Investigating Charm City With Kyle Secor

By Laura Grover

Venice Magazine - March 1999

 

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Seven years ago, when Kyle Secor first entered the nefarious world of NBC's critically acclaimed HOMICIDE:LIFE ON THE STREET as Detective Tim Bayliss, his character was an innocent everyman, a neophyte to the brutal world of mayhem and murder. His raw-nerved reactions to the carnage made perfect sense to us. He was quickly hardened, however, during a seminal case involving the killing of a schoolgirl, a tragedy that tormented him. Dared to confront his own dark side by his seasoned partner - Andre Braugher's unforgettable Frank Pembleton - Secor's Bayliss embarked on a seven-season, soul searching journey through moral and emotional minefields. The naive initiate was soon making love in a coffin and declaring it the most profound sexual experience of his life, holding up a liquor store, and coming to terms with his own abusive childhood and bisexuality. Secor's 'Zen Detective' of the current season has been tempered by having faced personal demons and survived a near fatal shooting. The spiritualized Bayliss seems to have risen through the sutras to existential enlightenment, spouting wisdom to his fellow cops like, "To know that you do not know is the beginning of wisdom," and "Resentment is like you taking poison and hoping the other guy's gonna die" He is the "bi-curious" Buddha of Baltimore.

Secor, like his fictional counterpart, has had an extended opportunity to comtemplate the nature of good and evil and gain insight into the human condition via HOMICIDE:LIFE ON THE STREET's unflinching perspective. Created by Barry Levinson, and based on a non-fiction book about the homicide beat in Baltimore, the nation's murder capital, the show is lensed with gritty realism completely on location in Charm City. Threatened with the network axe several times, HOMICIDE has ultimately thrived. On an unaturally balmy winter night in Baltimore, I visited with Secor at The Daily Grind, a favorite Fells Point hangout. He is tall, lanky, casual and funny, seemingly bearing none of the scars weighting Bayliss's karma. But, like his alter ego, there's a great depth lurking beneath all-American good looks, and the Zen shoe fits - the actor practices meditation and yoga, and spiritual growth is a quest they share. In the shadow of the imposing brick edifice that serves as both the show's production headquarters and precinct house, we talked about the Pied Piper, bearing witness, and what will be his final season.

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Venice: So where did the long and winding journey to enlightenment start?

KS: I grew up in Federal Way, Washington, between Seattle and Tacoma. It was a little tiny town built by people from Boeing, an amazing place to grow up. One backyard just led to another; there were no fences, you walked everyplace. Everyone played sports, everyone loved the same girls, all the parents knew each other and were in the PTA...then all the money would be taken away because Boeing people would be laid off, so you had incredible highs and lows. My father didn't work for Boeing though, he was a salesman for Beech Nut. You know, it was wonderful, I look back and appreciate my childhood so much. I look at it and have no idea how I ever got here. How I ended up in Baltimore doing this series, having people I've never met come up and know my name, and where I get to sometimes be able to spout my views in magazines.

Venice: Well, the acting bug surely helped. When did it bite?

KS: As a kid, the reason I got involved in acting was because people liked my brother better than me. In a school play, he was the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and I was the mayor. All the girls fell in love with him. He used to cut off his hair, tape it to a piece of paper, autograph it, and sell it for five cents to the girls. He made money off his personality. I helped him with the songs, I did all this stuff, and HE became incredibly popular. I had one line I said to him, my only line the entire play. I remember that line spit out of me with venom, something like, "Get these rats out of town." That was my first acting experience. I remember coming offstage and thinking, "That was great!" And then I always had my little private acting experiences where I'd go to my room after church, open the Bible, and portray all the characters in a story by myself.

Venice: Did you act in college?

KS: Yeah, I saw a friend in a college production and decided that's what I was going to do. I was working at Shakey's Pizza, as an assistant manager, on my way to becoming manager and all of that. When I saw the play I realized, a) that looked like an awful lot of fun, b) it's the thing I really enjoyed in high school, and c) it would be great to be something different than who I was. I ended up attending Green River Community College, and there was a teacher there from Yale. I stayed for about a year, and then I won a statewide junior and community college drama competition. I got $500 and decided I was going to go to Los Angeles and try to work as an actor. So I got in my old car and took off.

Venice: After over a decade in LA, how did your seven-year sojourn in Baltimore come about?

KS: I got pulled into it...I had no plans to do more television. I was off studying with a very creative theatre group in Germany, and directing a one-act play I'd written. My agent and manager tracked me down. I didn't want to audition, I was enjoying myself. I did come back though, and got the role. It happened very fast. So I read David Simon's HOMICIDE:A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS and thought it was a wonderful book that demystified cops for me. But I still didn't want to come back. Then Tom Fontana, who for seven years has been able to say the right thing at the right time to get me to hang around, said, "Kyle, let me tell you what's going to happen in episode six." He described what was basically going to be a play, in an interrogation room, at the culmination of an investigation I'd be doing on a young girl. It would be three of us in the box - Andre Braugher, myself and Moses Gunn. I heard about it, and thought,  "It's too good, I can't say no." That's why I did it.

