One on One with Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Stringer Bell ruled the drug trade in West Baltimore, but when he tried to go legit, Senator Clay Davis showed him that politics aren’t that much different from the street. With the fifth and final season of The Wire underway, it seems like the slimy Senator Davis may finally get his comeuppance.

Playing the senator on the critically-acclaimed show is Isiah Whitlock Jr., who recently shot the “sheeeeeit” with us about the final season of The Wire, working with Dave Chappelle and Whitlock’s memorable catchphrase.

We know you are originally from Indiana, where do you call home now?

New York City. I’ve been in New York I’d say a little over 20 years now. Indiana’s where I grew up and everything, and that was great, but I spent a little time in Minnesota, spent a lot of time out in San Francisco – I used to be with a company out there called the American Conservatory Theater, where I studied and worked – then I came to New York.

You were the fifth of 10 children. What was it like growing up as a middle child in such a large family?

(Laughs.) It had its ups and down. It was a lot of fun though. You always have somebody to play with. There were some days it would be a little difficult, things would be a little sparse and stuff like that. But looking back, it wasn’t too bad. I think, when I look back, I’m a little more troubled now than when I was living at home because you don’t really know a lot of differences, but I had a great childhood as far as I’m concerned and felt growing up, especially in South Bend, Indiana – a fairly safe environment compared to some of the other places that I’ve visited.

How did you get into acting? How old were you when you started and how did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?

It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to do. I was an athlete in college, but I got hurt quite a bit, so when I decided to do something else, I thought, ‘Well, this would be the perfect opportunity to become an actor’ or to at least find out if that’s something I wanted to do. There were some other things I had thought about maybe doing, like journalism and teaching and things like that, but once I got started in drama, I realized it was something that I really loved to do and was very, very fascinated with it. So that’s what I did.

How tough was it for you to break in to the business? Did you have a difficult time getting roles?

I don’t want to say it was easy because starting out, I really just didn’t know jack shit. Especially in Minnesota, that was really tough because I felt I was more like I was a fish out of water. But by the time I went to San Francisco to study at the American Conservatory
Theater, I was used to the competition and I think I pretty much held my own.

It’s never easy and it’s all relative and you never, ever get what you want. No matter who you are, you always want something better. But when I compare it to everything else, I think I do okay.

You appeared in a number of episodes of The Chappelle Show. How much fun was it being a part of that show?

It was a lot of fun. I loved working with Dave Chappelle and I think I loved working with him a lot only because he loved working with me so much, which kind of made me feel very good and at ease and loosened me up a little bit. But it was crazy, it was crazy stuff – all good.

At the time when we did those shows, at least the first season, you never know how people are going to respond, so I was a little overwhelmed by their support for that particular show and found out that there’s a lot of people out there who watch The Chappelle Show. But I found it very, very fascinating that people really got into it. I was very happy that they did and I wish it was still on.

Were you surprised when the show ended so abruptly?

Yeah, I was very surprised and very sad. I was sort of hoping that at some point things were going to work themselves out and the show would still be on, but I do know how those things go and I don’t know what happened – you hear all these different stories, but I thought it was a little unfortunate and a little premature to have it all come to an end. I was really just hoping they were going to be able to work things out, but they never did.

Of course, you play State Sen. (R.) Clayton ‘Clay’ Davis on the best show on television today, The Wire. What attracted you to the show and how was the character described to you initially?

Well, it was one of those things where I sort of started off really slow because I’ve been on all five years, but they didn’t start running my storyline until I think it was season three. The first two years, I had a scene here, a scene there, maybe show up at a few cocktail parties, things like that. But things didn’t really start off until season three when I had my dealings with Stringer Bell. But they kind of explained it to me as to the direction it was going to go and what they wanted and needed from me and I just kind of took it from there and ran with it.

They write those amazing scripts. Once you get that script and you start reading that dialogue, you’re like a kid at Christmas. It’s like you’ve got some great stuff to play and you just kind of roll with it.

Most of the characters on The Wire operate in shades of gray, but Clay Davis is perhaps one of the most villainous characters on the show. You don’t really see a good side of him.

(Laughs.) Well, I might beg to differ on that.

How do you see the character? Do you find ways to justify his actions?

I just see him as a man of the people. A lot of people say that he’s a bad character and he’s this villain, but when you play a character like that, you really have to believe that everything you’re doing is good. I sometimes look at it as, “Gee, I might be doing something that is not on the up and up,” but I kind of look at it as it’s all part of the game. And if the game is being played, I’m just a player in the game. So you kind of think, “I’m not really doing anything wrong, I’m just out here playing the game.” That’s the way I justify it for myself to help me get through it.

But, that being said, it has a tendency to kind of irk people a lot and piss them off because you’re so concentrated on playing the game and then he comes off as a bit of a shady character. But you’ve got guys on there who are killing people, so Clay Davis is not that bad. I haven’t hurt anyone; you know other than a few dollars here and there.

One of the great things about the Clay Davis character is that the other characters on The Wire like Mayor Carcetti know that he is conning them, but they still have no choice but to deal with him.

That’s the thing. It kind of goes back to what I was just saying earlier – they’re all part of that game also. It’s almost like you’re playing this game and everybody’s giving you a certain amount of chips to play with and you’re expecting everyone else to kind of play the
same game that you’re playing. And, it’s like, “Why are you getting upset because I take from you, you take from me, he takes from this other guy?” At the end it’s like, who won or who’s going to win? But I have to deal with everybody and everybody’s got to deal with me.

