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Headlines Winter 2019-6

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Multi-Dimensional, Multi Talented Actor-Director-Producer

An Act Above The Rest

The idea of great art is quite subjective and can vary from person to person. The perception of what it means to excel in any arena can be drastically different from one person to another.

As it relates to the acting world, it is full of talented and brilliant artists—many of whom strive to reach some level of achievement in their career. But the question is, what truly makes an actor standout and be noticed? Is it their skill or charisma? Or could it be their style or appearance? Only a few possess the right combination of things and Tony Award, Golden Globe and Emmy winner actor, producer, director Jeffrey Wright are one of the chosen few.

He’s shared platforms with legends such as Sidney Portier, Albert Hall, Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington to name a few and he has appeared he has appeared and wowed audiences in such projects as his twice Emmy Nominated role in the HBO series “Westworld,”  Quantum Of Solace the multi-billion dollar James Bond franchise,  HBO’s award multi- award winning series “Boardwalk Empire,”  and is best remembered and loved for his coveted performances  Angels in America mini series (and he won the Tony for the original Broadway play), as well as as his career changing performance in Basquiat, to name a few

However, in connecting with him, you instantly get the impression he is at peace with who is as an artist and as a person in general. For Jeffrey, it’s not about fame or notoriety; rather, the focus is truly on his love for the craft and his ability to be an impactful storyteller.

Jeffrey’s theory to the longevity of his career is very simple. It is to “stick and move” as he mentions in his interview. He does not stay put for too long and can be seen in an array of projects.

His art has no limits, whether it’s film, TV or theater…

He’s a diverse actor who clearly has an appreciation for all forms of art.

Born in DC and raised in New York, he originally set out to major in political science in college. However, when he acted in his first stage play in his junior year in college, the experience illuminated the hidden talent within him and changed the direction of his career. Judging from his expansive resume, he clearly chose the correct path. Jeffrey Wright is truly an act above the rest.

MONARCH: When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in acting?

JW: I guess the first play I ever did was in college my junior year. It was an adaptation of a book called Bloods about a group of black Vietnam veterans retelling the stories of their experiences with the war and with the difficulties they faced returning home after.  It was adapted by a student at my college who subsequently died of AIDS, but that was my introduction to performance.

I hadn’t really done anything in high school. The experience with doing that play really grabbed me, and I think I really set myself on a different path after being involved with that. I was a political science major in college, and I guess I was going to go to law school and pursue something in that realm, but that play rewrote the story. My mother always took me to the theater in DC for all the shows that came through town—“For Colored Girls” and all the Black musicals that came through. I remember seeing… I think Paul Whitfield did I think a one-man MLK piece.  I also remember, I think Avery Brooks did a Paul Robeson piece, and I also saw “Give’em Hell Harry” about Harry Truman and the James Whitmore in Annie. Bubbling Brown Sugar and Curley and all this stuff. It was a mix of things. My mom made sure she exposed me to that. So that in some ways planted a seed in my brain and in my chest. It was there, but I never really cultivated and exposed it to the light until college and then I was off.

MONARCH: So, would you say your mom was one of your major inspirations?

JW: To be an actor, no (laughing). I think only unwittingly, by mistake. My mom was a lawyer for the US government for Customs, so it took her a few minutes for her to really register that I was going to be an actor. I think she might have gotten the message when I won the Tony back in ’94 and then she started to turn the corner, but it took a lot of steering.

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MONARCH: Can you just describe what it was like being on stage for that first time and acting and being in front of those people? What did that feel like for you?

JW: It felt like where I belonged. It just felt like I was in the right pocket.  It pulled on a lot of interests and kind of muted desires I had for expression. It also was a way to articulate social commentary and observations and layer in political interests and concerns and voice them. So even from that first play that I was draw to and that attracted me were kind of layered with those types of elements.

MONARCH: Since you brought that up, one of the questions I did have is that even when I read your bio and looked at your career I noticed a lot of the films you played in or projects you’ve been part of have a strong moral message and framework. When you’re looking at a script and looking at whether or not to participate in a particular project, what are you looking for?