Venice: Could this show have happened outside of Baltimore?

KS: Well, it could...but...you wouldn't be able to see THIS, a dog on 3 legs hopping into the Daily Grind. That's the type of thing that'd be on our show. They tried to get us to shoot on a backlot in LA, but the show's so area specific. We've shot all over town and the outskirts, and you couldn't find the extras we have in LA. The heart of it all is the atmosphere. It adds something to be on the streets, in the actual locations where these things took place. We really have some nasty areas that add a certain tension, a reality. Right from the opening credits, with the angry dog racing along and barking at the camera, I look at that and think, "That's Baltimore."

Venice: Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the show's darkness?

KS: Maybe initially, in the first couple of seasons, I got overly worked up into a lather about things, and psychically took on a lot of stuff. Now, for the most part, I'm able to know it's just the job, not my life. But it certainly sparked a desire to help out the community. It's a great thing about being an actor, being able to use whatever strength your name value possesses to address a concern that meets your heart, and bring recognition to it. Baltimore has the highest number of children under the age of 18 that have been murdered. There's a local group that's building a Children's Memorial Museum and Peace Center to create someplace where these children can be remembered, where people can learn their stories, and by being there ask, "What can I do about this?" We're raising funds, and I hope that when I leave, the building will be almost completed.

Venice: Your character had had a fascinating story arc, from innocence to darkness, to, well, Zen.

KS: Yes, and we're going to complete the circle. That's the plan because this is the last year I'm on the show. We'll finish the character arc, although at first we never knew what that arc would be.

Venice: But it's felt like a really organic development.

KS: I think it was really all set in motion when Bayliss started getting obsessed with the kids he investigated. Then once Tom Fontana and I were talking about how to link the past and present in a more organic  way, how we could spin Bayliss off in different directions. WE started out with why he was so obsessed about young girls, about the abuse, and we thought well, maybe Bayliss was sexually abused as a child. We wondered how much we could get past the censors. Then we went further and thought that maybe it affects his sexuality. Bayliss realizes nothing's ever worked with women, so maybe he goes, "Gosh, I have good relationships with men, maybe there's a sexual thing going on there." So we look at that. So he looks into another religion, Buddhism, to try to figure it out. Now we're coming around to tying up all the ends, and it's not going to be neat, it's going to be messy and dark.

Venice: Was there much of a reaction to Bayliss's bisexuality?

KS: In terms of the notice that other shows would generate, it caused a blip. It didn't even develop into a pimple, it just stayed a minor blip on the skin.

Venice: Well, HOMICIDE was once a TV Guide cover story for "Best Show You're Not Watching"...It must be a challenge, though, to grow with a character through so much.

KS: Yes. I'd never done a series for longer than 11 weeks - that's how long I did ST ELSEWHERE. There, we were able to easily chart the arc of that character, an AIDS patient. I love to know what the arc is, but you have to give that up a bit with HOMICIDE, and just go with it. But this year, I started to stick my nose in a bit more to see if I could influence what  happens, and Tom's been very receptive. He likes to see the slow transformation of stuff - character development through the investigation of cases, revelation of personal stuff through the work. We've been able to strike a good balance. I love this year because of that.

Venice: How different has it been since Andre Braugher's departure?

KS: I was thinking about that today. Sometimes I feel a sense of being lost. I have a number of partners on the show now, so I never quite develop a real flow. Andre and I had a shorthand in the way we communicated. We really were partners in the best sense of the word. I miss that, but also, I don't think I'd be able to do the things I'm doing this year if he was around. So for me, this year without him is sweet and sour. It's really sweet right now, but he's missed sometimes.

Venice: Do you think you'll work together again? Would it be weird to not be Frank and Tim?

KS: I think we'd have a different appreciation of each other. I'd be interested in the director-actor standpoint, either way, him directing, me acting, or vice versa. They're talking to him; I think he wants to direct an episode. I don't know if it'll happen this year, though.

Venice: You've directed for the show, haven't you?

KS: Yes, I directed an episode last year with Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows. Barry Levinson was in my episode, and he hung out and gave me pointers, so that was great. He's a really great teacher. I'll be directing another one later this year.

Venice: What do you think about all the romance this season?

KS: I don't  think it's good or bad, it's just the groundwork we came from this year, and now things are really springing forth from that. Basically, we're all back to being asexual. A lot of the romances sort of died out or went in different directions than we expected. It was a good way to expose certain things. When you're doing a whole show where everyone wants to sleep with someone, and their hearts are hurting, it really opens things up.

