When the opportunity was granted to speak with Isiah Whitlock Jr. of the new Spike Lee title Da 5 Bloods, it was a really positive one and I never once thought to myself: “Sheeeeee-it!”. However, that memorable line reading was going to come up in conversation, and rather than ask Whitlock Jr. to actually do the line, (which, contrary to popular belief, actually was first uttered in a Spike Lee movie and not in The Wire), we discussed it instead. We also talked about The Whitlock Academy, which I honestly suggest exploring (or enrolling), and we discussed his role as Melvin, a soldier from Da 5 Bloods who hasn’t really shaken off the memory of ‘Nam, as well as future projects I Care a Lot and Your Honor.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our one-on-one phone interview with the classy Isiah Whitlock Jr. of Da 5 Bloods.
Brief Take: You’ve worked a number of times with Spike. Did this film feel like its own thing?
Isiah Whitlock Jr.: Yes and no. Sometimes it felt like its own thing and sometimes it would feel like some of the earlier stuff, my collaborations with him. Spike has a tendency to kind of…he knows what he wants. He’s such a great filmmaker and he knows what he wants, but within that, he gives you a little bit of leeway to play and improvise. What I find with Spike is that improvisation is a very powerful tool and I think that it’s misunderstood at times by a lot of people. They think that you are out there making things up and playing around, but if you use it to your advantage and you can come up with quite a bit of spontaneity within his vision, he will allow you to do that. After working with Spike for a few films, the anxiety for me is gone. I know that Spike trusts the stuff that I do—almost to the point in which he expects me to add things and come up with things. He would give me ideas and say: “find places in the script in which you can do this“. Sometimes it would maybe take me one or two weeks to find it, but I always knew that I had that leeway to play within that format. That was the freedom that I had and Spike is Spike and he’s going to do his thing.
BT: How much of the background of this story did you know coming into the movie?
IWJ: Coming into it, I didn’t know that much. I knew that there had been a lot of African-Americans in Vietnam at a disproportionate level. I didn’t know to what extent. And I also was terrified about going to Vietnam and I was at that age when I could have gone right out of high school and enlisted, but I was hoping that they were not going to call my number and get drafted. I was terrified, but you kind of deal with it and thank God that I never had to participate.
BT: As a viewer of the film, how much do you feel the Muhammed Ali clip at the beginning is integrated when you are watching and what do you think the film offers?
IWJ: I really feel like we’re getting an education in African-American history and like you were talking about, the clip with Muhammed Ali, that starts off the movie. Spike doesn’t really play around. It’s like: “we’re going to set the tone”, and in the process of setting the tone, you do have to sprinkle in elements of humour or you want those elements of humour to come out because you’ve got to ease up off the gas a little bit. You’ve got to be watching it…I just hope that people understand from where we are coming in the movie and hopefully that they enjoy it.
BT: I imagine that you have a connection to Clarke Peters, but had you worked before with any of Da 4 Bloods?
IWJ: I have a very, very long history with a lot of these guys. Clarke Peters and I, we were on The Wire together. And even before The Wire, I had understudied Clarke on Broadway during The Iceman Cometh back in 1999, which was where we first met. And before this film we had done a few other projects together, again, there was an ease to it. I knew Clarke and I had talked to him, honestly talked to him, and know and expect what I was going to get back. Delroy Lindo and I—believe it or not, we went to the same school together back in the day, this is almost like…I’m talking like ’82, ’83, we were at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco with another actor there at that time, Denzel Washington. I had a long history with Delroy over the years I’ve known him. The only one with whom I hadn’t worked was Norm Lewis. I knew of him, from all of the amazing stuff he had done on Broadway, but I had never worked with him. But we got along very well! We had a really nice brotherhood, really nice relationships and I think that we sort of played off of one another very well, because when it’s 104 degrees out and mosquitoes and flies everywhere, you find that you sort of need everybody, [chuckles] to bring their A game so we can get the hell out of there!
BT: How did actually shooting in Vietnam make this film seem more real?
IWJ: Yeah, that was key. I think the atmosphere and the elements pretty much won over and it really broke you down. But it got us to a place to be where we needed. We were able to use those elements, use the heat, use the brush. After a while, it was like we were just there living it. And I remember watching it and when I saw some of the expressions, I just knew how I felt. And I’m sure that’s how I would feel if I was there. I never would have ever wanted to be a soldier in those conditions [chuckles] you know, when I was done I could go back to the trailer. [laughs] But there was times when some of the terrain and stuff was just hell, but we persevered and we used it, instead of fighting against it.
BT: How did you feel about acting in the “older” footage of Da 5 Bloods, including with Chadwick Boseman?
IWJ: I think that if you don’t try to get real cute and I never expect that from Spike, but when I look at the things like not trying to de-age us and things like that and just lean on the story, tell the story, just make sure that you’re always moving forward, moving things along with the story, then that’s where you’re going to find that kind of seamlessness. I think that when you start playing around with all these other things, the CGI, you make this person look younger, lighten your voice and things like that, that’s when things start to break down. Because then everybody else is going to be on a different page, but up until that point, when you start dealing with what you have been dealing with for the past two or three weeks, it becomes very easy. Chadwick came in maybe, oh, about three or four weeks into shooting and so he just fell right in, kudos to him that he was able to allow himself to fall into that pattern and we were able to play off of one another, and it was great.
