In Spike Lee’s newest film, “Da 5 Bloods” (streaming on Netflix), three African American veterans of the Vietnam War are dismayed to learn that a fourth buddy, Paul, is now a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump. Delroy Lindo, the actor who plays their conservative pal, said he too was dismayed by the character’s choice.
“I asked Spike if we could make Paul conservative or even an archconservative without specifically being Trumpian,” Lindo, 67, said by phone from his home in the Bay Area. But Lee held firm and Lindo said he had to think more empathetically about the character.
It worked: Reviewing the film for The New York Times, A.O. Scott raved that Lindo’s performance was “achingly specific, rigorously human scaled.”
Speaking with Bruce Fretts last month before protests swept the country, the actor discussed just how he made his peace with the role, why he turned down a part in “Do the Right Thing” and what led him to leave “The Good Fight,” the much-praised streaming show on which he stars as the head of a Chicago law firm. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You worked with Spike Lee several times quite a few years ago. How did you end up coming back together for this project?
A: Simple. Spike called me. We had not spoken in quite a few years. And Spike called and asked me to read (the script) and let him know what I thought. You’ve probably heard by now that I did indeed have reservations about the Trumpian aspect of the character.
A: I told Spike I was really having a hard time with that aspect. I asked Spike if we could make Paul conservative or even an archconservative without specifically being Trumpian. Spike said let me think about it. Three or four days later, (he) said he really needed the character to be specifically a Trumpite. I then said give me a few days with the script. I think I read it two more times, my lady read it, and it was clear to me that Paul was the part I needed to play. I was able to rationalize in my head how and why Paul could have become a Trump supporter.
Q: And how did you do that?
A: Paul is a man who had been betrayed in his personal life, betrayed by his country in the manner in which many, many Vietnam vets were abandoned, essentially, by their own country. Added to that, the various betrayals and abandonments and the loss that I have experienced in my personal life led me to conclude that Paul is a man who is deeply vulnerable to being caught up in this individual saying, “I can make it better.” Now, I am 3,000 per cent not a supporter of Trump, but all I had to do was get to a point where I could empathize with how a person could arrive at that place. And once I did that, I was fine.
Q: You said you felt this was a role that you had to play.
A: I started seeing Paul as a larger-than-life Shakespearean and Wilsonian tragic character. It was every bit on par with Hamlet, Othello, many of the characters in August Wilson’s plays. I did Herald Loomis, a huge tragic character (in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”), and Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun,” a large tragic character. That’s gold for any actor to tackle that magnitude of a part.
Q: I’m curious about the acting challenge of playing the flashback scenes without makeup or special effects.
A: In reading the script, and in playing the scenes, it just made sense. Never at any point did I question the authenticity. I’ll be curious to see how audiences respond.
Q: Let me ask you about some of your earlier work with Spike Lee. I read you turned down a role in “Do the Right Thing.”
A: Broadly speaking that’s true. We hadn’t worked together at that point in either of our careers. But I got a call saying that Spike wanted me to audition for “Do the Right Thing” for one of the three (corner men ultimately played by) Frankie Faison, Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin. Reading it on the page it felt to me, no, this is not for me. So I said, respectfully, I’d rather not audition for this.
But he came back (to offer a role in “Malcolm X”) so apparently he didn’t hold it against me, thankfully.
Q: I wanted to ask you about “The Good Fight.” What was behind your decision to leave?
A: There are a number of components, not least of which was the fact that I’m supposed to do “Harlem’s Kitchen” (a planned drama on ABC in which he would play a chef and the head of a family with three daughters). Zahir McGhee, the creator, has written the first three episodes, and the prospect of investigating this American family emotionally and psychologically is potentially very exciting.
But as far as Adrian Boseman (the lawyer he plays on “The Good Fight”) is concerned, I’m really gratified that audiences seemed to respond. I wish more black people watched it. For whatever reason, there’s not a lot of black people watching it in the same numbers. So that’s a regret, if I can use that word.
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Q: A clip from the show went viral recently and it seemed like some people thought it was a real interview as opposed to a scene from the show. When did you find out you were going viral?
A: My son came downstairs and said, “Dad, you’re blowing up the internet.” What? It’s hilarious to me. And it kind of stunned me that people thought that was me saying that. It’s really a potentially illuminating window into not only social media, but how we communicate in the 21st century.
But here’s the understanding I’ve come to: Even though the scene is not real, the sentiments expressed in it are authentic. And so certainly black people, possibly for whites, but black people who were looking at that were saying, “That is so right on.” And if you think about having that visceral of a response, it’s not so much of a leap to then psychologically and emotionally believe that it’s real.