Jeffrey Wright Makes Every Role Count
Whether he’s working with Wes Anderson, fighting crime with Batman, or offering counsel to his two grown children, Jeffrey Wright takes every job seriously. And he’s not done. Not by a long shot.
Seconds into our telephone interview, Jeffrey Wright has put me on hold. His son, Elijah, needs his dad. In the distance, the actor’s familiar voice becomes gentler and more authoritative. Wright shifts his attention to me again in a matter of moments, effortlessly transitioning back into his role of actor and interviewee.
Just as he’s just settling into a groove answering the first question, his son returns. Although this is the second interruption, Wright is more gentle than authoritative. “You’ve got to figure it out, Lij,” he says. “You’ve got to figure it out, OK?”
By so many measures, it would seem that Jeffrey Wright himself — the dad, the actor, the well-appointed man — has it all figured out. As a father, he deeply understands the assignment, calling the parenting of Elijah and Juno, now young adults, “The most rewarding thing. But it is also the most relentless thing.” As an actor, he has become a household name on stage and screen with a career span that is as impressive as it is robust. It’s hard to imagine anyone else convincingly following up a portrayal of a Dominican drug lord — the unfamiliar should race to watch Wright in 2000’s Shaft — with a masterful embodiment of Martin Luther King Jr., as he did less than a year later in the Peabody Award-winning HBO film Boycott. He introduced the world to the artist Jean Michel Basquiat in 1996 (Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat) and 25 years later played a food writer in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which got the world talking about James Baldwin (who clearly inspired the role). He played the best friend of a different James (Bond, James Bond) in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and No Time to Die, and Jim Gordon in Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
But Wright isn’t a person to settle for success — or status quo in any sort. There’s always more to figure out. This is why he goes back to directors like Anderson, whose Asteroid City, a visually arresting coming-of-age sci-fi story set in 1955, in theaters June 16, includes Wright as the Junior Stargazer award show host, five-star Gen. Grif Gibson. This is Wright’s second time collaborating with Anderson, maybe in part because Wright likes being pushed. “[Anderson] reminds me of George C. Wolfe, who has directed the majority of my most recent theater work,” Wright says. “The two of them are very similar. They’re both indefatigable, tireless — and they’re both taskmasters, but in the best way. They are demanding and insistent on you surpassing your expectations of what you thought you might do.”
In conversation with Wright, it’s clear that he feels the weight of pushing expectations in all that he does. In fatherhood, where he looks up to his grandfather, a “provider” and “hub of the community,” he knows that the job is never done. He’s in a continual state of discovering — and hopes others might join him in doing much of the same.
Whether it’s Westworld or James Bond or Batman, you play a role in a sort of a different heightened version of reality. Where do you feel like Wes Anderson’s work fits?
Wes loves the theater. And I think he translates his love of theater into his filmmaking. And I think the audience is always very conscious that they are receiving a story. It’s not hyperrealism. We’re not trying to fool you into thinking this is a documentary. It’s very clearly a piece of theatrical cinema. I really love that. I love that we are existing in this kind of signature construct. And that is Wes Anderson’s alone.
For Asteroid City, you play an Army general hosting an event for young future scientists, a father figure of sorts. When you’re approaching such a role, are there real father figures that you draw on for inspiration?
My primary father figure was my grandfather, who was a very special man. And of course, I’m biased, but he wasn’t special because he was my grandfather. He was special because of who and how he was. He was a waterman, primarily an oysterman and crabber on the Chesapeake Bay, and a farmer. He also sold spirits when it was legal and illegal to do so. He was a provider, and his house was always a meeting place for folks who were desirous of seafood, vegetables, and a taste, but also conversation. It was a hub in the community. I watched the way that he fathered his family, but also, in some ways, he played this role as a father to the community. There was no other man in my life who had that type of influence on me in terms of my understanding of what it meant to be a father and what it meant to be a man.
