The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Jeffrey Wright
By Mother Brain
When I saw the remake/reboot of Shaft in 2000, I admired the all-star cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Busta Rhymes, and Christian Bale just to name a few. But the real breakout star of the movie was this actor I knew nothing about named Jeffrey Wright who was playing this Scarface-esque drug dealer and his scenes had far more impact than the majority of the film. Four years later, I saw him speak at the American Black Film Festival where he was interviewed by Elvis Mitchell. Unlike the part he played in Shaft, I found Jeffrey Wright to be articulate and fascinating to listen to as he discussed his craft and his passion for creating memorable characters.
The versatile and highly underrated talent best known for not only Shaft but also Basquiat, Ali, Boycott, Casino Royale, and currently Boardwalk Empire was born in 1965 in Washington D.C. At age one, he was raised by his U.S. Customs worker mom after his father passed away. Growing up in a politically heavy climate, Wright studied political science at Amherst College where he graduated in 1987. While attending college, Wright took an acting course which sparked his interest in performance; however, his first acting instructor only saw him in comedic roles and that only fueled Wright’s fire to not be dissuade him. He would attend and leave New York University to pursue acting full time.
Traveling between New York and Washington D.C., Wright appeared in a variety of off-Broadway plays, toured with The Acting Company, and took small roles in movies such as Presumed Innocent and Jumpin‘ at the Boneyard. Then he caught attention with his Tony Award winning portrayal of Belize in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The part of Belize was an ex-drag queen-turned-nurse forced to take care of a closeted gay lawyer dying of AIDS. This role only scratched the surface of Wright’s versatility as an actor who could chameleon his way into any role.
With the NY independent film scene booming in the mid 1990s, Wright would find increasing critical acclaim with his performance as the famous postmodern artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Julian Schnabel’s biopic about the grafitti-inspired artist who created collage-style paintings on canvas drew a positive response from critics. They took notice of the raw emotion and power that Wright gave to the role. It was also an important film for Wright not only because it was his first leading role but also because he was surrounded with costars and cameos by the finest actors around: Benicio del Toro, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, and Williem Dafoe.
Remaining popular in the NY scene, Wright won roles in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and Ang Lee’s western epic, Ride with the Devil. The latter film saw Wright playing an ex-slave befriended by Tobey Maguire. Unfortunately, the majority of Wright’s scenes were left on the cutting room floor. That would not be the case, however, in John Singleton’s Shaft. Replacing John Leguizamo who left the film to do Moulin Rouge!, Wright took on the role of the villain, Peoples Hernandez. Although the film was plagued with script issues, fights between cast and crew, and lack of sex scenes, Wright was the diamond in the rough who improvised most of his dialogue and exerted confidence and menace simultaneously. His performance scored so high with preview audiences that Christian Bale, only five years away from Batman Begins, found his key scenes cut down to accommodate more of Wright.
Audiences may have been shocked a year later to see Wright go from playing a Puerto Rican drug dealer to playing Muhammed Ali’s personal black photographer, Howard Bingham, in the Michael Mann-helmed biopic starring Will Smith. But that role paled in comparison to his AFI Award-winning portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in HBO’s Boycott which focused on the fight against public buses during the key period of the civil rights movement. While Wright was able to capture the iconic leader’s appearance and speech pattern, he also captured the human side of Dr. King as a concerned husband and father rarely seen in other adaptations of his story.
The successes of Shaft and Boycott made Wright one of the most in-demand character actors in Hollywood. He would work alongside Sylvester Stallone in Eye See You, Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate, Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, George Clooney in Syriana, and so forth. He reprised his role as Belize in the Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of Angels in America which won him a Golden Globe award for Supporting Actor as well as Small Paul in Lackawanna Blues. He would also become the second black actor to play the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter in the James Bond films with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Wright’s streak of playing real life icons continued with Oliver Stone’s W. where he played Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s first term. He brought a sense of rationality and quiet disgust in the march to the war in Iraq. Then came Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records which won him a Black Reel Award for Supporting Actor. Other roles as a brilliant but stubborn scientist in Source Code, Viola Davis‘ ex-husband in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Mark Walberg’s captain in Broken City, and soon to be seen in the role of Beetee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Presently, Wright is guest starring on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire where he is playing Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Harlem-based philanthropist from the West Indies who is based on Harlem Renaissance mobster, Casper Holstein. Judging from the episodes that have already aired, Dr. Narcisse has the potential to earn Wright more awards by the end of this season. He also continues to work on the stage where in 2010 he played Jacques Cornet in A Free Man of Color at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NY. While his success as an actor continues to thrive, this writer is hoping for a leading man breakout role that would earn him a much deserved Best Actor award at the Oscars one day.