JW: I’m not looking for a moral message necessarily as much as I’m looking for a story that for one, jumps out at me from the page in terms of the writing, and also a story that feels connected to realities that are central to me, whether those are personal, psychological or social or political.

If the themes or ideas strike those chords, I get up. Like Basquiat for example, when I got a call from a friend of mine who was helping cast that movie, left a message on my answering machine… he said, “Jeffrey I’m helping this woman cast Jean-Michel Basquiat and I thought of you and so I’m leaving you this message to let you know.” He was a friend of mine, you know, we drank together, and I knew right then I was going to tell that story. It was the same day I decided to leave Angels in America after a year and a half on Broadway and I got home that day after I put my notice in that I was leaving, and I found that message. And I said, “that’s it.” His story, which now so many people are claiming some part of globally because they recognize themselves in this type of archetype that he created or whether they’re buying his pieces of work, claiming some part of him in that way. I knew a bit about him and know a bit about his presence and living in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan where I first lived when I came to New York just before he died, and you know that his work, his art, his life, his persona um for me was the reflection of a lot of things that lived inside my head and life’s experiences that shaped me. I jumped into his space and tried to get that story out and play some role in helping elevate the knowledge of who he was and what he represented. I think it’s wild there are artists who think of themselves as the new Basquiat or some iteration of him. I’m glad they finally caught up.

MONARCH: So, one other movie I noticed in your bio that you played, and that I thought was very interesting was O.G. And what I found interesting about it is that it’s filmed in an operating prison where the inmates are actors and extras. Why was it important for you to be part of a project like this and when people are watching the film, what’s the message you want them to get from it.

JW: Well there’s so much conversation about criminal justice and mass incarceration and it’s an obviously valid and necessary dialogue to be having… but I guess I wanted to educate myself a bit deeper into the realities around all that and from a creative standpoint, I was intrigued by the idea of going inside and creating art in the way we create art as storytellers in film. I was intrigued by the idea of working together with these men that society has shut the door on and seeing what we could do around it. On some level too, I wanted to see if I could pull it off. This was a way for me to smack myself in the face and wake me up to new challenges and more interesting dynamics to work with and work through. So yeah, I was intrigued by the idea.

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MONARCH: I noticed in watching your films that you embody the character when you’re playing them. What do you do to get in and out of character? How do you prepare for that role?

JW: I pretty much take my wardrobe off at the end of the day and go home. That’s how I get out of character. It’s not really that complicated beyond that—although when you’re in a situation like O.G.. that was a big deal, being able to go home or back to my hotel room every night. I never took that for granted because most of the men I was working with could only imagine that. I never did not appreciate walking out of that gate every day, so that helped drive that character. But at the same time that environment does haunt after meeting it in a way that no other environment that I worked in does. So, that was a little more complicated than most.

MONARCH: Did you get a chance to talk to any of the inmates and did you get a feel for how the film impacted them in actually getting to act in it?

JW: I talked to them every day for over the course of 14 hours or for however long we were on the inside. I had to because we had to operate within an atmosphere of respect, of mutual respect.  We also had to create a trust between everyone involved. I couldn’t just be walking around kind of shielding my eyes to the guys. Yeah, we talked, we hung out, we lifted weights, we played hoops. We did everything you might expect because we were on set together. Once they were with us and they were working with us, they hung out, and if they weren’t in the scene, they observed the process of filming the scene because they were curious about how films, and they watch a lot of them, are created. For them, it was relief from the ordinary routine of their lives, so they were very much into what we were doing together and we built working relationships over the course of that time.

MONARCH: I’m glad to see that project had such a positive impact on them and that they received so much out of having the film there.

