Delroy Lindo is an actor who goes deep. He goes deep preparing for his roles, and he goes deep talking about them—although, as he told The A.V. Club in our interview with him, he sometimes has trouble articulating what goes into his process, because in the moment he’s just trying to do right by the story and the people telling it. The deconstruction comes after.
Lindo has acted in pretty much every genre you can think of, in films and on TV, but some of his buzziest roles have come out of his fruitful, decades-long partnership with Spike Lee. The two teamed up for a fourth time when Lee cast Lindo as Paul, a tortured soul haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam War, in Lee’s war/heist movie hybrid Da 5 Bloods. Paul is a complex and sometimes off-putting character: He’s estranged from his adult son, David (Jonathan Majors), and seems to relish annoying his old war buddies with his vocal support of former president Donald Trump.
But when Lindo talks about Paul, it’s from a place of empathy, of someone who’s put great thought and emotional intelligence into uncovering the anguish that fuels the volatility. With a couple dozen awards nominations for the role under his belt—including a Screen Actors Guild nomination for the entire ensemble—Lindo is currently making the interview rounds on a campaign for his first-ever Oscar nomination. As for us? We’re with the shirt.
You can stream the full interview as part of this week’s episode of Push The Envelope, available above. You can also read a few highlights from the discussion below.
The A. V. Club: This was your fourth time working with Spike Lee, the last time being in 1995 with Clockers. How did you feel teaming up with him again?
Delroy Lindo: He was very excited, and I was very excited. We had a wonderful script. I had never been in Thailand before. There were all these elements that were potentially very, very exciting, so I was elated.
AVC: There’s a famous story about you where you went to driving school for two months for a 20-minute car chase in Gone In 60 Seconds. Do you do that level of prep for all of your roles, or was that an exception?
DL: I do do a lot of prep. With Gone In 60 Seconds, because there was a lot of driving, it was pretty much… I don’t want to say mandated, but it was built into the pre-production for the actors. And I’m really, really glad that it was. I would have asked to go to driving school, but the producers—to their credit—sent some of the actors [without me asking] because of the nature of that particular film. But the answer to your question is, I do whatever research is possible that is going to connect me more strongly with the world of whatever project I’m working on.
AVC: What about this film? There’s so many layers to it.
DL: I wanted to try as much as possible to get inside the condition of PTSD. So I talked to lots of people about that—the first two of whom were my cousins, who are both Vietnam vets. Then I spoke with other vets who spoke with me more broadly about their experiences. I ended up speaking with a retired major, an African American lady who had served in Iraq, and she was really, really helpful to me in terms of specifically discussing her experiences of PTSD.
I read a lot of books. I looked [at] a lot of film. I was trying as much as I could to connect with just the whole experience of Vietnam and what it meant [then] and what it means today, while at the same time identifying aspects of PTSD that were usable for me in the process of creating Paul. And when I say that, I don’t mean, “Oh, I can use that as an example of PTSD.” It’s really about exposing yourself to a lot of data, and hoping that things rub off by osmosis. Just keeping yourself as much as possible in the research, the data, and then trusting that it will have an impact, in certain general and specific ways, for the character that one is playing.
AVC: What were the particular challenges of portraying a character with PTSD? In the sense of translating that data into the physicality of the character and the actual performance?
DL: Well, I don’t think of it in terms of challenges. And when I say that, I don’t mean that at any point in the process I felt, “Oh, I got this.” I absolutely didn’t feel that. What I did was trust that step by step by step by step, I was bringing to the work that which needed to be brought. It’s difficult sometimes to talk to journalists about this, because one does not necessarily deconstruct one’s process in the way that may be required when one is speaking to a journalist and is “objectively” or even subjectively unpacking it. That’s not the way the process works. One is only compelled to deconstruct when one is asked the question. Does that make sense?
AVC: Oh, totally, yes. I’ve heard actors say that before, and I wish that I could come up with a different way of asking about these things, but I’m not sure how.
DL: I don’t say that as a criticism. I just say that by way of clarifying that when you ask a question, part of me thinks, “Well, I never thought about it like that.” And then one in the moment is compelled to deconstruct and try to articulate what the process was.
Your question had to do with challenges. And you know what, I was so excited, so elated, so enervated [sic] at the prospect of playing this character, because Paul is such a great character to play, that one doesn’t think about the challenges. Or one relishes the challenges. When you’re relishing the challenge, it doesn’t necessarily identify as a challenge.
DL: I’ll give you another example. You mentioned Clockers. When Spike asked me to play Rodney in Clockers, clearly that is an individual who is very different than me, right? I’ve said this before, but there were people who, when they heard that I was in Clockers, they thought I would be “better suited” to play the Keith David part. But Spike was entrusting me with Rodney. What a wonderful affirmation! So one relishes the challenge of bringing that to life. And immediately one just simply says to oneself, “Okay, jump on in, man.”
