Up From "The Wire"—The Inspiring Recovery of James Ransone

By Dorri Olds 09/02/15

Actor James Ransone on his recovery from addiction and why heroin dealers deserve more respect than the prescription pill industry.

James Ransone
Tangerine Magnolia Pictures

Ransone’s big break came when HBO cast him in The Wire as Chester “Ziggy” Sobotka, an irritating goofball who had a penchant for exposing himself (with a large prosthetic). Ransone was so good in that role that it hasn’t been easy to shake off. Do him a favor, don’t call him Ziggy. While he is grateful for that role and the doors it opened up, Ransone has come a long way since then. In fact, two of his movies are now showing in theaters.

In the horror movie sequel Sinister 2, Ransone expands on his role from the original of Deputy So & So. In Sinister, we left off with Ransone’s character becoming a murder suspect. Now he plays a much bigger role as Ex-Deputy So & So. He’s become a private investigator on the hunt for the evil Bughuul.

Tangerine, this year’s Sundance hit about transgender prostitutes, which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, is also in theaters now. Ransone stars as Chester, the pimp, in the Sean Baker and Duplass brothers’ gritty street drama. The indie has also garnered much praise from critics. Variety called it “bighearted” and a “compassionate portrait of life on the LA margins.”

Spike Lee cast Ransone in the films Inside Man, Red Hook and Oldboy. Dito Montiel cast him in the movie, Empire State. Ransone has also racked up a number of TV roles on shows like AMC’s Low Winter Sun, and the HBO miniseries, Generation Kill.

The Fix caught up with Ransone to hear about his acting and his real-life drug odyssey.

Do you have fond memories of playing Ziggy in The Wire?

It was interesting because I was pretty young and it was one of my first gigs and one that had a lot of legitimacy behind it—working for HBO. I just showed up, did my work, tried to be prepared and play it as comically ridiculous as I could.

Were you into drugs then?

Not while I was filming and in the midst of production and going to work. Back then, I would come back to New York and drink with my friends but that was it. I wasn’t doing a lot of drugs. When I was working on The Wire, I was not strung out on heroin. That happened a couple of years after I had already completed the show, which is weird because I think people thought I was a junkie then, but I wasn’t—not yet.

What was your segue into shooting drugs?

I never shot dope; I snorted and smoked a lot of dope because I had this thing in my mind that only junkies shot it so I thought I wasn’t a junkie, but I definitely was. My habit was really bad. It was a bundle [10 small bags of heroin] a day. The real segue into drugs for me were prescription pills. I think, without a doubt in my mind, that they are the most dangerous substance in America right now.

“Tangerine” (credit Magnolia Pictures)

What makes you say that?

The truth is, I have much more respect for a heroin dealer than I do for the prescription pill industry because a heroin dealer is honest about their relationship to their client. The pharmaceutical industry, when it comes to painkillers, is completely dishonest. It’s a really hard thing to reconcile when you have a group of people deemed professionals who say, “Don’t worry. Take this. It’s okay.” 

There’s a financial upside to it for them and it’s pretty upsetting when you realize that keeping us strung out benefits people financially. Take, for example, those pain clinics in Florida where you could just go and get pills. To me, that’s legalized heroin distribution. It makes an already incredibly wealthy corporation wealthier off of the addictions of poor people. The pharmaceutical industry has figured out a way to legalize heroin and use it for their own benefit. 

What was your path to heroin?

What got me into using heroin were prescription painkillers: Vicodin, oxycodone, Xanax, benzodiazepines. What happened is I became strung out on those pills and when you’re a junkie, you do anything to get it. I ended up ripping off a lot of doctors, stealing a lot of prescription pads. I started that hustle but then a couple of my friends got arrested for that. Somehow, I had enough foresight to go, “Okay, this is a federal crime and could result in some serious time.” So, I switched to doing heroin because it was much easier to get a hold of.

 Isabella Vosmikova/Gramercy Pictures

Was it your friends getting arrested that made you realize you needed help?

