I've always been a fan of Wright's work, from his unforgettable Tony and Emmy award winning performance on Broadway and TV as Belize in 'Angels in America' to his always welcomed appearances in political thrillers such as 'Syriana', 'The Ides of March' and 'The Manchurian Candidate'. Yet the final straw of my enchantment with this understated actor who is also a relentless human rights advocate, was his performance as Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1996 Julian Schnabel film on the American artist. In one beautiful performance, Wright portrayed all the vulnerability and talent of a man who seemed to live in a world of his own, and yet had his cultural roots deeply planted in the American way.
In 'Westworld', Wright plays Bernard Lowe, the android who thinks of himself as human. And what a casting coup the creators of the HBO series Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and producer J. J. Abrams made with that one! I mean, a performance doesn't get more nuanced and believable than Jeffrey Wright as Lowe.
When I sat down with Wright, I was immediately taken by how direct he is and how thorough he was in his answers and will now add "utterly spellbinding" to the many adjectives I already use to describe one of the best American actors working today.
The highly anticipated second season of 'Westworld' premieres on April 22nd on HBO.
Diversity has always been a part of your activism persona. And now in the Trump era, you’ve been more vocal than ever. So how far have we come in the movies, and how important is that conversation still?
Jeffrey Wright: America — whether some of its citizen understand it, believe it, or not — is and has always been a diverse society. The myth that America is this monolithic, mono-cultured thing is purely that. It’s myth! Never was, never will be.
Unfortunately, some of us are more isolated than others. I live in Brooklyn NY, I cannot walk down the street fifty yards without hearing another language, experiencing people of all shades and creeds, and religions -- and I love that! What I think is most interesting about this election, is that it proved that there is a division in our country between people who are tolerant of that idea and those people live within that reality daily. The people who aren’t tolerant of that idea, or tend not to be tolerant, are the ones who are most isolated from that America and that’s what I find really fascinating and troubling — they are scared of the unknown. Whereas we who live within it every day, you know, have no fear -- no irrational mistrust of “the Other”. And that’s just an unfortunate aspect of our society because we are huge geographically, we are a huge country, our population is huge, and we’re diverse — in culture, in opinion but nonetheless we are still one people.
We are American no matter who we are and it’s going to take a bit more work before all of us understand that.
'Westworld' is like the biggest role-playing game up on the screen. Did you play role-playing games when you were growing up? Or program computers?
Wright: Can I program computers? I can download apps! I know where the USB port is. I can charge my iPhone through my computer. When I grew up, man, I played Pong, that was the game and gradually progressed into more complex games like Mario Brothers — more complex than a game and a dot! Two dashes and a dot bouncing off a thing.
You didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons?
Wright: I didn’t play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t. But what’s interesting about our show is that when the movie first came out that’s what it was then, it was Pong. Yet [Michael] Crichton really had envisioned this totally immersive, role-playing game so he was miles ahead of the time and I think what Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] and J. J. Abrams have done is really a service to the premise because now these technologies are so much more relevant, and they are now able to explore them in a cinematic technology in a more fully developed way and we understand it, in a way that we could not appreciate before. Because really I think it is the next step beyond virtual reality, where the audience actually steps through the lens and experiences the game in real time. And once you understand that about the show, the rules become clearer and I think the experience becomes more gratifying.
Do you think then than computer programmers are the Basquiats of our time?
Wright: No, no, no, no, no... Well interesting question. I think there’s still room for the artist painting canvas. Programmers do their own thing but you know, I think what Basquiat did and the reason that he’s so globally influential is that he took bits and pieces of the language of artists who came before him and he was able to craft a new language that was his own. Programmers I imagine might do that as well but I love what he did.
I imagine every role you’ve played is like your child to you, but is there one character that has stayed in your heart more than the others?
Wright: Yeah. You kind of take a little bit and leave a little bit with everything you play.
But I guess ‘Angels in America’ is kind of the epicenter of my career. That was the first time that I considered myself an actor. I did that on Broadway and I’d been working for the past seven years in the theater, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing and by the time I got there and finished that, a year and a half on Broadway, at some point during the run I said "wow, OK, I’m an actor." And also because of the nature of the show, it was a blend of a lot of interest to me in terms of trying to merge a lot of political awareness and commentary into the work.
It was also a challenge for me, because you know I had to kind of explore sexuality, the femininity and masculinity in a way that evolved my thinking as well. And there was a sense of responsibility because we’d have, at any given performance, people who were sick with AIDS in the audience. It was just a great gift of an experience and just beautiful, powerful, dangerous words and it’s certainly changed my life in almost all ways and continues to influence, I hope, who I am.
It also spoiled me very early on, expecting that life in showbiz would always be that. So I guess, so far the ark has led me to ‘Westworld’ and when I was working on this I thought "WOW, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible writers." Our team of writers I put them on the top shelf of the experiences I’ve had, where ‘Angels in America’ lives. Different genre, different intent but the level of creativity and innovation and freshness is leading edge and right up there.