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Curtiss Cook, Lynn Whitfield Talk Donda-Alicia Feud in Season 6

Curtiss Cook, Lynn Whitfield Talk Donda-Alicia Feud in Season 6

[This story contains spoilers from the premiere of season six, Part 2 of The Chi.]

When the first half of season six of The Chi ran its final episode in September of last year, a high stakes move played out to remove the city’s most feared villain from the Southside, Otis “Douda” Perry, played by Broadway, film, television and video game voiceover actor Curtiss Cook.

But as President John F. Kennedy is famously quoted, “There’s an old saying. Never send a boy to do a man’s job, send a lady.” Douda’s formidable archenemy, Chicago’s Southside high-society matriarch and killer Alicia (played by Emmy and NAACP Image-award winning actress Lynn Whitfield) seemed to have forgotten that adage for a moment, as she allowed her son Rob (former NBA Championship-winner Iman Shumpert) and beloved community restaurant owner Emmett (Jacob Latimore) to attempt to kill Douda in a drive-by. But, they missed!

And now the ninth episode of the season (which launched Part 2 on May 10) began with Douda having nothing but vengeance on his mind.

Douda knows Rob and Emmett don’t have his killer instincts (they are young model citizens, tired of being forced to live under Douda’s threatening thumb), but that doesn’t matter. Emmett made the phone call and told Douda to meet him where the attempt on his life occurred. “Anybody who tries to kill me, and fails, needs to die immediately,” Douda tells his henchmen in a meeting to search for his would-be assassins.

As for, Alicia, she still wants Douda dead. But for now, she must protect her son from his men looking to kill Rob. She also continues to set in motion a plan that will cause his businesses and criminal empire to crumble. As for Emmett, he decides the best plan to protect his family is to meet Douda face-to-face and reason with him to spare his life. The crime boss is not amused or moved by Emmett’s moxie, but nevertheless, offers him one option: “A life for a life.” Douda will spare Emmett’s life if he kills Alicia for him. And so, the face off between Douda and Alicia is set.

The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Cook and Whitfield, who portray The Chi’s two main villains. The two actors shared their characters’ origin stories on why they believe they hate each other as they spoke about the craft of acting, why the series (recently renewed for season 7) resonates in the streaming era and give a (more than likely fictitious) version of what to expect in the upcoming episodes.

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Each of your characters is plotting to remove the other from this Earth. Is there a backstory between these two formidable foes that The Chi audience knows nothing about yet?

CURTISS COOK Is there a written backstory? I would dare say probably. There wasn’t one given to us, but always as actors, you have to create a backstory for all the people that you meet and come into contact with so that you can make sure that the interaction is as three-dimensional and as true to life as is possible. So, I definitely believe that because Q [(Steven Williams), Alicia’s brother who Douda killed in season five] was Otis’ mentor, somewhere along the line he would have come in contact with his sister, Alicia. So, there would have definitely been some kind of interaction between the two of them because of the world in which they kind of ran in. You name your No. 1 thug in any city and I’m sure the No. 2 and No. 3 thugs know who they are!

LYNN WHITFIELD Not that Alicia has ever thought of herself as a thug (laughs).

COOK (Laughs) It’s the Tupac “The Hate U Give” [the late rapper’s acronym for his way of living, “THUG LIFE”]. But they were power movers. Like when Douda was introduced, he was the mayor of the city, he had businesses, he had Perry’s Pizza; so, he was definitely of an echelon that I think that he and Alicia would have had to interact before. So, there wasn’t necessarily a written backstory given to us, but I’m pretty sure I made up a back-sketch for their meetings, and I don’t know if Lynn did as well.

WHITFIELD Well, you know I did when I encountered first the energy that Curtiss brings to Douda, and then the energy that we have as peers. And so, my backstory was based on existing energy, because it makes it more believable if it really is based on the interactions of people. And when we are together, it’s an equals thing. So, then the challenge of all of that is that there is the internals of the characters and the backstory, and the externals. Internally, it was always the power thing, and he was more powerful than my brother; so, that’s a competitive thing. And externally, he’s, you know, very easy on the eye, and so I figured they would have had to have acknowledged that in each other. It makes an interesting sort of tango, if you will, which sometimes looks like people are fighting and sometimes looks like they’re romancing. So, in my head, I went with those things when I thought of him, when I talked about him and when I encountered him. But at the end of the day, the tribal nature of it all makes me very competitive with him, even before my brother’s death. Because he was reigning more powerfully than someone in my family.

