I subscribe (and possible invented) the theory that a film with Jeffrey Wright in it is better than one without him. He one of the best actors working today on screen, stage and now television (he joined the lineup of "Boardwalk Empire" this past Sunday as Dr. Valentin Narcisse). Whether it's a big, starring role or simply two or three small scenes, you always take notice of just how damn good this man is as a performer.
Although it wasn't quite his first on-screen role, most of us first took note of Wright in the title role in 1996's BASQUIAT, followed in rapid succession by roles in Ang Lee's RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, HAMLET with Ethan Hawke, the SHAFT remake, ALI, HBO's ANGELS IN AMERICA (reprising the Tony-winning role he played on Broadway), the remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS, SYRIANA, and yes, even M. Night Shyamalan's LADY IN THE WATER (I didn't say they were all winners).
Those of us who collect Wright's performances like valued trading cards were particularly thrilled to see him show up as CIA agent Felix Leiter in the James Bond films CASINO ROYALE and THE QUANTUM OF SOLACE. And I won't lie: as much as I loved SKYFALL, I missed Leiter, but I'm well aware the character was never meant to be in every Bond film, and it sounds like the possibility exists of him showing up in future installments.
In more recent years, Wright has play Colin Powell in W. and Muddy Waters in CADILLAC RECORDS, as well as made memorable contributions to such films as SOURCE CODE, THE IDES OF MARCH, and earlier this year in BROKEN CITY. And still to come in 2013 is HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE in which he plays Beetee; THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE; and Jarmusch's new film, the vampire tale ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, co-starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, and John Hurt. The reason for our talk on the phone a couple of weeks ago was the Sam Rockwell-starring mountain-man thriller A SINGLE SHOT, based on the novel by Matthew F. Jones, which he adapted], in which Wright plays Rockwell's always-drunk best friend.
We cover a lot of ground in our short time together, and I was thrilled what a great conversationalist Wright is, quick to laugh and joke around, but also keenly aware of how he works and why he says "Yes" to the recent roles he's played. I could have talked to him for an hour or more about his career--another time, perhaps. Please enjoy my talk with the master, Jeffrey Wright…
Capone: Hi Jeffrey, how are you?
Jeffrey Wright: I’m great. How are you doing?
Capone: Great. In watching A SINGLE SHOT, you have made me realized that there is a difference between playing drunk and playing blind drunk.
Capone: What’s the difference in your mind?
JW: Well, I mean clearly Simon at that point is catastrophically drunk.
Capone: I’d say so.
JW: So yeah, there's no question about that. I don’t know, I mean, he’s down deep into a tunnel with no return, so I just wanted to make that evident, that he has reached a point of no return in his journey. So yeah, that was it. But alcohol in many communities like that fuels things, and it can fuel them in a pretty severe way, so that’s where we are at that point.
Capone: I guess the natural follow-up would be, how long did it take you to find the exact place on your waist where your pants had to be to really get us that great plumber’s crack shot when Simon falls over? I don’t know what the measurement is exactly, but it seemed very intentional.
JW: [laughs] It was very intentional. It’s one of the finer details of our mysterious craft.
Capone: Exactly. You’re right, though, Simon is the quintessential desperate man in those two scenes, especially the second scene. Your character is only in a couple of scenes, and yet you wanted to be in this. Tell me what it was about the screenplay and about David's [M. Rosenthal, director] vision that made you want to be a part of it.
JW: I was drawn to the language of the script initially, and this character was curious to me in that he is a stranger. In a world that’s pretty isolated, he’s as isolated as it gets, and I was curious about who he was and how he placed himself and how he found himself within this community. He’s essentially a black redneck, so where did he come from? What created him? I liked that he can't be slotted so easily into any cultural category. The ambiguities around him were curious to me.
Capone: At one point, he has that one line about what happens to a poor man when he’s given a whole lot of money, and I think that sums up the whole movie. It just drives people crazy. Then of course later, I won't say who, but someone holds a gun to his head and he goes, “You know what, you’d be doing me a favor.” He's just done at that point.
JW: Right, he’s clearly desperate.
Capone: As an actor, are you still someone who learns from watching other actors?
JW: Yeah, sure.
Capone: In terms of the scenes you have with Sam Rockwell, what do you remember seeing in him and going, “Wow, that’s the way he does that, and it makes him an individual as an actor.”
JW: Well I don’t know if I view any of that. I enjoyed working with Sam. I’ve known Sam for a long time and I find working with him to be nicely organic, so I don’t really overthink it too much or over observe; it’s just really more instinctive and visceral, I guess. You stand up together and go at it, you know? It’s not anything really more considered than that.
Capone: Okay, back to David Rosenthal’s vision of the film. There is something unique about combining a noir story, which is usually reserved for city living, and putting it in a nature setting, out in the woods and in the mountains. What was it about the way he approached this that you really liked?
JW: Well I could appreciate the tone that he was reaching for, although it clearly is his vision, but it was a tone that was set that seemed to fit the story and fit the characters as well. There was a mood and a moodiness about his vision that seemed right.
Capone: I know you shot it in British Columbia. Did that help add to the isolation?
JW: Yeah. For me even though we were shooting in British Columbia, we were in West Virginia somewhere. I’m off behind God’s back in a way that allowed a kind of wildness to emerge. So yeah, that certainly was a part of it. There are possibilities in these isolated, rural mountain settings of America, and there’s still a bit of a frontier fuel to these places, where absent are the societal constraints and governmental constraints, and people still roam free to some extent.
