Letitia Wright on new Western Surrounded and working with the late Michael K Williams
The Black Panther star plays emancipated slave and former Buffalo Soldier Mo Washington in the new Western – which she also produced.
Letitia Wright might have achieved global recognition and critical acclaim for her portrayal of Shuri in the MCU – but the award-winning Guyanese-British actor is not afraid to mix it up and work on smaller independent movies.
In the past couple of years, she's starred in films like The Silent Twins and Aisha, allowing her to tell important stories that haven’t been told before - and this is clearly something that she's eminently passionate about.
"I love projects that feel different to what I've done in the past, and what I haven't seen," she explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com. "I just really love the opportunity to do something different and kind of be a chameleon and do something absolutely left-field from what I’m used to."
This ethos towards her acting has now led Wright to Surrounded, a Western that centres around emancipated slave and former Buffalo Soldier Mo Washington, who disguises herself as a man as she travels West to lay claim on a gold mine.
Mo is loosely based on the life of Cathay Williams, a former house slave who posed as a man under the pseudonym of William Cathay to enlist in the army, and the film follows her after she survives an ambush on a stagecoach and is forced to hold infamous outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) captive whilst the surviving passengers seek help from the nearest town.
Of course, when you conjure images of Westerns throughout cinematic history, you may well first think of leading men such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Clint Eastwood, perhaps saving a town from a ruthless outlaw or saving a damsel in distress.
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Surrounded subverts these genre expectations: Wright enters almost uncharted territory as a Black woman leading a Western as her character challenges preconceptions about race and gender in the Antebellum period.
"Mo Washington is challenging those ways of thinking by existing and her bravery to exist and her bravery to just go into these environments where it could go really wrong for her," says Wright.
"I think the way that we deal with the topics and the subject matters of the film, they’re great and they’re challenging but I love how Mo Washington is cutting through that on her journey."
There are few examples of Westerns centering around a Black lead, with The Harder They Fall, Blazing Saddles and Wild Wild West being a few of the noticeable exceptions. However, Wright is keen to talk about the importance of entering the conversation in this genre.
"I like that we've challenged ourselves to add and contribute to what’s already out there," she says. "It's really cool because Black people… we exist in all different forms and places and eras and we be riding horses! It’s a real thing but some people just don’t want to highlight it, but we have and that’s really cool for people to see that."
Wright also reveals that Surrounded was her most physically demanding role to date – with harsh terrains and difficult weather conditions in the remote New Mexico desert, a two-hour drive from Santa Fe. "One minute it will be literally snowing and then it will be super hot and ripping off your jacket and everything - and I’m in like 99.9% of the scenes," she says.
One of the most difficult aspects of filming, she adds, was the harsh cold weather during the night shoots in the desert.
"If there was a big campfire for that particular scene in the night then we would all just be huddled around until we were shouted to get back to our places on set. We just took it each day as it came because if our characters went through it, then we've got to experience it.
"It was before I did Black Panther [Wakanda Forever] and The Silent Twins, so the physicality of it prepared me to have longevity and endurance for these films coming up."
Starring alongside Letitia in Surrounded is the late actor Michael K Williams, in what will be his final posthumous role following his tragic death in 2021. Wright has fond memories of working with The Wire star, calling him a "truly beautiful artist" and recalling how he was always sure to keep spirits up during those long aforementioned night shoots.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with him," she says. "I just remember there's a photo on my phone of us… the night shoots in the desert are absolutely cold and in between scenes we would just be laughing and joking.
"There's a photo of him just covering my hands with his and just keeping them warm, I’ll always remember him for that. He's such a beautiful, beautiful man."
The cast also includes British actor Jamie Bell – known for his roles in films such as Billy Elliott and Snowpiercer. Bell plays Tommy Walsh - an infamous (though fictional) outlaw with a big bounty on his head, and Wright is also full of praise for him.
"Jamie, alongside Michael, is one of the hardest-working actors I've ever had the privilege of being alongside. If I'm giving 100 per cent, he’s going to come with 120 or 140 and we keep challenging each other. Again, another beautiful soul to work with and a beautiful artist to just sit and watch him shine and learn so much from him."
Wright's work on Surrounded wasn't just limited to the starring role in front of the camera – she also served as a producer for the film, in what was her first producing credit after launching her own production company 316 Productions.
Speaking via Elle Magazine at the company's launch, she said that it was "an opportunity to create the roles that I didn’t see for Black women and men, or Asian people" – and it looks like her first experiences with 316 have been very positive ones.
"The nerves weren't as overwhelming as I thought they would be," she explains. "I just had to follow my instincts on what I felt would be a great match for the team and how I can contribute, especially with the scripts as well, and fighting for what I believed in.
"Then those skill sets helped me to be a better producer, even on The Silent Twins, where I got to be even more involved in making decisions as well."
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