From Malcolm X to Da 5 Bloods, Delroy Lindo and Spike Lee have come full circle
Delroy Lindo and Spike Lee's professional relationship began over 30 years ago. It was during pre-production for Lee’s now-classic 1989 film Do the Right Thing: Lindo had been on Broadway in the August Wilson play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; Lee caught a performance and, impressed by Lindo's work, wanted him to audition to be part of the trio of men (ultimately played by Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, and Robin Harris) who function as a kind of Greek chorus in the movie.
“I declined just because I [felt] the part didn't speak to me,” Lindo, 67, tells EW. “That sounds like an extremely arrogant thing for me as a young actor to say, but I just didn't connect with it.”
Thankfully, this was but the first chapter in a long, rich artistic relationship. Lee would invite Lindo a couple of years later to audition for the role of West Indian Archie in Malcolm X, a role the British-Jamaican actor was born to play. Starring opposite Denzel Washington, Lindo received wide critical acclaim; he'd go on to make two more movies in quick succession with Lee in the mid-1990s: Crooklyn and Clockers.
Then, a long pause. You could say Lee and Lindo's new film together, Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods, marks a reunion 25 years in the making. Following four black Vietnam veterans reuniting at their former war zone to dig up treasure they buried with their fallen squad leader, the film finds Lindo in a somewhat new position for a Lee film: He takes the lead.
In an extensive interview with EW, Lindo reflected on each of his collaborations with Lee, both the triumphs and the regrets, culminating in what many are calling the best performance of his career.
Malcolm X (1992)
“I was thrilled being a person of Jamaican extraction,” says Lindo of his character, West Indian Archie. “I was just thrilled to be able to connect and play the part with the Jamaican accent.... It was an homage to my roots.”
Archie played a key role in the life of Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X, functioning as a mentor to the future activist in his crime days, and a wake-up call for him after he was released from decade in prison. “There was an arc, there was a beginning, a middle and an end [to Archie],” explains Lindo. “And that last scene was the capper. Not only is it a wonderful scene in and of itself, but it capped the arc of West Indian Archie in the film.”
The scene comes in the period after Malcolm has cut ties with Archie, when Malcolm returns to his old friend's apartment and finding him in a debilitated state. According to Lindo, the script had only said Archie was near death; when he asked Lee what that meant, the director told him, “I'm not really sure man, you create something.”
Lindo recalls, “I decided that West Indian Archie would have a stroke because that would allow for a physical debilitation, but still allow me to talk.” Through the producers, he'd arranged five trips to Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital to observe patients recovering from strokes, but was hit with another problem to solve on the day of shooting. The scene that shot before Archie’s goodbye ran long, wrapping around 1 a.m., and Lindo couldn’t reschedule his scene because he had to fly out to Los Angeles the following morning, for another gig. So at around two in the morning, shooting on Lindo's final scene finally began; they didn’t have much time to get it right. “Thank God the scene worked as it did," Lindo says, "because ultimately everybody was pleased with the scene. But going into it, they were mad.”
As to how it's been interpreted, that's another matter. Lindo has found it frustrating that somewhere along the way in the legacy of Malcolm X, people began writing that Archie died a drug addict. “I would always be really offended frankly, for a number of reasons. Either you didn't see the film or you weren't paying attention, and it belied the work that I had done into creating that last scene.”
Even though the 1994 semi-autobiographical film was deeply personal to Lee, written with his siblings Joie and Cinqué, this fact wasn't made known to Lindo initially. Lindo played struggling musician and father of five Woody Carmichael in the dramatic family portrait, with Alfre Woodard starring as his other half, Carolyn. Lee assured him of the role, "This is not my dad."
"It really confused me," Lindo admits. "In retrospect, I just think at that time, Spike was not ready to consciously share that part of his private life.”
Lindo felt the pressure. He worked hard behind the scenes to get into character as Woody, a jazz pianist, and did intensive training with a piano teacher in preparation. Now in hindsight, all that training felt like a crutch. “I had a certain amount of confidence in my own ability. I didn't feel that I didn't belong, but I absolutely was learning,” he says. “And I think I was a little bit intimidated by Alfre Woodard to be really honest.”
Only after completing filming did Lindo feel in-tune with “Woody's sense of inadequacy providing for the family,” one of the core elements of the movie. Indeed, at the time of shooting, this was not his focus. “I transferred all [my fear] into the depth of my dedication to playing the piano and taking these piano lessons,” he says. “If I could do it again, I would hope that I would have the courage to embrace my fear and see to what extent that impacted the creation of Woody Carmichael.”
With Clockers, Lee’s Martin Scorsese-produced crime drama about young drug-pushers facing crushing pressure between both the police and their drug bosses, Lindo was given the opportunity to play against-type as sinister kingpin Rodney. “People who know me would think, ‘Oh, you would play the Keith David part," he cracks, referring to David's turn in Clockers as a protective beat cop. “Spike saw enough in me, had enough confidence and trust in my abilities as an actor that he said, ‘No, I'd like you to play Rodney,’ which was incredibly affirming.”
Rodney coerces young men into becoming dealers and murderers; it's a tough, uncompromising role. “How is it that a person like Rodney becomes a father figure to these kids?" Lindo reflects. "What does that say about society? What does it say about the environments that these kids and Rodney [are] existing in?”
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Bringing things full circle, Lindo likens his character Paul, a black Trump supporter suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to great tragic figures of the Shakespearean and Wilsonian tradition.
Lindo’s stage background put him on Lee’s radar in the first place and continues to be his foundation, in terms of how he embodies each film role he takes on. “I developed a work ethic as a theater actor, which I then modified, channeled, and transferred over into my film work. It's really served me really, really well, and it has to do with being prepared.”
Preparation, in this case, meant getting into the headspace of a deeply troubled veteran. “I was only 16 years old in 1968 and, also, I was in Europe. So my ‘understanding’ of the Vietnam War was quite limited,” Lindo explains. The first thing he did before taking on the role of Paul was invite two of his cousins who fought in the Vietnam War over to his house to share their experience and their struggles with PTSD. “I recorded them. I made copious notes. And I watched them. I watched their body language. How their body language changed when they were talking about different aspects of their experiences.”
Next, Lindo was connected with five more Vietnam War veterans through another retired military person. “They spoke more broadly about their experiences in 'Nam, as opposed to specifically about PTSD,” Lindo explains. That was followed by a meeting with a black woman with PTSD who retired as a major after the Iraq War.
Finally, Lindo watched several documentaries about the film’s subject matter, and reread a book from the '80s titled Bloods, an oral history of the Vietnam War as told by black veterans. But given all that, what brought his profound new role together was his "wonderful bond" with his ensemble, a mix of Spike Lee returnees and newcomers: Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and more. "[We developed] chemistry off screen that we then channeled into the work we were all doing on screen,” he says.
Lindo getting to have a meatier role in Da 5 Bloods was something he “engaged with relish.” When discussing his work with Lee, the actor regularly uses words like “affirmed," "endorsed," and "embraced" to describe his experience and all the trust the director puts in him — trust he felt from the start.
“To this day I'm just really, really proud of that work,” Lindo says, returning to his final scene in Malcolm X. “Much later, Spike said to me, ‘You know what, man? I did not know what you were doing in that scene.’"
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.