Jeffrey Wright: Hiding in plain sight in our favorite characters

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Jeffrey Wright: Hiding in plain sight in our favorite characters
Jeffrey Wright in New York on Jan. 30, 2024. The veteran has played everything from an artist to a general to a professor, the role in “American Fiction” that finally landed him an Oscar nomination. (Dana Scruggs/The New York Times)

by Sarah Lyall

NEW YORK, NY.- A couple of years ago, Jeffrey Wright got an email from the screenwriter Cord Jefferson, who was preparing to direct his first film. Jefferson wanted Wright — a cerebral actor known for his commanding, indelible presence even in supporting roles — to star in “American Fiction,” his adaptation of Percival Everett’s mordant 2001 novel, “Erasure.”

“In the letter, Cord described how immediate and personal he found ‘Erasure’ to be,” Wright recalled recently. “And he said that he had begun to hear my voice in his head as he read the book. And then he said, ‘I have no Plan B.’”

Wright, who is 58, took the job. His exquisitely calibrated performance as the irascible novelist Thelonious Ellison, known as Monk, recently earned him his first Oscar nomination. It is a recognition, among other things, of his ability to elevate any movie or TV show simply by appearing in it. He has a way of burrowing so deeply into his characters that he seems almost to be hiding in plain sight.

From the bracing opening scene of “American Fiction,” in which a slur appears on a blackboard as part of the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story Monk is teaching to a class of college students, the film wades into thorny issues of race, authenticity and what white audiences demand from Black artists — and has great satirical fun doing it.

“It’s a conversation that’s at the center of the national dialogue right now, but we lack a fluency in how we discuss race — gasp! — and history and language and context and identity,” Wright said. He was being interviewed at the Four Seasons in Manhattan before flying to Britain to receive the London Film Critics’ Circle’s top award.

While (obviously) the film doesn’t solve the problems it identifies, he said, at least it’s willing to engage with them.

“We’re talking about hot-button issues but doing it in a way that’s inviting,” Wright said, “because we aren’t necessarily taking ourselves overly seriously and we’re having a laugh about it and allowing the audience to have a laugh, too.”

But what most attracted Wright to “American Fiction,” he said, was the story at its core, in which Monk grapples with a cascade of crises that have nothing to do with race — his mother’s dementia, his siblings’ disarray and the revelation of painful family secrets. Wright’s own mother died of cancer several years ago, and he said he felt a connection to Monk’s struggles.

“What I was most moved by was this man at the center of the film who was flawed and complicated but compelled by the responsibilities to his family,” he said. “I understood that and was able to find myself within the character maybe too easily.”

Wright began his career on the stage in the late 1980s — he won a Tony at 28 for his performance as a drag queen turned nurse caring for a dying Roy Cohn in the original Broadway production of “Angels in America” — and has since played an astonishing array of characters in theater, movies and television. He was Jean-Michel Basquiat in “Basquiat” (1996), Gen. Colin L. Powell in “W” (2008) and Muddy Waters in “Cadillac Records” (2008.) In “Shaft” (2000), he played a Dominican drug lord with a zeal and swagger that stole the show.

He has had one-off parts in many TV series and starring roles in “Westworld” and “Boardwalk Empire.” He has appeared in big-budget movie franchises, as the CIA agent Felix Leiter in three Bond movies, as Beetee in the “Hunger Games” movies and as Lt. (not yet Commissioner) Gordon in “The Batman” (2022).

He has a way of vividly training attention on his characters, but not on himself.

“He’s a consummate actor in that he disappears so fully into every role that you barely recognize it’s him,” said Lisa Joy, a creator of “Westworld.” Wright played the chief programmer of the lifelike robot “hosts” in the show for four seasons, eventually learning, in a shocking twist, that he himself was a robot. “He’s many people’s favorite character in whatever he’s acting in, but they don’t know that he’s actually their favorite actor,” Joy said.

The director Wes Anderson conceived characters in his last two films specifically for Wright. “We were completely counting on him from the moment we wrote the first sentence of that role,” Anderson said of Wright’s performance as Roebuck Wright, a kind of amalgam of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, in “The French Dispatch.”

Playing Gen. Grif Gibson in Anderson’s “Asteroid City” (2023), Wright had to deliver a rousing, fast-talking oration in a single magisterial take. “There’s not very many people you could ask to do what he does there,” Anderson said. “It’s just too complicated to do that much dialogue in one take with that much moving around and the sort of technical complexity of it, but that’s what he’s there for.”

Despite his insistence on “Jeffrey or nothing” for “American Fiction,” Jefferson said he wasn’t quite prepared for the experience. “To be honest, I was a little terrified of directing him,” he said. “It felt like telling LeBron James how to dunk a basketball.”

But “he’s great not because he says, ‘I’m Jeffrey Wright — leave me alone to do my work,’” Jefferson said, “but because he says, ‘What do you think about this line, what about my emotions here?’” Wright “did two things in this role that were spectacular and that needed very little guidance,” Jefferson continued: He allowed audiences to see the pain and hurt beneath Monk’s anger, and he played the comedy subtly rather than broadly. “His eyebrow acting is better than what some people can do with their entire bodies,” Jefferson said.

Issa Rae, who appears in the movie as the author of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a novel that infuriates Monk because he feels it caters to white readers’ stereotypes of the so-called Black experience, said it was fascinating to watch Wright improvising and riffing on different options for each scene.

She added that “the layers of his intimidating presence fell away” quickly, as he hung out with the other actors, told the story of an earlier theatrical rejection in a moment of downtime and marveled about American history, inspired by his bike rides along the Paul Revere Ride to Freedom bike trail in Boston, where the movie was filmed.

Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Monk’s acerbic sister, Lisa, recalled their first scene together, set in a car. “I’m trying to smoke and roll the window down and drive, and I’m saying my lines and improvising a little,” she said. “And I look over and Jeffrey’s laughing. And he said, ‘You’re cracking me up,’ and I thought, ‘I made Jeffrey Wright break character!’”

“Lots of people would intimidate you with the body of work he has and the skill he has,” she said. “But you feel incredibly welcomed, and there’s a sense of play as you work together.”

In person, Wright is thoughtful in his responses and playful in his ideas. His path to acting was not an obvious one. He grew up in southeast Washington, D.C. His father died when he was a baby, and he was raised by his mother, a lawyer for the federal government, and his aunt, a surgical nurse — the first people in his family to go to college. His grandfather was a “southern Virginia oysterman and whiskey maker,” he said, who pitched in the Negro leagues.

As a child, Wright played peewee football, practicing “on this tiny little scratch of dirt at a triangular medium off of New York Avenue,” he said. After playing (and losing to) St. Albans, the tony boys’ school across town, Wright fell in love with the campus, applied and got in.

On the first day of sixth grade, he said, his mother drove him and he arrived a few minutes late. “I walked through the school and into the door that was to be mine, and as I did, the entire classroom of boys stood up” in greeting, he said. “I’ll never forget that. I felt from the first day that I was a St. Albans boy.” (One of his schoolmates was Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.)

Wright majored in political science at Amherst College and abandoned his plans to be a lawyer after performing a monologue in a production based on “Bloods,” Wallace Terry’s oral history of Black Vietnam War veterans. His mother had taken him often to the theater, and the play sparked something in him. “That seed planted early had been quietly germinating over many years and I just acted upon it,” he said.

After graduation, he returned to Washington, waited tables, did children’s theater, got a job as “the liveried guy in the corner” in “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the Folger Theater and then talked his way into a part in the Lorraine Hansberry play “Les Blancs” at Arena Stage. He enrolled and dropped out of acting school at New York University to take a series of theater jobs in and out of New York, culminating in “Angels in America.”

His roles seem to have come through a combination of serendipity and chutzpah. Asked to audition not for the lead in “Basquiat,” Julian Schnabel’s biopic about the artist, but for the role of Benny, a friend of the title character, he cheekily decided “to read the role as I would play Jean-Michel Basquiat,” he said. Eventually he landed the part. (Benicio Del Toro ended up as Benny.)

Wright, who lives in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn — two neighborhoods away from movie-star-packed Brooklyn Heights — has two children in college and is divorced from their mother, actress Carmen Ejogo.

Race is essential to who he is, of course, but he said it hadn’t limited his professional life.

“Race is a sociopolitical construct,” he said. “I’ve always understood that to be Black in America was a political idea, and likewise to be white. I’ve played a range of things, but all my work comes from the perspective of my own experiences, and that doesn’t imply limitations — I feel the scope of what I am able to do as an actor is pretty wide.”

He sees “Basquiat” and “American Fiction” as “bookends” to his career, a way of coming full circle.

“‘Basquiat’ came from a place that was familiar to me, this young Black creative man who’s making his way around Lower Manhattan and finding and expressing his voice,” he said. “And with Monk I felt a personal intimacy with his journey, too.”

He added: “They’re both stories about a man who is trying to express his authentic self in the face of external resistance. They just want to be free like any other human.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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