His influence on me as a father was not because he was hands-on day-to-day with me. He wasn’t. I didn’t live with him and my grandmother year-round. But even when I was away from him, his influence on me was by the example of who he was. And his lessons and influence were passed down through him, but also through my mother. My mother liked to say she was his favorite, but she was certainly a child of his influence. As was my aunt, who raised me. I didn’t have a father per se in my life. I was raised by two women.
The thing I wish I had known at the beginning of fatherhood is the necessity and value of patience.
When you think about yourself as a dad, how do you describe your parenting style?
I would say ever-evolving and continually learning. I think that the thing I wish I had known at the beginning of fatherhood — and has been driven into my head repeatedly over the last 20 years — is the necessity and value of patience. Horses run in a matter of minutes after being born. Birds fly in a matter of weeks for the most part. Children take many, many years before they fly, and we can’t expect them to do all of the things that we might want to project onto them until they’re ready.
At the very moment that I became a father, when I was in the delivery room and my son emerged, I recognized immediately that this was a permanent situation, that our relationship was permanent. This was as permanent as things can be, and that has only been reinforced over time. Parenting and fatherhood never stops, and it requires many skills. But none of those skills can be brought to bear or have any usefulness without the quality of patience.
You’ve played Martin Luther King Jr.; you’re tapped for (Tony Award-winning director) George C. Wolfe’s new project, playing former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Is there any specific figure in Black history that you would want to bring to the screen?
There actually is a historical figure that I am in the process of developing for a new project. He’s Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black graduate of West Point in 1877. His first commission was as an officer with the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, and he was ultimately dishonorably discharged. It was said that he misappropriated certain company monies and was court-martialed. But in the shadows of history is the fact that he was having a relationship — too intimate a relationship, it seemed for some — with the sister-in-law of a fellow officer, who happened to be white. In 1999, President Clinton issued a full pardon to Flipper and expunged these charges from his record. After he was removed from the Army, he moves down to Mexico and basically becomes Indiana Jones; he becomes an adventurer. He spoke multiple languages. He was an engineer, and he became an expert on the region through his exploits, discovering various lost treasures.
Now, this is a story that Hollywood has been telling for many generations except not with a man like him as the hero. And so that’s something that we’re looking at; an incredible piece of history. The history around his life, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Spanish-American War — in all of these things, you discover just some extraordinary characters, Black men, who are at the center of the awakening of modern America. It’s fun stuff, but also timely considering the ways in which so much of our history is disregarded and the intensity lately with which certain people in high and low places are seeking to further erase our presence from the historical record.
Right. Things that kids in school are still not taught.
It happens all the time. I was filming in Boston last year, and I was riding my bike around the city. I would ride and take in various neighborhoods of the city, and I decided that I wanted to figure out where Paul Revere’s route was because everywhere you look in the part of town where I was staying was something relative to Paul Revere. I discovered this short phrase [on a sign] in the midst of this describing his route: “... where Mark was hung in chains.”
When we talk about America and inclusion, let’s first recognize the fact that we are a people born of many peoples. We have always been diverse.
And I went down that rabbit hole. The short of it is that there was a corpse hanging inside a body cage, a gibbet, at a point where Paul Revere turned back to avoid capture by three British officers — and that man’s body had hung there for at least 20 years. Along the route of this man who every American knows as being the crier of freedom in early colonial America, [Paul Revere] passed a Black body hanging in chains as punishment and as a symbol to others who might do as he did and rebel against his enslavement. I couldn't believe what I was reading. But that was the truth. And it informs, it colors your understanding of that time, the beginning of this country, in a way that is necessary and historical and factual.
There’s a lot of effort, and in some cases, a lot of lip service, to tell more representative stories and have more diversity on the screen and stage. Is there a difference between telling a more representative truth and an increase in diversity?
There’s value in diversity, of course, simply because we are a diverse society. We always have been. There is this attempt to paint early America as a white European society. Now, of course, it was dominated through brutality, deception, and cruelty by white Europeans, but this land was always populated by diverse peoples, and that’s not going to change. So when we talk about America and inclusion, let’s first recognize the fact that we are a people born of many peoples. We have always been diverse, so to understand America, no matter who you are, and certainly, if you're in a position of power, that truth necessitates that if you are to be effective, you understand the complexity of who we are and how those dynamics have affected all of us and how we interact together.
