My worst moment: Isiah Whitlock Jr. (yes of “The Wire” and that draaawnn out epithet) and the missed entrance

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Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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The sharply sardonic “I Care a Lot” on Netflix stars Rosamund Pike as a glossy-looking scam artist who persuades a judge to make her the legal guardian of retirement age people, who she then strips of their assets. The judge in question is played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., who “unwittingly allows her to do what she’s doing,” he said.

Whitlock knows a thing or two about playing corrupt characters himself, most memorably on “The Wire” as state senator Clay Davis, who had a particular way of stretching out a certain profanity, a word that has become so associated with Whitlock’s trademark delivery that he’s featured talking about it in the Netflix series “History of Swear Words.”

Whitlock’s resume spans everything from multiple “Law & Order” appearances to several Spike Lee films, including this year’s awards contender “Da 5 Bloods.” (That brotherly bond in “Bloods” has some real-life history behind it; Whitlock and Clarke Peters are both alumni of “The Wire,” and Whitlock and Delroy Lindo attended drama school together at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.)

When asked about a worst moment in his career, Whitlock thought back to a moment early in his career when he was performing in a play and his ego got the best of him.

My worst moment …

“I was doing a play in San Francisco at the Geary Theater. This was probably ’81 or ’82, and I believe it was Lanford Wilson’s ‘Fifth of July.’ I went offstage in between scenes and I was in my dressing room talking to some acting students about theater.

“In your dressing room, there’s a speaker so you can hear the play. But you have it turned down low, so you can get lost very easily if you’re not paying attention.

“So I was talking about the passion you need to have to be an actor. That you have to be disciplined and if you really wanted to be a great actor, it would take lot of hard work. That you really have to hone your craft and you couldn’t just show up, you had to study people and everything like that, prepare yourself for the great task ahead.

“And all of a sudden over the loudspeaker in my dressing room I hear, ‘Isiah Whitlock! You should be on stage!’

“And I went, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God!’ I went bounding down the stairs to get to the stage because I had entirely missed my entrance. Everyone was improvising, waiting for me to show up. So I had to join their improvisation until we got ourselves back on track, which we did. But I was so embarrassed because, just moments before, I was going on and on about all these things an actor has to do. And the one thing I needed to talk about and take to heart was: You need to pay attention and not miss your entrance! (Laughs)

“I was very embarrassed. When I came offstage, I couldn’t even look those young actors in the eye. Because really, the first rule is: You don’t miss your cue — especially because you’re busy talking about what it takes to be an actor! I just gave them a very bad example, basically what they should not be doing.

“I remember one of my cast mates asked me, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I just zoned out.’ The last thing I was going to do was say, ‘I was in my dressing room talking about acting and lost track of where we were in the play.’

“To be quite honest, this was so early in my career, I really didn’t even have the right to be talking about what it took to be an actor. It’s not like I was Laurence Olivier or something (laughs). But you know actors, we like to talk and I had some people willing to listen, so I was giving a sermon on theater.”

How comfortable was he improvising?

“When it comes to improv, I say bring it. I’ll put anybody to the challenge: Nobody’s better. If there’s one thing I can do, I can improvise. I’m very good at that.

“So I was able to turn it on, because we were desperate. It didn’t go on for very long, but your brain is working a million miles a minute because you’re like, I gotta figure out where we are and how we’re going to segue back into the play.

“But I think I’ve improvised in almost every project I’ve done. I always figure, if they don’t like it, they can just cut it. And I’m always shocked when a lot of the stuff I do ends up in the final cut. There was one time on ‘The Wire’ when I decided I was going to say (his signature swear word) for a really long time — longer than I had ever done it — just for the crew, to make them laugh. I think it was the last episode, and I hit it really, really long. And it ended up in the episode! I’ll never forget, I was sitting at home in New York watching the show and they used the take where it just went on and on and on and I thought, oh my God, what have I done? (Laughs)

“But it’s good to improvise. I like to improvise my way into a scene, especially when I’m doing a film, because I have a hard time doing something where they say, ‘Action!’ and boom, you’re there. I can’t do that. I’ve got to just roll in. I need a little bit of a head start.”

The takeaway …

“(Long laugh) That I needed to look at myself and think about my own discipline and worry more about what I’m doing than pontificating on what everybody else should be doing.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t done anything close to that again. I always have these nightmares of missing a performance, so I have to be at the theater I usually get there an hour before to prepare.

“I like to get there early. I like to be settled. I don’t like to be rushed. Otherwise, no telling what you’re gonna get!”

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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