"Wire" actor on his famous catchphrase: "I still say it"

Isiah Whitlock Jr. on his new show, typecasting and the profanity his character Clay Davis made famous

Published September 5, 2013 2:40PM (EDT)

Isiah Whitlock Jr.'s IMDB page is the envy of any aspiring character actor. He was in the climactic sequence in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." He's been in three Spike Lee films. He was on "Chappelle's Show" and played a hilarious sidekick in Ed Helms' "Cedar Rapids." But no role that Whitlock has played has entered pop culture consciousness like Maryland state Sen. Clay Davis. That character, whom Whitlock played on HBO's "The Wire," is now part of the zeitgeist. Same goes for his most recognizable refrain, "sheeeeeeeeeit" -- in the age of pervasive corruption and ever-more-shocking political scandals, it is as poignant as it was when "The Wire" concluded back in 2008.

Whitlock is now working on ABC's upcoming new show "Lucky 7." I caught up with him to discuss what his newest project is all about, how he's learned to playing politicians, and why he thinks Clay Davis is still so relevant. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Let's talk about the new show you're working on. It's a riff off a British show, right?

It's called "Lucky 7," and it is based on a British series called "The Syndicate" -- I would say loosely based. That's where sort of like the original premise comes from, and it's about a group of friends who work at a gas station and we pool our money together every week and we win $145 million and we have to split the money (and) it's basically a show about how winning the lottery affects our lives, affects our friendships, the people around us, things that start to change – some good, some bad – it's not all negative, but it is very, very interesting how, when you get that much money and you're not well-versed in investing and managing mainly, how it begins to affect you.

Many people know you from "The Wire" because you ended up being one of the most memorable characters on that show, Maryland state Sen. Clay Davis. Did everything get easier for your career after you did that character? Did it change things?

I'd like to think it did, but it didn't change fast enough for me. To be quite honest -- it's weird -- there's like a perception that it always leads to bigger and better things and some multi-film career or something like that, but it doesn't. Sometimes you sort of feel like, OK that's over now, you know, try to get your spot back and get back in line.

Even people who didn't watch "The Wire" kind of know something about the guy you played. What do you make of that character really entering the mass psyche?

You know, I never really, never in my wildest dreams, did I think something like that would happen with that character. I mean I came into "The Wire" very, very late -- season 3, I believe. I think I did an episode in season 1 and maybe another episode in 2, but those are basically like being at a cocktail party or something like that. And then they started writing this amazing stuff for me and I just kind of ran with it, but I couldn’t see it at the time I was doing it and never really paid much attention to it until much, much later when people started coming up to me, and I always thought it sort of would go away at some point, but it seems like it's intensified, to be quite honest.

I think Clay Davis was one of those characters that people just, they love to hate, and I think some people kind of got a certain joy out of watching the way I kind of maneuvered myself through this maze of politics with a certain audacity and pompousness and yet there was something very believable about it, probably because when you read about certain people -- and there's a few of them out there -- you are sometimes overwhelmed by the hubris and the audacity that they go about running government and business and then they start to relate it to small things, say, in their own communities and things like that.

When did you get a sense that Clay Davis and his signature profanity had really broken through?

I was in Kansas City, and a guy came up to me and talked about someone "pulling a Clay Davis," you know, and it made me stop and pause and go, Oh my god, you know, what is happening? Another catchphrase is coming, you know?

Look, I'm glad fans like the character and stuff like that, and over the years, I've sort of grown to embrace it, but at first I thought, This can't go on, but even when I go to Europe you see people respond to it. Someone sent me a photo from a train station in Berlin where they had "Sheeeeeeeeeit" across the wall. I said, "OK, I guess I'm going to have to own up to this and embrace it and live with it."

Your line, "sheeeeeeeeeit" -- did the writers of "The Wire" create that, or did you create it? And did they write it in there with some sense of trying to make it iconic?

I say this honestly – I don't think they ever knew. I could be wrong, and God forbid, I would never want to misquote David Simon or anything like that, but I sometimes wonder, was it something that they would put in intentionally, or if it was like – that's part of Isiah's character – that's who he is, and we'll kind of throw that in, you know? And that was that, but they let me do and it all depended on the moment -- if it felt right, if it didn't feel right, if it was warranted, you know, because I was always afraid. I said, "God I don't want to turn out to be some Henny Youngman," or something like that.

So they let you improvise and throw it in there when you thought it might work?

Not really. Usually I would see where it was written and if I had a problem with it, I would speak up, but rarely. Once I saw it there, I thought, OK great, that's an OK to go ahead and do it and I think maybe once or twice I snuck one in. And I always thought if they don't like it, all they can do is just cut it.

There was one time I did one – I was saying goodbye to the crew and I did one that went on forever. And I thought, they can always just cut it. I just did a very, very long "sheeeeeeeeeit," just let it roll, you know, and they decided, yeah, we'll use it. It was very, very funny and everybody thought they liked it, so I thought, well OK, I'll do it. I wish I was that brilliant to foresee stuff like that, but I'm not and I'll be the first person to admit that.

So where did your version of that word come from in your life? Is there a back story?

Yeah, it was something people (in my hometown of) South Bend, Ind., used to say, especially my uncle, and I used to always be fascinated by the way my uncle would do it. I remember one time, I was sitting with my dad and they had gotten a present of some whiskey or something like that. My dad really didn’t drink, but my uncle was trying to get the bottle open. And I remember him saying, “Boy, they got this stuff locked up like Fort Knox.” And he started laughing and he let out this “sheeeeeeeeeit” and it was just – I thought it was hilarious.

So I always thought it was hilarious, so what happened was, to make a long story short, I met with Spike Lee – this was really how a lot of this started – and I did that as an audition for Spike Lee. We kinda joked around with it, and when he cast me in "The 25th Hour," which was the first time I ever did it, I was trying different stuff, and he says, “You know, I think you – try saying that word that you did at the audition, the sheeeeeeeeeit.” I said, “No, I was gonna wait and save that,” and he said, “No, I think you should do it.” So I did and I pulled the money out of the couch and that’s what I said and the rest is history.

What do you think fans assume the meaning of your version of that word is?

When I look at it, it’s usually coming off of something kind of … it’s almost like when somebody does something that’s kind of unbelievable, that that’s the only thing you can say is – it’s kinda like when Clinton says, “I didn’t touch that woman,” and you wanna say, “sheeeeeeeeeit.” It’s kinda like, “Don’t try to run that up my ass.” That’s when I usually say it. And I still say it.

Were you concerned about being typecast after "The Wire"?

Yeah, the one thing that I didn’t want, that I was very careful with, is once you do a character — no matter what it is, how iconic — you wanna say, OK, I did that, I’ve got to be able to do something else, and with "Cedar Rapids" it was the best way to prove, look, I’ve got some flexibility here, some durability, I can go off and do something else. It’s gonna be hard to go with a clean slate, but you’ll be able to go with a clean slate enough to get away from some of these other characters that you do. I think that just shows what kind of actor you are. I think that’s a problem with a lot of actors: What you see is what you’re gonna get. I never wanted to be one of those types of actors. I wanted to create, I wanted to make different people, and I feel especially after my life and the things I’ve seen, I’ve got a lot of characters still in me.

You are now playing another politician, Defense Secretary George Maddox on the HBO show "Veep." What do you think is the key to playing a politician well?

The main thing you wanna do with a lot of these characters, you gotta get off the surface. Just a little bit can take you a long way. And when you look at some of these characters, I think that’s one of the reasons people are attracted to them – you make them very complex. You go deep inside and find the humanity in some of these characters, and almost in a way you wanna make them somewhat sympathetic, even though they probably never would be.

I remember one time I saw a thing with Don King, and I kinda channeled a little bit of that into Clay Davis. They were asking him if he’d any dealings with the Mafia or something like that. He started to tear up and he started to cry and for a minute there, I thought, boy, that’s brilliant, because here he is, Don King, the guy everybody hates – at least I think they do – and he was showing so much emotion and passion. It really made you wonder: Does he believe what he’s saying, or is this some kind of a riff or a choke or something like that?

Fast forward to Clay Davis, that’s kind of the way this guy was. So I think if you find that kind of inner passion and inner emotion. I remember in "The Wire" going to [Baltimore Mayor] Royce’s office and then going on the witness stand and I defend myself from charges of being a crook. If you do it with such passion and complexity people can’t dismiss you, that’s the thing. So you gotta get the character to the point where people are like, “I've seen a guy like that before.”

Do you think even the most corrupt politicians like Clay Davis believe that they are helping their communities?

I think eventually they do. They really believe what they’re doing is right. They believe that they're always able to see the other side of what is happening. I steal $20,000 but I’m giving it away to people who are poor. So I think eventually the guy believes that what he’s doing is right, and as an actor, once you start to believe it you can come up with a pretty damn good character.

One last question: There's been a lot of talk about the creators of "Breaking Bad" making a separate spinoff show about the lawyer in that show, Saul Goodman. How about a Clay Davis show? Can you pitch that to David Simon?

You know, one time before they started [with Clay Davis' character], I think they might have thought about doing a spinoff just on the politics, but it never went through, so I think they added that into “The Wire.” As far as doing Clay Davis TV show, yeah you could probably do that. Miniseries, or you could do a Clay Davis movie. You did a Clay Davis movie, that’d be the No. 1 movie in America. I don’t know how long, but then I stop and think, I might get beat up by “Despicable Me” or something like that.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

MORE FROM David Sirota

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Clay Davis David Simon Isiah Whitlock Maryland The Wire