An Interview with Jeffrey Wright
Miles Marshall Lewis
Basquiat is repeat-viewing essential for anyone obsessed with black bohemian manhood. Back in 1996, Jeffrey Wright captured with an eerie precision the tragic fragility and prodigious talent of the self-destructive young painter in his prime. Since then, few other actors this side of Leonardo DiCaprio have embodied so many historical figures so spot-on—Muddy Waters (Cadillac Records); Martin Luther King Jr. (Boycott); Colin Powell (W.); Bobby Seale (Chicago 10). Broadway playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer for 2002’s Topdog/Underdog with the help of Wright’s excellent turn in the co-lead role. (Wright himself had already won a Tony Award for 1994’s Angels in America, the first of his three collaborations with director George C. Wolfe.)
The next decade brought Wright a wife in actress Carmen Ejogo, two kids, and not a little bit of Hollywood disillusionment. In 2011, both The Ides of March and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close showcased Wright in similar ways, with brief appearances at the beginning and scene-stealing lines toward the end. The actor spends a substantial amount of his time these days traveling to Sierra Leone to manage his philanthropic Taia Peace Foundation.
For this interview, Jeffrey Wright spent hours drinking red wine and chewing tobacco at the bar of Dino, an Italian restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he’s lived for years. He took off for the airport directly afterward to continue filming director Allen Hughes’s crime thriller Broken City down in New Orleans.
—Miles Marshall Lewis
THE BELIEVER: Let’s speak a little about your breakout role in Basquiat. Tell me how exposed you were to him prior to taking the role.
JEFFREY WRIGHT: I was aware of him. I remember the New York Times articles and things like that when I was in college, but I wasn’t paying too close attention to the New York art scene. It’s not where my head was. But when I moved to New York, it became increasingly relevant to me, and I became increasingly aware of it.
The movie came about the day I sent the letter that I was leaving Angels in America on Broadway. I came home that very day and there was a message on my answering machine from a guy who was a friend of mine, Randy Sabusawa, who was helping cast the movie Basquiat. I knew, when I heard that message, that was my next gig. “I’m doing that. I’m going to tell this guy’s story.”
I did a read-through of the script and they wanted me to read Benny, Benicio’s part. So I read Benny as I would play Basquiat. And I ended up getting called back to talk about playing the lead role. And [director Julian Schnabel] really gave me the opportunity to paint for like six months leading up to the time that we shot. I had more or less free reign in his studio to come down and immerse myself. I don’t say this lightly: what was most helpful was just studying his work and reading and receiving the signals from him. His work is so articulate. Aside from the palette and the visual impact of it, the literary impact of it, it’s so substantial and articulate of a very specific point of view and a specific voice that I speak fluently. That’s so expressive of the New World African.
BLVR: How else did you prepare for it?
JW: It’s funny. Last night I had my kids watch Roots, the first episode of Roots. The Middle Passage sequence is really heavy. Incredibly explicit. For mainstream American TV? It’s incredible! It’s like incredibly dangerous, raw; dare I say, revolutionary. It’s so born out of the ’60s empowerment movement. And the language is born of the Civil Rights movement.
There’s a scene where Kunta Kinte and the wrestler are in the hold of the ship. The wrestler is speaking to Kunta, talking about them as Mandinka and that they speak a certain language. He calls out to the other Mandinkas in the hold and he says, “If there are others who are with you who don’t speak Wolof, or don’t speak Mandinka, teach them your language. Learn theirs. Because now we are to have a new village.” It’s an incredibly potent message for 1975 mainstream television, what the Middle Passage meant in terms of creating a new African, a New World African identity that is the African-American. So there’s this new people, this new ethnic group that’s being created, that’s being expressed in Congo Square through the amalgamation of all of these disparate African rhythms that came together in Congo Square to create the African-American. It hadn’t existed before.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, for me, was one of the poet laureates of that legacy.
There were circles that we mutually inhabited. I moved to New York in July of 2008, July 4th weekend 1988, and Jean-Michel died mid-August 1988. About five years after the movie came out, I ran into my first roommate in New York who shared an apartment with me on the fourth floor of a building there on 10th and D in the Lower East Side.
She said, “Jeffrey, ever since I saw that movie, I’ve been trying to find you.” We were at some party somewhere up in Harlem. Her girlfriend was a photographer who also unfortunately happened to, uh, use. She described to me, “You have no idea! When you were on the fourth floor of our apartment, Jean-Michel Basquiat was on the first floor because there was a dealer on the first floor that he had a relationship with. So while you were on the fourth floor he was on the first floor hanging out all the time. And you had no idea.”