COOK Hold on! Wait, we have to take a pause just for one second for my own edification that Ms. Lynn Whitfield said that he was easy on the eyes! So, I’m just going to take that to my grave! Make sure you put that on the record. (Laughs)

Douda and Alicia are complex villains, to say the least. As much as they are ice-cold killers, they are also capable of showing love, empathy, sorrow, pain to go along with their thirst for revenge. What commonalities, if any, do you see in your lives that resonate with Douda and Alicia?

COOK Just off the bat, all of those things that you said. Humans, we have all of those things inside of us, right? We live those feelings and those emotions and those connections all the time. And for any character to be real, you have to present those things, otherwise you become a caricature at some point; you’re not real, you’re not believable. So, it was really important for me — and I have to give major thanks to Lena [Waithe, creator], the writers and Showtime for allowing this character to grow season over season to the point where he gets to be as Shakespearean villainous as he is in season six. Because when he starts off in season two, we don’t know a lot about him. He just kind of pops in. We know he’s a businessman, he may be doing some bad dealings. And then after that, he comes back and starts to run for mayor. And he brings in Jake [one of the main kid characters played by Michael Epps]. Jake’s older brother is killed by rival gang members, and Douda takes him in as he starts a campaign to run for mayor of the city of Chicago, and eventually wins in season three. And he falls in love.

And so, you get to see his growth to the point where people used to say, “I love to hate him,” and now they say, “Oh my God, I can’t stand him!” And that gives me, as an actor, a freedom to express in a way that I don’t think a lot of people get to do, especially on a television series. Sometimes on television, we’re stuck in slots and, because of the cash, you’re made to kind of hold in an area and not be able to venture. But because of this  journey that this guy has been able to have, he’s been able to show all dimensions of a living, breathing character. Like I said, it becomes very Shakespearean on how this guy begins to spiral and what he does in this last half of this season, it’s pretty amazing.

WHITFIELD Because I’m a parent of one, I always believe that everybody is born good, not carrying baggage. It’s what you experience in life, and what you maybe inherit in your DNA, and your psychology and sociology — all of that that makes you who you are. So, I always start from, where did this person come from, where did they start to end up where they are? I think Alicia, early on in her life, is initiated into a very tribal way of thinking, an Andorian-esque way of thinking: Survival of the fittest! Tribes and clans stick together. Again, that’s very Shakespearean, like Romeo and Juliet, Madea and all. So, it’s a commonality, there’s a universality in wanting to be with the people who think like you, who you feel are on your side. We see it everywhere in the world right now. And so, that’s how Alicia comes to be, and then within that, as Curtiss said, human beings are extremely complex. I don’t know one human being who’s perfect, who doesn’t feel anger, who doesn’t feel pain, who doesn’t feel revenge, regret, jealousy.

We’re brought to this world and part of our job is to manage that and make our way back to the light, because we’re just human and we’re impacted by so many things. So, I think that’s how we’re able to draw these fully blown characters with all the different sides who can love and who can hate, and who can kill. And who can nurture. It’s a very interesting exploration for me.

Lynn Whitfield as Alicia in season six of The Chi.

Elizabeth Sisson/Paramount+ with Showtime

Ms. Lynn, what drew you to The Chi series [Whitfield’s character makes her first appearance in season six]?

WHITFIELD Well, it’s a great show, so there’s that. What drew me to take on the challenge was that I’ve never explored this particular kind of psyche of tribalism that actually would even consider taking another life. For me, as Lynn Whitfield, that’s a real exploration for me as an artist to take that on, because I personally, as a human, don’t quite understand it. So, for me to take the journey, and for it to be founded and grounded in truth, is really a lot of fun for me to do that, and in a place where you still have compassion for the person and some understanding of who they are. They say in Hollywood there is typecasting and all that kind of stuff, and it was grounded in something like A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, but this is hardcore grit of: what are you’re going to do, what’s happening right now? I’ve never explored that kind of hardcore mentality. It is a beautiful challenge and fun, like a kid in a candy store or on a playground trying to find the road map to it all.

No doubt, Alicia and Douda are gangsters. They can be killers. But do you believe Douda and Alicia love their community?

WHITFIELD Absolutely!

COOK Yes, definitely, absolutely! Douda loves Chicago to the nth degree. I think he loves it too much! I think when somebody gets in the way of Chicago and him, he needs to get them out of the way, instead of trying to understand why they’re getting in the way. Sometimes he over-loves, and it is like, you could have calmed down with that. Even when he defunded the police, which a lot of people will feel like that was a good thing to do [as mayor of Chicago in season four], it was like: Hold on, take a pause; maybe there’s a different way to conversate or discuss this. Maybe we can find a different way. But he’s like “no, they are messing with my city, it has to go and stop!” I think he feels that he is the city.

