Jeffrey Wright on Family, Finding His Path + ‘American Fiction’

After years of noteworthy supporting performances, the first-time Oscar nominee is finally getting his due

One day, on the way to the set of “America Fiction,” Jeffrey Wright found himself face-to-face with his past. 

As he approached on his bike, the actor saw “Basquiat” written on the door of a trailer—as in the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Wright portrayed in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic in his first major film role. It turns out another movie about the artist was shooting nearby. He soon found where he was supposed to be on set, but he says that the moment “was so disorienting.” 

In Cord Jefferson’s satire, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an author grappling with the unexpected success of the over-the-top, stereotype-ridden novel he’s penned—all while dealing with a series of family crises. “American Fiction” has received widespread critical acclaim, and it’s secured the actor his first-ever Oscar nomination. 

For Wright, seeing “Basquiat” written on that door held a deeper significance than just reminding him of a role he once played. “I think, in a lot of respects, ‘American Fiction’ is a bookend, at least in my career, to ‘Basquiat,’ ” he says over wine at a restaurant near his Brooklyn home. “Those are the two characters that I felt most intimate with. [They’re] two films about creative men facing external preconceptions, misconceptions, frustrations, and resistance to their type of authenticity—some of which [has a] cultural basis.” 

Jeffrey Wright

The attention he’s gotten for “American Fiction” feels like it’s been a long time coming—particularly for viewers who first clocked his talent in “Basquiat” or caught his Tony-winning performance in the 1993 Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” (He also earned an Emmy when he reprised the role on Mike Nichols’ 2003 limited series adaptation.) 

Since then, Wright has amassed praise for his work in everything from art films by directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson to blockbuster franchises like James Bond and “The Hunger Games.” His turn on the HBO sci-fi drama “Westworld” garnered him three more Emmy nods. It also marked a pivotal moment in his career: He could finally forecast what he’d be doing in the near future.

Wright has kept his schedule packed ever since. Last year alone, he led “American Fiction,” co-starred in Anderson’s “Asteroid City” and George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin,” and lent his voice to Disney+’s “What If…?” He’s the kind of actor who’s memorable even in small roles, leaving audiences hungry for more. 

“The making of this film, and now the release of it, has provided a pretty deep period of self-reflection for me. It’s been kind of unique that way, just…gazing into the figurative mirror with this.”

Jefferson was one of those admiring fans. He wrote the screenplay for “American Fiction” with Wright in mind and has called the star “one of our greatest living actors.” 

Wright didn’t grow up thinking he would become a performer. Though he was enthralled by the plays his mother took him to see in Washington, D.C., as a child, the idea of pursuing acting as a career wouldn’t take root until many years later, when he was studying political science at Amherst College. The turning point came when he saw his friend, who was studying acting, perform in a show. “I said to myself, I can do that. At least, because…” He pauses, then finishes, “It was not great.” 

Soon after, Wright enrolled in an acting class himself; but what truly sold him was one of his first experiences onstage, performing in a student-organized monologue series based on Wallace Terry’s 1984 book “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans.”

Jeffrey Wright  

“I could tell people were listening and they were engaged—and they were, for whatever reason, moved by that evening,” he recalls. “They didn’t throw apple cores or anything at the stage. It felt like I found something…something that kind of made me feel more whole.”

However, not everyone was convinced that this was the right trajectory. A friend whom he’d gone to school with since sixth grade was skeptical. “He said, ‘Nah, I don’t know if you can be an actor. I don’t see you being anybody else,’ ” Wright remembers, erupting into a cackle. 

The two are still in touch. “He sent me a very interesting text the other day—a very supportive text that implied how proud he was of what’s been going on lately. But at the beginning, he was like, ‘Nah.’ ” The actor takes a beat before adding, “He’s a lawyer.” 

RELATED: How Cord Jefferson Dropped His Ego to Direct ‘American Fiction’

After college, Wright went to a cattle call audition for D.C.-area theaters, which landed him a role in Arena Stage’s 1988 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs.” Zelda Fichandler, one of the company’s co-founders, advised him to pursue a graduate degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he’d received a full scholarship. But he left the program after only a couple of months to reprise his role in “Les Blancs” at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.

