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Exclusive: The Wire's Isiah Whitlock, Jr. discusses Cedar Rapids

INTERVIEWS - FILM

Of course I have my guilty pleasures ... antiquing ...

Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Ed Helms, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. star in 'Cedar Rapids' (2011)

From independent drama Pieces of April, to kid-flick Enchanted, to the role of corrupt State Senator Clay Davis on The Wire, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is a true chameleon, with an uncanny ability to lose himself in the moment at hand. Isiah Whitlock, Jr. took some time out of his busy filming schedule to discuss his latest, Cedar Rapids, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray next week.

You are actually from the Midwest. How did you find the representation of Midwestern people in Cedar Rapids?
I thought we did a very good job; you always walk a fine line, where you want to represent the people and not make fun of them. And we were very, very conscious of doing that. We just wanted to make sure that we told a believable and beautiful story, and find the humor in the different situations that were written. And I thought we were very successful with doing that. I know there's a lot of times when it could have gone the other way, but I thought we were very good at reeling that all in and just sticking to the story that we wanted to tell.

Isiah Whitlock, Jr.Absolutely, it seemed very respectful. Did you draw on anybody specific for your character?
There were a couple of people I had in mind. When you grow up in the Midwest – some people say they can't see the difference but I definitely can. I went to school in Minnesota, so when I saw that I would be playing an insurance man from St. Cloud, MN, I thought wow, they got the perfect guy, because there were people I knew who had the same personality traits as Ronald Wilkes. And to be able to bring some of that to the screen and to get the opportunity to show it was fantastic, so I jumped at the chance to play this character.

As far as working with Ed Helms, and John C. Reilly, was it hilarious every day?

It was hilarious every day! They are both brilliant, and they are both so different – you get in between and you're just working off of both of them. As hilarious as I thought they were, they thought I was hilarious, too! Almost like they hadn't seen anyone like me, and I hadn't seen anyone like them either, so we all had a fair amount of respect for one another, and we just played off of one another. Things started to click with the work, and we throw Anne Heche in there, and we just came up with a fantastic group. We all liked one another, respected one another, and it was great.

One of the themes of the movie was putting people in an isolated situation brought about some strong friendships. Was there a parallel with putting your group together in the filming of the movie? It seemed, from interviews with the group that you were really good friends as well.
We had a chance to do a lot of bonding, especially when you see the scenes in the bar, and stuff like that. We spent a lot of time with one another, so when they would say "Action!" we brought a lot of that energy and fun and everything into the scene, which is what it needed. Those scenes are so difficult to play because you're trying to get the right energy and the right moment, where people can say, “I really believe they are in a bar having fun!” without having to push it. And sometimes it can be too much fun, I remember one time Miguel came over and said, “No, Isiah, you're having way too much fun at the bar, here; you need to pull it back, your character isn't like that!”

But it all worked, it all came together, especially because the ending needed to work. And there were so many moments in the movie, so many traps, where I could have given it away. I was capable of doing that, but as you go through the movie you just don't see it coming – you don't see this guy being able to pull something like that off, so when it happens it takes everybody by surprise.

Isiah Whitlock, Jr. in 'Cedar Rapids' (2011)Absolutely! And it worked so well. I've read that the references to The Wire were already in the script before you signed on. But did they have you in mind for the part, then, when they wrote it? Or was that something that just came together organically?
That just kind of came together organically. One of the big things, because I was in The Wire, they thought, “Wait a minute! That's the guy from The Wire – we may need to cut this moment. One is going to have to go!” And I was like, "No! Wait!"

They really wanted me to play the character, and they really wanted to keep that moment in. It's one of the great moments of the movie. To think that it wasn't going to be there, it just gives me the chills. But we worked around it, but the key was, by that moment I needed to be able to make the audience forget that this is Clay Davis playing Ronald Wilkes and I think I was able to do that successfully. It kind of catches everybody by surprise. And you set it up by saying earlier, “I'm a big fan of The Wire' and that's a little bit on the wink-wink side, but you just kind of keep a lid on it, then let it explode, and that's the only thing that gets us out of the crack house – is me channeling Omar Little from The Wire. I have to admit, and I don't think I've said this before – you'll be the first! I worked so hard to do the impression of Omar Little and when I saw it on the screen I was just horrified at how bad it was. Last week I saw Michael Kenneth Richards for the first time since that moment and I said, “I really want to apologize because that was just ...” It looked like yeah, it was Ronald Wilkes trying to do this impression, of Omar Little; but no, that was Isiah Whitlock trying to do an impression of Omar Little! And it was just lame!!

I didn't think so at all! You have more exacting standards than your audience.
It was like, next time I see Michael, I have to apologize.

And what did he say? Did he love it?
Oh, he loved it! He said when he heard about it, he went to the movie by himself and he just screamed when he saw it. But we had a very, very good laugh about it. We had a big benefit with the guy who played Omar, and Marlo, and Bodie – and we had a very, very good chuckle about it.

So you still keep in touch with people you worked with on The Wire?
A fair amount. I love going to some of these benefits and things, if I know they're going to be there it's fun! We just have a good time.

Speaking of the ensembles, I understand you're currently working on a film with James Gandolfini?
Untitled David Chase Project is the working title. It's going very well! And I'm also doing a movie called Predisposed with Melissa Leo, and Jesse Eisenberg, and Tracy Morgan.

What a fantastic cast!
It's awesome. I kind of take it back to working on Cedar Rapids where you are just working with this incredible cast of people.

Ed Helms on the 'Cedar Rapids' (2011) Blu-ray coverCedar Rapids and Pieces of April, a film from a couple years ago, both debuted at Sundance. Was it different, promoting a comedy there, as compared to the drama you'd done before?
There's not much of a difference. This is like my third time being out at Sundance, I've had a great time every time I've gone out. Because Pieces of April was a big hit out at Sundance, and Cedar Rapids was also a big hit, so I've been out with some very very good films and I've always had a good time going out there. This last time was fantastic. People really took a liking to the film and that's all you can hope for. When you're out there you kind of get a sense of the way things are going to go and you kind of feel the audience. But that night, sitting in the theater for the premiere of Cedar Rapids, I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous! But it all came together, it all worked out, and it was such a relief. And after that I had a great time!

You never know, up until that point, you're always so hard on yourself. And you want certain things to work out. The audience will tell you the way things are going to fly, and we got a really good reception that night.

Your webpage says that you're a culinary artist. Any formal training?
No, I just like to cook! But I've studied cooking, gone to Europe to cook, it's one of the things I love doing, but am I going to open a restaurant? No! But I gotta tell you, sometimes, I say, maybe I should open a restaurant, because hey, I've got a better paella than this! But I just enjoy cooking. It seems like it calms me down, it calms everyone else down as well! One thing you always know, people love to drink and eat. I make my own wine and I invite people over and they can enjoy what they want.

Cedar Rapids will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 21, 2011.

See also:

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Interview: Jane Seymour on Waiting For Forever

Exclusive: Warwick Davis on Merlin, Potter, Depp and future Leprechaun

Interview: Casino Jack's Jon Lovitz

Interview: Sylvester McCoy on Hobbit, Minister Of Chance, Who


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