So I read the book twice, Richard Price’s book, which was the source material for the film. I meet with Richard Price. Richard says to me, “The character in the book is based on this cat who lives in Jersey City.” So I said, “Oh, damn, well, let me meet him!” So I go and I meet this gentleman that the character is based on. And I hang out with him. Again all the while, I’m investing in this data, this information. And not only did I meet and hang out with the character Rodney was based on, I also then met and connected and hung out with the character that Keith David’s character was based on, a police officer who was based in the projects in Jersey City. And I hung out with him. So I’m getting both sides of the coin, both sides of the experience. And with all of that, it’s like you’re putting all this information into the hopper and you’re swirling it around, you put it in a blender and you blend it up. And then you start to select what is useful work at hand. Does all of that make sense?
AVC: Absolutely. Something else that I’ve heard actors say is that sometimes being in a location can help them locate a character. This film was shot in Thailand, as you mentioned, and a little bit in Vietnam. Did that help you get into character?
DL: Could we have done the film in Pasadena? Probably not. Could we have done it on a soundstage? I mean, yeah, but obviously it would not have been the same. So my answer to your question is yes. Being in the location absolutely helped.
The majesty of Thailand and Vietnam, just the physical majesty of the topography, impacts one. I remember time and time and time and time again, in between setups, just walking and sitting and taking in where in the world I was. That terrain is so majestic. Frankly, it’s a character in the film, the same way that Terence Blanchard’s music is a character in the film. It absolutely contributed to being able to tell the story in a way it needed to be told.
AVC: One of Spike Lee’s signatures is that he often works Black history into his narratives, and you certainly see that in this film. Is that something that is discussed on set or worked into your prep?
DL: Absolutely not. It speaks directly to Spike’s particular genius as a filmmaker and as a storyteller. That’s Spike’s vision, and he doesn’t discuss that. All I know is that he’s asking me to play a character in this particular story, whatever the story may be. And my job is to flesh that out to the best of my ability. But I think it’s his genius that he doesn’t say, “I’m going to do this.” We just focus on the scenes at hand, and telling the story of the scene that ultimately will create the overall story.
Now, having said that, when Spike offered me Clockers, he called me up and he said, “I want to put the nail in the coffin of this kind of film.” I’m paraphrasing, but he did say “nail in the coffin.” I took that to mean not so much that he wanted to make a definitive urban drama, but that he had a certain incisive direction that he, as a storyteller, wanted to take this story.
AVC: I read an interview you did a few days ago with The Independent, where you talk about your reaction to reading the script and finding out your character, Paul, is a Republican. Tell me a little bit more about that.
DL: The prospect of playing a MAGA hat-wearing person gave me pause, and I had to deconstruct [that] for myself. I guess the question I asked myself was “Okay, I would never cast that vote myself.” So the fact that this person did cast this vote, I had to identify how and why he could get to a point that he cast that vote, and I was able to do that as part of my preparation.
AVC: This character, he’s very intense throughout a lot of the film.
DL: I hadn’t noticed! [Laughs.]
AVC: [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know if you knew this. But, you know, it’s a very layered thing where there’s this rage in him, but there’s also a lot of sadness and disillusionment. And we find out later in the film—I’m not going to spoil it, but there’s an additional layer as well.
DL: Let me just say something “in defense” of Paul, because obviously people talk about the intensity, and they talk about the rage. And it is entirely your prerogative to use whatever language you wish. But I always feel compelled to correct the description of “rage.” “Anguish” is a better word from my standpoint. And this is process: You can’t play rage, believe it or not. What I mean by that is, you have to identify what is fueling that emotional condition, okay? You’ve got to identify what’s causing this response. So the end product may be rage, but that’s not what’s going on internally.
AVC: The camaraderie between these men is a really important part of the film. What was the dynamic like between the actors on set, considering you were out in the jungle for a lot of it as well?
DL: The fact that we were out in the jungle, the fact that we were where we were just enhanced the relationship. And it was directly parallel the relationships that the young kids had in ’Nam, from the standpoint of having to depend on each other and the fact that we were bonding so strongly off-screen. That fed directly into the work that we were doing on-screen, and that was a beautiful thing to be a part of. It doesn’t happen every day. But it happened in spades, no pun intended, on this film.
AVC: Was it a small crew when you were filming the jungle scenes in the second half of the film? How many people were going out there with you?
DL: The reverse was true. There were scores of people in the crew, and that’s important because it was also inspiring to be a part of and to observe. I’ve spoken frequently about the work ethic of the Thai and Vietnamese crews, just how hard they worked and strongly they applied themselves to the work at hand. And their work involved hauling tons of equipment up and down those hills, in that terrain.
And again, I didn’t oftentimes step back and say, “Oh, my god, these guys are working really hard.” But all of those guys, man—males and females, by the way—were hauling this heavy-ass equipment up and down those hills. I’ve spoken in the past about this one day in particular. We were filming the chopper scene, so we were not in the terrain. We were in a soundstage-type situation. And I said, “This crew is extraordinary, Spike. These guys are amazing, man, just the way that they work and work and work.”
And it was a gift to be a part of it, because on the one hand, I could take a step back and really acknowledge and appreciate their work ethic, but it also impacted my work ethic. I was inspired to work at least as hard as they were working. I didn’t deconstruct it in those kinds of terms [at the time], but I absolutely appreciated what they were doing, and I think it lifted me, too.
