TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Isiah Whitlock Jr.

This week, we’re joined by actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. He played the morally compromised “Clay Davis” in the iconic television series “The Wire.” He’s also appeared in some of our favorite films including “Goodfellas,” “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” “25th Hour” and last year’s “Da 5 Bloods.” His latest project teams him up with Bryan Cranston in the new Showtime series “Your Honor.” Isiah chats with Jesse Thorn about landing a role in “Goodfellas,” how he came to embrace his signature catchphrase and playing complicated characters. Plus, we’ll ask him about playing 12 different characters in the “Law and Order” universe. All that and more on the next Bullseye!

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team.

jesse thorn

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. Isiah Whitlock Jr has been a working actor for a very long time. He got his first TV parts in the ‘80s, started acting onstage well before that. Like any good working New York actor, he’s also had over a dozen cameos on different version of Law & Order. In the early 2000s, though, he got a role that changed the trajectory of his career. He played state senator Clay Davis on The Wire: a corrupt but charming Baltimore politician who manages to gum up plans for drug dealers, fellow politicians, and police officers alike. You might recall his catchphrase—an expletive which he said in an extraordinary, extended manner. Anyway, while Whitlock’s role in The Wire was a huge break for him, it showed the world something that was always true. Whitlock is a compelling screen presence. He can be charming or menacing or funny. Sometimes, he is all those things at once. Last year, he starred in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, with Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and the late Chadwick Boseman. These days, he’s starring alongside Bryan Cranston in the new TV show Your Honor, on Showtime. It’s a legal thriller that revolves around the coverup of a hit and run involving the son of a New Orleans judge, played by Cranston. Isiah plays Charlie, Cranston’s character’s best friend. In this scene, Michael meets Charlie at a diner. He’s just asked him for a pretty huge favor: to help him dispose of his son’s car.

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Charlie (Your Honor): It’s gotta be painful for you—seeing it there every day, in the street, outside your home. If you were never to see it again, it would be harder for a day or so. The absence. [Beat.] And then… [sighs]. Drop the key behind the front-left wheel. Give me a few hours. I don’t have a brother. And then again, I do.

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jesse

Isiah Whitlock, welcome to Bullseye.

isiah whitlock

Thank you! Thanks for having me.

jesse

And congratulations on cornering the market on moral relativity in acting. [Isiah laughs.] At this point, I think you’re [chuckling]—anytime someone needs somebody to do something kind of shady. Not absolutely, purely shady, but preeetty shady—

isiah

I’m good—I’m good with the shade. I’m good with the shade. Yeah. Ask me to do something outright? Maybe not. But a little shady? Yeah. I can handle that.

jesse

[Chuckles.] How did you get this part?

isiah

They called up, presented it to me. You know. And I looked it over, found out what it was, who it was. And just the thought of being able to work with Bryan Cranston and people like Michael Stuhlbarg, Hope Davis—I really just jumped at the chance. And it—the part also presented me a little bit of a challenge, because—you know, I’m always sort of trying to—I mean, after doing Clay Davis in The Wire, you know, you make a hard stamp. And I’m always looking for things to be able to kind of move away from that. And even though there are some similarities with this character, there’s enough there to make it seems like it’s a little bit different. I can do some different things. I can really kind of open up and that really excited me.

jesse

I mean, it’s really something to think that you were about 50 years old when you got a career defining role and then here you are in your mid-60s. You just starred in a movie! In Da 5 Bloods, a critically acclaimed movie. It’s odd parts of your life to have these kinds of extraordinary career milestones, but in a way kind of good parts of your life to have those things happen? Like, you’d hate to have done those things at 20 and have it be all downhill from there.

isiah

[Chuckles.] Yeah. I never really looked at it that way. I mean, I guess in hindsight—you know—maybe I’m making up for some lost time, because I gotta say I didn’t play roles like this when I was in my 20s. I pretty much basically, when I looked at it—I waited for the landscape to change. And when the landscape changed, I was still there. So, I was able to get some of these roles and do a lot of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, but just never got the chance to do in my 20s and 30s.