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WHITFIELD And for Alicia, I think she has a sense of legacy, of being entitled to the city, of being a daughter of the city. Like the neighborhoods where she started and where she’s ended up, her journey to more power, more wealth and all those communities, I know she loves and appreciates. And its legacy, its reminiscence and it’s the future. And it is gaining more power for her tribe.

Both of you, having come from working on Broadway to film, how do you juxtapose that to working on a streaming series? Is it difficult in adjusting technique?

WHITFIELD Well, for me, humanity is what it is. Whatever the platform, whatever the genre, wherever you’re doing it. If you’re doing it on stage to reach back to the back of the house, or in film where you’re 30-feet tall and you may have to make an adjustment of your level of intimacy, of how you allow it to show through. But good acting, if we’re doing that, is good acting. Being able to channel humanity through one’s instrument, that’s always the same. And the difference for me is where you’re doing it. On stage or on film, this may be a different technique of amplifying it. And in this a series, it’s like longform where you have time to explore all of the nuances of the character. You have time and discussion, and you’re able to build and develop and even surprise yourself with what comes next for the unfoldment of the person. What about you, Curtiss?

COOK I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. The major difference for me, for this particular series, was that this is my first time ever being a series regular. I was saying the other day, I’ve been doing this for over 37 years, from the stage theater place, but I was fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall to watch some of the people, and how they interacted on the sets and what they were doing. And then being able to go home and say, “Oh, how would I have handled that? Is there a different way to do that?” And sometimes I would take those skills knowingly, but sometimes it would just be happening as I just sat and waited for my call to come up and do my thing.

That’s the major difference and the fact of the longform is so powerful, because you sometimes can develop an idea of where this character is going, and then you get the next episode’s script and it’s like a huge left turn. And so my job becomes then, how do I fuse the two of the things, the things that I thought were going to happen, with this character with what now needs to happen to deal with keeping it moving forward in my mind? Because you have to see what you’re doing and have an idea of how it’s living. If I made up something like my mother died and she was never going to be there for me so that’s why I’m so angry, and then the next script is like my mother sitting here talking to me about how much she loves me, how am I going to make this work for myself? That’s the exciting part of it! That’s what theater school gives you. That’s what the experience of stage and other mediums gives you, because now you’re able to pivot and shift a little easier.

And whenever I talk to a younger actor than myself, I tell them to make sure you read as much as you can, watch as much as you can, and live as much as you can, because all those lessons will be valuable when it’s time to present a new life and introduce a new individual. When you’re able to do that on a pin, then it’s the beginnings of a true artist. So, I’ve been fortunate enough to be graced with people like Ms. Lynn Whitfield, where you also get to sit back and watch and just go, “Oh, my God! That’s all that needed to happen right there. Okay, pull that back, Curtiss, and move forward here in this direction.” And that’s a gift that you only get by — knocking wood — if you do the work and you show up to other gigs, because nobody’s going to trust you to work opposite of Lynn Whitfield if you don’t have the goods. Lynn Whitfield only validates you’re on the right path, Curtiss, you’re doing something right! It’s been a major honor and that’s the difference for me.

WHITFIELD  Curtiss, that is so sweet! It’s the technique and the practice, along with the life experience that gives us the agility to make those quick turns. In some of the work we’ve been doing, sometimes the director doesn’t even know that we just whisper to each other. So, it’s the interior of the work: what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling; the approach and how it shades the nuance of what it feels like when it comes out of you. But that is from exercise and technique. I don’t know why people think that acting is just walking and talking, yet if they’re going to be a musician or a dancer, they get on that axe all the time. It’s the agility through the exercise and practice that allows us to actually just have fun and make those pivots on a dime. Don’t you think so, Curtiss?

COOK  I do, and being confident enough to know that it is okay.

What do you think has resonated with viewers the most for this show to have six seasons in the streaming era? [The series, which was recently renewed for season seven, is Showtime’s longest-running scripted series.] And, what can we expect to see in Part 2?

COOK “Oh, I know that neighborhood, oh I know those people. Oh, that’s like me, wow, let me see where this is going.” I think there’s a bit of that that The Chi holds. Then there’s the part of the entertainment, where Douda comes into all of it where it’s like, “Oh, my God, oh, we doing gangsta shit right now? I can roll with that!” It has all those little caveats that makes it interesting, generally speaking.

As to what audiences can expect to see the rest of the season. Oh, I’m letting it out! Douda becomes a stripper! He goes down to Louisiana and then starts dancing on the pole! (laughter erupts). What I will say is that he is one of the best strippers you would ever want to see. They call him Big Da! So, I’m going to let it out, Douda is a stripper! They call him Big Da! Watch through season nine!

WHITFIELD (Laughs) And Alicia just follows him around so she can watch.

The Chi streams new episodes on Showtime Fridays and on Paramount+ With Showtime on Sundays.

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