Isiah Whitlock, Jr. on Chi-Raq, The Wire, Goodfellas and his Bobblehead

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For this edition of GUMworks, we talk to someone who needs no introduction – or at least one that consists solely of an elongated curse word. 

Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is a veteran actor who has made waves on stage and in film. But it is in television that he found his most iconic role.

As the slick talking, corrupt but loveable Clay Davis on The Wire, Whitlock made an indelible mark on a show that featured no shortage of amazing performances. But there’s far more to the man than “Sheeeeeeeeeit.” He has been a notable presence in countless films, including the comedy Cedar Rapids and a number of Spike Lee pictures. You may have seen him back on your television screen on the political comedy Veep with former Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And, of course, there are those bobblehead dolls. We called up Whitlock to get the scoop on his career, his life, and why he once made himself a silver lamé suit.

GUM: I read that you grew up in South Bend. Are you still a Fighting Irish fan?

Isiah Whitlock, Jr.: Yes I am. I grew up right down the street from Notre Dame. So even though I never attended Notre Dame, I’m a Fighting Irish fan.

GUM: I also saw that you were part of a huge family.

IW: There was eleven of us – that makes me number five of that eleven.

GUM: Do you think that being part of a big family had anything to do with you ending up as an actor?

IW: People have asked me that before and, no, I don’t think so. What I do feel is, being part of a big family like that makes you learn a little independence early on. You figure out that you’ve got to put your pants on and get out there and face the world. Especially the way we grew up in such a large family and poor, you just had to fend for yourself. I enjoyed growing up in Indiana. I don’t think I would have wanted to grow up anywhere else. But as far as me being an actor? I don’t know, maybe there is some kind of a connection to it, but I haven’t had enough therapy to figure that out [laughs].

GUM: When you got into acting, it was on a lark. You auditioned for a play in college. What was going through your head when you decided to do that first audition?

IW: Between you and me, I was trying to impress a girl [laughs]. I wish I had a better answer for you, but that was pretty much it. I wish I could say, “Oh, I’ve always had this dream of Shakespeare and Shaw and Ibsen and all of these other beautiful things.” But the power of the female will always trump all of the other stuff.

GUM: In 1976, you left Minnesota after living in the Midwest your whole life, and you went out to San Francisco to study at the American Conservatory Theater. What kind of culture shock was that? What kind of things surprised you when you got there?

IW: “Culture shock” would be an understatement. I mean, it was frightening in a way. It was very exciting, but it was difficult to get adjusted. That being said, it really changed who I was and how I saw the world.

What I began to realize was, growing up in the Midwest was fine, but what was happening in 1976 out in San Francisco was a whole different world. It was so bohemian, and there was the Haight-Ashbury, and there was just so many things happening. I could be on the phone all day just breaking it down, from the people, the food, the way of life. It was a serious culture shock, I’ll never forget it. It had such an impact on my life and in some ways made me who I am today.

GUM: When scouring the Internet, the first television role of yours I could find was a 1981 TV movie version of A Christmas Carol. Do you remember filming that? Were you nervous at all?

IW: I wasn’t nervous. I’ve never seen that video of A Christmas Carol...You know, I take that back. I did! And I remember thinking it was not the best effort put forward.

GUM: That’s very diplomatic of you.

IW: That’s my way of saying, I just didn’t like it. But I do remember thinking to myself, everything’s going to be up from there, and hoping that people would just forget about it. Obviously, no.

GUM: Well, in the age of IMDB, it’s hard to forget about anything. Speaking of early roles, I re-watched your part in Goodfellas last night. What was being on set for that movie like?

 

IW: I’ll tell you a very interesting story. When I first came to New York City, I got involved with the Actor’s Studio here in New York. They told me that they were doing a reading at Paul Newman’s apartment for this new movie, and I showed up. Paul Newman, a few other people from the Actor’s Studio, and Martin Scorsese were there. We sat around and read this script of a movie. I had just come to New York, and I so wanted to be a part of it. And instead, they cast Forest Whitaker in The Color of Money[laughs]. I really lobbied to try and get a part in the movie and didn’t.

Fast-forward to about a year or two later, Martin Scorsese was doing Goodfellas, which was called Wise Guy at the time, and I went in to audition. He said, “Where do I know you from?” I said, “I did those readings at Paul’s apartment when you were doing The Color of Money, and he said, “Oh yeah, right. Yeah, I thought you were great.”