jesse

Yeah, I looked at your IMDb and you know, you’ve been working as an actor for more than 40 years, now. But one of the things that jumped out to me—in terms of your screenwork—was that you had played 12 different characters on various _Law & Orders. [They laugh.]_ And if that isn’t a working New York actor, I don’t know what is!

isiah

[Laughs.] Look, they kept calling me back. I kept going in, doing the job. I didn’t realize it was that many, but I think it would be hard-pressed to find anybody else who was on that show more than me! I mean, with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent—I mean, I did them all. And one of the funniest things was I was on the original first episode of Criminal Intent. And my agent called me, ten years later, and he said, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The good news is, they’re bringing your character back on Criminal Intent. The bad news? It’s gonna be the last episode they ever do.” [They chuckle.] And so, [laughing] I was on the first one and I was on the last one. And the squalid part about this story is that I was still available after ten years. [They laugh.] That—the—that they called up and they knew, “Well, you know, we could—we could always get Isiah. You know? We’ll find him.” So, I did quite a few of them.

jesse

You grew up in South Bend, Indiana—which is probably better known for football than it is for entertainment. What was your interest, as a kid? Did you think that you were gonna grow up to become an actor?

isiah

Nooo. I was pretty much into sports. Football, things like that, when I was in high school. I didn’t really have any desire to be an actor. But then I went away to college, in Minnesota—a place called Southwest State, Minnesota—and I played football there for about a year. I got banged up so much. I mean, I had concussions and broken ankles and—to me, it just didn’t seem to make sense anymore. I mean, I thought, “If you’re not gonna play professional football”—which I was not—“what was the point?” So, I had to start looking for something else. And I wandered by the theatre department. They were doing a production of The Crucible. And I managed to get a part in The Crucible—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—and I’ve been working ever since!

jesse

It must have been a pretty different scene, in the theatre department, than it was on the football team.

isiah

Uh, it was. It was. And [chuckles] I got—I got—took a lot of ribbing for going to the theatre department. It was interesting! Because, at that time, Jim Brown—the great Jim Brown, football player—had left the Cleveland Browns to become an actor, in Hollywood. And so, you know, like The Dirty Dozen and things like that. And so, people were like, “So, who—what are you trying to do? You trying to be like Jim Brown? You wanna go to—be like Jim Brown and be this athlete turned actor?” And I was like, “No.” I mean, I really had found something that I really enjoyed. And, to me, it wasn’t just the acting. It was—it was the plays and the literature, and I really got into it. And, you know, Chekov and Shakespeare and all of these different writers. My grades in everything just shot up and I was on the Dean’s list because I was really excited about it! And really prepared myself to be an actor, from that point on.

jesse

I don’t know how else to ask this, but how many other Black folks were there at Southwest State, Minnesota?

isiah

Uuuh… there was me. [Beat.] [They laugh.]

jesse

Let the record state, I am presuming that you have your thumb pointed out and you’re about to, like, lift your index finger and then your middle finger. [They chuckle.]

isiah

There were not very many of us. I would say there was—there was a handful. And we were—we—you know, at that time we were a pretty close-knit group. You know? Because we’re talking about 1972, ’73? Roundabout there. And so, you know, the world was changing and going through that whole change of ‘60s, ‘70s, that kind of a thing. So, you sort of made your way. You did the best you could. You know. And then I went out to San Francisco and got the culture shock of my life and—but I survived that and after that I was able to do pretty much anything or go anywhere.

jesse

Did you go to San Francisco to become an actor? I know you—I know you were at ACT for a time.

isiah

Yeah. I had gone out in the summer of 1975, just for like a summer program that they had. And they liked me enough to ask me to stay there and go to school there and study there. But—

jesse

I should say that ACT’s the American Conservatory Theatre.

isiah

Right. Right. American Conservatory Theatre. And I had promised my dad that I would finish college. That was a big thing for me. I knew what it meant to him. So, I said, “I can’t stay, but if I can go back and finish college and come back, I’ll do it.” And that’s what they let me do. And I went back to the American Conservatory Theatre, studied for about two or three years, and then they took me into the company there. I was in the company there for about four years. And then, after I left there I came to New York.

jesse

Had either of your parents gone to college?

isiah

No. Nobody in my family had gone to college. And I had quite a large family. So, it really did mean a big thing to finally have somebody take that step and finish. And just how proud my father was—I’ll never forget that.

jesse

Was it a hard choice to make or an easy one? To go back?

isiah

It was an easy choice to make. Easy choice. Very easy. I even started—I sang with a band when I was in college. And they wanted to leave school and go on the road and everything. Which they did, but again, I dropped out of the band ‘cause I said, you know, “I gotta finish college.” I didn’t—one, I didn’t go to college to join a band. And I said, “I’ve gotta finish school.” So. Clutch and the Shifters was the name of the band. [Laughs.]

jesse

Oh, I was about to say—well, I was gonna say it, ‘cause it would be more fun if I said it.

isiah

[Laughing.] Oh, you can go ahead and say it.

jesse

Prove that it said it, here on my notes: Clutch and the Shifters—members of a middle-American music hall of fame, or something along those lines.

isiah

Yes! We’re in the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan is in that—in that hall of fame. So, you know, when people start to knock it—you know. Look. When people start to knock it, I always say, “Well, you know, and you’re in what hall of fame?” I mean. [They laugh.] So, you know. I mean, a hall is a hall, you know? But it’s a rock and roll hall of fame. You know. So, I’m very proud of that moment.

jesse

You went to ACT and your classmates at ACT included—among others—Delroy Lindo, who was one of the other stars of Da 5 Bloods, and perhaps ACT’s most distinguished alumnus: a guy called Denzel Washington, who folks might have heard of. What were you studying there? How was it different from going and—you know, getting an MFA from Yale School of Drama or whatever?

isiah

I didn’t know that much about say like Yale or Juilliard or places like that. I mean, you heard about them. And, you know, they were like the major programs. My whole feeling, at that time, was the fact that—you know—any program wanted me. I mean, it was like I didn’t really care too much where I was. And in hindsight, you know, if you can act, you can act. And I had a pretty good setup when I was at ACT. I mean, I was in a company there, working with some great actors and things like that. But it was quite a class when I look back. I was a couple of years ahead of Delroy and Denzel, but we were all there in San Francisco—Danny Glover was in San Francisco, at that time. You know, you had interactions. You know, when I—when I went to Thailand to shoot Da 5 Bloods, to be able to talk to Delroy after 40 years about that time was special, because we were all sort of like making our way and trying to find out, you know, who we were as human beings, as actors. And, you know, the mistakes and things like that that you’ve made along the way. But the successes that we’ve had. And yet, we were still standing after all those years.

jesse

What specifically did you talk about?

isiah

Uh, we talked about just the situation in the school and being in the company and kind of like the state of theatre at that time, because at that time there wasn’t very much to do. So, they were desperate times. I mean, you had to really scratch and seek out where the work was. A lot of stuff was in New York, because—you know, they had the Negro Ensemble Company and a lot of other theatres in New York City. But once you got out of New York City, the pickings were kind of slim. So, you always had that in the back of your mind. So, we talked a little bit about that and how the landscape has changed. There’s so many opportunities. You know. I always tell people, I say, “You know, back then you had three channels on television, and you didn’t see very many African Americans on those channels.” So, you always sort of went through that period of, “Am I wasting my time doing this? Because I don’t see the opportunities.” That’s why you had to have something a little deeper going on that was holding you there. You know. You had to really love the literature, the plays, the writing, and things like that to kind of help get you through those tough times where you don’t feel like you’re just sitting there treading water or wasting time. And as the landscape started to change, it was able to help you cement yourself in the industry.

jesse

What mistakes did you talk about?

isiah

Well, we talked a little bit about our approach. Our approach. Because my approach was—and pretty much is like my approach today is—I could see the seriousness of the situation, but I didn’t let it get too deep inside me, so to speak, to where it put me on a different course. And I’m not gonna say he did, either. But we talked about how we handle different situations in the theatre, because you couldn’t get too bogged down in the—say, like the politics of the times to let it derail you. And you just sorta had to keep your eyes on the prize and keep going forward.

jesse

I mean, it’s a lot of different responsibilities. I think in—just being in acting school, the politics of that are plenty. [Chuckles.] You know? Not to—not to paint with a broad brush about actors or acting school, but you know, there’s a lot of people with a lot of feelings in theatre school and then to be dealing with the literal politics of the outside world in the early 1970s and to be dealing with the fact that the two of you were African American in a theatre world that—it had basically only occurred this world to include African Americans at all, like, 10 years earlier. [Chuckles.] [Isiah agrees.] You know? Like, to—for—from 0 to 2 out of 100 had happened 10 years previously with, you know, Lorraine Hansberry or whatever.

isiah

Yeah. I remember I had a conversation where we talked about was it a meritocracy, where you go, and would it just all be about a meritocracy and your vision. I never really looked at it that way. You know? I always knew, well, it might be a meritocracy one day, but then there’s other days where I saw a lot of people, you know, sliding through that—it made you wonder. So, you know, you gotta take the bitter with the sweet, the give and take of the business and just not let it get you down. And I still sort of feel that way.

jesse

You have a really wonderful start to your career, on film. Your IMDb and your Wikipedia list two films in which you appeared in 1990, both of which are profoundly beloved cult classics. One is Goodfellas and the others—the other is Gremlins 2: The New Batch. [They chuckle.] I’ve actually seen Gremlins 2: The New Batch more recently. I saw that about eight months or a year ago. It’s a pretty amazing movie. [Laughs.] Can you tell me—can you tell me how it came to be that you ended up in two pretty big movies to start your career? Albeit in small roles.

isiah

Gremlins 2, I think I was like a fireman or something. That might have been like the first or second movie that I—that I did. I was really, like, trying to scratch things out. But Goodfellas was interesting, because I had become a member of The Actor’s Studio and Paul Newman was looking for some people to come over to his apartment and read The Color of Money, with Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise. And I went over to the apartment to read.

jesse

You said, “Sorry, I’m busy. I have plans, Paul Newman.” [Isiah laughs.] “I have a date. Sooo…”

isiah

Yeah, it’s like, “Look, uh, you know, I gotta go over to Paul’s apartment and sit on the couch and read.” And he had a handful of people there. And we’re all sitting around and we’re—and we’re reading The Color of Money and, of course, I wanted a part in the movie. And I didn’t get a part in the movie. That part went to Forest Whitaker. But when Goodfellas came around, I went to audition for Goodfellas. I got an audition for Goodfellas and I got a callback! And I got called back for—I can’t remember the actor’s name, but the scene is when he comes to Joe Pesci with the bill and Pesci hits him over the head with the bottle. He owns the restaurant or whatever. And I thought, “Well, there’s no way they’re gonna cast me in this part. But I got a callback, so I’m not gonna say no! I haven’t really done a movie.” So, I go, and I walk in and Scorsese says, “I know you from somewhere." And I said, “Yeah, I did those readings on the couch for The Color of Money.” And he says, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s great. That’s great.” He says, “Well, look. The part you auditioned for—you can’t play that. But I do have this role of a doctor. It’s a very, very small part, but it’s very instrumental to the movie. It’s the only guy that Henry Hill trusts. He’s all coked out and everything like that. Do you think you could do that for me? I know it’s not much. But do you think you could do that?” And inside I’m saying, “Act like you’ve been there. Act like you’ve been there.” And I say, “Yeah, yeah, sure, Marty. Yeah, I—I think I could do that. Uh, yeah! Yeah. Yeah, yeah!” And [chuckles]—so, he said, “Great.”

jesse

“Let me check in with Paul real quick. I’m going over to his apartment later."

isiah

[Laughing.] Right. And that’s how I ended up in Goodfellas! But at the time, I kind of took it in stride until I started going out and I started telling people, "Yeah, you know, I got this part in this movie, Goodfellas.” And that was the big story was how the hell did you get a part in Goodfellas? Which was called Wise Guy, at the time. And I was working a job at a restaurant and there was one guy who actually said, “Look, tomorrow I’m going down and I’m gonna audition for Goodfellas, because if you got a part, I know I’m gonna get a part.” [They laugh.] It’s like, “They must just be giving parts away in this movie if they hired you!” Well, he—needless to say, he didn’t get a part and screw him. [Chuckles.]

jesse

We’ve got so much more with Isiah Whitlock Jr still to come. We haven’t even talked about The Wire, yet! We’ll talk about that and about how he came to embrace Clay Davis’s signature catch phrase. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

Welcome back to Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m talking with actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. He’s performed in movies like Goodfellas and Da 5 Bloods. He played state senator Clay Davis on The Wire and he’s starring in the new Showtime series Your Honor. Let’s hear the rest of our conversation. Your character on The Wire, Clay Davis, he was briefly in the first season of the show, right? You— [Isiah confirms.] It was—it was just starting up when you went in. Did you get to read any whole scripts before you went in for that part? Or had you just seen little sides?

isiah

No, the thing with The Wire is also very interesting, because I was in season one and season two, but I was only supposed to be there at a cocktail party. There was no storyline, there was nothing written. It was just this state senator. After those, they decided, “Well, we should maybe do something with this. We should maybe do a storyline.” And when they called me to come back for season three, I initially said no. Because I thought it was just gonna be this sort of cocktail party stuff and I was doing Othello in Alabama. And I said, “No, I can’t be bothered. I just—I’m not gonna go.” And my agent called me, and he says, “Are you sure?” I said, “No!” I said, “I’m doing Othello, down here in Alabama! I can’t be concerned with some little cocktail party.” And they finally convinced me to go and David Simon pulled me aside and said, “Now, we’ve got this whole thing set up, this whole storyline where you’re gonna be ripping off the drug dealers and things like that. And their thing—they’re ripping you off and you’re gonna be ripping them off.” And that’s when I got excited about it, but I was never, ever on their radar from the beginning.

jesse

Was the show on your radar? I mean, did you realize by then what it was? [Isiah confirms.] Not many folks were watching it, at the time.

isiah

Yeah. I did, because I had a lot of friends on the show. And you know, I mean I thought the show was great. I just didn’t—I really, at the time, just didn’t see myself in it. And then, when I got on it—I can admit this, now—my biggest fear was that—I said, “Don’t be the weak link. This is like a great show. Don’t be the weak link. Don’t be the guy—” You know, they say, “Oh yeah, The Wire and then that guy [chuckles]—Isiah Whitlock—other than that, the show’s, like, fantastic!” But I was terrified. I was just terrified, you know. I said, “This could go one of two ways.” But that being said, I had the courage enough to do what I wanted to do and when I was at the American Conservatory Theatre, the artistic director—Bill Ball—would always say, “Fail big. If you’re gonna fail, fail big.” So, I thought, okay, I’m gonna fail big and kind of go for it and play what I feel or what I think this character should be. And there was a period where I thought, “Oh, I know they’re gonna fire me.” But then I also thought, “You know, if they don’t like it, they can always cut it.” But nobody ever said anything to me and they just kind of let me continue to create. And it was that freedom that they gave me that allowed me to just even do more stuff and solidify that character.

jesse

How did you feel the impact of your work on The Wire? Did folks talk to you about it?

isiah

Uh, every day. Every day. It—at the end of The Wire, David Simon came to me and he said, you know, “You know you’re gonna have to live with the catch phrase and everything like that.” And I didn’t believe him. I thought, nah, you know, a year from now nobody’s gonna really pay too much attention to it. But there’s a few things there. One, I had to live with the catchphrase, but I also saw how the character affected people. It’s like you’re a bad guy and you’re gonna make people love you. It would be so easy to just sort of dismiss the character. But the key is to make people like you and make people enjoy you when they see you. And I thought I was able to do that on the show and then fast forward to today, people still feel that way. I mean, there’s times when, you know—not just here, but around the world, places I’ve gone where people stopped me in Venice or New Zealand or something like that and they’re going on and on and on about The Wire and my character on The Wire.

jesse

You alluded to your character’s catchphrase, which was an expletive that starts with S-H and, in the show, is—I’m trying to public radio this—and in the show is extended and emphasized. And in fact—I mean, I guess this is just gonna sound like… on the radio at least it’ll sound like a beep. But the first appearance of you [laughing], like a comic book—the first appearance of—[laughing] of my guest, Isiah Whitlock Jr saying an extended expletive that starts with S-H on film was in the 25th Hour, the Spike Lee movie. And why don’t we take a listen to that?