And the only way that you can do that is to be educated in that complexity and educated across the various cultures that make up the culture of America. You can do that by reading and educating yourself. You can also do that through interaction with people who have perspectives other than your own and perspectives that represent the full tapestry. The value of diversity lies in having different opinions and varying viewpoints inside the room. It only enhances our education and understanding of our country and who we are individually within it. And then as far as the truth goes, there’s just the matter of trying to correct the record. The history is written by the victors, it is said. But there are enough of us here who have survived this thing, who come from people who may not have been seen at the time as victors and who bear some responsibility to tell the stories. We are the victors now.
And certainly we in the storytelling business share that responsibility. Our American history is so wonderfully and beautifully complex, and the more that we peel back the layers and understand those parts of it that were not emphasized over time, the more we appreciate the history and appreciate where we come from, and where we might go.
I’m curious about how you feel Hollywood moving forward should navigate between giving filmmakers autonomy to cast films however they please, while also heeding the call for more representation in as many films as possible.
I do think that the playing field should be leveled in terms of access to resources and opportunities for filmmakers across the board. You see, because we don’t all have access to a history of work in film. We don’t have equal access to a history of work in film. Nobody in my family worked in film.
And it is far less likely that someone in past generations would have worked in film, in mainstream films, as there were very limited numbers of Black folks who were in front of the camera. Now, think of the even more limited numbers of Black folks who were behind the camera, who were writing, who were playing any other behind-the-camera role in the filmmaking. There were a few who were brilliant, but there were not many that were supported by the mainstream of the industry, by design. So we don’t have equal access to that history, but now, we should have equal access to the audacity to think we can be at the center of it. And this is the thing that we are poor in; we are poor in believing what is possible for us, and that’s because of our history of not having access. Our vision becomes narrowed as relates to our belief in what we are able to do. So there’s some leveling to do to get all Americans to the point of thinking “Hey, I have the capacity and the desire and the will to do these things, whether they be film or otherwise.”
The first film that Wes and I worked on together, The French Dispatch, likewise, it’s predominantly a white cast. OK, fair enough. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I have ever been offered in my career. One of the most beautiful, sensitive, and, for me, moving pieces of writing that I’ve ever been offered ever by any writer.
We’re often fed the same rhythms, the same ideas, the same formulas. Whether it be in determining what gets made or who makes it, I think conformity is the enemy.
And it came from Wes. He had also seen, as he told me when I first met him, most of my movies and pretty much every piece of theater that I have ever done in New York. And he wanted to work with me. And I with him. I get him. So when we work together, there’s a kind of creative alignment that I find with him that has nothing to do with race, but only has to do with artistry.
So I think it is important that there be cultural diversity, sure, but also a diversity of thought at the root. I think the greatest danger in what we do, and what artists do, is conformity, whether it’s the music that we hear or the movies we see or the books that we read. We’re often fed the same rhythms, the same ideas, the same formulas. Whether it be in determining what gets made or who makes it, I think conformity is the enemy. Representation is powerful, yes, but it’s only part of the equation. Rejecting conformity takes a lot of work, and I think in some ways it takes a lot of education, going back to one of the earlier points of our conversation. And that takes time.
Speaking of earlier points of our conversation, I wanted to circle back to the love you and Wes Anderson have for theater, a medium that he’s yet to work in. As a fan of his work, if he were going to take one of his films and adapt it for the stage, which would you most want to see on Broadway under his direction?
Oh, wow. Gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I love The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s probably one of my favorite of his films. Maybe that one. But the thing is that, and Asteroid City is like this as well, he creates his own stage. He creates his own theater through the camera lens, and with Asteroid City, he does it in a way that is vivid and ironic, somewhat fantastical, and at the end of the day, as you would expect, fully Wes. So yeah, I'm not sure if you need to see his films on Broadway. You can, as with Asteroid City, see his films in the cinema on the movie screen.
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