JW: Well, I think the main thing they got out of it was the opportunity to do something that asked more of them than is routine and asked more of them than might have been asked of them in some cases in their lives—to do something collaborative, constructive, and positive that was asking them to dig down into themselves and pull out you know something creative as opposed to something destructive. These weren’t non-violent offenders. Most of the guys we were involved with had hurt some people in the worst ways and so they had delivered trauma. They had done damage. So for them to, as one of them described to me, show themselves and show others that they are more than their worst mistakes and their worst crimes was something I think that they embraced. But at the same time, there was a conflict too because no matter they did during the process of making this film, at the end of the day and at the end of the shoot, they were still incarcerated men. And I think that’s probably a difficult fact. There’s a little bit of tension there I think that is in some ways inevitable given their circumstances.

second page_3 webMONARCH: We’re going to shift gears a little. What has been the key ingredient to the success and longevity you’ve experienced in your career?

JW: I try to stick and move, you know. Yeah and I try not to stand still in what I do and in the ways that I work. And I do that not to create a type of outcome relative to my career but because that’s just what interests me. Trying to push the edge and tell stories that shoot for a type of originality and tell them in a way that is for me have an original take, so I don’t stay stagnate. Stick and move.

MONARCH: What was the most pivotal or life-changing moment of your career?

JW: Well I think, at least one breakthrough moment in my career. Is the first time you step out and do it. That first time back in college when I came out and did that play in that little black box theater in the middle of winter in Amherst, Massachusetts with about 30 to 40 people in the audience. When I came out with my other colleagues who were in that show and when that story and that performance was received by that audience, then that was it. When they didn’t throw rocks, you know, then it was on.

And so, everything from that point has been a part of building towards this career journey. When I started there and shaped something out of the dirt, at that point and it keep kind of being formed and now, I’m talking to you and still doing it over 30 years later, that was it. I talk to a lot of people and you get the sense that people are looking for some key that unlocks fame and unlocks what they perceive to be that life. I don’t know what that is about. That was never where I was with this. It was about trying to build something that I could control to some extent in terms of the work, not looking for somebody to make me into something that I thought I needed to be because I felt that I lacked something that needed to be filled. People have a weird take on what artist and entertainers do. I just started telling stories.

MONARCH: It’s probably because people who aren’t in the industry or aren’t artist, they probably don’t know what it’s like, so they come up with their own understanding of it. How do you describe yourself as an actor?

JW: I don’t think I really ever describe myself too much. I try not to. Other people probably do but I don’t really describe myself too often. I guess if I were to say anything it would be that I’m a New York actor.

MONARCH: Do you get to mentor aspiring actors?

JW: Yeah, as I continue to do this thing, more and more young actors come through and I’m often surprised at the young actors that kind of reference the work that I’ve done. So when I’m working with younger actors, I try to absolutely be open to exchanging. Because there are actors that did that with me. From Sidney Poitier, to Dennis Hopper, to a woman named Lilia Skala who played in Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier and who was in my first professional legitimate play that I did. There were a number of older actors who looked at me as a young knucklehead and took an interest. I try to do that in return. I remember when I did this miniseries called Separate But Equal with Sidney Poitier, when he played Thurgood Marshall, and Albert Hall played I believe Spotswood Robinson, who I believe was another lawyer in the NAACP legal defense team that supported Marshall when he argued the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court.

Albert Hall played chief in Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now was a movie that I just wrapped myself inside like I’d seen it at least 100 times. That movie mesmerized me. And when I got to work with Albert I told him, “Man, I seen that movie a hundred times and it just blows my head open to be working with you.” And at the end of that shoot, he gave me a book and it was The Autobiography of a Yogi. And he said, “Jeffrey, evolution is a young actor coming up to you and telling you I’ve seen your film over a hundred times.” And that was written inside the cover. So we evolve.

MONARCH: I’m going to conclude with this one last question. In the years to come, what do you hope to achieve in your career that you haven’t already accomplished?

JW: Um, to surf more. That’s it.

MONARCH: That’s it! That’s all she wrote. Drop the mic. Thank you, Jeffrey, for taking the time to do this interview. I really enjoyed our conversation.

JW: Yeah and thank you for having me.