baltimore gun task force post-murder of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Charles plays the anti-Will Gardner, real-life disgraced officer Daniel Hersl, whose brutal reputation exemplifies the top to bottom corruption of the Baltimore gun task force. Every step the actor takes as Hersl feels like a high-stakes moment, and it’s equally fascinating and jarring to see the ease with which Charles becomes Hersl. It’s a searing performance that showcases the actor’s expansive range.
For the Baltimore native, this story is personal, speaking passionately about it during our sit-down interview, noting that he followed the coverage during the early days of the Baltimore Sun’s reporting.
“This story is not one of the finest moments of the city. The murder rate is not decreasing, and it seems like no matter what’s thrown at it, it’s just not improving,” said Charles. “As painful as this was, I think it’s still a very important story. It’s tough medicine,” he continued.
Josh Charles sat down with AwardsWatch to talk about his career, and his unexpected turn in We Own This City.
Niki Cruz: You grew up in the industry. You’ve seen it all and been through it all. What informs your decision to take on a project?
Josh Charles: That’s a good question. I think the same things that sort of always lead you, which is just the story. Does it move you? Does it do something to your insides and make you go, “Yeah, I want to be a part of that”? For me, I’m looking for stories and working with people that I want to work with. I knew the story, and I wanted to work with David and George. It also gave me the opportunity to do something that people haven’t seen in my work, which is nice. It’s really important, as a pitcher — it’s all about changing speeds, right? It’s not just the guys that can obviously throw fast. It’s really about throwing them what they’re not expecting, and the talent comes, I think, in that. I look at it in those terms. What can that’s the 180 shift? This [show] was an opportunity that I was excited to have because I felt like it would press all those buttons for me, and it did.
NC: When I was watching We Own This City, I thought, “Wow, he’s playing the anti-Will Gardner, your character on The Good Wife. Is that the objective, to take on a character that will surprise the audience?
JC: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s not so much that I want to surprise people. Anytime you get the opportunity to push yourself deeper — it really comes from me. It’s more that I want to keep pushing myself and show that I’m growing as an actor. You don’t stay in one place. We all want to show range as actors, and it’s not always given to you.
NC: You’re from Baltimore. Did you have a history with the story, or was this something you discovered over time?
JC: I knew the story pretty intimately because I had read it. I was reading about it daily. I remember thinking, this is a freakin’ film or TV show, and someone’s going to make this incredible; it’s cinematic. It was a very specific story. David has [said] how this is like a coda because when they finished writing The Wire, he said, these cops weren’t in existence. These are the results of all the policies and things that have taken place in Baltimore.
I joked recently with someone that it’s less so about what critically people are thinking but more about what my family would think if it was my cousin, sir. Whomever. Those are the people I was thinking about when I was making sure I got the guy’s voice right.
NC: So those are the guys that are going to call you out and say, “the accent is not quite there.” Speaking of the accent, did it take you a long time to develop that voice? The way you walk is very specific, and the accent is especially jarring.
JC: I was most nervous about the accent. Because of the things we’re saying — it’s so specific. Yet, I knew that it was in my bones. It was in my blood. It was an accent I’ve done my whole life, but I wanted to get it right, and I wanted it to be very specific. So I watched a lot of his body cam footage, which the producers supplied. I’d see glimpses of him [by] putting on a headset, walking around New York City, and listening to his voice in all these different scenarios where he was engaging with the other detectives, people on the street, or people he was arresting.
The thing about the accent, because I felt this pressure as a Baltimorean, you know, all jokes aside about my family, was making sure that when people watched it, I would get the thumbs up. Daniel, for as brutal of a police officer as he is and the reputation that he has had, his voice was actually kind of high in a weird, goofy way. That juxtaposition between that brutality, and the sense of power and control, with this goofy voice.
NC: I imagine playing a man this brutal was difficult. Would you say there was a luxury in this being a limited series? Six seasons of playing this guy might get exhausting.
JC: Yeah, it wasn’t easy material to do. In terms of it affecting me, there are so many storylines in the show that a lot of us would be able to come in and out, so we weren’t there every day. To be there doing it for four and a half months straight, we would work for a couple of weeks and then have a week off. So, I had some time to decompress, but it would have been much more challenging doing it 13 times a year for six years straight.
NC: As you said, this series does have a cinematic quality to it. You’ve experienced it all in television throughout your career. Seeing this quality of television and the storytelling, what has that been like for you?
JC: Television has completely shifted and changed. Everyone talks about the whole golden era, but it’s true. I think about shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones — it’s just cinematic and taking huge leaps, especially when you’re in the cable and streaming worlds where you’re able to sort of work on your own time, and you don’t have to marry the storyline to commercial breaks. It allows you to have that narrative flow and sit with it. What I really admire about what these guys do, too, is, that they don’t spoon-feed you. You got to lean in; you got to pay attention. This type of writing is just something I would just marvel at.
NC: Switching gears a bit, given that you live in New York when you’re out on the street, will people walk up to you and mention Dead Poets Society, or Sports Night? Is there a certain project you get the most?
JC: There’s definitely a huge Sports Night cult following and less so Dead Poets, just because it’s such an older film and I was so young. The Good Wife, certainly. A lot of people really love that show, myself included. Right now, it’s what’s fresh. I went to have dinner, and two or three people saw We Own This City and wanted to talk about it. So, that’s nice.
NC: For me, I can’t help but bring up that during the early days of the pandemic, I got into this mode of binge-watching movies from my childhood and rewatched Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and immediately recognized you.
JC: [Laughs] That’s the one! Yeah, there’s a particular age group of women that was one that was on the rotation daily. Somebody tweeted at me, “I can’t believe the guy that plays Hersl was the dude that played Knox Overstreet. My mind is blown.” I almost wanted to tweet to them, “Well, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead — he was also the fucking clown guy in that.”
It’s a long, long journey. Everybody has their own sort of path. Starting young was my path, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I got so many incredible experiences early on, and I feel lucky to have had that, but with it comes a sense of — I was a kid growing into an adult and was figuring out what I wanted to do. When you jump in early, you’re not conscious of all the reasons you’re jumping into this. I’ve had a lot of time in my life, a lot of therapy, to look at those choices and say, “Why did I get in this godforsaken business? Why did I do this?” I did it because I like stepping into the shoes of other people. I like being a part of telling stories, and some of the best experiences I’ve had have been ones that are more ensemble driven, where we’re all in it together. This show, in particular, I would say is a large net of wonderful performers telling an incredible story, and I feel lucky to just be a part of it.
Josh Charles is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for We Own This City, currently streaming on HBOMax.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO