Exclusive Interview With Isiah Whitlock Jr. On Cedar Rapids

HBO fans might recognize Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the potty-mouthed Clay Davis from The Wire, but he plays a very different kind of role in the endearing comedy Cedar Rapids, a heartfelt fish-out-of-water story that makes insurance salesmen not only funny, but endearing. With the Cedar Rapids DVD/Blu-Ray release on June 21, Whitlock took some time to talk to us about the film and his role as the forthright Ronald Wilkes.

We Got This Covered: How did you prepare for the role of Ronald Wilkes, considering it is an opposite kind of character then, say, one you’ve played on The Wire?

Isiah Whitlock: Well I think I’ve been preparing for a very, very long time to play Ronald Wilkes, after growing up in Indiana and going to school in Minnesota. When I read the script I remember saying to myself “I really think I can do this, I really want to do this project.” And I just really felt like I had a handle on the way guys acted or carried themselves in the Midwest, without making fun or anything like that, but just being honest and true and having those values and things like that. I really just thought I’d been in training for a very long time, and chatted with Miguel about what we wanted to do and everything like that and set about to do it

WGTC: Did you choose the geekiness level of your character or was that scripted?

IW: A lot of that was scripted. There were times when I went away from that and Miguel kind of had to reel me in. Not being geeky or anything like that, I mean it was all scripted about who he was and what they wanted me to be to balance out the group and the other characters. I never had to push to go real far, you just had to be honest to what was on the page and try to portray that. But there were times when I kind of started moving in a different direction and Miguel would kind of pull me aside and say “you know Isiah, you’re having way too much fun in the bar the way Isiah would have fun in the bar, but we need to find out how Ronald Wilkes would have fun at the bar.” So he would kind of reel me in every now and then.

WGTC: So was the atmosphere behind the scenes as fun as it was in the movie? Because you guys all seemed to be having such a great time.

IW: It was. We had a great time. It was so cold at the time we were shooting we had to kind of band together. But I could tell from day one, I remember texting back my manager that we all kind of liked each other and respected one another. And to me that’s the key, that it was us against the rest of the world. And we were just having such a great time going through and working through the scenes. And the beauty is that a lot of that came through and you can see it in the movie. I don’t think that’s something you can fake, you know, but we all just had an incredible time working together.

WGTC: There was such a natural rapport that you had with each other. Did you stay in the same hotel or even the same room to develop that intimacy?

IW: No, but we had to shoot the movie in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and when we were in the hotel, we stayed in like this abandoned hotel, so you really couldn’t go anywhere or venture off, I don’t want to say you didn’t have privacy or anything like that, but you kind of had to stay close. But you know, to me, I found everyone to be so interesting when we were setting up a shot and we weren’t filming; you know, it was Ed with his helicopters or John C. Reilly would be talking about things he’d done, or Anne Heche, and I just remember being so fascinated, and we were all bonding in that way. And when they would say action and we would shoot, a lot of that energy just kind of rushed into the scene. And we just kept it going.

WGTC: Was it intimidating at all working with Ed Helms or John C. Reilly since they’re such comedic heavy-weights and you had that great synergism?

IW: Intimating? No. I think if you’re going to be intimidated you probably wouldn’t be sitting there. What you do have is an incredible amount of respect. What you have to do is kind of let them do their things, and allow them that kind of freedom and then you do your thing. And you try to add to what they’re doing, playing off one another, that’s the beauty of it. They’re great comedians, trust me, and great actors, as their resumes will show. But I don’t have a problem with stuff like that, I’ve been around long enough to not be so wide-eyed.

WGTC: How fun was that scene at the party when you broke out and pretended to be a gangster?

IW: The thing is, that’s the first scene we shot. In hindsight I’m glad it was because I think that was my first day of shooting, that particular scene, and then we kind of backtracked and worked back, but I was sort of glad we got that out of the way because I was sort of still in a serious mode, and that’s what the scene needed. And then we could sort of get rid of that and play some of the other stuff so it was good that I had gotten that out of my system before we started working on some of the other scenes. And also it was warmer at the time, still cold but a little bit warmer than if we had shot that in December. But it was fun, and it freed me up to do some other stuff in the movie.

WGTC: So were the references to The Wire in the script or were those your idea?

IW: That was in the script. And we had talked about cutting that, and it had been discussed because they thought it might be too “wink wink,” but they fought for it and kept it in and the rest is history. I think that moment plays very well, and one of the reasons it does is because I kind of set it up where you just don’t really see it coming. Because the character hasn’t given any hints of anything like that up until that point, and that’s why that moment works so great because it just kind of comes out of nowhere. By the time you get to that moment you kind of have forgotten that this Ronald Wilkes is the same guy that played Clay Davis. That’s the hard part is to make everybody forget and then to lay that on them. I think it was just beautiful.

WGTC: What did you think of the script and your character when you first read it?

IW: I thought the script was great, and I thought the character was great. Because you don’t see characters like that on the screen that much, and for me to get a chance to play someone like that, like Ronald Wilkes, I thought “this is terrific, I get to do something different, something fresh and alive and let me see if I can pull this off.” And when I was at the screening of the finished movie and I heard the audience’s reaction to the end, I knew it was a great thing and that we had made a great movie that really worked.

Whitlock also added that his favorite scene to shoot in the film was the bar scene, which featured the straight-laced Ronald and Tim (Helms), as well as the rest of the gang, letting loose. It was also his favorite scene to watch in the movie.

We’d like to thank Isiah Whitlock Jr. for taking time to talk to us, and be sure to check back for our upcoming Cedar Rapids Blu-Ray review.