Jeffrey Wright: Next Level Cinema

Jeffrey Wright: Next Level Cinema

Photos by Sandro Baebler

“The way an actor learns the craft is on the stage.”

Jeffrey Wright is a thoughtful and immensely talented actor who makes it a point to find roles that are meaningful. His roles often speak to social and political issues. Jeffrey’s career began in the theater. Finding a passion for acting in college, Wright’s dedication to his craft paid off in the form of a Tony award for his breakout role as Belize in Angels in America. He would later reprise this role for the HBO miniseries adaptation of the play that earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe. On screen, one of his earliest roles was his portrayal of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Basquiat. He exposed audiences to the complicated, brilliant, and tragic life of the highly esteemed artist.

Beyond the screen, Wright is deliberate in his political and social activism. He has used his voice to speak out against injustice and to help others. He most recently created Brooklyn For Life! that helps feed frontline pandemic workers in Brooklyn, NY. In our conversation with the actor, he eloquently lays out the current condition of our political state and muses over the difficulties of finding adequate solutions to many of today’s challenges.

Over the years, Wright has garnered respect from directors and producers alike. Once viewed as one of the more underappreciated actors of his generation, that moniker is no longer applicable. As he plays Bernard Lowe in Westworld, Commissioner Gordon in The Batman, Roebuck Wright in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, and returns as Felix Leiter in the new James Bond film No Time to Die, Wright has worked smart and hard to earn his success as an actor. In the very honest and open interview below, Jeffrey Wright tells us exactly how he arrived at the next level of cinema.

Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?

I grew up in Southeast Washington, DC, for the most part, but I spent a good deal of my childhood in the Tidewater area of Virginia, where my mother grew up and my grandparents lived. I would go down there after the last week of school. My mom would drive me down, drop me off, hang out for a couple of days, and then go back to DC. The next time I would see her was at the end of the summer when she would come back to pick me up.

My childhood was pretty much spread between those two places. I’m a city boy but I got a little bit of “country” in me too. My grandfather was a waterman and farmer. He was the main father figure in my life. I got a little bit of that watery ground, salt air and seawater in my veins.

Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

My mother was a lawyer. She was my biggest inspiration. My mother was the person who gave me all of the tools and the opportunities that shaped my life and journey.

She was a woman who came to DC in 1957 after graduating from the Hampton Institute, as it was called then, and she made her way to Howard University Law School. She was the first in our family to go to law school and become a lawyer. Her older sister had gone to nursing school at North Carolina A&T after graduating from the Hampton Institute. She was the first to go to graduate school and the first to go to college. She was a nurse at DC General Hospital for 30 odd years. I was raised by both of them in DC.

They were a part of that generation of black folks who came up from the South who represented and embodied the values of the civil rights movement. They were people who had faith in hard work, faith in their abilities, and an insistence that society provides a means for them to express all that they can be.

I was born in the middle of all of that. I was born in 1965. I was born at the height of the civil rights movement. I was born as the black power movement emerged. I was born as the women’s rights movement emerged. So, growing up in Washington DC was really inspirational to me. It shaped the way I viewed the world and the way I do my work.

The roles that strike me and compel me are roles that have some kind of relevance beyond entertainment. They often have social relevance and at times political relevance. These themes can be implicit or overt, but they draw me in. I want my work to mean something. It really is a function of having come of age in the household, city, and time I grew up.

I’m more inspired and starstruck by people like Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm and all of these people who represented an insistence that our country, as Dr. King said, “Be true to what it said on paper.”

What was the most important lesson you learned in the early phases of your career?

Our family was really defined by the character of my grandfather and grandmother. Aside from the fact that my grandfather was a showman in his own right, he was a master storyteller, or as they say down there, “He could tell those lies,” as guys who lived on the water often do. He also sold a bit of liquor in his day. He had a lot of folks come by the house looking for fish, for vegetables, looking for a “taste” [a drink] and so he had a stage on which he performed. But beyond that, what they really taught me and what I don’t think I truly appreciated then but I certainly do now because I recognized its influence on me, was the lesson of hard work.