It was indicative of another type of energy that was driving me toward telling his story. I had a dream one night while we were shooting. Fab 5 Freddy came and we were talkin and hangin out, because of course he was very close to Jean-Michel. The next night, we were shooting the scene down near Crosby Street, and I’m sitting there in-between takes and I look to my left and I see Fab 5 Freddy walking down the street.
BLVR: There was serendipity.
JW: I didn’t consider it serendipity. There was a mysticism that inhabited the retelling of his story that made it seem, to me, like the right thing to do and the right place for me as a young artist in New York to inhabit.
BLVR: Last year’s Basquiat exhibit at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris was great. Did you see the Brooklyn Museum one?
JW: I did. He’s become one of the creative heroes that he paid homage to in his work. Dizzy, Miles, Bird, Joe Lewis, Ali. He has become his own idol. He’s certainly an artistic hero of mine.
II. AFRICA TALKS TO YOU
BLVR: Are there any books you’d like to see adapted to film that have been on your mind for a while?
JW: There’s some Pushkin that I fantasize about bringing to the screen at some point. There’s an unfinished novel called The Negro of Peter the Great that I think would make for an interesting kind of quasi-biographical film about Pushkin. It’s written that way as well. You know, I don’t think a lot about acting or filmmaking, generally. [Laugh]
BLVR: I know you founded the Taia Peace Foundation in 1997 to help rural communities in Sierra Leone. Can you relate to me your first ever trip to Africa?
JW: I first went in 1996. Basquiat was going to the Venice Film Festival, so it was to be my first entrée into the more glamorous side of acting and the film industry. But I had never traveled to Europe prior to that. I was about 26, and neither had I been to Africa. I kind of fantasized about going to Africa first. So I asked the producers of the movie to fly me to Dakar, Senegal, a week before I was due to be in Venice, so that I could meet up with them when I was scheduled to. So that was my first trip to Africa.
It was a desire to pay homage to that genetic pathway and to skirt Eurocentricity, which is something I’m always cautious of: trying to set a balanced viewpoint of the world, one that’s not skewed to dominant cultural messaging. It was also born out of a mistrust of all of the things that potentially orbit around an actor’s life. So it was a desire to ground myself in something more meaningful, and something more healthy, than all of those things that I perceived that I was preparing to meet. And I was right.
BLVR: How long did you stay? What were your impressions?
JW: I stayed for five days. I felt a sense of physical freedom that I had not experienced before. It was really amazing, ’cause I felt that I had escaped this Eurocentric dominant culture. And I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” It felt so much less oppressive. Psychologically, it was just liberating. It was enlightening. I felt lighter.
I went to Île de Gorée, and I actually didn’t know anyone. There were probably aspects of the trip that I could not talk about because of a… [long pause] kind of a misunderstood, mystical side of Africa. But for me, it was a perfect journey into all of that. And so I was simultaneously going on these two simultaneous kind of quasi-mystical journeys: into the world of acting, and into this rediscovery of Africa. And so now [laugh], the latter has really kind of superseded the former in terms of my interest. But they both initiated in some regards at the same time.
BLVR: Africa gives African-Americans the unused-to feeling of, “We run all this!”
JW: Like, we run all of this. But at the same time, we understand that that’s not entirely true, politically, economically. I was somewhat naïve. It is true to an extent, there is a degree of autonomy. I couldn’t figure out how in 1996 there were 5-year-old kids in the street with polio. But I think that’s the problem with America’s perception of Africa now. Too much we’re focused on the ills and the challenges without recognizing the incredible potency, beauty and strengths of Africa.
I was having a conversation with my son the other day, about kids in his class who have this perception that all Africans are poor and that most Africans starve. And how do they get these ideas at 10 years old? When you take your Unicef box out, which is well-intentioned, but then you have a box that says there’s a kid in Africa that you can feed for fifty cents, they see that. Or they see all of the other messaging that is given in recent history, about the challenges of Africa. It permeates all the messaging: that Africans are inferior to you, and you have the capacity to be a savior. It’s counterproductive to our ends right now. Because Africa, as I see it, is the future. If you’re not seeing that, then you’re not seeing Africa.
Sierra Leone is where I spend most of my time, and Sierra Leone is forecast to have a fifty percent economic growth next year.
BLVR: That’s enormous.
JW: Fifty percent. It’s owing to a large mining concern that’s going into production there. But still, when you think that a country could have that type of growth in the current global economic environment, that should tell you that something else is going on than what we perceive.