Clay Davis’ storyline has become a significant focus of the final season of the show. Can you give us any hint about what is in store for the senator?

(Laughs.) Well, I haven’t gotten indicted yet. From what I’ve seen so far, they want to get Clay Davis, but again, you see the way that it’s shaping up. The federal government wants to get me; the city government wants to get me and all of my other enemies here and there. I haven’t gotten indicted yet, but based on the last episode, it’s not looking too good. But that’s about all I can say.

Having been a part of the show since season one, what was it like when the final season wrapped and how do you feel now that the filming of the show is complete?

Well, it was kind of bittersweet. You reach a point where you know you’ve got to move on and do some other things and that’s okay, you kind of prepare yourself for that. I mean, you’re never, ever really prepared for it unless you just hate what you’re doing. But the show has been so great and the people on the show – from the actors to the people who put the show together, it was just such a joy working with them that I began to realize that I was in a very, very unique place and experience in my life that may or may not happen again.

I hope it does, but if it doesn’t, I was kind of relieved to know I was a part of it and that made me feel very, very good and that to me is the most important thing, that I can walk away from this show and say I was part of something really, really good and I had that opportunity that a lot of actors, no matter who they are, never get an opportunity to be on a show like that, that is so well received and respected. It may not be the most popular show on television, but that’s a story for a different day. But to just be a part of it made me feel really, really good.

Also, by the fact that you knew that it was going to be the final 10 episodes, that there would be no more, you had that sort of long 20-week period to come in contact with people and say goodbye and let them know that you really appreciated working with them. So it wasn’t like the show just came to an abrupt halt and then you wish you had told people how much you respected them and their work. I had a chance to do all of that. Some people, I may never, ever work with again, but I had a great time.

One thing you are known for is your trademark delivery of the word “shit.” Where does “sheeeeeit” come from?

It’s one of those things, I had an uncle who passed away, God bless his soul, but he used to do that a lot, my uncle Leon. It was the way he did it and it was when he did it that would always make you laugh. But he would sometimes end sentences and sometimes, you know, you’d
wake up and you’d say, “Hey, Uncle Leon, how did you sleep?”

He’s go, “Sheeeeeit, man, I hit that pillow and …”

Or, you’d say, “How is dinner?”

“Sheeeeeit, that food was good.”

So he would always sort of talk like that. And so, the first time I did it, I think was in Spike Lee’s film The 25th Hour. I did it there and I did it in She Hate Me. But then, when I got on to The Wire, I saw a couple of opportunities where I could do it, and I did. And they started writing it in, so I would pick my spots and lay one out there. But I think I might let it go with The Wire. I don’t know though, you might hear it every now and then though.

You know, I was in, I think, Grand Central Station and far away I heard someone say it and they’d be kind of smiling. I’m glad people enjoy it. There could be worse things, I guess. But I hear rappers trying to do it and I’ve heard other people in other projects try to do it, but everybody knows if you really want to do it right, you’re just going to have to bring the real guy in.

You are going to have to trademark it.

I thought about it, but then I thought, “Oh Jesus, what am I doing?”

Outside of people shouting at you from across Grand Central Station, what type of response have you gotten from fans? Do you get a lot of people approaching you in public?

I don’t get a ton of people, but the people who like the show really, really like the show. And I get stopped every now and then. I try to be as cordial as possible. But they just don’t like Clay Davis, but they don’t quite know what to do about him. It’s almost like they hate him so much that they love the character because they can’t quite figure out where he’s coming from half the time, which is good. I’m glad that they’re so irked by the character – who he is and what he does – because that’s exactly what should be going on.

Have you had any response from politicians?

Politicians, no. But I have run into a couple of people in Washington, which only makes me know that they’re watching. People from DC say that I remind them of someone. God help us, whoever that is. But it’s interesting because there’s certain people that I would study and there’s a few politicians who if you really look at some of the things they’ve done, they sort of sound a little bit like Clay Davis.

Is Clay Davis based on a particular person?

Not really. They told me that he’s not like a particular person. Now, that being said, if you want to take maybe four or five people that they based the character on, some not even politicians. But just that certain things would happen to certain people that you can put with Clay Davis to round out his character. And then you take all of the people that I’ve studied and I take a little bit here and a little bit there and then you end up with a character like that.

What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?

I always want to say like horseback riding, fly fishing, stuff like that. My shit’s always really lame, like sitting around watching baseball games. I love baseball. That’s a real good hobby that I have. And I collect wine, which is a really nice hobby because I get to drink it. And I tool around on saxophone every now and then, but that’s about it.

Are you good on the saxophone?

Nah. I can play like a certain note, like a G or a C in a long tone and I hope everybody else kind of joins in and picks up from there.

What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?

I always wanted to be like an announcer at baseball games or things like that. I wanted to be that before I wanted to be an actor. And some days I dream about doing that. That was always like a childhood dream of mine that I never let materialize.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

Man, you’ve got some tough questions. The stuff that people don’t know about me, there’s a reason why they don’t know it about me. (Laughs.) I’m a Notre Dame fan. I know that will piss a lot of people off.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2008. Starting on February 7, Isiah Whitlock Jr. can be seen on stage in Brett C. Leonard’s play Unconditional at the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall in New York City. For ticket information, visit the LAByrinth Theater Company’s website. The fifth and final season of The Wire airs Sunday nights on HBO.

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  1. Adam C. Kuspa November 16, 2009

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