My grandfather woke up at 5:00 AM. I was asleep, and he was off to work. He was an older man at the time. He was off on the water gathering his crab pots, oysters, whatever the season brought, and he came back home after selling what he caught, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed out into his field. He had a couple of acres that he farmed. After he finished, he came back home and went out there again to sell his goods in the yard. He worked from sun up ‘till sundown every day and loved it. It strengthened him and his family and our community.

“The roles that strike me and compel me are roles that have some kind of relevance beyond entertainment…. I want my work to mean something.”

Right, your grandfather’s example influenced you to be dedicated to what you do?

A lot of people look at acting and see the glitz and the glamour of it. They see the award shows and all. What they don’t appreciate is that underneath all of that is a lot of hard work and a lot of persistence to be able to sustain yourself in the business. For example, on Westworld, at times we pull 20-hour days. We average about 16-hour days and it’s not a lot of hanging out and sitting in your trailer. We get there on set and hustle because we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of film to put in the can.

It is a 10-episode (season 3 was 8) TV series. That is really four or five movies we are shooting in the course of maybe 6 months. Sometimes I get called to set like, “Hey you got to be on set at 2:00 in the morning.” I’m like, “What? The bar just closed. What are you talking about?”

We have to use all of the sunlight we can on the first day of the week, Monday. You got to get out there early so you can get a start on the week. So by the time you hit Friday, because of the union rules and turnaround and things like that, you might end up on Friday with like an 8 am call that will have you working until Saturday morning.

I say that all to say, I love what I do. I love my work. I love the people that I find myself working with now. I’ve chosen great collaborators. I’ve chosen great parts. I make a good living. This is all true. But it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time away from my family. It takes a lot of flights here and there and I guess I owe the ability to handle that from the lessons I was taught by the country folks that raised me.

At what point in your career did you begin to feel you had made it?

“Made it” can mean many things. The thing about our profession is that there are very few guarantees in our business. There is a lot of uncertainty. In the last five years, I have only reached the place where I can project out what I will be doing for a couple of years or a year even. That’s really because of Westworld. It has given me some kind of security that if we do well, and there is still that if, we will return the next year or shortly thereafter. I’ve put myself in a position now where there are directors seeking me out to work on their projects.

I thought I had made it after the first play I had ever done in college. The play was called Bloods. It was the reworking of a novel about black Vietnam veterans and their experiences. It was a novel written by Wallace Terry. There was a student named Kevin Frasier who passed away from AIDS a couple of years from graduating. This was at Amherst College during my junior year of college. Kevin had put together this evening of monologues based on that novel. I think it was the winter of 1986 when I started acting. This was my first performance and we did it in a small black box theater. People saw that production and were moved by it. They were compelled by what I was doing. In some ways, you ask me when I had made it or what was my big break, it was that night when I went out there, did what was being asked of me and people responded. Once you’ve proven the case, the momentum builds from there.

Where did you go from there?

At the end of the day, you are not reliant on what someone is offering you, but you are reliant on your own abilities to work in this space. From there it was about developing my skills and training and working in the theater. I had worked in the theater professionally for seven years before I got to Broadway.

While my beginning helped me to appreciate that I had something, it wasn’t until I did Angels in America on Broadway, and it was about halfway through that run—which was a year and a half run, where I had finally said to myself, “You know, I’m an actor now.” It is not so much that you achieve a particular point or receive awards and jobs pay well. I think success is more about a kind of quiet understanding of your value. Once you have acquired that understanding and sense of clarity about what you are doing, then you might be able to say that you’ve made it.

What would you consider to be your greatest achievement?

My current greatest achievement? Well, that’s a work in progress too. That’s called parenting. That is the hardest work that I have undertaken and the most rewarding but also the most demanding. I have an 18-year-old son who just graduated high school and a 15-year-old daughter. No character that I can create can surpass them as my reward.

“I think success is more about a kind of quiet understanding of your value.”

We are living in a time of a lot of turmoil and pain. What are your thoughts on the state of our country and do you believe this is a watershed moment for racial justice?

I’m deeply concerned about what is happening in our country right now. I’m really awestruck by the ways in which our national dialogue has deteriorated. It is a result of a couple of things. It is a result of the tragic lack of competent leadership at the top and the malevolence and divisiveness that emanates from the White House every day, practically every hour. It is also the result of the technology that allows these kinds of destructive messages to be disseminated by the hour and the technology that allows this messaging and divisiveness to be amplified in real-time.