AVC: One scene that I think is really striking in terms of your performance in this film is the scene on the boat where Paul has a panic attack. What was going on that day? It seems like a very chaotic location with a lot of people, and you’re trying to get to this very vulnerable place.
DL: That is such a beautiful scene. You as the audience are seeing one thing, and me as a worker inside of the scene, I am appreciating very different things. So one of the most beautiful aspects of that scene on the boat—and that may be weird for you to hear me say, to refer to it as beautiful—from a creative and from a technical standpoint, was that much of what happened on the boat was improvised.
Jonathan [Majors, who plays Paul’s son, David, in the film] reacting to the lady with the snake, that was in the script. The person selling the beer, that was in the script. The person who comes up on the boat and tries to sell me oranges was in the script, and the gentleman trying to sell me a chicken was in the script. But everything that transpired after that was improvised, up to and including my response to the cat trying to sell me the chicken. “No, I don’t want the chicken.” That was in the script, but everything that transpires after that was improvised.
And that’s what makes the scene special, because it became what it became. The actors worked on that. We were working, and I think Spike was in the process of setting up the shot. And by the time Spike was ready to formally [shoot], we said, “We have it, Spike. Just watch what we did.” And we showed him what we had come up with. And that scene is now in the film.
AVC: Wow, that’s extraordinary.
DL: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. That’s exciting to be a part of as an actor.
Now, none of us is saying in the moment, “Oh, god, this is exciting.” But it just worked. The staging of it worked, how we got from me sitting at one end of the of the boat and having the altercation with the young man trying to sell me the chicken, and then they’re restraining me from attacking, responding to his insults—or what I perceive as insults—to saying, you know, “You killed my father.” Spike told him to say that when Spike saw what we were doing. I don’t know if that young man spoke English, frankly, but I found out after the fact that Spike told him to accuse me [of that], which set me off again.
DL: So all of that was created in the moment. And that’s what makes it special, because we were all working as a team together not only to tell the story, but to enhance the story. And the fact that you perceive it as a panic attack? That’s good, because it goes right to the heart of Paul’s—I was going to use the term “pathology,” but it goes to the heart of Paul’s anguish. The anguish and the disconnectedness, but then us coming together. Because, as you know, the scene ends with all of us putting our fists together for Norm. “Do not forget why we are here.” Those kinds of instances are one of the things that made this such a special creative enterprise.
AVC: Toward the end of the film there’s an extended sequence, we cut in and out of it, where Paul’s in the jungle alone and he’s monologuing straight to camera. This is a general acting question, but do you have to stay in that headspace all day, or is that something that you can channel and turn on?
DL: We shot the scene in the morning, so it’s not like I had to stay in that headspace all day, but I was prepared in the morning when we were ready to do the scene.
Spike had told me that I would speak directly into the camera weeks prior. So I knew that, from a technical standpoint and because it was so much dialogue, so many words, I had to commit the words to memory, which I would not ordinarily have done. I would have ordinarily preferred to arrive at saying those words more organically in the process of working out the scene. But I knew that I did not have that luxury, because it was just me talking to the camera.
And so I had a few weeks to commit the words to memory, and then try to embed those words emotionally. Why I’m saying those words, right? And so by the time that we filmed, I had a very clear sense of how I wanted to approach it and what those words meant to me and why. “Why am I saying this at this time?” I was as prepared as I could be.
And as we started to work, Spike embraced what I was doing. And when I say he embraced what I was doing, what I mean by that is we did a number of takes. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing a number of takes because I wasn’t doing it “right.” You’d have to ask Spike for his standpoint. But we were doing the takes because he was appreciating, he was embracing what I was doing. And each take we did slightly different things. Slightly different things would happen.
The words that were on the page were there. That was what was written. But every now and again, I would add a couple of things, and he embraced that and included that. That led me to believe that he was appreciating what I was doing. I do remember, I don’t know, a couple of takes in—three or four takes in—overhearing, “Leave him alone. He’s in the zone. Don’t bother him. Roll the camera. Action, go.” [Chuckles.]
And all of that is really—that’s just really positive and affirming. We want to please our director, and I don’t mean that from the standpoint of being obsequious. We want to be collaborators with the storytellers, principally our director, and tell the story that he wants to tell. And at that point, I felt that I was contributing not only in a way that was telling the story that Spike wanted to tell, but that in some instances I was enhancing it.
AVC: I imagine that’s the ideal outcome for an actor.
DL: That’s right.
AVC: So one more thing before we go. Are you aware that there’s a T-shirt company that made a shirt that says, “Nominate Delroy Lindo, You Cowards”?
DL: I’m totally not.
AVC: Yeah, there’s a T-shirt advocating for you!
DL: Wow. On the one hand, god bless them, whoever they are. And on the other hand, my god, I hope it doesn’t backfire. [Laughs.] You know, I hope they don’t say, “Who the fuck are you to tell us who to nominate?,” if you excuse my language. But that’s actually very beautiful. It’s really humbling, actually. Whoever they are—thank you so much.
Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix now.