Meeting Jeffrey Wright in person is a strange experience, for you never know what you're going to get. A chameleon onscreen and a private personality off screen, you wonder who the real Wright is. Is he the bohemian artist he so boldly embodied in Basquiat, the sassy nurse from Angels in America, or the nicotine-addicted jazz enthusiast in this year's Broken Flowers? As it turns out, Wright looks like none of these. "I look like an overweight father; it's my current role," he offers. "I've been rehearsing and performing for four years now."
Wright rarely grants interviews, but he's making an exception because the film he's promoting is one he is passionate about. Syriana, from writer-director Stephen Gaghan, tells intersecting tales of individuals affected by oil corruption all over the world. As Bennett Holiday, an uptight D.C. lawyer investigating the possible merger of two companies who is urged to keep quiet about shady dealings, Wright is a study in contradictions: At one point his boss (played by Christopher Plummer) wisely remarks that he's a lion pretending to be a lamb.
Wright is aware of his status as a beloved character actor, and he's heard the buzz about this being his year, but he takes it in stride. "We'll see. I've had other years that should have been my year, as well," he notes. "I will say I have done some work that was pretty good in the past. I'm more proud of this film than [of] my work within it, because I think it's much larger than that. I'm really proud that Stephen allowed me to be a part of it, because it really is the type of story that I became an actor to tell—stories that are current and relevant and connected to the world outside the theatre. The opportunity for an actor to actually be a responsible citizen is a rarity and a gift."
In portraying a morally ambiguous character, Wright opted not to look at Bennett as a good guy or a bad guy. "I think he's a good lawyer, which probably says everything," says Wright, whose mother was also a D.C. attorney. "I think he's as good as the system that he's trying to defend. I don't think he really thinks about whether he's good or bad; he thinks about whether he's doing his job. It's a pretty amoral, soulless machine that he's operating within, and I think some element of him is probably like that, as well."
Bennett appears at first to be a man not interested in ruffling feathers, and Wright plays him as a buttoned-down conservative; his small, frameless glasses and trim moustache say a great deal about the character. Wright acknowledges he had a lot of input into how Bennett should look. "There was something in the script that mentioned 'bespectacled'…that he possibly wore glasses. So I just ran with it, and I think it made sense. I try to do it in a way that gives layer to the character," he says of disappearing into the skin of the role. "In this case, Bennett is very controlled and assimilated and trying to wedge himself into these corridors of power, so everything is buttoned down and in its place. That was my thought with him."
Like all great character actors, Wright has a talent for disappearing into a role—a double-edged sword, as it can be hard to recognize him from part to part. "I guess the trick is to try to do as many plays and films as I like and still be able to sit quietly in the corner of the bar and observe the world," he notes. "I just happen to enjoy the process of transformation and trying to morph my body and face in some way to create something new. I just enjoy that part of it; it's whatever magic that I'm able to conjure." He also notes that he's a difficult actor to type, thanks to his ancestry. "My grandmother was Native American and Irish; everyone else was African, so I'm this kind of mix that means in some ways I exist between types," he says. "It's rare that there's a script or character that's written that has me in mind. I'm kind of in some ways an oddball. I guess I try to bring out more of a certain part of myself for one role than another so as to fit and give myself more work."
Wright was in college, toying with the idea of studying acting, when he went to see a friend perform in a play. "I watched him and said to myself, 'Well, I can do that, at least,'" he recalls. "The next year I took the class, and on the first day, I knew it was what I wanted to do." He pauses before adding, "I don't know if it's still what I want to do, but at that time it was what I wanted to do." Pressed further on the subject, he simply says, "It's a horrible business. It's filled with too many of the worst types of people, and it's so much about ego and money and vanity that it can be unhealthy and trivial and foolish." At the same time, he notes that there are opportunities to do meaningful work, such as the stage production (and later TV miniseries) of Angels in America. "I knew at that moment that when I was onstage saying those words and expressing Tony Kushner's ideas borne out of his moral outrage to the political response to [the AIDS crisis], that I was in the place I was supposed to be at that moment in my life," he says. "That's a great gift. As well with Syriana; I think this movie has similar potential. It springs from a similar place of rage on behalf of the writer who also happens to be an artist hoping to express and comment on the banality of some of our political leadership right now. It's gratifying as an actor to be able to use my work to support a writer who's attempting that. I have to find work like this, otherwise I'd just feel absolutely trivial and worthless and indulgent as an actor."
His performance in the Broadway version of Angels won him a Tony Award, but Wright cautions other actors not to assume it was smooth sailing from there. "After I won the Tony, I didn't have an agent," he reveals. "I couldn't get an agent. When I got the role of Basquiat, I had a lawyer negotiate my feeble contract. Even now, I've never gotten the full support of any agency I've been with.
"It's been a blessing and a curse for me, but I've never really gotten much support from anyone outside of the artists in this business," he continues. "But there have been artists—directors, writers—who have taken an interest in me and my work from the start. In many ways it's a great gift because I'm not beholden to anyone other than the people I trust, so I feel very confident in why I am the actor that I am. It's because of the work that I've done; it's not because anybody wanted to see me succeed. So no one can take anything way from me, because they didn't give me anything."