In the early years of his career, Wright felt that he was still learning the trade—even well into his first Broadway show. “It was only when I was doing ‘Angels,’ around three quarters of the way through the run, that I could comfortably say to myself that I was an actor.” 

Wright’s mother—who, like his friend, was also a lawyer—took some time to get used to her son’s profession. “It was only after I won the Tony that my mom really accepted the fact that I had chosen this life,” he says. He describes her as a “real maternal visionary” who planted the seeds of all his interests. 

Jeffrey Wright photoshoot

His mother’s presence looms large over “American Fiction.” She died of cancer a little over a year before he got the script for the film. The disease came on “shockingly quick”; and as an only child, Wright took on the responsibility of being her caretaker. Following her passing, his aunt, another important figure in the actor’s upbringing, came to live with him in New York. 

So when Jefferson first sent Wright the screenplay, he let it linger for a bit. His schedule was booked, and he was dealing with a lot of personal upheaval. When he did finally read it, he was struck by the narrative parallels to his own life. 

In the story, Monk returns home to Boston for a conference—then quickly finds himself dealing with a family emergency that leaves him in charge of his mother’s (Leslie Uggams) care after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Wright says he was even more moved by that aspect of “American Fiction” than by the film’s social commentary. 

Jefferson, who lost his own mother to cancer in 2016, shares Wright’s personal connection to the material. “I realized how much we had in common with each other, and also with Monk himself,” the filmmaker says. “[Jeffrey] was drawn to that for the same reasons that I was drawn to it.” 

Since Wright didn’t have much prep work to do on set beyond learning his lines, he spent a lot of time thinking about how he could use his personal connection to the story to bring the right kind of “baggage” to his performance. “Not bringing baggage that weighs you down or weighs the process down,” he explains, “but bringing baggage that holds resources that you’re able to use in telling the story. I just had experiential and emotional awareness of the dynamic between Monk and his mother that leant [itself] to the interpretation.” 

Jeffrey Wright photoshoot

In the film, Monk is also dealing with the frustrations of his writing career. Feeling overlooked by the literary world, he pens an intentionally pandering novel that takes a stereotypical view of lower-class Black life, initially titled “My Pafology,” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. He’s surprised when the publishing world embraces the book a little too eagerly; Monk wrote it as a joke, but white people in the industry think it’s the next great work of fiction. 

Scenes in which Monk pretends to be Stagg, a convicted criminal on the run, are some of the movie’s most amusing. “That’s just me [being] fluent in the old code-switching,” Wright says of his performance. 

At the same time, he didn’t want Monk to be too good of an actor while in the guise of Stagg. “He’s also doing it in a way that’s self-critical, and he’s taking the piss a bit. And he’s not doing it necessarily willingly and not doing it well, and he’s kind of giving himself the side eye,” the actor explains.

When Monk-as-Stagg meets with a brash Hollywood exec (Adam Brody), Wright says he was making a “direct reference” to Arthur Hiller’s 1976 comedy “Silver Streak,” in which Richard Pryor’s Grover coaches Gene Wilder’s George on “the ways of Blackness.”

“American Fiction” represents a turning point in Wright’s career. As we drive from his Backstage photo shoot to his neighborhood, we pass a billboard with his face on it. When I point it out, he responds with an almost resigned, “Yeah.”

Jeffrey Wright coverBut for the actor, the significance of the project goes beyond media attention. “The making of this film, and now the release of it, has provided a pretty deep period of self-reflection for me,” he says. “It’s been kind of unique that way—just the depth of my gazing into the figurative mirror with this.”

I caught up with Wright over the phone a week after the Oscar nominations announcement. He was sitting by the ocean (he loves to surf), and the call cut out at one point when he saw a whale. He’s happy to have received a best actor nod, and that the Academy recognized the film; it earned five nominations, including for best picture. 

Wright is taking it all in stride. “I don’t think that it’s healthy or smart for an artist to judge themselves or judge their work by awards recognition,” he says, speaking slowly and deliberately. 

But Jefferson believes the time is ripe for Wright’s moment of glory. “I think it’s sort of way past due. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Is this the first time he’s [been] nominated for an Oscar?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. I know. That’s crazy, right?’ Because every time he’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off of him.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Photographed by Mark Mann on 1/19 in NYC. Styled by Monty Jackson. Groomed by Jenny Sauce. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.

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