Venice: It's been quite an evolving ensemble over the years. How does it feel when a new shift comes in?

KS: There's still a small core from the beginning - Clark Johnson, Richard Belzer, Yaphet Kotto and myself. This year feels like the most new people, even though Peter Gerety, Jon Seda and Callie Thorne have been around for two seasons. With the addition of Giancarlo Esposito and Michael Michele, all the relationships feel very fresh. It was a little rocky for the first few episodes, feeling each other out, but people started getting their grooves. We've had some incredible actors over the years, like Ned Beatty, John Polito, Danny Baldwin and Melissa Leo. Sometimes during that era it was ridiculously difficult to be on the set because the tension was so tangible, but it created some great work. You wouldn't even think that you were acting, so much shit happened. Last year it started softening up a bit. I think people were appreciating the longevity of the thing, what it takes to actually make it through a season and be civil and kind to each other, to gain some equanimity over 22 episodes.

Venice: Speaking of being civil, I heard you got a little cranky on the set tonight because things were running late and this interview was scheduled.

KS: Yeah, that almost never happens, maybe once a year. When I blew up, it was so interesting to experience, because I kind of thought I didn't have that, that the asshole wasn't in me anymore. But he's alive and well, I guess. Maybe I'll blow up on the set tomorrow just for you.

Venice: Well, I'd be honored. But seriously, I saw an old episode recently where Andre says something to you like virtue isn't virtue until it slams up to vice...that it needs to be tested. In general, has being on the show given you insight into the nature of evil?

KS: I look at that, always. I had an experience recently that really relates. I went to Poland to do a "bearing witness" retreat with a group led by a Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman. There were about 40 Americans and 100 Europeans - people of all religions from many different countries - survivors, relatives of survivors, and relatives of guards from the camps. And then there were people like myself, who seemingly had no connection, other than as a human being. There was meditation, different services, and a lot of just sitting with the feelings that come from being at Auschwitz and Birkenau. It shines a really bright light on everything that's going on with you. The bearing witness part is about being a container for all that. To not have any answers, but just notice the swings, the times when I hate, others when I'm compassionate. The energy of those places brings so much up. You sit not knowing what to do about any of it. What starts happening is certain questions arise about who you are, how did you help build these crematoriums, how are you helping to do that now, how are you creating walls between you and another human being. It was about experiencing that separation, and experiencing when there's not that separation, when those walls don't exist.

Venice: Not exactly a lazy week off from the pressures of work. How'd you get involved?

KS: A friend of mine, the actor Michael O'Keefe, had gone two years before and made a wonderful documentary on it. It's only this year that I was able to make the time to go. I just got back. It was freezing, and you learn a lot from the cold. You're wearing layers of warm - what you think are warm - clothes, and the cold's cutting through everything. And you know that people in the camps were enduring this without anything like what we wear. Most of what we're able to do is a luxury, and this experience taught me about when the masks are removed - when we see that part of ourselves we don't like to show people. The things we try to hide even from ourselves. There, you couldn't hide.

Venice: On the subject of experiencing separation, you'll soon be disengaged from Bayliss. You must feel pretty intertwined with that persona.

KS: Clark Johnson and I were just kidding about this. During hiatus, we have the opportunity to go off and do something else. We were laughing about how we both thought, wow, we've really gotten far away from our characters. Then I look at what I'm doing, and it sounds like Bayliss. Clark said, "I was just doing Meldrick with a rastafarian hairdo: So, I think it gets in there in ways you're not aware of. Having distance from it is going to be a really positive thing for me as an actor.

Venice: Will you miss it? What does it all mean?

KS: One thing it's meant is that I spent seven years devoted to a show, and this for a guy who never wanted to work a 9-5 job again in his life. I loved going off for six weeks, or however long I'd be on a film, then moving on. Sometimes I think I stopped developing at the age of 18 - that I wanted to stay a child, So ultimately it's meant that I sort of grew up on this show, which is very significant. And because we didn't shoot in New York or LA, there wasn't the pressure I imagine there'd be in those places. You know, the Emmy's are kind of a joke for us, no one thinks about that stuff. It's been about basically just doing the best work we can. I'm happy to have been here, and I'm sure leaving will hit me. I've got real emotional ties; I'm proud to have been associated with a lot of the people on the cast and crew.

Venice: Perhaps after Bayliss exits, he'll keep in touch via his IN PLAIN SITE web page featuring Buddhist perspectives on bisexuality. Where will we find you?

KS: I'm leaving all my options open. I really like the east coast, but I'm thinking maybe I'll go to LA, try it out, see how it feels, but I don't know if it's home anymore. I'm thinking about driving back, my first cross-country trip. I've got this romantic vision of just going, getting in the car, dictating to tape as I'm driving, taking a video camera, and writing the great American journey.