No matter what role he plays, Jeffrey Wright never falls short of delivering the mix of intelligence and eloquence that’s become his actorly hallmark. It’s there in his performance as an attorney in Syriana, in his cinematic breakout as the eponymous artist in Basquiat, and in his latest role as Simon, the sometimes incomprehensibly drunk best friend of Sam Rockwell’s lead character in David Rosenthal’s backwoods-set thriller A Single Shot. That Wright’s instincts and erudition can shine through the de-glammed shortcomings of even his least refined characters is a testament to the man’s talents, and proof that our most articulate stars needn’t be strictly called upon to play traditional—or political—intellectuals (which isn’t to say Wright wasn’t faithfully impressive as a C.I.A. agent in Casino Royale, a Democrat senator in The Ides of March, a mad scientist in Source Code, and Colin Powell in W.).
Politics is something that’s cropped up repeatedly in Wright’s work, beginning, of course, with his career-making stage performance as Belize, the out and outspoken character he originated in Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America. Winning him a 1993 Tony Award, and, thanks to HBO’s 2003 adaptation, in which he also starred, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, the role would seem to have yielded his defining, keeps-on-giving turn, but Wright, 47, says it’s a bit more complicated than that. The same goes for his relationship with politics, which, in addition to being influenced by his Washington D.C. upbringing, has been inextricably bound to his love of film. Speaking to me recently about A Single Shot and his upcoming work in both The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the new season of Boardwalk Empire, Wright squashed a myth I’d been told about his pre-acting life, while also explaining how to effectively play drunk and why reading to his child is often more enlightening than reading Hollywood scripts.
I’m going to start off with an anecdote, and I’ll probably fumble it a bit, but when I was in college, I took an acting class, and my professor told me he either knew you or knew someone who knew you. And he said that when you were in school, and weren’t necessarily on the actor’s path, you’d taken an acting class and made such an impression that the instructor told you to leave immediately, head to New York, and “find stage.” I remember him using those words. Do you recall that happening?
Well, that’s interesting, but that’s completely fictional. [laughs]
Oh no! I’m crushed.
No, I was actually told the opposite by my first acting coach. I took a class in my junior year of college, and there was a guy who taught the class who was—how shall I put it?—a bit of a cultural conservative. And I remember saying to him, “You know, I want to pursue this.” Because I knew after the first day that I wanted to pursue it. I knew I was going to be an actor. And this guy said, “Well, I could see you doing comedy routines, and things like that.” He was kind of a…I think he was a bit of a racist, to be honest. So, no, he was not all that encouraging. But, then again, that’s good because most people can be discouraged from doing good stuff, and if they listen, then it wasn’t meant to be their journey anyway.
Well, it’s great that he wasn’t able to dissuade you. For the record, the scene I performed in that class was a scene from Angels in America; however, I played Joe. I don’t know if I could have tackled Belize. With all the recognition you gained from it, do you consider Belize your signature role?
I guess. I don’t know. I don’t really think of it in that way, but in my experiences, it’s the most important piece relative to my career, and also relative to my life. It was life-changing for me. And also, it was life-affirming. It affirmed something very important for me as an actor, and that was that you could actually express your duties as a citizen through your work as an actor, within the right setting. It was meaningful. And fortunately for me that happened very early on in my career, and it kind of raised my expectations of the kind of work that I could be involved in.
Yes, in your work you’ve tackled a lot of roles in films that have political slants, or take place in political arenas. Are you especially political yourself? I know at least one cause you’re passionate about is protecting natural resources.
Well, yeah. You know, I was a political science major in college and I grew up in Washington D.C. You grow up in Washington and you kind of have no choice but to be political. And there was also just a function of the times too. I came of consciousness in the late ’60s and early ’70s, you know? So, as an African-American individual, I was politicized by that. But also, the early movies that I took in were not necessarily overtly political in nature, but had political under- and overtones. So that was the stuff I was really attracted to. I think one of the first “adult” movies I saw in the theater was Dog Day Afternoon, and it had a definite politics about it. And there were all those great Lumet films, and Schlesinger films, and Coppola. The films that Hollywood was churning out at that time were about something, and that kind of shaped my understanding of what movies were about—or what they could be about.
Belize saw you as clean-shaven as can be, but in A Single Shot, you’re playing this backwoods guy who’s buried deep beneath a thick, unruly beard. Your co-star, Sam Rockwell, has said that something like facial hair can be an effective tool for character-building. Would you agree?
Yeah, definitely. Beards, or facial hair, for me, is a tool for crafting a mask that suits the character. And I tend to do that a lot.
Even the way Simon wears his hat says a lot about him.
Yeah, well, he’s a black, good ol’ boy. [laughs] He’s a black redneck. They’re out there! They are out there. I like how this character kind of defies assumptions about character and race. He kind of lives with a foot on each side of the racial dividing line.
Regarding your performance in this film, I think it’s fair to say that the standout scene is Simon’s tearful, drunken, climactic encounter with Rockwell’s character, John. Sometimes it seems like convincingly playing drunk can mark the sign of a great actor. Is there a trick to it? Because it seems so easy to slovenly overdo it.
Let’s just say my trick is memory. [laughs] But, this guy, as written, is a pretty desperate alcoholic. He’s not a functional, rose-colored alcoholic, and he’s not made up of shades of drunkenness; he’s full-bore. And alcohol fuels his behavior and the behavior of other characters in this story in a way that drives the action of the movie. They get into a lot of mischief, and I think the line that goes, “The drunker I get, the more unreasonable things seem to me,” is very central to who [Simon] is. His desperateness is only further inflamed by the fuel of alcohol.
In the past, you’ve portrayed a lot of real-life characters, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Muddy Waters. What’s more intimidating, playing someone like that, who existed, or facing the phenomenon of something like The Hunger Games, whose next installment you’ll be co-starring in?
There are different expectations and challenges for each. I don’t know if I could necessarily compare. The Hunger Games has such a passionate fan base, and also the first movie was such an enormous success that, obviously, when stepping into that franchise, you don’t want to diminish what’s been done before. You want to try to rise to the occasion and contribute to the quality of the piece, and to its success. So that’s a challenge in and of itself. When playing historical figures, you want to do justice to the work and the lives of these folks, and pay homage where it’s due. So that, obviously, is not to be taken lightly, particularly when you’re introducing stories about folks who lived meaningful lives. You want to meaningfully represent what they were about.
The return of Boardwalk Empire is also on the way, and that’s another beloved saga you’re a part of. Your relationship with HBO and your varied experience in different mediums makes me think about where we currently stand with so much multi-platform content in both film and TV. A Single Shot, for example, is available on Video on Demand. As an actor, do you see all of this as one big positive step forward?
Sure. That’s evident in the quality of the work that’s being produced. Speaking specifically about Boardwalk Empire, the writing that’s being generated over there is among the best that I have ever worked with as an actor. I continually find it inspired—what they’re coming up with for my character. It’s a thrill. Every time I’m delivered the next episode, it’s like Christmas candy. And this long-form format has created that type of space. For writers alone, it’s brilliant. At one point, I was reading Dr. Seuss to my daughter, and I thought to myself, “I enjoy reading Dr. Seuss more than I enjoy reading most scripts that I’m sent.” So I was really actively looking for language and intelligence when they invited me to be a part of Boardwalk, and that’s what I found. So, yeah, I think it’s all contributing significantly to the quality of work that’s being made available, and the quality of work that’s being produced.