We have the person in the highest seat in the land who speaks only to a narrow base of concerns relative to the larger population of the country, who refuses to work in any way to define and cultivate a common sense of Americanness, who works solely for what he perceives is his own personal, political and financial benefit, all while using the tools of misinformation, disinformation, deception, deception of the country, and self-deception. I am very concerned.

You have all of these political tools with technology like social media that we carry around in our pockets every day that facilitate the agenda of not only him but other bad actors who are averse to the truth and facts and are working towards their own selfish ends. So, you have a combination of things creating more tension in this country than we have seen in many, many decades.

Including the 60s?

Yes. No doubt during the 60s, we had an incredibly tumultuous period. We think of the period between 1963 and 1968 when JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was a decade of incredible turmoil and upheaval.

But we didn’t have this technology, right? That pours gasoline on those fires. We all could somehow manage to find something that looked like common ground; that provided a place where we could stand and take in what was happening to us as a collective. We are so disjointed right now. We have such chaotic relationships with one another and it is incredibly dangerous. Even when we vote this guy out of the White House, the genies that the technology has allowed out of the bottle—disinformation and misinformation—will be extremely difficult to jam back into that bottle.

It makes it difficult to find a solution.

It makes it much more difficult to craft a way forward that leads to the type of progress and expansion of equal rights and justice in our country. Even while there are these cataclysmic things happening in the country around race relations, and the need for police and criminal justice reform. The way forward is still very cloudy because we lack clarity, the clarity of leadership. I think it is well on the side of those who are protesting for change. I still think we lack a clarity of leadership and it concerns me.

It is wonderful that we have multigenerational energy but how do we achieve the political and legislative outcomes that are going to speak to and facilitate the kind of systemic change we need in this country? I think too many of us—because year after year, decade after decade of corroding trust in government—have given up hope that there can be real seismic movement in the right direction.

Please elaborate.

When the violence erupts, the frustration erupts, the anger erupts, and it is understandable. So how do we regain the trust that we can afford in a way that is going to push this country to a more perfect union? How can we regain control over the facts so that we all can agree that the sun came up in the morning as opposed to the sun setting in the morning? We can’t even agree on basic truths now. So, I’m really concerned. I’m trying to do what I can to help provide an understanding and clear messaging around these things.

I’ve been involved in some projects around voter suppression, such as the film called Rigged that I narrate and kind of walk the audience through. I just finished narrating a film called American Pathogen, a documentary that chronicles the Trump administration’s failure to respond to this pandemic in an effective way. American Pathogen outlines all of the steps that it took to dismantle the work that has been done by the Obama administration to prepare the country for something like COVID-19, and it chronicles all of the missteps and malfeasance associated with the Trump administration’s response from the beginning of COVID in January and February.

These are projects that I’ve been involved in with the hopes to shine some light on the basic facts that we are all living under, whether or not we admit to it.

Can you give us insight into how you prepare for a new role?

The only constant for me in preparing for roles is to remain open to whatever the particular project calls for. I don’t have any one way of preparing but I try to remain fluid, flexible, and adaptable to whatever the situation may be. I have to be like water in many respects.

Preparing for a role like Basquiat is different than preparing for the role of Commissioner Gordon in The Batman, so I have to just be aware of the different needs and respond to them. For Basquiat, I spent about six months prior to working on that film painting, trying to absorb and study as much of his work from books and actual paintings that I had access to and trying to recreate his language, his poetry, his imagery so I could facilitate it on camera. I studied footage of him and spoke to a few people who knew him but not many because I wanted to form my own opinions of him. I tried using every tool I could to try to conjure his memory and recreate him and walk through the space in the way that he walked to do justice to his story.

It was particularly important because at the time that we made the film, very few people knew about Jean-Michel Basquiat and now he is practically a household name. So, I think it is a responsibility when you introduce someone’s story to your audience for the first time that you be as beholden to the truths of his life as possible. 

And that was a different process for The Batman.

Yes. What I’ve done with The Batman is to go back and read some of the material before our film. It is an 80-year-old set of stories. The first comic was released in 1939 by DC Comics (Detective Comics). I went back and read some of the original versions to understand how this began and then read the more modern versions to see how it has evolved.