He said, “Look, the part in Goodfellas that I want you to play is not the part you auditioned for.” Because the part that I auditioned for, I never really thought I was right for it. It was a guy Joe Pesci hits over the head with a bottle, and they’re all sitting around laughing. He said, “I think you’re great. I want you in the movie. I’ve got this great part for you if you would do it for me.” I’m like, “Do it for you? I’d do it for free!”

I got cast in Goodfellas. At the time, I thought, I’ve got this little small part in a movie. I had no idea the movie was going to be this classic. It was one of the first movies that I did, and to start off that way was phenomenal and really set the stage, so to speak, for me doing a bunch of other stuff.

GUM: In terms of theater, one of the roles that got you the most attention critically was your role in Four in 2001-2 [in the play, by Christopher Shinn, Whitlock is Joe, “a middle-aged black English professor who leaves his teenage daughter in charge of his sick wife on the Fourth of July and goes on a movie-and-motel date with a 16-year-old boy he has picked up on the Internet.”] What was it like to play a character who does something that is likely to set the audience against you? How do you humanize someone who is trying to seduce a teenager?

IW: You sort of do that by seducing the audience. I mean, it was total manipulation on my part. I hate to brag about it, but that’s basically what I was doing. You play a role like that – and I found this even about my character as Clay Davis in The Wire – on paper, you say, I don’t like the guy. I mean, as an actor, I love the guy, but I say the audience is not going to like him. I need to get the audience to like him. That’s one of the tasks you set out to do, along with playing the character.

Here you’ve got this professor who picks up these little boys and takes them on dates by using the Internet, which was sort of new at the time. So you manipulate it to where you make this argument that the two of them should be together. I know it sounds a little sick, but the guy’s a pedophile. But you don’t make him so despicable. You make the argument that the boy and the professor should be together, and that’s where the dynamic comes in, and that’s the key. That’s basically what I did.

You make the audience like the guy, but then they go, “Oh my God, wait a minute. I’m liking the pedophile! I’m not supposed to be doing this! He seems like a really nice guy. If he could just find love somewhere else, as opposed to the 15 or 16 year old boy.” Like I said, it was total manipulation on my part. When I think back on it, it was kind of weird, but it worked.

I’ll never forget when they called me. We did a reading in Pittsburgh, and they said, well, we’ve got this play and your name keeps coming up as a person who does these types of things. I thought, send me the script, I’ve got to read this – it might be the next Hamlet. Well, it wasn’t that, it was Four [laughs]. Why is my name coming up all the time as the guy who does these types of things? What, plays pedophiles? It’s like, can you tell me who’s been spouting my name around town?

Oddly enough, the play really launched a number of things, because they did an article on me in the New York Times when I was doing that play. Spike Lee came and saw it, and then Spike called me in to audition for 25th Hour. I got the role, and here I am.

GUM: I hadn’t realized that connection.

IW: All of these things are connected. When I look back, I say, I’m glad I did some of the things I did, because it did give people a chance to see my talent as an actor in a way that is a little different from your everyday Joe.

GUM: Speaking of Spike Lee, you’ve been working with him for 13 years or so. Has your relationship with him changed over that time?

IW: Not really. I love Spike. I think he’s a great director, and I admire the fact that he’s one of those people who he does what he wants to do and does what he’s passionate about. He’s not easily swayed by some of the other stuff that happens in the business. He’s always been very good to me, and I’ll always in some ways be indebted to him for some of the things he’s done.

GUM: You have a small part in Spike’s new film Chi-Raq. It has been very controversial already, even though we’re speaking on the film’s opening day. What are your thoughts about the film and some of the negative responses to it?

IW: The thing is, I haven’t seen any of it except for the trailer. But what I do know is that it is based on Lysistrata, and I felt at the time there was a lot of negative pushback from people who hadn’t really read the script or seen any of it. A lot of it was hearsay. So it’s hard to respond to that, because it’s like, well, why am I talking if you haven’t read the play or read the script?

But when you look at all the shootings and stuff that’s happening in Chicago, and especially the latest one and what seems like a cover-up – I can’t say that’s exactly what it was, I’m just saying what it seems like – if anybody brings any attention to it, I think that’s a good thing because we do have a problem in this country with guns and people just randomly shooting people and not having any respect for life.

GUM: Another person who’s in Chi-Raq, although you two don’t have any scenes together, is Felicia Pearson [who played Snoop on The Wire]. And that got me thinking: in The Wire you were working with a lot of non-actors. What was that like?

IW: When you say “non-actors,” I’m not real crazy about that term. There are some actors who are working today who are non-actors(laughs).

It was good to be able to work off of someone who is not a professional. Because they’re basically coming in and working off of instinct – which, as an actor, you should be doing anyway as far as I’m concerned. So it would be exciting. There would always be that constant charge to respond to the truth, because that’s all they have. It was refreshing and nice to see that. Some of the stuff would just be downright real, and that’s a good thing.

One of the great things about the show is that it did have a very, very real appearance. A lot of people in the show were actors. The beauty of it is, they could make it seem like it’s happening at the moment, on the street. You look at it and you say, my God, how were you able to do that? You can’t teach some of the stuff that was happening in that show.

GUM: Andre Royo [the actor who played Bubbles on The Wire] told a great story in an interview about how Mark Wahlberg saw him at some fancy HBO party and thought that he actually was a recovered drug addict! IW: I know (laughs). I’ve had people write me things like that – “Are you really like that?” It’s like, yeah, I’m really a guy who likes to steal other peoples’ money. I mean, maybe I am, I don’t know. I haven’t had that opportunity yet.

GUM: You were on two TV shows actually that, at least in retrospect, have reached iconic status – The Wire and The Chappelle Show. What’s it like to see something like that happen from the inside? Are you aware when you’re doing it that the show is having a huge effect on public conversation and people are saying it’s the greatest show ever, or is that something you only see in retrospect?

IW: You only see that in retrospect. I remember when I shot The Chappelle Show, I hadn’t really seen much of it. I just got called in. It wasn’t until later when everybody started watching it and saying, “I saw you on The Chappelle Show.” I was like, really?

Even when I was on The Wire, as far as I was concerned it was just going to work every day and trying to do the best job you possibly could. Unfortunately, a lot of people hadn’t seen the show when it was on. So it didn’t really have people doing a lot of talking, except maybe the critics, about just how wonderful the show was. But you really can’t allow yourself to get caught up in that, otherwise you stop working. You want to keep your foot on the gas and let the chips fall where they may.

 

GUM: You’ve had a chance to work on another show that critics love, Veep. When people talk about the show, they almost always mention how the stars improvise a lot. What is it like to work and improvise alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus?

IW: When you work on Veep, it takes a while to get up to speed because they’re working so fast, and you’re working with a lot of people who are very, very comfortable and brilliant in their own skin. Working with Julia was a dream. She’s is very comfortable with herself and what she’s doing. So you’ve got to hook into that energy and go along with it, which can be exhilarating.

If you’re not used to it, at first it hits you and you’re taken aback by it. But once you get up to speed, it’s great. I don’t usually have a problem improvising, so I really enjoyed it. I found Julia just to be very giving and helpful. You always hear in sports about the player who makes everybody around them better. Well, she makes everybody better, and I love working with people like that.

GUM: One of the things about your career is that there doesn’t seem to be a hard line between comedy and drama. In dramatic shows, your characters are often funny, and in comedies, you’re often playing it pretty straight. Are there differences for you in playing comedic and dramatic roles?

IW: I’m not that person who can sit here and say, this is what comedy is or this is what drama is. What I can do is say, I’m just going to play it based on what it is I see. I never set out to make anybody funny. I just play the truth, and the truth will either be funny or it won’t.

That’s what I did with Clay Davis on The Wire. I never thought he was funny. When I look back, I say, yeah, I guess he’s kind of funny. But again, in that quest to make people like me, the humor starts to come out based on the things that I’m doing with the writing.

In Cedar Rapids, I never set out to be funny, but it does happen. Then you get in something like Veep, and the humor comes out of the fact that you’re just so serious about it, and you can’t see the other half. I always just say, if you go in and you play the truth, things will start to happen and you’ll be funny or you won’t be. So far, I’ve been very successful at it. Maybe I’m just a comedian and I don’t know it, I don’t know.

GUM: Your famous catchphrase “Sheeeeeeeeeit,” which you’ve done in many different roles, came from your Uncle Leon. Was he around long enough to see it appear in movies?

IW: No, he passed away before that. But he was a funny guy (laughs). The fact that he would always say that, I just thought it was hilarious. I never, ever thought I would do it in a movie or anything like that. But when I got the chance to do it, I jumped on it. That being said, I didn’t think anything of it when I first did it in Spike Lee’s film. As far as I was concerned, it was just another line.

 

I was shocked at how it took off. I didn’t really get it. I remember telling a friend of mine, “You know, people keep saying ‘Sheeeeeeeeeit,’ and I don’t quite get what the deal is. I’ve heard people say that before, and nobody ever got that kind of a response.” And my friend said, “You know, people have said it before. They just don’t say it the way you say it. That’s the difference. It’s the way you do it as opposed to someone else.” And I remember thinking, “Huh. Alright, well, I guess.”

I’ve got to tell you, I can’t go anywhere in the world without somebody doing it. What kind of freaks me out is when you’re in Venice standing in line waiting for a gondola and somebody does it. When you’re at Cipriani in Venice or on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and somebody is saying, “Sheeeeeeeeeit,” and it’s like, okay, I’m going to have to get about three psychiatrists to work through this (laughs).

GUM: Probably the most crucial question of them all, and something a lot of people have been waiting to know the answer to: what instrument did you play in [Whitlock’s college rock band] Clutch and the Shifters?

IW: I didn’t play an instrument in Clutch and the Shifters. I just sang and danced. I was like eye candy (laughs). Okay, about as much eye candy as I could be. Maybe like a bag of suckers or something like that. I wore a silver lamé suit – which I made, by the way. I had this silver lamé suit, big Afro, black glasses, and I just gyrated a little bit and did this dance called the Funky Penguin and drove the girls wild. But I didn’t play any instruments.

GUM: Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t quit the band to pursue acting?

IW: No, because I was very clear with the band that I had really made a promise to my father that I would finish college. That was something that I really wanted to do, and they wanted to branch out and go on tour. I was like, I didn’t come to college to join a band. Besides, I didn’t play any instruments or anything, so my gyrating days would be short (laughs). You can’t gyrate forever.

So I just said, I can’t do it, and I wished them well. The tricky thing was, I was one of the founders of the band. So when we went into the [Mid-America Music] Hall of Fame a few years back, I went back and joined them onstage and got a plaque. We’re in the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame. It’s not Cleveland. But as I tell people, it’s a Hall, and how many Halls are you in?

I’m in two Halls of Fame now. I’m in the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame, and I’m in the Bobblehead Hall of Fame. That’s two Halls of Fame. So there’s got to be a certain point where a number of Halls of Fame make up for The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton or the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I mean, I think you can be in one of those or you can be in five of the lesser-known ones. But hey, it’s a Hall of Fame, and I’ll take it.

GUM: How’s this year’s batch of wine coming? [Whitlock has been making his own wine for the past several years.]

IW: The wine is good. It’s really, really good. I got some high-class grapes from Napa. Last year, I made a straight Cabernet, and this year I did a blend of Cabernet Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, which tastes pretty good.

I have given people my wine. I don’t tell people that I made it – otherwise they just won’t drink it. They take one look at me and they say, no way. But I wait until they drink it, and then they say, where did they get this wine, or this is really good, and then I say, well, guess what? Yours truly made the wine, and they get all excited. But it is very, very good and I can’t wait to bottle again in August or September.

GUM: I’m talking to you on behalf of GUM Studios. When you’re filming at a studio, what are the kind of things you’re looking for?

IW: If I’m going to be spending a lot of time somewhere, then I just want to be comfortable when I’m not working. That to me is the main thing. You assume when you get to a studio, they’ve got to set up. But then it’s like, where am I getting dressed, or where am I sitting, or what if I need a little time to myself? That’s one of the things that I always find to be a little lacking. But if I’m comfortable, then I’m fine.

 

Oh, wait a minute – I didn’t talk about my bobblehead!

GUM: Of course. Your special red, white, and blue bobblehead for the holidays. What can you tell us about that?

IW: Well, we have a red, white, and blue bobblehead. What we did was, we had the Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $100,000 to go into production, and we started sending them out. We’re almost sold out of the first edition, and we have the new edition coming in to cover us through the holidays.

The bobblehead is great. People seem to like it. It’s bigger than what I ever imagined it was going to be. We’ve been selling them all over the world. That tells me that The Wire has expanded around the world, because people are really clamoring for the bobblehead, especially in countries where they’re not quite sure what a bobblehead is (laughs). All they know is, they want one, and they want one that talks and has my voice come out of it. But it’s been going great, and we’re trying to sell as many as we possibly can, especially during the holiday season.

GUM: That sounds like the perfect holiday gift.

IW: I like to say, who wouldn’t want to wake up on a Christmas morning, and find me under their tree? (laughs) It would be the freakiest Christmas you ever had!

But I think that there’s a lot of people that are going to be happy come Christmas morning because they’re going to say, “I got a Star Wars thing, a wagon...Oh my God! I got a bobblehead!” I can just see the excitement now.

Interview by Shawn Setaro