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Music: Ominous orchestral music. Agent Flood (25th Hour): You know, it’s a good thing I found this. It’s gonna make your sofa so much more comfortable to sit on. [A comically long censor beep.] Mr. Brogan, I do believe you’re [censored].

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jesse

[They giggle.] So, on The Wire, were they already aware of your extraordinary ability to say that particular expletive?

isiah

Uh, that I don’t know. I—you know, it was weird, because when I got on The Wire, I really didn’t wanna do it. I really didn’t wanna do it in the 25th Hour. I remember when I auditioned for the 25th Hour, I did that and Spike Lee kind of laughed and said, you know, “You should keep that.” But when I got to set, I had some other stuff rigged up that I was gonna do. It was—I heard, “Cut.” He said, “You should do that thing you do.” And I said, “Uh, what?” He said, “You know. That thing you were doing at the—at the audition. Yeah, do that.” And, uh, I said, “I was thinking about maybe trying to do that later.” He said, “No, I think you need to do that now and you can also do it later.” And so, that’s when I—when I did it, pulling the stuff out of the—the stuff out of the couch. And so, that’s where that started. And then when I got onto The Wire—I mean, saying that word is common. [Jesse agrees.] You know, especially among African Americans. It wasn’t like the first time you had heard it. I think the difference was the way I did it and where you place it in the nose and the—I mean, you know, I’m not gonna get too technical, but it—that’s what started to get a little—that’s what I thought elevated it. So, when I got on The Wire, it was written into a couple of the scripts that I had. And at first I thought, [skeptically] “Eeeh, I don’t know—I don’t know if I wanna do that.” But then I thought, “Ah, what the hell.” You know? “I’ll just let it rip.” And the next [chuckles]—next episode, it ripped, and it kept ripping and kept ripping and all of the sudden it became a part of my life. [Laughs.]

jesse

I mean, one of the wonderful things about that television show is that it is so grounded—especially relative to other dramatic TV—that when there is something ridiculous or magical, like those moments can play perfectly fine, because—because it is so not ridiculous of a program. I mean, it’s like the least ridiculous dramatic television show you could make. And so, it plays. Because— [Isiah agrees.] Everything else is a profoundly sincere deconstruction of power structures in America.

isiah

But again, the key is making that thing sincere. It has to be sincere, otherwise—if they see you blink, if they see you are not totally committed to it, that’s when it becomes—you know—this weird sort of caricature type thing. But if you place it right and you really commit to it and you really make it honest and sincere about how it is you feel about something, they have no reason but to buy it. And when you look at a lot of these characters similar to that, that’s what I—that’s what I always see, is that if you really commit to it, it can work for you.

jesse

I think that that same thing is true of that character in general. I mean, I think it’s easy to portray a corrupt politician as a sort of unvarnished, pure evil. But I think Clay Davis exemplifies something that I think is probably a lot closer to the way corrupt politics actually play out in the real world, which is people who have their vision for the world and the way that they wanna change their world, represent their community. It gets tied up in their own identity of who they are, and they start making compromises about how to get that, moving forward. And you know, it’s a lot more complicated than just—you know—twiddling the ends of a curly moustache.

isiah

Yeah. You gotta keep it very, very subtle and you gotta stay ahead of the viewer with what it is you’re doing. It’s not an easy part to play, I felt. Because you know, there’s a lot of traps there. And it can just become sort of like this evil guy. But the real key to me, with Clay Davis, was I was like I’m gonna make it to where you can’t dismiss me. Where you just can’t say, “Oh, he’s the bad politician,” or whatever. I’m gonna make it to where you need to deal with me. You can’t dismiss me. You’ve gotta watch me. You’ve gotta be aware of what it is I’m doing, because I can go one way or the other. And when I look at some of the politicians we have today—I’m not gonna start mentioning names, but that’s what they do.

