Screen performance sizzles with menace Acting tough: Delroy Lindo does good work as a bad man in 'Clockers.'


When Delroy Lindo gets mad on screen, people stop in their tracks.

Maybe it's his voice. When he played a father in Spike Lee's 1994 drama "Crooklyn," one boom from his deep baritone would make his kids cower.

Or maybe it's because he's 6-foot-2, and when he leans forward, narrows his eyes and furrows his already creased brow -- as he does often in Lee's adaptation of Richard Price's "Clockers" -- you know he means business.

Whatever the aura, it commands attention -- even more as the Oscar buzz builds around his portrayal of Rodney Little, "Clockers' " searing drug lord, who attracts legions of young boys into his service with his fatherly presence but is a cold businessman at heart.

Take the scene where Rodney drives by to pick up his protege Strike (Mekhi Phifer), beats him and then sticks a gun in his mouth and threatens to kill him. Everything in Mr. Lindo's tightly drawn face says Rodney would pull the trigger in a second.

The action is brutal and heartbreaking, but Mr. Lindo approached it from an unemotional point of view. "My take on that didn't have anything to do with violence," he says. "A father is disciplining his son because he stepped out of line. Rodney uses all the tools at his disposal.

"I hope that part of the success of my playing this role is that what I've been able to bring to it will distinguish it in some way," he says. "And I hope that people responding to that don't say, 'He plays bad guys really well,' but that 'This guy's a good actor.' "

Lindo knows the Oscar talk means people are watching him closely, and he's careful about his words, especially in describing the differences between his screen roles. The majority of the characters he's played have not been criminals, despite the fame he gained playing bad dude West Indian Archie in Lee's "Malcolm X" and the fact that he will play a drug dealer again in October's "Get Shorty," based on an Elmore Leonard novel and co-starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman.

Mr. Lindo is anything but Hollywood.

He studied drama at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and afterward chose New York instead of Los Angeles. "I'm an East Coast guy," he says from his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife.

Repertory theater and stage roles ranging from "Othello" to "A Raisin in the Sun" helped him develop the presence that commands such attention on the big screen.

It was his Tony-winning work in Joe Turner's "Come and Gone" that got Spike Lee interested. "Spike uses the actors he respects. The result is a kind of loose repertory situation. It's incredibly affirming to have someone like him continually coming to me with work. God bless Spike for that."

Although he's proved himself as a menacing criminal, Mr. Lindo is concerned about being typecast. "Let me put it like this," he says politely, "I don't want to sound naive. In a perfect world, one's work is looked at and one is acknowledged as an actor, capable of doing a range of things. 'Clockers,' on many levels, is a person we've seen before."

But that doesn't mean Mr. Lindo sat back and let the stereotype take over. The challenge of the story was making Rodney more than just a bad guy, and he played the part as a kind of Fagin of Brooklyn, who sets his "favorite son" up on a killing mission and stops at nothing to discipline him when he fails.

We will see more of Mr. Lindo's mean side later this fall in "Broken Arrow," again with John Travolta, and next spring in "Feeling Minnesota," with Keanu Reeves.

But what he really wants is romance. "I'd love to do a love story," he says. "Or the story of Marcus Garvey. Or any number of James Baldwin novels. Or Toni Morrison. Or a version of 'Othello.' "

You can bet he won't want to play Iago.

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