WTOP’s J. Brooks makes cameo in HBO’s ‘We Own This City’

WTOP's Jason Fraley & J. Brooks preview 'We Own This City' (Part 1)

“The Wire” creators David Simon and George Pelecanos are returning to Baltimore for the new crime drama miniseries “We Own This City,” which premieres Monday night on HBO.

Expect to see plenty of local actors pop up on screen, including WTOP sports reporter J. Brooks, who graciously offered a behind-the-scenes look at his filming experience.

“If you’re looking for a lot of fun to do tonight and you’re channel surfing, make sure you check out HBO’s ‘We Own This City’ where yours truly is making a cameo,” Brooks said. “See if you can find me or, better yet, see if you can hear me — like you do on WTOP.”

Based on a book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, the series is set during the 2015 Baltimore riots after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody. Amid the city’s highest-ever murder rate, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) leads a plainclothes unit called the Gun Trace Task Force, only to discover a conspiracy within his ranks.

“Part of it is the Freddie Gray story … when our own Mike Murillo was in Baltimore covering the story and the aftermath of how the cops were running the city. [In] ‘We Own This City,’ the cops owned this city, not you, the citizens or anybody else. The cops owned this city and were able to flash their badge and get anything they wanted,” Brooks said.

As a sports reporter, Brooks will never forget the riots near Camden Yards.

“When the Freddie Gray situation happened … there was an Orioles game that had no fans in the stadium,” Brooks said. “All of the baseball players are playing on the field while outside the stadium all of this mayhem is going on. It was a very surreal moment. This was before the elections, pandemic and everything; it was a prelude of things to come.”

Brooks says he auditioned for the HBO series virtually last summer.

“It was a weird process where I did a Zoom audition in June,” Brooks said. “Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue in August, I get this email saying, ‘You have been chosen.'”

You can spot him in Episode 4 (airing May 14) in a scene filmed Aug. 30 inside a former prison at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland, which closed in 2019.

“I had a 7:30 a.m. call time and I got a trailer for the first time,” Brooks said. “I was like, ‘This is going to be great, I’ll go shoot my scene at 8, I’ll be out of here by 9.’ Well, I sit in my trailer for four hours going over my four lines and I’m sweating. … We finally got in and I was looking for adrenaline. … I just went off the cuff and played Mr. Sarcasm.”

Brooks plays a corrections director arguing with Bernthal in prison.

“We shot two different shots in this scene where the camera is over my right shoulder facing Jon … then we did the opposite and put the camera on the far side of the cell to where you see me,” Brooks said. “I’m assuming they might blur the shot, so that’s why you may hear me more than see me, but the person Jon is talking to is yours truly.”

Their dialogue exchange gets quite heated during the scene.

“I say, ‘Would you all like to be in separate cells?'” Brooks said. “Jenkins says, ‘My group is all together and we’re staying here.’ I sarcastically say, ‘Not in here you are,’ exposing him. ‘You’re not out on the streets anymore. You’re in a cell.’ Our confrontation was between a metal screen with bars. He’s yelling at me and I’m taking everything he’s throwing at me.”

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”) kept the camera rolling.

“You walk past him and you could kind of feel like this aura coming off him — and I’m not just saying that,” Brooks said. “He basically observed after the first couple of cuts to see where things were going. What he allowed us all to do was have some fun and, I don’t want to say go off script, but let’s push it as far as we can.”

By the end, Bernthal had blood on his nose and Brooks had spit on his face.

“He kicks it so hard that the door hits the bridge of his nose and blood actually starts to come down his nose,” Brooks said. “We didn’t stop rolling, we kept going with it because it was a powerful scene, and he actually spit on me. Spit right in my face! It was a professional spit, it wasn’t a big loogie, it was professionally done, but I didn’t flinch.”

Afterward, Brooks told Bernthal that they had a mutual friend in WTOP’s Frank Hanrahan.

“As we’re walking out, ‘I was like, ‘I work with a friend of yours, Frank Hanrahan,'” Brooks said. “[Bernthal] was like: ‘Frank Hanrahan! He was just a god on the basketball court.’ … I was talking to Frank and said, ‘I’m doing this flick up in Baltimore,’ and he goes, ‘Hey! I grew up playing basketball with him.’ They were all amazed at Frank’s three-point shots.”

Bernthal later reached out to Hanrahan to get a message to Brooks.

“He actually reached out to Frank and apologized for that and said, ‘Your friend was really cool rolling with things and I just wanted to apologize, I was just going with the scene,’ and I was just like, ‘That was really cool,’ because he didn’t have to do that. … I’ll always remember him because I have his DNA splashed all over my face.”

Brooks isn’t the only WTOP radio personality to do some acting on the side. He says WTOP’s John Aaron and Sandy Kozel also act in various local productions.

“We support each other if we find something or hear something,” Brooks said.

Brooks grew up doing school plays like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oliver” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before starring in “Grease” at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater. After joining WTOP, he began getting emails from the SAG-AFTRA union about local acting gigs.

“I’m like, ‘Wow, I could be on ‘Veep,’ which I was. I could be on ‘House of Cards,'” Brooks said. “I get a chance to make some money, rub elbows with pretty cool people, it’s not really heavy lifting, it’s a lot of fun. … For ‘Wonder Woman 2’ I did 12 days with [WTOP’s] George Wallace being very helpful in rearranging my schedule so I could do the acting.”

He encourages other local folks to try their hand at acting.

“If it’s a side hustle, if it’s a career hustle, if it’s your dream, take it from me: If I can do it, anybody can do it,” Brooks said. “Follow your dreams because the worst thing in your life is to look back at something that you could have done if you had only tried it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley & J. Brooks preview 'We Own This City' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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