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Interview: Norm Lewis Talks the Importance of DA 5 BLOODS and Making Changes in the Broadway Community

Interview: Norm Lewis Talks the Importance of DA 5 BLOODS and Making Changes in the Broadway Community

Broadway favorite Norm Lewis is one of the stars of Spike Lee's newest film, Da 5 Bloods. The film, which premiered June 12 on Netflix, follows four African American veterans, who battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.

Lewis, who plays Eddie, spoke with us about the film, and the impact it has had, especially being released during these protests, which are fighting for equal rights for black people and for the end of police brutality. Lewis also touches on what he hopes to see from the Broadway and theatre community moving forward.

Read the full interview below!

What did it feel like filming the movie last year compared to how it feels now as it is released?

Well, it's so tough explain what the impact that it has right now and significance that it has right now. It's kind of like the perfect storm without sounding morbid. We were just making a film. We were learning so much. We knew it was going to be impactful, but we had no idea that the relevance of it was going to be so serendipitous, you know? And the fact that all of these things have come and converged at one time, as far as the pandemic, the economy, and then seeing the deaths of at least three people within three weeks by police hands... you could not get away from it. So it's just one of those things, like, "Wow, now people are paying attention!" Someone was asking the other day if history was repeating itself. No, it's basically always been like this, you just are now paying attention. I'm trying to find the right words, but it's a beautiful thing that people are all as one right now.

Without spoiling the film, there's a part that deals with Black Lives Matter, which feels even more impactful watching it just days after the protests began...

It's so relevant. Some mentioned the other day saying Spike [Lee] basically could have shot that last scene yesterday, but that was something that we had talked about. From the beginning we had one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter come over to Thailand to give us a speech about why it was so important to have that message within the film and it meant a lot. And then again, I feel Spike's probably a prophet who was very prophetic and knowing what was going to happen.

What do you hope that audiences take from this film when they watch it?

That's a layered question. I hope they get entertainment value out of it. It's genius and the artistry of amazing actors that are in it is one thing. But, I hope that they learn something, because we learned something. I had no idea, for example, the statement that at the time of The Vietnam War, African Americans made up 11% of the United States, but yet they were 33% of the army sent to Vietnam. That's telling you something. You're fighting war over there for people who don't like you back at home. When you put it down that simple, it just makes people understand the impact of the residual effects from that. I hope that that's what people get from this movie.

Interview: Norm Lewis Talks the Importance of DA 5 BLOODS and Making Changes in the Broadway Community

How did you get involved with this film?

I have known Spike for awhile. We've seen each other at different events and he's seen me do shows and stuff. I did "She's Gotta Have It" TV show, so I got a little brief introduction into his directorial skills that summer before. A few months later, he calls me out of the blue and he says, "Norm, what are you doing? I want you to read this script." And he sent it to me by email and he hung up. Okay. So Spike wants my opinion about a script! He didn't offer me anything. He just wanted my opinion. The next day he called, he said, "What do you think?" I said, "It's great. Oh my God, it's fantastic! I think this is going to be a hit movie." And then he said, "Meet me for dinner." So I met him out in Brooklyn and we had dinner, and we talked about the script. We talked about each character again, still, no offer. I'm just thinking, he's asking my opinion. And next thing I know, he's like, "Well, what do you think about the character Eddie? I want you to play that role." So, you know, I'm trying to be cool, saying "Thank you for the offer," but on the inside I'm screaming and jumping up and down. I'm so grateful for him to take of me to be a part of this amazing cast, you know, and this ensemble of people. And so we had a great time over Thailand and Vietnam.

How did you prepare to play Eddie?

It was very quick. Once I got offered the role, a couple of weeks later we left. I knew a little bit about The Vietnam War, because I had played John in Miss Saigon on Broadway. So I had that information on a broad scale and knowing about PTSD and Agent Orange and just the trials tribulations of what a lot of soldiers went through. Before I left, he gave me a book called Bloods, which this movie is based on. And it's a story of small little vignettes that a lot of soldiers wrote. I started reading that on the way there. And I started finding out more about the black culture and the black experience over in Vietnam. Once we got there, there was a lot of articles and a lot of documentary-type videos that he gave to us. So we did a lot of research while we were there.

What was it like working on this film with Spike and the rest of the incredibly talented cast?

All of it was fantastic. As an actor, you love that a director knows what he's doing and he knew what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how we wanted it. And he was always ready. We had to get up at four o'clock, so we could be on set by six, and he was already there... he was always there. A lot of times he was shooting so quickly that we jumped some scenes and we were ahead of schedule a lot of times. But within that, he keeps you free. You say the lines that are written, but then sometimes you'll see in the middle of it, he's like, "That's not working." What's changed? That line would say this, and you don't think of something on the spot, then you'll say, well, what would Eddie say? And you trusted that and you trusted those other actors because there's so, you know, the, the bar was set so high with all of them. I felt like I was in this playground of these top professionals and I was having a good time. I love it.

Watching the film, it felt like you and your co-stars were old friends.

Right. The thing about it... that was real. The dynamic that you saw on-screen is basically what was it was like off-screen. We had to rely on each other because there was not a lot of times to do much of any other socializing. The dap that you saw us do, the way that we greeted each other, we had to learn five of those because those were real. Those were real daps, greetings, if you will, that these black soldiers, put together, because you could tell from the five daps what platoon or what unit you were from. And dap means dignity and pride. This movie just touches the tip of the iceberg of what that culture was there.

Talking for a moment about the theatre industry, since you're a living legend on the stage, I wanted to ask what you hope to see when Broadway reopens, in regards to the changes it needs to make in order to be a more inclusive and fair space?

It is the perfect time to get all of this done, because George Floyd's death will not have been in vain. He will always be the symbol of this new beginning. Now people are able to have conversations that they were afraid to have, that they thought they could not have due to fear of getting fired. Now the conversations are real. I think once we get back, it'll be an even playing field, and there's going to be a lot of work that's going to be done leading up to that. And the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and a few other people signed a letter that went out recently, and then there's a lot of other groups that are happening. We're all one voice and we're all basically a collective, and we want to be seen as one voice, but with different ideas and, and, with the release of Broadway Theatre United, we have put something out there where we're going to do a lot more than just dealing with Broadway specifically. We're going to do a lot of things on a global level and try to help with legislature and try to help with voter registration and things like that, so we can have that Broadway voice there as well and helping communities and helping society, and then deal with Broadway and the challenges that Broadway has for black people and people of color.

I feel like now that people are willing to listen: producers, and the people that have been in charge for awhile. I am very, but we have to stay diligent and we have to stay strong. Knowing that we're all together in this and, holding people accountable, I think it's going to be a good thing.

The attitude this time around feels different, and it does feel like Broadway will change for the better moving forward. It's hard because you don't know for sure what's going to happen, but goods things have started and we just need to keep the momentum going.

Absolutely. You have to go through the mud to get flowers. I really feel that because people are still out there peacefully protesting and making a difference. And there's some resistance, but I was just telling someone the other day that this train is moving and people are either going to get on board or they're going to be left behind, and either they'll see that they're going to be left behind or they're just going to stay in their little small world and that's fine. That's okay, but the rest of us are going to keep going and make this better.

Are you hoping to get back on the Broadway stage once theaters begin to reopen?

Yeah. I'm eager to do anything. I love performing. I love what I do. And you know, if I had to choose between film and TV and theater- I get that question all the time-I definitely would choose live performance. There's nothing like it, there's nothing like that energy, but you know, we're waiting to see how this world is going to be and how we can do that. But, yeah, I cannot wait. I know it's going to be a while, but, while we're waiting, there's a lot of work to be done. So I'm just going to keep busy on that and trying to make this world a better place socially.

Norm was recently seen in the NBC television special, "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert!" and appeared in the Broadway revival of Once on This Island. He recently appeared as Sweeney Todd in the Off- Broadway production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Barrow Street Theatre, which earned him an AUDELCO Award for his performance. In 2014, he made history as The Phantom of the Opera's first African American Phantom on Broadway.

Lewis has been seen on PBS in the Live From Lincoln Center productions of Showboat with Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis: Who Am I?, and New Year's Eve: A Gershwin Celebration with Diane Reeves, as well as American Voices with Renée Fleming and the PBS Special First You Dream - The Music of Kander & Ebb. He also recurred in the VH1 series, Daytime Divas, also alongside Vanessa Williams. Additional television credits include The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bull, Chicago Med, Gotham, The Blacklist, and Blue Bloods, as well as in his recurring role as Senator Edison Davis on the hit drama Scandal.

he received Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle award nominations for his performance as Porgy in the Broadway production of The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess. Other Broadway credits include Sondheim on Sondheim, The Little Mermaid, Les Misérables, Chicago, Amour, The Wild Party, Side Show, Miss Saigon, and The Who's Tommy. In London's West End he has appeared as Javert in Les Misérables and Les Misérables: The 25th Anniversary Concert, which aired on PBS.

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