BT: Were the handshakes actually scripted or storyboarded?
IWJ: Yeah, well, the thing is that was the dap and that was very big with African-Americans in Vietnam. And it also showed where we had served, like if you were in Long Binh or if you were in Saigon or something like that, even though I don’t think that there was a Saigon dap. But we had the Long Binh dap and there were a few others and it was kind of like a mark of “I’ve been here”, I’ve been in Long Binh, I’ve been there. When you give the dap, or you knew somebody who knew the Long Binh dap, that was kind of like your brother from that part of the war. And then a lot of that came back to the United States with a lot of the African-American soldiers and you see it all today. But it all came out of the war in Vietnam.
BT: How much of a background in film do you think that viewers of this film would require?
IWJ: Well… [laughs] if you do know those movies, I think that you’ll really, really enjoy it when you see them coming in, the “Stinkin’ badges” and Apocalypse Now and things like that, even though that’s a real bar in Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh City, that bar at which we were is really called ‘Apocalypse Now’. You drop in those things, if you don’t know about it, then it just becomes part of the fabric. You’ll still enjoy it. If you haven’t seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then you really don’t know about the stinkin’ badges, if you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now…but you’ll still enjoy it. But if you have seen it, you’ll enjoy it ten times more.
BT: What do you think of the freedom Netflix offers for a movie such as this one?
IWJ: I can’t say too much about streaming, but it does allow you to get certain projects done. It allows you to get this project done. I don’t know if they had gone somewhere and it was rejected. But to me, as an actor, I say: “The more the merrier”. If it’s Universal, Netflix…as long as work is out there and stories are being told, I’m all for it.
BT: You have a couple of interesting projects upcoming as well, I was wondering if you could speak to these?
IWJ: There’s one film coming out called Run with the Hunted and then this project, if we ever get it finished—which I’m sure that we will, Your Honor, I’m here in New Orleans now doing with Bryan Cranston. I’m hoping that everything comes back to normal, we finish up and we just keep making great movies, great television and pray to God that people enjoy it.
BT: What do school closures mean in terms of The Whitlock Academy? Is it still open for business?
IWJ: [laughs] The Whitlock Academy is always open! [laughs] Not even a pandemic can slow down The Whitlock Academy! [laughing still]
BT: When you were on The Wire, did you find your work on the show was discovered right away or did an audience come to appreciate it more over time?
IWJ: I think that people discovered my work in The Wire. I was only supposed to be there for a few days but then they had me come back and started writing a storyline, [working]. As far as the catchphrase, the first time I did that was in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, and then they started writing it into The Wire, but as far as the catchphrase is concerned, that was something that I always thought everybody said, I never looked at it as any big deal. I was kind of surprised when something like that took off. But that being said, I’ve got to learn to live with it, [chuckles] I’m going to start learning to enjoy it. That’s what I did and that’s when I started with the Bobblehead and The Whitlock Academy and of course, spoofing myself. But I’ve done it in pretty much every Spike Lee project that I’ve done, because we started that together.
BT: You were great in The 25th Hour and you were in Goodfellas but as of right now you have these three awesome projects. Why do you think that right now is your time?
IWJ: The work has always been there. The opportunities have not always been there. I think that one of the things I love about, say, Netflix and all of these streaming shows and cable, is that it has increased the work, so that it has given me an opportunity to show what it is that you have. We now have more than three television stations and there’s more studios, so I’m getting more of an opportunity. The work has always been there, I feel, basically the opportunity has changed and there’s more of it and I think that once you get out there and kind of doing it, people kind of look up and say: “Oh!”.
But people are always surprised when they see me in Goodfellas, because then that says: “This guy’s been around for a really, really long time”. Just kind of hanging out there and just waiting to get that one shot, but I finally got the shot and I’m trying to make the most of it.
BT: As long as the opportunities are there, how much do you have to believe in the work that you are doing?
IWJ: It matters a lot. But when you say: “believed in”, it doesn’t take much for me to believe in it. I’m not that complicated. [laughs] You know what I mean? I can get into some things and I can say: “I’ll just try to make it work”. If I disagree with this, I’ll just say: “Look, I’m just not interested”. But I’m always, especially as a character actor, you’re always very fascinated by certain things. I’ve seen things which I’ve said: “What now? There’s not much there”. Then I get into it and I put stuff there and try to round out so I kind of take on that challenge. But I love to work and especially now, I try to do as much as I possibly can.
BT: How quickly now do you jump at the chance to be an integral part of a Spike Lee Joint?
IWJ: This was a little…I mean I jumped at the chance to go, but I do remember when I got to Vietnam, I was hesitant. Because it was like saying that like no matter what, I was going to go to Vietnam. I never thought that it would be in a movie, but I didn’t go to the war, it was like the plane landed in Vietnam and a voice said: “Gotcha!”, you know?. “Finally, we gotcha here!”. Once I got over that, it was fine and it was a beautiful city, the people were beautiful and I found myself very sad that any of the things like war and stuff had ever happened. Because it really was a special place and it is really is a special place.
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix