Jeffrey Wright on American Fiction: "We all want to be seen for our authentic selves"
The Oscar-nominated actor speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about his role in the satirical drama.
With a career that has seen him win a Tony, an Emmy and starring roles in several of the world's biggest film franchises, there's not a lot that Jeffrey Wright has left to accomplish.
Wright is up for Best Actor for his leading role as Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison in Cord Jefferson's entertaining satire American Fiction, and when he speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com just over a week after the nominations are announced, he is understandably still delighted.
"Oh, it's wonderful, because in the case of the Academy Award nominations, it comes from our peers," he smiles. "How could it not be gratifying when your peers say to you well done? It's wonderful!"
What's especially pleasing about the film's success is that the budget and resources American Fiction had at its disposal were a far cry from many of its big-hitter competitors like Barbie and Oppenheimer.
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The awards attention has therefore been vital in helping divert more eyes to the film, giving it a boost that the blockbuster films in the category don't need so much.
"Our budget is probably equivalent to the catering budget on the last James Bond movie I did," he laughs.
"We shot our film in 26 days. But we think that we're telling a big story that is timely, and that is well drawn and reasonably smart. And one that audiences will find a place inside."
American Fiction is loosely based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure, but as Wright explains, Jefferson has "deviated in pretty significant ways" from the source material, "rewriting it in his own image in many ways" and changing various things that suited the "cinematic needs better".
For example, while the book is set in Washington, DC – Wright's own hometown – the film flits between Los Angeles and Boston. Meanwhile, an incident involving Monk's sister also plays out very differently on the screen than on the page.
Wright was not yet familiar with the novel when he first got his hands on Jefferson's script, but was instantly hooked upon reading it, noting that it had "enormous potential" with "relevance and a deep emotional core to it".
But it wasn't until he got to set that he truly realised they might be on to something big.
"You get that sense, primarily from the reaction of the crew who in some ways serve as the first audience," he adds. "It happens on sets from time to time - not always, but it does happen.
"And it is an indicator that you're onto something where the crew begins to work with a bit of extra pride in what they do, and where the quiet on set gets degrees quieter – and I sensed that on this one."
One of the things that especially appealed to Wright about the film – and which he believes is a part of the reason it appears to be resonating so deeply with audiences – is that in addition to serving as an astute satire on the limiting expectations placed on Black artists and writers, it also functions as an affecting family portrait.
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And while the satirical element of the film is perhaps the headline-grabber, the thing that has featured most prominently in the trailers and other promotional material, Wright says the more grounded domestic drama sections are every bit as important, not least because he could emphasise a great deal with what Monk was going through.
"I understood the circumstances where the pressures of family are being exerted on him suddenly, and where he is required to be the adult in the room," he says.
"I was appreciative of the sacrifices that one is asked to make in those circumstances relative to one's personal life and professional life, because I had been experiencing those circumstances myself after my mum passed.
"She was the absolute centre of our family, and she passed a little over a year before I got this script," he adds.
"I was raised by two women, my mother and her eldest sister – my aunt – who's now 94 and who came to live with us. So I turned caretaker to her, just as the character in this film is asked to be caretaker to his mother, and so that resonated with me very deeply.
"I think that's an experience that many have had and many will have in the course of their lives. And so it resonated with people who will see the film saying, 'Wow, I felt seen, I understand that.'
"It provides this emotional tether to our story that balances out the absurdity of the satirical side in a way that I think creates a really satisfying experience."
Still, while it might have been this more personal side of the drama that appealed to Wright, he naturally found lots worthwhile in the satirical side as well, and explains that the central idea of "a person being seen for who they are" is one that has a certain universality to it
"It's not just [something] that Black people desire or artists desire – we all want to be seen and appreciated for our authentic selves," he says. "So there's a window for people across backgrounds, I think, to empathise with that aspect of the film as well."
As for how much he can personally empathise with the frustrations Monk deals with in the film and the idea of being pigeon-holed as an artist, Wright says it's complicated.
"Of course, I understand the pressures that are exerted from the outside in within our industry, and I understand that there are limitations that at times want to be imposed upon us, but I've had a really satisfying career," he says.
"I've worked across genres and super interesting projects of various types and played a range of characters that, for the most part, I think were interesting or telling interesting stories.
"So, I've tried to be a couple of steps ahead of whatever limitations were attempted to be imposed on me. I've felt at times satisfied with my creative freedom, and at other times I worked because the kids refused to stop eating multiple times a day! You know, there are other more pragmatic decisions.
"But that said, I do understand those pressures that frustrate Monk at the beginning of our film, so there was an alignment of understanding. But I don't think I'm quite as frustrated by it all as he is, at least personally.
"In terms of from an observational side, yeah, it's all a bit absurd and tragic. But as I said, I think I've managed to stay a couple of steps ahead, at least to this point."
A quick glance at Wright's filmography is all it takes to confirm that he has indeed been successful when it comes to avoiding being pigeon-holed.
He's worked with a huge range of directors including Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, M Night Shyamalan, George Clooney, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, and had major roles in franchises such as James Bond (as Felix Leiter) and The Hunger Games.
Meanwhile, in recent years he's also emerged as the latest addition to Wes Anderson's regular troupe of acting collaborators, with memorable roles in the acclaimed director's last two features The French Dispatch and Asteroid City – an experience he has thoroughly enjoyed.
"The process of working on one of his films is unlike any other," he enthuses. "Single, long takes almost working with the frame as a diorama in which to perform a mini-play. I love that.
"It's challenging. But it's a joy to play, and I just dig him and his sense of irony and his whimsy.
"As you might have heard, we all live together in the same hotel. We eat meals together. Everything happens in that hotel from hair and makeup to costume. You're basically living at base camp!
"So it creates community, but it's also very smart. Because it keeps everyone close and it creates greater efficiency when we work. He's such good fun to work with and to have a meal with and a glass of wine."
Meanwhile, another recent credit on Wright's CV is the role of Jim Gordon in Matt Reeves's The Batman, which saw Robert Pattinson debut as the Caped Crusader.
The film was released in 2022, and despite false reports to the contrary, a sequel is currently in the works, with Wright set to return as the Gotham City Police Department mainstay – who had not yet reached his famous rank of commissioner in the first film.
Wright can't reveal much about the follow-up at this point, but he is "looking forward to returning to Gotham", especially given they will no longer be hamstrung by the COVID restrictions which dominated production on the first film.
"I was a massive fan [of Batman], and it was an unexpected gift to be asked to be a part of that," he says.
"I think we made a good film, I like Matt Reeves's handle on the franchise. I love the groundedness of the aesthetic. I love that there's a grittiness to it and harkening back to kind of '70s filmmaking in America.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to it also because when we made the first one we were working in the teeth of the pandemic here in London, and it was tricky. So it'll be nice to be back on set without that external strangeness. It'll be nice just to be able to come over and focus more on the work itself."
But one character who Wright won't be returning to play any time soon is Felix Leiter, who was famously killed off in a memorable scene during Daniel Craig's 007 swan song No Time to Die.
Of course, with the whole franchise set for a reset in the wake of Craig's departure, it's entirely possible a new actor could take on the long-running role in subsequent movies, and this is something Wright himself would like to see.
“Yeah, sure," he responded when asked about the possibility. "I mean, I was just the latest in a long wonderful line of actors who played Felix, sure.
"You know, I had a nice run with Daniel, and yeah, on to the next – if there's a next. I will absolutely be tuning in."