jesse

Yeah, I mean, The Wire ultimately was not a show about good people caught up in a bad system—though, I guess you could probably say that of the children, at least—or bad people perpetrating a bad system, but human beings in a system that chews them up to various degrees, who are just human. You know? Speaking of grace notes, there are a lot of celebrities who have their own brand of alcohol. The only celebrity whose alcohol I can say I’ve ever purchased is E-40. Shoutout to E Cuarenta Tequila and Slurricane. That’s sort of my responsibility as a native of the Bay Area. Most of those did not start their process by making the alcohol in their house in like a series of tubes and vats. [Isiah laughs.] And the second that I read that you were trying to make chardonnay in your dining room, I [chuckling]—I was over the moon about it! I mean, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. So, when did you decide that you could make wine in your apartment in New York City?

isiah

You know, you’re sitting there and you’re drinking—you’re drinking a little wine. Maybe I was drinking a little too much. And I said, “Well, how hard can this be?” So, I went out and I bought like all of the equipment and some fairly sophisticated equipment and—but just on a small scale. And I made—I made chardonnay and I made a cabernet Sauvignon. And I got the juice. It was frozen, which is what they do a lot now. And you know, I read up on it. And I started making it in my apartment. This is after I broke up with my girlfriend, but [chuckles] otherwise she would have said, you know, “There’s no way.” You know. “Get this stuff out of here.” Because it really consumed, like, the whole apartment. And it’s—it did smell a little bit, but— [They laugh.] But it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. And then I found a place in New Jersey—a place called California WineWorks, and they had a big facility and everything like that. So, I was able to source the grapes from Napa and then do the blending and the fermenting and all of that there. And that’s what I did. And now I make very good wine. I always take it to—if I take it to a party, I just put it there and let people drink it and they go, “Oh my god!” You know. “This is really good! Where—who is this? Who is this?” And it’s like, “Well, it just happens to be, uh, Whitlock.” But if I come right out and tell them that I made it, usually they don’t touch it. You know. They look at me and they look at the wine and they say, “Okay, I think I’ll have a coke.” [Chuckles.]

jesse

You named one of the wines after a dance associated with Rufus Thomas hit from the mid-‘70s. For like—it’s one of the ones he does in Wattstax or something like that.

isiah

Yeah, the Funky Penguin. [They chuckle.]

jesse

So, I can tell you’re enjoying it, is what I’m saying.

isiah

Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, the Funk Penguin was a dance that was real big back in the ‘70s. You know. Which I was very adept at doing. You know. That’s what I did when I was with Clutch and the Shifters. You know. I wore a silk lame suit and I did the Funky Penguin and you know, the rest is history. [They laugh.] Hey! We’re in the hall of fame, okay? We’re in the hall of fame! I couldn’t have—I couldn’t have been that bad! [Laughs.]

jesse

Now I’ve got you in my head like swirling—swirling the wine around in your mouth saying, like, “I taste notes of—notes of cherries and—you know, vanillins, and—"

isaiah

North pole. [They laugh.] If I get a bigger operation than my living room, you’ll see it on your shelves. You know.

jesse

Well, Isiah Whitlock Jr, I sure appreciate you coming on Bullseye. It was really nice to get to talk to you.

isiah

Thank you so much.

jesse

Isiah Whitlock Jr. As we said before, he is starring alongside Bryan Cranston in the new TV show Your Honor, which is now streaming on Showtime. Go check that out. And if you haven’t seen him in Da 5 Bloods, you should.

music

Thumpy, relaxing music.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created in the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—where construction across the street from my home has not only made it very difficult to record, but also has led me to go through the automated car wash about twice a week. Which, honestly, that’s actually kind of a side benefit. I love going through the automated carwash. Our show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio and Jordan Kauwling are our associate producers. We get help from Casey O’Brien and Kristen Bennett. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Thanks very much to The Go! Team and to their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use that. You can also keep up with the show on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We post all our interviews there. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature signoff.

promo

Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

If you would like to pitch a guest for Bullseye, please CLICK HERE. You can also follow Bullseye on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For more about Bullseye and to see a list of stations that carry it, please click here.

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