Has Jeffrey Wright worked nonstop since he fell in love with acting in college in the late 1980s? It seems like it. From indie hits to blockbusters to weighty TV series to Broadway, the actor, who can next be seen in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” will justifiably be honored with Variety’s Legend and Groundbreaker award at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which this year runs from Oct. 21-28.
The actor’s early career includes such projects as Lorraine Hans-berry’s “Les Blancs” and Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” at the Arena Theater; “The Playboy of the West Indies” and “Search and Destroy” at Yale Rep; but it was 1993’s “Angels in America: Perestroika” and “Millennium Approaches” that really supercharged his career. He won Tony and Drama Desk awards for “Perestroika.”
Wright started out at Amherst College as a political science major. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother was a lawyer for the U.S. Customs Service. “I was exposed to the world of politics from the earliest age … but my mother exposed me to the theater from a very early age too,” he says.
She would take him to every major touring show that came through town. “I saw everything from musicals like ‘Purlie’ and ‘The Wiz’ and ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar’ to James Whitmore in ‘Give ’Em Hell Harry.’ I saw Paul Winfield do a one-man show about [Martin Luther] King. I saw Avery Brooks do a one-man show about [Paul] Robeson. I saw ‘1776.’ And you can add ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf’ to the list. And just a whole range of things that I took in growing up and it stuck with me.”
He laughs that the move from politics to theater isn’t such “an extreme leap.”
Wright says that throughout high school and most of college, he didn’t do any acting at all. “I was kind of fearful of it, but it was quietly kind of whispering to me.” It was in his junior year of college that he took an acting class “and at the end of the first day, I knew that’s what I was going to be doing. It was a long coming time, but then a sudden shift. And that was it.”
He cites several people who saw something in him and took him under their wings. At Amherst, it was Kevin Frazier, who had adapted Wallace Terry’s oral history of Black Vietnam vets, “Bloods,” and gave Wright a monologue in the play. “That was the first thing that I ever did.” He also notes such influencers as director-teacher Hal Scott, Yale Rep’s Dennis Scott and the Guthrie’s Joe Dowling as impacting his early development as an actor.
AIDS had cut down Frazier, Hal Scott and Dennis Scott, as well as too many in the theater community. These were just “some of the reasons that my work ultimately in ‘Angels in America’ was so personal because of the past that had led me to that piece, and wound its way directly to who they were, my experiences with them and with their memories.”
He landed at New York University for a of couple months, but got back on the boards. And as with many New York actors, Wright took on small roles in TV and films shooting in Gotham. But his big breakthrough on celluloid was as the titular artist in the film “Basquiat.”
His stage career exploded — from his award-winning turn in “Angels in America” to hits such as “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk” and “Topdog/Underdog.”
Did he face any challenges over race, or enter theater because it seemed more open to Black actors? “The emphasis for me, focusing on my career, was entirely about the craft and the respect that I had for actors who came from the theater. It had nothing whatsoever to do with race in any shape or form. It was simply about me wanting to learn how to do this thing. That was it. And influenced by actors like Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino — these were all actors who had come from the stage.
“That was just the way I understood it to be. And I had so little experience coming out of college that I just needed to figure out what the hell I was doing. And so I spent essentially seven years working in the theater, with a couple of film roles here and there, but it was seven years in the theater before I wound up on Broadway in ‘Angels in America.’”
As an actor, Wright savors language. That love is palpable in his turn as writer Roebuck Wright in “The French Dispatch,” set for an Oct. 22 release through Searchlight.
“Wes said that he had written this piece with me in mind. And when he sent me the script, I was just immediately taken by the language and the poetry and the tone.”
Wright appreciated the gesture but “was also moved by this man [Roebuck Wright] that was on the page, just kind of an odd man who was searching for a type of freedom on his own terms.”
Wright notes his love of jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and “there was just something so rich and warm about the character and a language; the language was the music that I love. And I appreciate syntax and a well-placed punctuation mark! And Wes is very specific in his language.”
Indeed, Wright’s deep dulcet tones wrap around Anderson’s words in a way that audiences can almost taste.
“And it’s also rare that the film is both visually oriented and also centers on language. And I think Wes’ films do that in a way that I’m quite drawn to.” Wright is shooting another Anderson film — yet to be titled — set for 2022.
He goes easily from blockbuster properties including the James Bond franchise — the latest, “No Time to Die,” in which he reprised his role as Felix, is in theaters — to “The Batman,” due in March, in which he’s the first Black actor to play Commissioner Jim Gordon. And fans of HBO’s “Westworld” can’t wait for the next season.
“I am a fan of a good script. … I’m drawn to a script that’s compelling. ‘The Batman’ script, I think is a really dynamic and new take on the franchise.”
That shoot dragged out over a year and a half because the global COVID pandemic caused many stops and starts. Yet Wright points out that it’s always great to work with collaborators — from the director to the DP, hair, makeup, costume and production design — who are at the top of their game. “Whether it’s Jonathan Nolan or Lisa Joy or Matt Reeves, they’re all storytellers who are really passionate about what they’re doing. And so they ask a lot of everyone around them and they raised the game … and the creative stakes. So those are the types of environments that you want to be in.”
As for who he’d like to work with in the future, the in-demand actor laughs. “If I’m honest with you, my plate is pretty full and I’m actually looking forward to taking a bit of a break perhaps next year at some point. I’ve been working pretty steadily and I’m fortunate to be able to say that … but I’ve also got some wonderful people at home that I’d like to spend a bit more time with as well.”