James Gordon is a black man now, so there has been pushback from a small group of folks. For me, it was important to go back and dig deeper into what these stories represented so I could understand how I could work my way into it. What I have discovered is that there has always been an evolution of the story, an evolution of the characters, and an evolution of their narratives. For example, what is wonderful about The Batman series is that it is one of the very few superheroes series that is grounded in an American city (Gotham—New York City). So you have the opportunity to explore more grounded ideas and issues than you might explore in other stories. These issues are experienced through the lens of a detective genre, which I find very interesting.

You look at New York in 1939, I think New York was 90-95 percent white. So obviously the characters that were written then reflected a Gotham that was born of those facts. Gotham today is a very different city. All you need to do is take the 7 train out through Queens to a Mets game and you will understand this city is a confluence of colors. The characters in this Batman, particularly James Gordon, have evolved from 1939 to reflect a contemporary Gotham. So, there is a different set of requirements than what would be required for Angels In America, Westworld, or the other projects I’ve done.

In Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, you play the character Roebuck Wright who has been described as a “mashup of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling” by The New Yorker. Tell us a little bit more about this character and how you approached this role?

We met for lunch and he told me about what he had written. Before he sent me the script, he described it to me as you suggest. A couple of weeks later he sent me the script. From the moment I read the script, the character just seared into me. The music that was expressed through his language stayed in my head like a song you hear on the radio that you instantly love. The language Wes had written was so beautiful and moving that I was hooked from the start.

Roebuck Wright is a fictional character and draws from a bit of Baldwin, a bit of AJ Liebling, and a bit of Tennessee Williams. He’s kind of an amalgam but he exists in the middle. It’s a film that in many ways is a love letter to writers and also in some ways, certainly my character, is an exploration of solitude—the case of the stranger in a strange land. But also, someone who is running away from home. And at the same time, trying to redefine and understand what home is for him as he finds the celebration of life through the creation and experiencing of great food.

It really is a fascinating story that he has drawn. I can’t wait for people to take it in. I think it is a beautiful film with an incredible group of actors—Benicio del Toro, William Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Léa Seydoux—were a part of it. Wes is just a masterful filmmaker. He has his own language, his own way of working. He is a wonderful collaborator. He is demanding, he is exacting, but he’s fully committed and a wonderful on set general and brilliant writer.

When you aren’t acting, how do you relax?

I’ve been going to California for many years since the early 90s as an actor, but it was only about five years ago when I started working out there and commuting back and forth between LA and New York for Westworld that I understood Los Angeles’ competitive advantage over New York and that is the Pacific Ocean.

When I’m not working over there you can find me out in the ocean surfing. That’s where I go to make myself whole. That’s where I go to clean my mind, body, spirit, and to avoid all of the nonsense on the land to the extent that I can. The ocean is where the dolphins and the whales return. They were mammals on the land. They returned to the ocean to evolve into something greater, so it has become that type of refuge for me.

I used to skateboard as a kid, almost religiously, until I broke my leg riding in a pool. It was only about seven years ago when I made a trip to Hawaii with my kids and my daughter wanted to take surf lessons that I discovered surfing and I’ve been hooked ever since. It has been a great gift to my life.

“It is wonderful that we have multigenerational energy but how do we achieve the political and legislative outcomes that are going to speak to and facilitate the kind of systemic change we need in this country?”

Before we go, what advice do you have for young people who want to not only get into acting but are seeking out roles that are meaningful and impactful?

The business is very different than when I started but my advice is probably still the same and that is to find a part. It doesn’t have to be in a big movie. It doesn’t have to be in a movie at all. For me, it started with a play and one thing led to another. I encourage people to still do work in the theater if you want to be an actor.

We’ve gotten so caught up in the trappings of the work, you know, the instant gratification, the fame, the money and I think we’ve lost sight of how it all begins. It begins with an understanding of what you are doing. The way an actor learns the craft is on the stage so by the time you get to the film set you can shape your role into something that is sustainable. With practice you will develop a sense of time and a sense of proportion and a sense of control over your instrument that gives you the presence and power for acting. Always start in the theater.