BLVR: When were you there last?
JW: Three weeks ago.
BLVR: Tell me about the founding of Taia.
JW: The company is what’s known as a junior mineral exploration company. So we’ve got some properties that are prime gold-bearing areas, for example, and may have some other economic minerals to offer as well. We’re currently in the process of delineating those resources through a drilling program, where we’re determining what the economic potential of the minerals situated in these areas might be.
But at the same time, we’re also undertaking social development initiatives in partnership with local communities, so that they can benefit in a way that, historically, they have not. We hope to create a new mechanism for the 21st century.
BLVR: What’s your opinion of efforts like Gap’s Product Red campaign, or even that Vanity Fair guest-edited by Bono years ago to raise awareness of things happening in different sections of Africa?
JW: So much attention paid to Africa is a good thing, and I think people are well-intentioned. But Africa is extraordinarily layered and complex, and too often, there’s not given any historical context to a contemporary discussion of challenges in Africa. So people start perceiving Africa as being poor, when it’s the wealthiest continent on the planet. [Laugh] And they start to discount that. Sure, your economic support of Africa could potentially be beneficial to African lives. But there’s no taking into consideration the historical stripping away of wealth that has gone on to benefit the West in measurable ways, and had the opposite effect in Africa. There’s no continent in the world that has contributed more to global capitalism and benefited less. That discussion is not a part of this traditional kind of celebrity-driven dialogue around Africa. And it’s really disturbing, because at the end of the day, there’s too much focus on the contemporary ills without an understanding of the totality of the story.
The American public too often perceives Africa through a glass darkly. And blind to all of the positives that could be used not only for the regeneration of Africa, but potentially for our own benefit. Too few people perceive Africa as a potential economic partner, because all of the dialogue is about Africa as needy, Africans as victims, poor, ill. And there’s no message being sent out that Sierra Leone is gonna see fifty percent economic growth in 2012! The African continent now enjoys more disposable income than India! There have been half a billion new cellphone users in Africa in the last ten years. Africans are doing their banking by cellphone, and they didn’t have landlines ten years ago.
I think a lot of the dialogue’s still propagating the idea of our own Western superiority culturally, politically, economically. And even though it pretends to be for the benefit of Africa and Africans, it’s still promoting the perception of African inferiority. It’s counterproductive, at the end of the day. Drives me mad.
[New York Times columnist] Nick Kristof recently came back from Sierra Leone. He was in Sierra Leone for, I don’t know, maybe three or four days. There was an article in the Times about rampant sexual violence in Sierra Leone, and he met this young girl who was a victim of an adult sexual predator. He described how devastated [actress] Eva Mendes was about what she had seen in this place. She described to social media: “I’m here in Sierra Leone, this beautiful country. You can’t believe how many rapes there are.”
I’ve been going there since 2001, when there were vultures perched in Freetown feeding on carrion. So I’ve seen the country go from that to this place that is the post-conflict success story around the world, globally. There is no post-conflict story that surpasses what’s happened in Sierra Leone. I see the way ordinary people as well as community leaders and government leaders have taken it upon themselves to resurrect their lives from the horrors of ten years of brutal civil war. And I read these descriptions by celebrity writers and celebrities that drop in for 48 hours and believe they have some insight as to what’s happening there. I can only call it for what it is: it’s a violation, and is itself a rape of the work that has gone on. You have these folks completely uncommitted to the long-term struggle who pleasure themselves against the struggles of incredibly vulnerable people. It’s a molestation and it needs to stop, because it’s not serving the interest of the people it’s supposed to.
BLVR: Perpetuating these stories, whose interest does it serve?
JW: It serves their interest because it only allows them to illuminate their own alleged moral superiority. It’s sanctimony masqueraded as genuine concern, as good works. It’s guilt-ridden, ineffectual, neo-liberal. It does nothing for anyone in Africa; it further alienates them and disempowers them from real-life solutions.
III. ART, FATHERHOOD, HIP-HOP
BLVR: How’d you make the shift from I’m going to be a lawyer to actually, I’m going to act?
JW: My mother was a lawyer from Howard Law. So I spent my childhood in a house full of lawyers. At the same time, for whatever reason, I had this curiosity about acting, and I finally acted on it my junior year of college. Which in hindsight was probably something of a mistake.
BLVR: Why do you say that?