So that’s where you can imagine guys might think they could get away with some of the things that these characters are trying to get away with, because they feel that they're operating on their own to some extent. So the isolation and the environment in which this story takes place are very much a character that allows for the other characters to breathe and to find trouble.
Capone: It seems like the rest of this year is going to be very busy those of us who enjoy watching you work. "Boardwalk Empire" is starting up in a couple of weeks, and I’m a huge fan of that show and couldn’t be more excited that you’re joining the cast. Can you tell me a little bit about who you play?
JW: Yeah, I play Dr. Valentin Narcisse, who is the alpha crime boss of Harlem. He’s based on an actual historical character, a guy named Casper Holstein, who was the first and major numbers runner in Harlem in the '20s, a fascinating character. He was an immigrant from the Virgin Islands and a real genius. He crafted his numbers game…
I’ll tell you the story, and it’s a little bit off track, but Casper Holstein was a currier, and he was asked to deliver a package for a family in Brooklyn. When he left with the package, the woman realized she had given him the wrong address, but he delivered the package anyways. He came back to the house, and they asked, “Well how did you manage to deliver the package?” He said, “I went to every address on the block until I found the correct address.” They said, “You're resourceful. You come work for us now.” And he did.
They were a Wall Street-connected family and they gave him a menial job on Wall Street, but there he would find himself in closets during the day studying the stock indices, and out of that, he crafted a system whereby he attached the daily number to the last two numbers of…I think there were three selected stock indices. So there was no more confusion anymore; you knew when you bet on a number, you could just look at the paper and look at these stock reports, and you would know what the number was.
So he ended up making as much as $1,200 a day one point, and he was kidnapped at one point and held for $50,000 ransom and he was released. So when this African American in Harlem paid $50,000 ransom when kidnapped, it caught the attention of the white mafioso in the city, and that’s when they started to move into Harlem and the numbers game more heavily, because initially they'd dismissed it as a nickel-and-dime game.
So Casper Holstein, that’s who he was, but he was also one of the leading philanthropists of the day in the country. He was advocating rights on behalf of the Virgin Island and he was supporting Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. He paid for Garvey’s building once, as his empire started crumbling. Anyway, he was a fascinating guy. But my guy is this guy with all of the benevolence sucked out of him. I don’t know what’s more criminal, what my character gets up to or the fun I’m having working on this show. It’s among the best writing I have ever worked on. It’s really, really wonderful. These guys are writing their asses off. It’s unbelievable, it really is. So I’m looking forward for people to check out what we’ve been doing. We’ve got two-and-a-half more episodes to finish, and then that’s it. Dirty deeds, I can tell you that.
Capone: Before they cut us off, I must ask, are there more Bond movies in your future?
JW: Well, I would hope so. It’s a great franchise and it’s hard to have more fun than working on a Bond movie. So yeah, why not?
Capone: And then the trailer for THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE came out yesterday or the day before, and you are glimpsed in it briefly. I’m a big George Tillman fan. Who you play in that?
JW: The story follows these two young boys as they're trying to survive the streets of Brooklyn and the characters that inhabit those streets. I am one of those characters, who is sometimes friend and sometimes foe, but I think it’s a wonderful film. It’s in some ways a throwback to some films of the '70s, when there were actually stories that examined ordinary urban lives. You were just exploring the complex and simple humanity of folks of little means. These are stories that we don’t get into anymore, or don’t seem to have time for, you know?
Capone: The first thing that popped into my head was, “I don’t get to see characters like this on the big screen that often.” What a nice surprise and change.
JW: Exactly. So I’m pleased that it’s coming out.
Capone: And while you’re waiting for the Bond thing to come around again, you get to be in this HUNGER GAMES movie [CATCHING FIRE]. It’s funny seeing you and Philip Seymour Hoffman join the ranks of this thing that is big budget and has a huge fan base, but it’s also got an edge to it. I know you play someone who has been through one of these games before…
JW: Right. Yeah, it’s not fluff, by any means. It is big budget and it has this voracious, almost cultish, fan base. But people are not followers with these movies in the way that they are followers of One Direction. You know what I mean? I actually went out to Comic-Con and had the opportunity to speak with a number of the more enthusiastic fans, some of the fans who had put together websites and blogs on behalf of this series.
And I asked them why they were so passionate about these books and these movies, and each of them had an individual answer, but it was an answer that was very clear, in that they were drawn to the social aspects of the stories, drawn to the political aspects of the story, some to the idea of this strong young woman at the center of it that they identified with. But others identified with other characters within the story, with their journey or their struggles. It was very insightful for me and it was really gratifying to see that, “Yes, people are mad about these movies and books, but it’s only because they touched something very close to them.” I do think that there are some underlying ideas within these stories that are critically important.
Capone: The line ups for Toronto and New York film festivals have announced ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is playing at both, and I’m so happy to see it's finally coming out. I know nothing about this story. I’ve stayed away from anything having to do with the story, but what can you tell me about who you play and who you are performing with in that film?
JW: Well I play in a vampire love story; I play a blood dealer. [Laughs] I supply blood. I’m a doctor who Tom Hiddleston’s character comes to for his goods.
Capone: But you’re a human character?
JW: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Capone: I cannot wait to see that.
Capone: Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk. I really, really loved A SINGLE SHOT. I thought it was tremendous. It floored me, actually.
JW: Wow! Well I appreciate that. Thank you.
Capone: Absolutely. Thank you very much, sir. Take care.