Jeffrey Wright on the Role That Changed His Career

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

For more than three decades, Jeffrey Wright has been a prolific actor on stage and screen, performing in blockbusters, arthouse indies, and beloved TV shows. Thanks to his leading turn as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” he’s finally earned his first Oscar nomination. Here, Wright discusses his early career on Broadway and how getting cast in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film “Basquiat” changed his life.

What role shaped you most as an actor?

Belize in [the 1993 Broadway production of] “Angels in America.” 

What’s your worst audition horror story?

While I was doing “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” [on Broadway], I auditioned for a film. It was going very well [at callbacks]; It was based on a book that I really appreciated; the subject was right up my alley. It was decided that there was going to be a read-through out in Los Angeles with some of the big names that were attached to the project and others, including myself, who were close [to being cast]. We flew out on a private jet that was owned by someone associated with the film….

So we got out to L.A., and I do the read-through. I’m not quite sure. I get back to my hotel room, and I get a call from one of the producers saying, “Yeah, Jeffrey, that was cool, but you’re not going to fly back to New York on the [private] plane. We’re going to fly you commercial.” It was a pretty indirect but brutally clear answer to whether or not I was going to be a part of that production. 

That said, the person whose plane it was called me after and said, “No, come back with us. You won’t be in the movie, but you’re welcome back on the plane. We’ll take you home to New York.” And oddly, as life would have it, I ended up working with that person—but not on that one.

Then I had to go back to doing “Noise, Funk,” and I was so not in my best head for about a week after that—so much so that a friend of mine came to see the show, and he knew how wrecked I was by that experience, and he said, “You know what? Tonight, I knew [that] you’re an actor. I know where your head’s been, but I didn’t see it tonight onstage.”

American Fiction

“American Fiction” Credit: Claire Folger

What performance should every actor see and why?

Albert Finney in “The Dresser.” I used to watch that film at least once before I did a new play. There is no other film [like that] about [being] an actor.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?

Well, after a year and a half of doing “Angels” on Broadway, three of us—Joe Mantello, David Marshall Grant, and myself—put in our notices that our time was done. We did it together. That was before a Saturday matinee. 

After the show, I went back to my apartment, which wasn’t too far from the theater, and I found a message on my answering machine from a friend of mine named Randy Sabusawa who had been a producer for Abel Ferrara and other [people]. He said, “Jeffrey, I’m looking for someone. I’m helping this casting director find someone to play Jean-Michel Basquiat, and I thought of you. If you’re interested, give me a call.” And I immediately knew that that was the next project that I was going to work on.

But it didn’t come immediately. Eventually, Georgianne Walken—Chris Walken’s wife—and Sheila Jaffe, [the casting directors for “Basquiat”], invited me to come down and do a read-through of the script at [writer-director] Julian Schnabel’s place. They wanted me to come down and read the part that eventually Benicio Del Toro would play; there was another actor playing the role of Basquiat. 

At first, I didn’t want to go. I was like, “Well, I’m not coming down for that.” But what I decided to do was go down and read that role as I would [if I were playing] Basquiat. And I got home after the read-through, and I got a call—I believe it was from Schnabel—asking if we could get together again and talk about the project.

What do the best directors you’ve worked with have in common?

An expansive imagination and a comprehensive vision of what we are here to do, combined with clarity, capacity, and clear, generous communication. And then, the quality of leadership.