JW: Because it’s not… This may be cliché, but it’s not the noble profession that I was convinced that it was when I started. The way I perceived it, actors were, or could be, great artists. Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. These were, to my eyes, great artists. I just don’t see that type of artistry anymore. I don’t see acting as being concerned with that type of artistry. The system around it is so antithetical to that end, and really corrupted relative to creating something that attempts to be beautiful.
BLVR: Do you think modern-day directors attempt to make that type of leap more than actors? Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was a work of art last year, in the sense that it transcended narrative and realism.
JW: At times, I can miss the forest and the trees. I’m seriously biased from my own personal experience. I just think I can do work closer to my creative and aesthetic art through this work with Sierra Leone than I can as an actor.
I don’t want to be the guy who runs through walls and saves the world in every movie, and be the savior of mankind from the giant evils and nuclear frogs. That’s not fun for me. I’m not going to be that guy, so let me figure out a way to satisfy these same impulses and perhaps control the resources as well.
The Sierra Leone story, that’s a little more satisfying. I view that as storytelling. It’s creating a narrative that’s impacting lives, that’s cast with real characters who have real lives, real responsibilities, real families. And together we are trying to rewrite this whole script with an ending or a narrative that’s a little more progressive for everyone. I find it equally if not more creative. Prior to having been involved in this type of work, I had a complete disdain for business and money, and thought that anything that had to do with money only weakened my creative integrity. But, you grow up.
BLVR: How has it been balancing your artistic work with just the responsibilities of family?
JW: Since my son was born ten years ago, I’ve tried to stay closer to the house. I’ll go away for two weeks maximum at a time, and maybe once a year. When I did [Casino Royale], that was about a four-week responsibility, and my whole family came with me for half of that. The producers were incredibly gracious and generous in doing that. But those are the conditions on which I work in. My priorities are different. I don’t mind going away and doing a small supporting role that will take care of my financial responsibilities and won’t distract me too much from my family or from my work in Sierra Leone. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned, as I described, with the industry, so I became more focused with these other things.
BLVR: Looking back on childhood, what sort of evidence do you have that you’d become an actor? Any early performing or rote memorization skills?
JW: Language for me has always been central to my work as an actor—particularly spoken word and dialogue and dialect. And my grandfather was a great storyteller. Surrounding him down in southern Virginia were these rural, hard-working, hard-drinking folks who were full of story—or as they might describe it, lies—and laughter. It was those performances that were initially the most impactful on me. But also, it was the politics of the ’60s that informed my take on it all, and wanting to follow in the wake of the Angela Davises, Huey Newtons and Martin Luther Kings.
BLVR: Did socially conscious actors like Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte impact you?
JW: Of course. And I think Sidney Poitier is underestimated. I showed my kids To Sir, With Love over Christmas for the first time. No stories [in Hollywood] like that had been told about racism prior to him. It hadn’t existed prior to him in that way. My son at one point said, “I like this actor, he’s a better actor than you!” [Laugh] Which was so cool. To be able to articulate to him, “Yes, these stories were not told prior to this guy. This guy is like the epicenter of a new type of awareness among American cinema, among world cinema.”
I get a little bit disoriented by the new agenda. Because that’s still a valid agenda. It’s only like 40 years old. And there was glamour associated with it, and money, but the overriding theme, the overriding impetus, was not glamour, money, ego, fame. That was an offshoot of important, relevant, responsible, considered messaging, you know? But now I don’t know.
BLVR: Speaking of that kind of artistic decline, in relation to the prioritization of commercialism, what’s your relationship to hiphop culture? And do you feel it shifted for the worse?
JW: Oh god, absolutely. My kids gave me a turntable for my birthday in December.
BLVR: Happy belated.
JW: Thank you, you too. So they pulled out all my old records. My wife is a bit younger, and hiphop means something different to her than it means to me. I’m looking at my old albums, and I got Public Enemy, 8th Wonder [by] the Sugarhill Gang. Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian. I had all of this stuff that’s speaking that same language that Basquiat was tied to. The same language that was connected—not to be trite—but connected to a legacy of struggle that was still preserving of, or appreciative of, the dignity of disenfranchisement. And not so celebratory of being co-opted, of being empowered through money, you know? Some of the stuff I’ve heard described as being militant now is purely commercial. It’s militant in the way that George Bush was militant. It’s full of shock and awe, and capitalist to the extreme. “Live through me. Don’t worry if you don’t have any money. I have money, so feel good about it because I’m doin great.” It’s a new paradigm.
BLVR: At what point would you say you stopped listening? Or being interested?
