Monday, April 14, 2008

Jeffrey Wright: The Blackout Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Wright on Time

Jeffrey Wright was born on December 7, 1965 in Washington, DC where he was raised by his mother, an attorney, with the help of her sister, a nurse, following the untimely death of his father when he was still a baby. After attending a prep school, Jeffrey enrolled at Amherst College, discovering his love for the stage on his way to completing work for a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.
Next, he earned a scholarship to NYU’s prestigious film school, but dropped out after only two months to pursue a professional acting career. In 1994, the gifted thespian won a Tony Award for his spellbinding performance as “Belize” in Tony Kushner’s award-winning Broadway play “Angels in America.”
A couple of years later, Wright would enjoy his breakout role on the big screen as the title character in Basquiat. The versatile scene-stealer has since made innumerable memorable appearances, mostly as a second banana in such flicks as Shaft, Ali, Syriana, The Manchrian Candidate, Casino Royale, Lackawanna Blues and The Invasion.
As for his private life, Jeffrey is married to Carmen Ejogo, the Scottish-Nigerian actress he met on the set of Boycott, where they played Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The couple lives I Brooklyn which is where they are raising their two children. Here, he takes about his latest film, Blackout, recently released on DVD, a drama revisiting the chaos and looting which erupted in East Flatbush during the Great Blackout of 2003. .

KW: Jeffrey, thanks so much for the time.
JW: Thank you.
KW: Well, there are a million things I’d like to talk to you about. Let me start by asking you what interested you in Blackout?
JW: It was a film about my neighborhood, essentially. I live a bike ride away from Flatbush in Brooklyn. So, it was an opportunity to tell a story that was close to home. It was also an opportunity for me to experience the blackout, since I was out of the country when it actually went down. And I had heard nothing about this side of the New York story. Where I was, it was all reported as Chianti and Kumbaya. So, that things had gone down was news to me. In fact, when [director] Jerry LaMothe first approached me about the project, I went online to see what I could dig up, and couldn’t find any references to it. But going over to the neighborhood and talking to the folks about it, I learned that it had been a very different story for them than had been presented through the mainstream media. So, this particular story represented in many ways how the lives and experiences of certain sectors of the American population go unnoticed. And it allowed us, as actors, to shed light on a story that might otherwise remain in the darkness.
KW: The picture shows how an already disadvantaged community’s troubles can be further amplified by a disaster.
JW: Sure… sure… I’ll tell you, I’ve rarely been on a film set that melted so organically into the location in which it was being shot. Folks who happened to be walking down the street ended up in the movie. While we were shooting in the barber shop, guys came in and got haircuts. I even offered to cut a few, but didn’t get any takers. [Laughs] So there was an authenticity about it that was really special. But at the same time, what I came to understand as well is that there’s a volatility in that particular section of Brooklyn which would only, as you say, require an incident like the blackout to really spark something.
KW: I think of you in the same light as the equally-underrated Christian Bale, as two of the best actors never nominated for an Oscar. Whenever I watch you at work, you’re always quite extraordinary.
JW: Well, thank you. Some of it’s okay.
KW: When did you develop an interest in acting?
JW: It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I really seriously pursued it, and I’ve been trying to escape the business ever since. [Chuckles]
KW: Why did you leave NYU after only a couple of months.
JW: I had an opportunity to do a Lorraine Hansberry play, so I took it. But I also left because I felt that I would better serve my craft by actually getting out and working, and digging my skills out of the boards of the stage, rather than within the safety of the classroom.
KW: Do you prefer working on the stage? Obviously, making movies pay a lot more.
JW: Yeah, that’s an attraction of film work, but the stage is satisfying in a different way. It’s harder work, but most importantly, you have more control over the final output on the stage, because there’s no one filtering what you do for the audience. There’s a certain freedom and fulfillment in directly communicating with the audience that you don’t find in film work. But they each have their own challenges, and I derive enjoyment from both. But, yes, I think I have a preference for the stage.
KW: You’ve played a lot of famous figures: Basquiat, Bobby Seale, Martin Luther King, Sidney Bechet, and you’ll be portraying a couple more soon in Colin Powell and Muddy Waters. How do you feel about being tapped to do so many icons?
JW: Basquiat was iconic in certain circles, but relatively unknown in larger circles. What was exciting about playing him was that it could be an invitation to a larger audience to his work. So, that was compelling to me. In the case of Dr. King, it was an opportunity to do a piece about an icon, yes, but about an icon whose legacy was being lost on younger folks. It was a chance to remind those who weren’t alive at the time about his work and his life.
KW: Why haven’t you relocated to Los Angeles?
JW: Why haven’t I? Hmmm… It’s a nice place to visit. [Laughs] I grew up in a one industry town, Washington, DC. Los Angeles is a one-industry town, too, but the industry is a little too narrow. Also, I have kids now, and Brooklyn, in my opinion, is a far superior community to raise them in than L.A., just in terms of their being overshadowed by movies and things like that. And there’s a lot more to the world than spotlights.
KW: Is there a question you always wished a journalist would ask you?
JW: That’s a good question, but no.
KW: Are you happy?
JW: That’s a good one, too. I used to say that “happy” was like “lucky,” kind of imaginary. But now that I’m married and have children, I find that happiness is a real space. And I have to say that I am happy, although I’m probably pulled in too many different directions sometimes, and more stressed than I should be about things. But I’m blessed with a beautiful family, and that’s all I can ask for.
KW: It must be very challenging for an actor and an actress to be married.
JW: Yes, a lot of drama.
KW: Thanks again for the interview, Jeffrey. I’m looking forward to your landing that Oscar nomination in the near future.
JW: Well, Kam, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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