Delroy Lindo (‘Da 5 Bloods’) on playing a character who could ‘blow up at any time’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Delroy Lindo plays Paul, a Vietnam veteran in the new Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods.” His performance has earned attention from critics awards and a nomination from the Critics Choice Awards.

Lindo recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about what he thought of Paul as a character, playing the younger version of the role as well and the breaking-the-fourth-wall scene. Watch the full interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: There’s so much trauma and menace and tragedy to this character that I feel like it’s almost Shakespearean in its kind of dimension. What did you think about the role when you first read that script? 

Delroy Lindo: So I have a quick question for you in response to what you just said. Your assessment of the Shakespearean component of the character, are you saying that because that’s what you feel, or are you saying that because you’ve heard me say that in various interviews?

GD: That’s actually coming from me. That’s how I felt watching it. 

DL: It doesn’t matter, I’m just curious. So yes, because I thought the exact same thing. I thought that it was a huge classical part, Shakespearean, Wilsonian, as in August Wilson, in dimension so I was immediately excited at the prospect of playing Paul, even though it’s been very well-documented that I had this issue with the Trumpian aspect of who he is. You mentioned menace, and I’m not going to say that you’re wrong about that, but I remember the first time that I read the script Paul was described as having a short fuse, being right on the edge, and one can feel that he could blow up at any time, and for me, that was an immediate signal that I had to investigate what the bases were for those components of Paul’s character because to state the obvious, it would have been completely uninteresting and unengaging to just play an angry man. Again, to state the obvious, anybody who’s enraged is enraged for a reason. So my job, I knew, was to investigate what the bases of those various things were and that is connected directly to the size of the part and part of what made it a large classical part in my estimation. 

GD: And what was that process like, getting to the core of this character for whom trauma really underlies so much of the anger that he experiences? 

DL: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It was step by step by step by step by step. One of the first steps once I knew I was doing the project was to try to find as many vets as I could who had experience with PTSD, and that’s what I did. The first two people that I spoke with are two of my cousins who are Vietnam vets and I spent time with them and they were immense in terms of the information that they shared with me. I was working in New York at the time, and so they came to my place and we just sat and talked. It wasn’t just what they were saying, it was how they were saying it, how what they were saying changed when they were talking about different aspects of their experience. I was watching that. Yes, I was recording, and yes, I was making notes, but I was watching them, watching their body language. What’s really interesting about my two cousins who were in Nam, they’re very, very different personalities. Their experiences in Nam were very different and so therefore, the experience of Nam landed on them very differently because they are two very, very different people, which was phenomenal for me because I got to see a range of things just watching the two of them, not only in terms of how they were communicating with me, but how they communicated with each other.

So it was like a feast, man. It was this feast of stimuli and data that I was gathering and writing as furiously as I could. And then when I spoke with the other vets that I spoke with and I just spoke with them on the phone, these were not people that I knew, they were recommended to me, I just had all of this data and I just was attempting as best I could to process that data step by step by step by step in service of making this work. The films that I saw, the books that I read, all of that, and it was just a step by step by step by step by step process. Lastly, I’ll say that there were also two vets during the rehearsal when we were in Thailand. Spike arranged for two vets who live over there, one is still living in Vietnam, he arranged these two cats to come and speak with us as a group. So all of that comprised my preparation, and it really was a step-by-step building process. 

GD: And one of the interesting things about the story, the way Spike Lee tells it, is that you and your costars playing the characters in the present day are also playing them in the flashbacks. What was it like shooting those flashback scenes and getting to show Paul’s experiences, just the way you are now, without any kind of de-aging or different actors playing it? 

DL: It was completely organic and it served the story in the process exactly in the way it was meant to serve the process. I believe, and you’d have to talk to Spike about this, I believe that the prospect of de-aging us was, and again, you really should talk to Spike about this, but my understanding is the prospect of the aging us was really never on the table because that was a budgetary component. We were not going to get the money to do whatever needs to be done. So it then became, I think, a classic case of Spike making lemonade out of lemons and using what he had. But it turned out that it served the story beautifully because in those flashback scenes, we, as our present-day selves, myself and my costars, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., we were revisiting our pasts as our present-day selves, and also revisiting our recollection of Norm as our present-day selves, and so it made complete sense that we would not de-age and that we would be seen the way we are now. And for me personally, it was particularly rich, given my particular history with Norm. 

GD: Another interesting element of the film in the way your character is portrayed is these late scenes where Paul breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to camera and we get this much more intense, intimate look inside his psyche. What were your thoughts about the character and what he was going through and preparing for those scenes where it’s really the audience and Paul? 

DL: A lot of people have talked about that particular scene, and I’ve heard some people say that Paul is losing his mind, crazy, and for me, it was none of that. It was Paul speaking his truth as he sees it at that point in his journey, and frankly, I wasn’t thinking about this at the time, but there’s a scalpel-sharp clarity about where Paul is. You as the audience may receive it in one way, but in terms of how I was investigating those words, investing in that moment in the story, clarity, clarity, clarity. Very, very clear about my past, my present and maybe not so much my future… yeah, my future. My past, in terms of disseminating for myself what has happened to me and why, my present in as much as, despite everything that’s happened to me, I’m still here, I’m still right here, and my future, the fact that I’m right here means that I’m present enough to do whatever I have to do in the future. And again, Daniel, I didn’t necessarily deconstruct it in those kinds of terms, but I’m deconstructing it here with the various journalists who bring up that particular monologue.

In terms of how I approached the work, there was the technical aspect of memorizing all those words, so I had to memorize those words almost as a separate exercise because I didn’t have a lot of time. Had I had that scene played in the theater, if it was in a play, I would not memorize the words per se, I would work in the scene to give life to those words. Because it’s film, I didn’t have that latitude, so I had to memorize the words as a separate exercise, make decisions about what those words meant to me so that I would be ready to do that work when Spike Lee said, “Action.” What I can tell you is that the preparatory work that I did on that particular monologue, and it started weeks before we actually shot it, the preparatory work that I did meant that I was clear on the day that we started filming that scene. I was clear about how I wanted to approach the work, and there’s a certain kind of confidence that comes with that, and when I say confidence, I don’t mean, “Oh, I got this.” Not that. But I was clear about how I wanted to approach the work.

When we started filming the scene, the only direction that Spike gave me was he needed me to keep moving. He needed me to keep walking and talking. The first take we did, I came through the brush, those leaves, and I stopped and he said, “No, no, no. When you come through the leaves, keep walking, keep talking.” That was the only direction that he gave me and I felt there was a clarity that I had about how I wanted to approach what I was saying and why I was saying it. Lastly, we as a company got to a point where I added some things. I just added some small improvisational things in the moment, and he kept it, he embraced it. Spike didn’t say, “Don’t do that, man.” He embraced it, and in actuality, he encouraged me to go a little bigger with what I was doing.

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