JW: I stopped listening when the messaging became more concerned with wealth, and certainly the bling thing just really put me off because, kind of coming full circle, the increasing fetishization of diamonds through bling and hiphop culture occurred in parallel with the escalation of war in Sierra Leone. Which was fought for many complex reasons, the sexy story being that it was over diamonds, but that doesn’t get into the larger story. At the same time, there were young African kids who were being devastated by this war around diamonds while young African-descended kids over here were becoming increasingly admiring and caught up in the allure of the brightness of those diamonds. And there was no correlation being drawn between these two sets of lives. So it was at that time, kind of late ’90s, that I became more focused on Africa. That was when it became more of a turn-off to me and I just couldn’t listen to it. Then, as well, the language was just so facile. Brothers think that just because something rhymes that it’s deep, you know?
BLVR: What’s the last hiphop album you enjoyed all the way through?
JW: Does anybody listen to albums all the way through anymore? There’s this song that I heard about this brother who wants to have a relationship with his son. You know this? Cee-Lo sings a chorus on it about—
BLVR: Don Trip, “Letter to My Son.”
JW: “I just wanna see my son…” And it’s a story of a cat whose relationship with the mother of his child has disintegrated and deteriorated, and he desires his relationship with his son. It was so refreshing to hear within contemporary hip-hop someone talking about something more personal than their bank account.
Recently I heard J. Cole and Trey Songz’s [“Can’t Get Enough”]. I don’t know who it is, but they’re sampling some West African melodies, guitar. I just heard it four days ago and I was like, “Oh, that’s happening.” I think what turns me off about hiphop [is] that it’s so narrow philosophically, musically, melodically, rhythmically. I don’t read any empathy or compassion in the aesthetic. For me, as an actor, empathy is everything. And as a human being, compassion is the only thing. And I don’t hear any of that. So therefore, it becomes poisonous to me. It becomes an expression of entrapment as opposed to something that’s free or beautiful. And that’s what I thought art was supposed to be about.
IV. OBAMA DRAMA
BLVR: Have you been mostly satisfied or mostly disappointed with what President Obama’s done since taking office?
JW: Obama’s election was another of those events that immediately transformed the landscape. Brooklyn just erupted, like Obama had just won the Superbowl. Like Obama was going to Disneyland. [Laugh] It was incredible. It was an incredible political moment.
I perceive it as much more a cultural victory than a political victory. The things that I was expecting were cultural, related to cultural progress, more so than political progress. For me, the political progress was secondary to the cultural. The Jesse Jacksons, the Bob Johnsons, all of those traditional black “leaders” who had an averse reaction to Obama’s ascendancy, were expressing a kind of sickness relative to our history in this country. Which, up until that moment, had been defined by our fugitive relationship to American political power. That we were always on the outside, clawing at the power structure.
I have to admit that I, until the moment that CNN flashed that he had won the election, could not conceive of an African-American president. Because America meant something that was opposed to that. We were trained as political citizens understanding that we had to fight the power, not that we were the power. That just totally undermined our molecular structure! All our heroes, from Olaudah Equiano, to Frederick Douglass, to Nat Turner, to W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm. Everybody was clawing from the outside in. That’s where we were! So how we gonna be… It literally was unfathomable to me. And I had the privilege of meeting him in early 2004, prior to his speech at the Democratic Convention. An incredibly accessible man.
BLVR: Obama is one of the main reasons that I returned to America from Paris, so that my children could see him in Presidency. A second term isn’t guaranteed, but I wanted my boys to see a black man as the leader of the free world.
JW: And, you know, politically—
BLVR: That would never happen in France, despite the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” they talk about.
JW: Right. It’ll never happen in Europe, despite how post-racial they pretend to be. And we’re not either. But all of these people look at America as being far less progressive than all of these European… But that would never happen [there]. For me, it reshaped my education about all of the predecessors of Obama’s journey. All of these political heroes on whose shoulders he stood. It reeducated me about their faith in America. I understood King now, in a totally different way. Because I recognize, unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement—which some people have tried to align with the Civil Rights Movement, erroneously—that these people had enormous faith in the American political process, and the principles on which America was built. That they foresaw the possibility that Barack Obama could be voted into office. Because they cared about reshaping the American Constitution, so that it would allow greater participation among those who have been disenfranchised. Those lines down in Florida, in the heat and the rain, wrapping around these blocks to wait to vote for that man, don’t happen without Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, they recognize that these documents were living, real, and powerful potentially for them. Incredible Americans! So it’s been a great gift to me personally, because now I could speak of things that I once spoke of as being black, as being American.