No, no, no. But I don’t want to go too much into my story. It’s not that I have any problem talking about it; it’s just that I think it’s boring. I almost died a couple of times. One time, I actually did die and got brought back to life. Then I got arrested a few times. The last time I got arrested, I got out of jail and came home and got a couple of bundles of heroin and tried to get high but it didn’t work anymore. That was the scariest part. Drugs couldn’t silence the volume of noise in my head anymore.

What did you do?

I tried to kill myself a couple of times. Junkies are funny because we’re just so incompetent at everything that I couldn’t even pull that off successfully. I called a friend and I was, like, “I think I’m gonna kill myself or I’m gonna go to rehab.” My friend was like, “Hey, why don’t you try rehab first.” That’s what I did and that was in 2006 and I’ve been clean since.

That’s great. Congratulations. Now that you’ve straightened out your life are you as kind as your Sinister 2 character? If you met a woman in distress would you help, not necessarily fight off demons, but are you a considerate guy?

Yeah, I think so. I try to be. I didn’t used to be. I was not a considerate person. I have a lot of karmic debt that I think is going to take the rest of my life to pay. My ego would like to believe that I am that way, but it takes a lot of diligence to remind myself to be as helpful as I can to other people. Am I perfect at that? No. I’m still incredibly self-centered, impatient, and I make a lot of irrational decisions, but the prime motivating force in my life now is that I try to be aware, in whatever situation I’m in, and to be helpful.

How do you feel about talking to the press?

I want to do this stuff. I mean, some of it gets a little ... Look, here’s the thing, you sort of feel like a phony after a while because you sit across from someone and try to have a completely honest conversation. You try to be authentic, but the truth is we’re sitting here talking about me, and people might assume that it feels good to talk about me—and it does initially—but then it’s just bullshit. It’s fake. Do you know what I mean?

I’m no longer being authentic because I’m so busy talking about me that we stop really talking. After a press day, I have to decompress to remind myself that I am not important and I’m not the center of the universe. This stuff totally has no meaning whatsoever.

Beth Dubber/Gramercy Pictures

Do you think that many stars go under emotionally because they take it all too seriously?

I don’t know whether they take it too seriously or they’re just around a bunch of people who placate all their bullshit. Look, I think being famous in the degree to which some people can become famous these days is insane. I think it’s toxic for your brain. It’s weird that kids want to be so famous because I don’t know if the human mind can actually deal with what that means. Like I walk into a room and if everyone’s quiet and the only sound is when the door squeaks open and everybody turns to look at me, I feel weird. Now imagine that that’s your life 24 hours a day because you’re on TV. If you’re on TV, you don’t have more answers than anybody else does. People shouldn’t assume that a person who’s well known knows more. People also forget that you can be the subject of ridicule and made fun of.

Have you gotten any rude comments on social media?

Oh yeah, all the time. As I’ve gotten older, usually when I see stuff like that, I don’t take it personally because I think that that person must be in a lot of pain. You know what I mean? Shit rolls downhill. If someone can anonymously tell someone how shitty they are, that means someone is telling them how shitty they are.

Was your family supportive when you wanted to be an actor?

Yeah, they were incredibly supportive. My brother and I are incredibly close. I fell into acting in a weird way. I think it chose me more than I chose it. I went to art school for a long time in high school and then I went to film school. Being an actor, being a performer, that wasn’t my chosen medium, but I’m really lucky that my mom found me the art school that I went to in high school. I was a sensitive kid and adolescence was really rough for me. If my mom hadn’t found that art school, I would’ve either died from drugs or something really terrible. That’s for sure. 

What’s next for you?

I just found out that Mr. Right, a movie I did with Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick, is going to the Toronto Film Festival. Then I have this Western I made with John Travolta and Ethan Hawke called In a Valley of Violence, which comes out later this year. And now I’m working on some HBO stuff that I can’t talk about right now.

Any parting words?

The only thing I would like to tell people is don’t listen to me. I have no authority on anything. All the answers that everyone needs are within them.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Bob Zappa as well as Bill Cosby.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.