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A perfect fit

Southwest Minnesota State University’s very own Isiah Whitlock Jr. adds to the Midwest flair of ‘Cedar Rapids’

February 11, 2011
By Karin Elton

A Southwest Minnesota State alumnus recently exhibited a wide range of acting ability last month at the Sundance film festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. even surprised himself - "I didn't even look the same," he said after watching his light comedic performance in the Fox Searchlight movie, "Cedar Rapids," which opens nationwide today. Also at the film festival he watched "Gun Hill Road," a drama starring Esai Morales, in which Whitlock Jr. appears as a no-nonsense parole officer.

The two roles displayed his versatility, he said.

Article Photos

Fox photo
From left: John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Southwest Minnesota State alumnus Isiah Whitlock, Jr. lift Anne Heche in a promotional photo for the movie, “Cedar Rapids,” which opens nationwide today.

"For 'Cedar Rapids,' the audience was laughing and having a great time," Whitlock Jr. said. "'Gun Hill Road' is a serious movie. I play a parole officer who is tough as nails. I didn't look the same. My smile, the gleam in my eyes, is gone. I'm transported from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to a seedy office in the Bronx."

Whitlock, who graduated from then-Southwest State University in 1976 and pursued advanced drama studies as a member of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, has had a steady career throughout the years, appearing in plays, TV series and movies including "1408," "Law and Order" and as Mr. Roy in the TV series "Rubicon." His most notable role was in "The Wire" as the shady politician, Clay Davis.

"That's my most high profile role on TV," Whitlock Jr. said Wednesday morning by phone from his Manhattan home. "'Cedar Rapids' is my most high profile movie."

Whitlock Jr. plays Ronald Wilkes, "a mildmannered insurance agent who takes Ed Helms' character under his wing," he said, "but not in an overbearing way."

In "Cedar Rapids," Helms, who is most noted for "The Office" and "The Hangover," stars as Tim Lippe, a naive insurance agent who attends an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Lippe falls in with Dean, played by John C. Reilly who is "a little wild and likes to party," Whitlock Jr. said of Reilly's character.

Whitlock Jr. said the interior scenes were filmed in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the exterior scenes were shot in Cedar Rapids, so it's a Midwestern movie through and through. He said many of the cast members are Midwesterners.

"I'm from South Bend, Indiana, Anne (Heche) is from Ohio, Reilly's from Chicago, so we have a fondness for the Midwest," he said.

"That being said, (the movie) portrays the human condition in a way that makes people laugh - with a backdrop of insurance," he said.

Whitlock Jr. said his character is from the "great state of Minnesota, from St. Cloud. When I read the script I said, 'I have to do this movie. I've paid my dues during all those cold winters.'"

Whitlock Jr. said he has lived in New York for 23 or 25 years now, ever since moving from San Francisco.

"I've had a lot of successes and I'm very happy," he said.

Whitlock Jr. also had a great time at the Sundance festival. The cast had clicked on the set and it was fun to see them again after filming in late 2009, he said.

Sundance was "awesome," he said. "We had an incredible time. It was good to see everybody. After filming everyone goes their separate ways."

Whitlock Jr. said this was his third time at Sundance but his first time with a "highly anticipated" movie.

The movie is cast with industry veterans who Whitlock Jr. said "had a nice chemistry. We liked one another and that energy and likeability could be seen on the screen."

Whitlock Jr. was fortunate to have not one, but two movies to promote at Sundance. The second was "Gun Hill Road" which is about a Puerto Rican family. The father, played by Morales, has just gotten out of prison and his son is undergoing hormone treatments to become a female," Whitlock Jr. said.

"It's very well done," he said of the movie, which was sold at Sundance and got a distributor.

Whitlock Jr. said he doesn't think "Gun Hill Road" will make it to Marshall, however.

"Maybe I'll bring a copy of the film to the college," he said.

Whitlock Jr. has been back in Marshall several times including as a commencement speaker in 1999 and guest artist for SMSU's celebration of Black History Month in 2007.

It's not certain whether or not "Cedar Rapids" will be seen in local theaters, either. The movie is being released on a limited basis, Dwight Gunderson, the film buyer for Cinema Entertainment Corp., the corporation that owns Marshall 6 Theatre, said, so Marshall area residents won't be able to see it immediately.

"How it does at the box office will determine how wide the distribution will be," he said. "It might expand in smaller markets in late March."



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