Isiah Whitlock Jr. boasts comedic timing like no other. The multifaceted actor is widely known for utilizing a signature catchphrase across years of working in front of the camera. What was first exclusive to his early collaborations with the one and only Spike Lee then became integrated into his various other roles, not to his request. Whether if it was in a Spike Lee joint or on HBO’s The Wire, anyone can recognize his one of kind delivery of “Sheeeeeeeeeit”.
Whitlock Jr. is also known for roles in Cedar Rapids, Pete’s Dragon, and Cars 3. Spike Lee’s latest masterwork, Da 5 Bloods, features Whitlock Jr. in one of his most explosive and cathartic roles yet. This isn’t his first Spike Lee Joint, in fact it’s his sixth. Whitlock Jr. is featured in 5 other of Lee’s works: She Hate Me, 25th Hour, Red Hook Summer, Chi-Raq, & BlacKkKlansman. Though none of these projects are like Da 5 Bloods. A joint production with Netflix, Da 5 Bloods follows a tight nit group of Black Vietnam vets who return to the country in search of the remains of their fallen squad leader, and the fortune of gold they left behind during the war. Unorthodox, yet true to Spike Lee’s booming voice, Da 5 Bloods is one of 2020’s absolute best.
We were lucky enough to have Whitlock Jr. for an exclusive interview. We talk the complexities and timely nature of Spike Lee’s latest. Whitlock Jr. unveils the work he and his fellow Bloods undertook to achieve such brotherly bonds on screen. We, of course, talk about filming in the harsh jungle and how they planned his signature “Sheeeeeeeeeit” delivery this time around. Mild spoilers for Da 5 Bloods follow.
So you have a long history acting both on camera and in the theater. With your kind of repertoire, you must have done extensive research and prep for other roles in the past. What did you do before going on set to play a Vietnam war veteran with PTSD?
IWJr: Well, I didn’t have PTSD. My character Melvin was the only one who seemed like he came back from the war with all of his faculties intact. I did a lot of research on the soldiers of Vietnam. I also did a lot of research just on African American soldiers in Vietnam. A lot of reading about the way they saw the war, what they were going through, things like the Credibility Gap [ mass US public skepticism on the validity of the Vietnam War]. How they dealt with weapons, authority, and things like that. I did a lot of study in that area and then I did more research just on the environment and the people in Vietnam. What the Vietnamese were thinking and what they were fighting for. I tried to put myself in that moment.
With Melvin, he’s obviously the most self-composed, but even when he hears something loud like a firecracker, he’ll get down with the rest of his Bloods in an uncontrollable wartime reaction. Was that something that you had to go over a few times?
IWJr: Yeah because we were on concrete when we got down (laughs). And at my age, when you hit the ground like that, it kind of hurts. But was surprised me, especially in that moment, is just how quickly we adapted to it. We talked about it. We went over it a couple of times, but when that firecracker went off, we all hit the ground hard, holding hands in that moment. In many ways, it was a beautiful moment, especially coming out of the bar. You know, you start to ask yourself: do I even have a little something in myself? Maybe not from war or Vietnam, but something that’s going to make me react in that way.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Da 5 Bloods is the main cast playing veterans, both in the present and during flashbacks, without the use of heavy makeup or visual effects. They didn’t de-age you as they would in some other Hollywood production. As an actor, did you approach some of these action heavy flashbacks differently? I can only imagine how cathartic it might have been to play a younger version of yourself without any effects?
IWJr: What’s interesting is that I really didn’t give it all that much thought, you know? When I sat down and somebody would tell me, I would be like, “Look, I don’t look that old”. After all, I don’t feel that old! I would rather do that and have people just focus on the story. Once you start doing CGI, make us look younger with makeup, and other things – it just cracks. It takes away from the story you’re trying to tell. If you just say, “Okay, this is us at a younger time, let’s get on with it”. Let’s get on with telling the story and not get so distracted or pulled back from this artificial thing. Looking at it, I thought it was cool you know? There was a nice little, seamless blend to it. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of issues or anything like that. So kudos to Spike. It worked, it was very effective.
You’ve actually worked with Spike Lee many times before, but I don’t think you ever imagined that you would be eventually filming in the jungle with a military uniform, shooting a gun?
IWJr: No, never in my wildest dreams (laughs). I hope to work with Spike again, just not in the jungle. It was hot. It was dirty. The mosquitoes, the flies. I mean, the elements really got to me. The only thing that I’ll say, and this is where I credit everybody – we really embraced and used the elements. We didn’t really fight too much against it. The sweat was real. The pain on our faces was real. We used it for the film and didn’t try to fight against it because if you were a soldier in that situation, that’s exactly what you would be dealing with. I rarely wiped the sweat off my face. If I were to wipe it for what? Two seconds? It’s going to be back. It’s 104 degrees out here. So we’ll use it. To me, it made the film 10 times better.
Without diving into spoilers, can you recall the hardest day on set with all these conditions? The script and material are very heavy. So that on top of the working conditions must have been an incredible experience.
IWJr: You know, I never really looked at the material like that. In hindsight, you look at it and say “Okay, we’ve got some real heavy moments here”. But there were also some very funny and comical moments. And there were just days when the terrain, up and down those Hills… there was one day, god – to get to the location we were hanging onto ropes. That’s when I just said, “I don’t know… I just want to be home. I want to be home with my feet up holding a glass of lemonade”. It was difficult, but the thing is, we all got along and we leaned into one another. We needed everybody to make a lot of this work. We were holding on to one another because everybody had to do their part, to get us out of there. We all knew what we were there for and we were trying to make the most of it.
This is also very much an ensemble piece and in true Spike Lee fashion. Each of the Bloods have their own qualities and mannerisms. Your character, Melvin, provides levity and even some balance to his brothers. He tries to hold everyone together, as much as they’ve changed in the past. How did you approach the responsibility of carrying some of the ensemble’s weight as Melvin? Or this something that you went at naturally?
IWJr: I just kind of approached it naturally. I never really looked at it that way. You look at Delroy [Lindo]’s character and you see that he’s dealing with PTSD. You look at Clarke [Peters]’ character with the pain he’s going through and the family he still has in Vietnam. Then Norm [Lewis] with the reparations and things like that. Melvin is there too. He knows what he’s there for. He’s there to have a good time though (laughs).
I mean, when you first see me, even before I checked in, I went to the bar and got a drink, you know? And I’m dancing with the drink. I’m not taking all of this too seriously, but I talk about the fact that I don’t really get too caught up in things. What I will do though, I am a Blood. I’m one of the Bloods and these are my brothers. I’ll stand by them and do whatever I have to do. In light, that’s all you can ask for.
It seems like there was a lot of unity on set. You actually captured the feeling of being brothers who served together in Vietnam. Was this something that you all discussed prior?
IWJr: That just happened! The majority of the movie was shot in Chiang Mai [Thailand] and we ate together in the morning, worked together in the afternoon. We did all of the meetings, things with some of the Vets who were still in Vietnam and Thailand. We spent a lot of time together and got to know one another. We took a lot of that into the film. It seemed like the personalities didn’t change. We just let it roll into the film and found how we could make it work with our characters. When I look back at the film, I’m very proud of that because that doesn’t happen a lot in films, you know? Where it’s believable. But even in the beginning, when we first meet one another, we’re very excited and happy to see each other. A lot of that just came out of the comradery that we had off the set. And we always brought that back into the set.
Congratulations, to each and one of you for pulling this off exceptionally. It’s hard not to talk about this because like almost all of Spike Lee’s other films, he crafts his stories to be extremely relevant and timely. There are things happening in the world, out in the streets as we speak. The current age we live in may be dire, but many are seeing a change of tide. Is there something you took away from this production that you didn’t take from the other Spike Lee films you’ve worked on? Something that you want to echo back to the audience watching Da 5 Bloods from home?
IWJr: The one thing I took from this one is probably not since Do the Right Thing. There’s been such a strong message: we haven’t really gone that far. We as a country think we have, but as we’re seeing now, we’ve got a lot of problems. When you look at the film, you say, “Well, sh*t.” A lot of this sh*t was going on 40, 50 years ago and we haven’t really gotten that far. I mean, 50 years ago it was Kent State when unarmed students were shot and killed on campus. And a couple of days ago you had government threats of the military going onto the streets.
I think when people see the film, they will be shocked. You think 50 years is a long time, but then you begin to realize, “No, we’ve got a ways to go”. It took us 400 years to get into this situation. I pray to God it doesn’t take us 400 years to get out of it. It’s going to take a little while though. I hope people realize that. I hope they take this opportunity to open up a dialogue and make some meaningful change and reform. But sometimes I wonder, you know? I hope they take this passion into November.
Right and that’s when many can make a difference. Despite all the dourness, it’s okay to laugh here and there. People on Spike Lee productions often talk about how one of the most exciting days at work is getting to film his signature Dolly shot. Given your history with Spike, I imagine people treat it just that special when the day comes that you have to deliver your signature “Sheeeeeeeeeit!” line on set?
IWJr: No, they never knew when I was going to do it. Spike told me he wanted me to find a place in the script to do it. I think I waited about maybe 2 or 3 weeks. I never told anybody when I was going to do anything. But I find where it’s going to be the most effective and that’s where I do it. I try to catch people off guard (laughs).
Does it take you a few times to get it or is it usually just one take?
IWJr: No, pretty much just in one take! I mean, if Spike wants another he’ll do it. But if he likes it, we move on, you know?
Da 5 Bloods is now available on Netflix. Check out our ★★★★★ review!
Follow managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626