'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Delroy Lindo ('Da 5 Bloods')

Delroy Lindo
David Livingston/Getty Images

The veteran character actor reflects on his decades-spanning collaboration with Spike Lee, shortcomings of the industry and of himself that stunted his early career momentum and, at 68, garnering the best notices of his career for his portrayal of a haunted Vietnam vet.

Delroy Lindo has been one of stage and screen's greatest character actors for more than 40 years. This year, the British-born American has a very real shot of landing his first Oscar nomination — and maybe even a win — for his career-best turn as a MAGA hat-wearing, PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet in Spike Lee's Netflix film Da 5 Bloods.

Lindo's performance has already brought him best actor prizes from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, as well as a best actor Critics Choice Award nomination and, along with his castmates, a best ensemble SAG Awards nominations.

On a recent episode of Awards Chatter, the 68-year-old looked back on the ups and downs of his long journey to this moment.

* * * You can listen to the episode here. Excerpts of the conversation appear below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Evans, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O'Brien, Jodie Foster & Kevin Hart.
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Where were you born and raised and what did your folks do for a living?

I was born in London. My family is Jamaican. My mom was a nurse and was part of the influx of people from the Caribbean to England in the late '40s, '50s and '60s. I have no idea what my father did, bless his heart, aside from being himself, and that's a whole other conversation.

You encountered a lot of racism in your early years in the U.K. In your teens, you and your mother moved to Canada and then the U.S.

My mom was an extraordinary woman on many levels. I have for many years been deeply aware of the sacrifice that my mom made and, frankly, the vision that my mom exercised in understanding that she needed to make a better life for herself and for me outside of the United Kingdom.

Eventually you wound up in San Francisco going to the American Conservatory Theater, starting there at the same time as Denzel Washington. And after graduating, you moved to New York.

I started in the theater, and I was a New York-based theater actor for 10 years before I started doing film.

Your screen career took off with three films that you made in four years with Spike Lee: Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994) and Clockers (1995) — but then there wasn't another for 25 years. Which begs the question: Did something happen?

Not that I'm aware of, I swear to God. He may have thought I was a pain in the ass. I'm really not sure. Over the years, I would bump into Spike intermittently, and we would always say, "Man, we gotta do something," but it would never happen. He wanted me to do [1996's] Get on the Bus, and I couldn't — I had committed to something else — and he may have been upset about that. Then there was a project that Spike was going to produce with a young director, and they wanted me to do that. I wanted to do it, but we couldn't make the deal work. So I don't know if cumulatively those two things left him thinking that I had become too big for my britches or something.

From being "the guy from Spike Lee's movies," you were cast in several high-profile films by other notable directors — Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty (1995); Ransom (1996) for Ron Howard; and Danny Boyle's follow-up to Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary (1997). But then things dried up. What do you think that was about?

What do you think it was about?

Well, I have my suspicions.

It would not surprise me if your suspicions are in concert with what I think. I could say, "Had I been white …," which is kind of boring and reductive, even if true. There are other components, too. I made some strategic missteps. One of the biggest missteps was probably thinking that I was important. (Laughs.) I thought it was a meritocracy, that good work would beget more good work. No, not quite. I also was not as strategic or as diplomatic as I could have been in certain situations. I needed to communicate in a way that could not be perceived as either ungrateful or bigheaded because I needed to understand that, whereas some other actors might be given some latitude, I was not going to be given that latitude because of who and what I am. And so, cumulatively, those various components resulted in certain people saying, "This guy's an asshole and he's difficult." And you know and I know that when one is labeled with the D-word, it can be the death of a career.

Even through the mid '90s into the early '00s, your work was always excellent, even if it was less widely seen, like the HBO movie Soul of the Game, in which you played Satchel Paige. Some will remember you, even with relatively brief screentime, in The Cider House Rules.

That's a great example of work that I'm really proud of. Offscreen, there were some dynamics between myself and the studio, Miramax, that probably did not endear me to Harvey Weinstein. I wasn't late to work. I wasn't doing drugs. It was nothing like that. Just small things that cumulatively can make people say, "Life's too short." When the film was released, one of the first reviews said, "Delroy Lindo deserves an Oscar nomination," and one of the producers involved with the film called my agent at the time and said, "This is his Oscar year." Strategically, though, the studio decided that it was not going to be my year — it was going to be somebody else's year. [For Cider House, Michael Caine won his second Oscar for best supporting actor.]

In recent years, you've done everything from voicing a rottweiler in Up to playing a lawyer on CBS All Access' The Good Fight. And then, after 25 years, along comes Spike again.

I took some time out to get a master's from NYU, and during that time I ran into Spike on Broadway. We were catching up, and a gentleman walked past and said, "Oh, Spike Lee! Hey man, I love you!" Then he looked at me and said, "Oh, oh, oh! You! You're a really good actor, man!" And Spike said, "This is Delroy Lindo, man!" It was the way that Spike said it that seemed to be full of appreciation. Now Spike calls me up and says, "I'm doing this film, and I want to send you the script." He sends me the script, and my character is not only a Trump supporter but a MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter. And that was anathema to everything I stand for. So at our next conversation, I said, "Man, I love the script. But can we talk about the MAGA piece? I really would rather not do that, bruh. Can we make the character an arch-conservative without specifically being a MAGA hat-wearing Trumpite?" Spike said, "Let me think about it, man."

Three or four days later, I get a text from Spike, "Hey man, I really need Paul to be a Trumpite. I need this. If you really don't want to do that, you can play …" and he offered me one of the other parts. At that point, I knew that Spike really wanted me in the film and really wanted us to work together, and that was very affirming, so I called him up and I said, "Can you give me a couple of days?" I read it two more times, and it became clear that Paul was the part for me, just a magnificent part. And my lady also read it and said, "No, you gotta play Paul." In reading it the two additional times, I realized that not only is Paul a great part but I was able to create for myself a scenario that justified how I could become a MAGA hat-wearing Trumpite. And once I was able to arrive at that understanding, there was no other part for me but Paul.

What did you make of the fact that Spike had you guys play your younger selves in the flashbacks?

It's part of Spike's genius. I have learned subsequently that it was partially a budgetary decision. All I can tell you is that when I read it, it made complete sense that they would be their contemporary selves in those flashbacks. And in the playing of the scenes, it made even more sense because we had spent all of this time revering [Chadwick Boseman's character] Norm.

You have a pretty incredible four-minute, straight-to-camera monologue late in the film.

I didn't know it would become a thing. But in the morning, we filmed that scene, and in the afternoon, we filmed the scene between Chadwick and myself at the river, when I first meet Chadwick's character. We did a number of takes, and it was wonderful. Each one was different, so it never became rote. In retrospect, this is why I became an actor in the first damn place, to do this kind of work.

Interview edited for length and clarity.