Jeffrey Wright: A Retrospective

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Some artists exist within the realms of our collective consciousness with a more low-key profile than others. They ply their trade with minimal fuss and for its original purpose – to entertain whilst enlightening. Unfortunately for us, their low-key status means we are not fully exposed to their genius. One such genius is DC native Jeffrey Wright. Mr. Wright is quite possibly the most underrated and underexposed actor of his caliber and generation; Jeffrey Wright’s undeniable talent and ability to successfully bring to life any role he undertakes is on a par with the most praised and revered A-list actors in the business.

Born and raised in Washington DC, Wright graduated from the prestigious Amherst College in 1987. Although he studied Political Science while at Amherst, Wright left the school with something that would prove to be more valuable: a love for acting. Shortly after graduating he won an acting scholarship to NYU, but dropped out after only two months to pursue acting full time. Roles in off-Broadway plays followed and Wright scored his first film role in 1990 with a bit part in Presumed Innocent. With career prospects dim, he moved briefly to Los Angeles looking for more film work.

Soon after returning to New York he landed his first major part in 1994 as Roy Cohn’s nurse, Belize, in Angels in America: Perestroika. The play was a huge success, and Wright won a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards for his performance. “That was the first time I could comfortably call myself an actor,” he told Hoban. But the role was the most difficult he’d ever performed, and it took him so long to get into the character that he was almost fired. As the director, George C. Wolfe, commented to Hoban, what sets Wright apart as an actor is that he “goes off to figure out where the jazz, the bebop, of the character is, as opposed to just playing the melody.”

Though this deep attention to character resulted in considerable acclaim for Wright’s performance as Belize, it did not immediately lead to career success, and the young actor struggled to find subsequent work. After a year without a role, in 1996 he was cast as the lead in Basquiat, an independent film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the avant-garde painter and protégé of Andy Warhol who set the art world abuzz before he died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27. Director Julian Schnabel, who had known Basquiat, cast Wright in the starring role partly because the actor was not well known. “I saw 100 black actors,” he told Hoban, “and I knew Jeffrey was the one…. I knew he had the most buttons he could press to turn himself into Jean-Michel.” Wright prepared intently for the role and often disagreed with Schnabel on how to play particular scenes. But the end result was a performance that many found unforgettable. “Jeffrey’s performance goes beyond acting,” said Basquiat’s friend and script developer Michael Holman was quoted in the New York Times. “It’s possession.”

Since that role, Wright has earned parts in several major films, including the gravedigger in Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke, a Puerto Rican gangster in Shaft, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the made-for-cable movie Boycott (where he met current spouse Carmen Ajogo), and an emotionally-scarred Desert Storm veteran in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. His performance in this film, according to New York Timescritic A.O. Scott, was “memorably strange.”

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Wright also continued to work in theater. In 2005 he costarred with Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet in This Is How It Goes, a play about an interracial love triangle that Variety reviewer David Rooney described as a “sharply honed work that insidiously inches under the skin with its unforgiving insights and…nasty tricks.” As Cody, the black husband of white woman Belinda, Wright offered what Rooney deemed a “sharp-edged” performance that aptly communicated the tension between the spouses.

In 2005 Wright costarred opposite Bill Murray in the film Broken Flowers, playing Murray’s neighbor, Winston. When Murray’s character, Don, discovers that one of his former lovers gave birth to his son years ago, Winston persuades Don to find out who the mother might be. Though writer-director Jim Jarmusch wrote the film for Murray, he had Wright in mind from the start to play Winston. “He has such incredible range,” Jarmusch told Los Angeles Times writer Susan King. “He can be very, very subtle or he can be explosive, depending on what the character is, and he has an incredible human compassion thing that I read off him on screen.” It was important, stressed Jarmusch, that Winston would not be a cliché, just a comic sidekick; he insisted that the character be a complex person. And Wright “lifted it above what I imagined but also came through with what the film really needed from that character.”

Critics agreed that Wright’s performance was central to the film’s charm. “Jeffrey Wright walks off with his scenes as the nosy and bubbling family man with an active Sherlock Holmes complex,” noted Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, while King wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Wright “manages to steal every scene he’s in.” Wright enjoyed the role, explaining to King that he was attracted to Winston’s essential loneliness. Most recently, Wright seems to be acknowledged further by appearances in major motion pictures like the revamped Bond series and Syriana.

A very private man offstage and off-screen, Wright is married to actress Carmen Ejogo, with whom he has two children. He is happy to succeed as an actor without necessarily living in the limelight. Acknowledging that some of his characters are better known than he is himself, the actor told King that this “suits me fine.”

Jeffery Wright seems to have struck that rare balance between character actor and star. His presence is electric in every role he embodies and his almost chameleon-like, methodical form of acting remains of high currency among credible directors. Perhaps, one can draw a parallel between his ever-changing personalities with the changing face of his birthplace – D.C.

David Hailey

This article originally appeared in SoulCulture 01. Chocolate City Special [Click + Save As to download].

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