(Photo by David Lee / © Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes’ “Essentials” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee or potential nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview.
What more does Delroy Lindo have to do? Often underutilized, sometimes misunderstood, and frequently underappreciated (in our opinion), Lindo has built a formidable career marked by standout turns as intimidating gangsters, forceful authority and father figures, and, lately, a silver-tongued lawyer. His imposing frame, deep and instantly distinctive voice, have imbued intemperate characters with refined strength, and he’s worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. In other words: His is an almost textbook Hollywood heavyweight career, one you would expect to be punctuated with Oscar noms and hardware on the mantel. And yet…
Even the basic facts of his career have been misconstrued. Following his first two film roles, the 1975 John Candy comedy Find the Lady and the sequel to American Graffiti — More American Graffiti — he returned to the stage for a decade, shining in productions of Macbeth and A Raisin in the Sun; it was a move away from film that many misinterpreted as a conscious choice. “That’s not a decision that I made,” he says, laughing, while he shakes his head in disbelief. Elsewhere, reports have claimed that Lindo played West Indian Archie in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X as manically depressed: “Which is completely inaccurate,” he told Rotten Tomatoes, chuckling. “The moral of the story is don’t listen to the internet.”
After a stellar 55-year career during which he’s brought solemnity to stage, television, and film, an Oscar nomination has eluded Lindo. It’s a gap in his biography that could change after his searing turn as Paul, a Vietnam War vet devastatingly gripped by his past ghosts, in Lee’s 2020 epic Da 5 Bloods. Concerning four Black war veterans returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their fallen commander, and the C.I.A. gold they left buried, Da 5 Bloods not only plays host to arguably the best performance of Lindo’s career, but once more highlights the veteran actor’s distinct ability to bring pathos to complicated, tough-seeming men.
Lindo performances may look effortless, but they are wrought from his dedication to craft and his hard work. Through careful research, practicing the hobbies of his subjects, and learning their psychologies, he builds his characters from the floor up. “I’m a man of the theater,” Lindo says. “It involves doing everything that I can to stay as connected as I can to the material.”
(Photo by © Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)
The stars first aligned for Delroy Lindo while auditioning to be debonair Harlem ‘numbers’ gangster West Indian Archie in Lee’s Malcolm X almost 30 years ago. “The actors had been waiting a long time,” he says. “I remember Sam[uel L. Jackson] was there in the waiting area. Avery Brooks was there waiting.”
Denzel Washington, who starred as X, and Lindo earned their acting stripes together as classmates at the American Conservatory Theater in 1977. “Denzel saw the very first scene I ever did in acting school, and I saw the very first scene he ever did,” he says. Washington read opposite Lindo for his Malcolm X audition, a pairing he believes proved advantageous: “It helped that we knew each other. Not from the standpoint of Denzel helping me get the part. I don’t mean that at all. But we were both familiar with each other as actors.”
Malcolm X inspired a trusting relationship between Lindo and Lee that extended to future collaborations on 1994’s Crooklyn and 1995’s Clockers. In the former, he depicted a father and struggling musician, Woody, barely holding together a destitute Brooklyn family after his wife’s untimely death; for the Brooklyn-set cut-throat gangster flick, Clockers, wherein he portrayed a Fagin-inspired drug lord to a group of young dealers, Lindo suggested impromptu additions to Lee’s script.
(Photo by © Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)
To show that his Rodney cared for his teenage drug dealers, Lindo requested a scene in which the kingpin helped a pusher with their homework. He suggested another scene, inspired by Richard Price’s original novel, involving the teens racing after Rodney and a rival cop Andre (Keith David). While neither made the film, Lee shot the scenes. “If you come to Spike with a thought or an idea that is not in the script that you feel will enhance the narrative, if there’s time and space and money, he’ll film it,” Lindo notes.
His trio of seminal performances with Lee showed Lindo’s unique ability to humanize morally questionable characters. It was an instrumental skill targeted with devastating accuracy as the frustratingly complicated apple picker Mr. Rose in Lasse Hallström’s moving coming-of-age story, The Cider House Rules. It was a role Lindo initially turned down. “I had lunch with Hallström, and at the end of the lunch, he said something like, ‘Well, you know, the part is the part.’ And I remember saying, ‘God bless you. But this part is not for me.'”
(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)
He changed his mind when the filmmaker granted him further latitude to alter the character. Once attached to the project, a familiar inkling seized him: “I did feel the work was going well in that film. I had a similar feeling on Malcolm X and on Da 5 Bloods. It’s a feeling of ‘this feels right.’ There’s a rhythm, there’s a groove that we’re in.”
Still, Mr. Rose was a deeply flawed and challenging character to play. A warm friend to the orphaned Homer (Tobey Maguire) during World War II, he’s revealed as a pedophile who rapes and impregnates his own daughter Rose Rose (Erykah Badu). “In preparing to play that part I spoke with two doctors,” he says. “They both said to me, separately from each other, that in sexually predatory childhood trauma, invariably, the victims protect the perpetrators. Because – not all the time, but frequently – the victims tend to misinterpret the attention of the perpetrators as real love. So I then took that information and I focused on the love point. That was really the only way that I could play that part.”
(Photo by ©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Lindo brought the same laser focus to crafting his characters in big-budget action flicks as he had in prestige dramas and on the stage. On Dominic Sena’s high-octane thriller Gone in Sixty Seconds, in which he plays a detective tracking a gang of Nicolas Cage-led car thieves, Lindo took stunt driving lessons for the film’s exhilarating and hairpin-turn–filled car chases.
For Romeo Must Die, Jet Li’s martial arts action vehicle, he dabbled in golf to develop Isaak, underworld father to Aaliyah’s Trish. “Everybody says, ‘Oh my God, when you pick up a golf club, you’re hooked’ – Courtney Vance said it to me,” Lindo tells us, smirking as he recalls his brief dalliance with the sport. “One time I was on a range in Los Angeles. I hit the ball and it was really true. It sailed elegantly, majestically through the air. I said to myself, This must be what causes golfers to become golf addicts. Because you’re forever chasing that sensation of watching the ball fly through the air.”
He proudly hasn’t picked up a golf club since.
(Photo by © Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection)
That should come as no surprise. While the actor has plenty of blockbusters to his name, he remains comfortably grounded. Sudden fame, on occasions, can obscure an actor’s prior hard-fought work. Lindo remembers first collaborating with James Gandolfini in 1995 on Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, a gangster comedy about a Miami mobster and shyster embroiling themselves in the movie biz, and then re-teaming with The Sopranos actor years later on the Robert Redford-helmed military prison drama, The Last Castle.
“It was really fascinating for me to watch how others reacted to him in the context of this major stardom. I remember the director referring to Gandolfini as, and I’m paraphrasing right now, ‘One of the most brilliant actors he had ever seen,’” Lindo says. “It was instructive, in terms of what happens when you get that one part that just elevates you into this other sphere. Essentially, you’re the same guy, except you’ve done this extraordinary work, and now people look at you completely differently.”
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection)
By way of The Simpsons and Robot Chicken, Lindo periodically explored voice acting, but his most well-known animated appearance, which came with a distinct challenge, can be found in Pixar’s Up. In the beloved Pete Docter film he plays a derpy rottweiler companion to the villainous explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who’s hunting the grieving and cynical Carl and a vibrant flightless bird.
“That was a completely different experience, because there was no material. There literally were drawings: This is what your character looks like, this is what this scene is,” he says. “To their credit, the director and the producers on Up were assuring me that what I was doing was right on. But in terms of the internal process, it felt slightly disconnected. It involves much more of putting oneself at the mercy of other people. That’s hard.”
(Photo by © CBS All Access)
While speaking to the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater & Dance, in 2016, Lindo made mention of a screenplay he has written about his mother’s life as part of the Windrush generation – the people who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. “I have every intention of continuing to work on it and finishing that story because it’s a really important story. But I haven’t had a chance to actually sit down at the computer recently and actually work on the script,” he says. “If the stars line up, knock on wood, I’ll be directing a film at the end of this year. Also my intention is to direct my screenplay.”
The ever-busy Lindo experienced a career resurgence in the late 2010s with a Critics’ Choice-nominated performance in the Certified Fresh first season of legal drama, The Good Fight, one of the first series to launch on CBS All Access (now Paramount+). His four-year run as the sober, dignified managing partner Adrian Boseman reminded audiences of Lindo’s gravitas. Then, in 2020, re-teaming with Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods, Lindo’s distinct ability to give voice to psychologically intricate characters once more came to the surface.
(Photo by David Lee / © Netflix)
While Lindo’s blistering jungle monologue in the film has rightfully garnered widespread acclaim, his final scene — wherein Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) reads a letter from him, eloquently narrated by Lindo – adds a heartfelt layer to Paul’s tangled fatherly love. He compared the sequence to West Indian Archie’s final scene in Malcolm X, wherein the enfeebled former gangster is cared for by his former pupil, X. “Similarly, in Bloods that scene completes Paul’s arc in a beautiful, tender, and also revelatory way. I get to reveal in no uncertain terms, clearly, my love for David, my acknowledgement that all of the crap that has happened in our relationship was not his fault.”
An already iconic scene set in an Apocalypse Now-themed club, in which Lindo and co-stars perform the Soul Train line dance, has introduced Lindo to a new generation – via GIFs and memes. “My son, a few months ago, said, ‘Man, dad, you’re blowing up the internet. Look, look,’” he says, clearly amused. “[The scene] was totally impromptu. We had shot the scenes of us being at the table with the Vietnamese guys staring at us. And then all of a sudden Spike just said, ‘Let’s do this.’” Lindo was game.
Focus and study, total commitment, and a let’s-do-this attitude have propelled the actor along an enviable career path for almost 60 years – and maybe, just maybe, to the Oscars, too.
Da 5 Bloods is available now on Netflix.