There is nothing more comforting as a moviegoer than to see an actor you recognize, and know they are going to give a confident, committed, consistently great performance each time you see them. That has been the case for myself and many when watching the career of Jeffrey Wright, an actor’s actor who fully embodies every role, both on the big screen and small, with such honest and dignity, you can help but be captivated by his work. His career spans over thirty plus years, Wright has been in dozens of films that include every kind of genre; like Shaft, Ali, The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Syriana, W., Cadillac Records, Source Code, The French Dispatch, The Hunger Games Franchise, the James Bond Franchise during the Daniel Craig era, and most recently, The Batman, alongside Robert Pattinson. Alongside his work on film, he’s been in several television shows and miniseries such as Boardwalk Empire, What If..?, Westworld, and Angels in America, where he reprised his Tony winning performance that he went on to win an Emmy for as well. But with his latest film, American Fiction, he’s given his largest role to date, one that has been celebrated by many already as some of the best work of his celebrated career.
Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer who is struggling to get his books published in a publishing world that doesn’t value the books he writes. Instead, books that showcase stereotypical black stories are being celebrated and sold as ‘important, authentic novels.’ Frustrated by the rejection of his latest novel, Monk writes his own version of that kind of novel out of spite, only for the book to become the biggest sensation, and thus his world gets turned upside down. At the same time, Monk is dealing with the declining health of his mother, as well as his relationships with his siblings and his new girlfriend. In our review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, I described Wright’s portrayal of Monk as “one of the best performances of his career,” and that he brought “sincerity” to the role that makes the film feel authentic.
In my conversation with the veteran actor, we discussed his initial thoughts on Monk when he first read the script, his experience with black led stories changing throughout his time in the entertainment business, his collaborations with writer-director Cord Jefferson and American Fiction’s stacked ensemble, his inspirations as an actor at the beginning of his career, and so much more. In a year of stacked performances, Wright’s ranks near the top of list and it’s about time the world continues to see what I’ve known for years, that Wright is one of the greatest characters we have working today. And with each new role, we see him continue to put pieces of himself into the work, empty the tank, and move on the next role and give it the same quality as before. Not many do that anymore, and that’s what makes him special.
Ryan McQuade: Thank you Mr. Wright for speaking with me today.
Jeffrey Wright: Thanks for having me, Ryan. Good to see you, man.
RM: Good to see you too. I’m so excited to talk to you about this movie. Once Cord Jefferson approached you with the script, what were some of the first things that drew you in to want to play Monk?
JW: The first scene of the script. I just loved that we were going to have a dialogue around race and language, a dialogue that exists now in American society, but we were going to do it with a level of fluency and thoughtfulness that we don’t often see. Cord and Percival Everett who wrote this novel, or the novel that the film is based on Erasure, are sharp thinkers around race and identity and culture. Cord crafted that scene and it was clear indication to me that he was fluent in this stuff. That was exciting for me.
It was exciting to have the conversation, but it’s not exciting if it’s not well rendered. So right away I was drawn in and then from there, just read of the journey of this man whom I was very familiar with, very familiar with his challenges, to some extent, from a creative side, but I was particularly familiar with his personal challenges as they relate to his relationship to his family and his ailing mother. That stuff just on an emotional level, just hit me pretty close to home. So yeah, I was in on reading the script.
RM: You mentioned the book is called Erasure, but the movie is called American Fiction. But I believe, if I’m not mistaken, the shooting script had a different title. If I’m not mistaken, it was titled what the book ultimately was in the film, the one that Monk writes, which is Fuck.
RM: So how much did you want that to ultimately be the title? Was there ever a moment where you’re like, “Cord, we’ve got to call this movie Fuck.”
JW: Oh, I was so hoping we could call it Fuck. I was so hoping that. It was on the slates and everything. That was the name of the movie. “What are you up to?” “I’m working on a movie up in Boston called Fuck.” That’s what it was. I think Cord made a very good point though, he said, “Someone on the marketing side said, well, why don’t you look up Fuck the movie on Google and see what comes up? I don’t think that when a potential audience member or member is searching for your movie, you want to confuse them in that way.” So that was a reasonable point, but I thought it was a fine title for our film. American Fiction is fine too. It has a good ring to it.
RM: The movie is a satire, and within that there is a lot of unfortunate truth about how certain stories about people of color or the LGBTQ+ community are made by major studios and companies. You’ve been making movies for decades, giving fantastic performances. How do you feel that things have changed from the beginning of your career in terms of stories are told and how do you think that maybe change can continue for modern storytelling in all forms?
JW: Well, Cord read Percival Everett’s novel. He found himself inside the novel. He asked permission to adapt it into a screenplay, which he did because he had the vision that this could be a great film, and also he had the vision that audiences wanted to see this. Then beyond that, Alana Mayo at Orion agreed with him and she was the gatekeeper between the idea, the story, the film and the audience. The secret sauce, the secret recipe that has made our film available is that Alana understood the possible, as did Cord, but she is in a situation to make a decision about whether or not we’ll receive the resources that we need in order to make that film, and then further will we receive the resources needed to get that film onto screens. These things just don’t happen by themselves, but because she understood the possibility and she understood that, yes, there is an appetite for a story like this, we’re here.
So that’s really, I think… Maybe in answer to your question, the answer to your question lies in how this film came into being. You had somebody smart in the position of power who could recognize that there was an opportunity here, both a cultural and creative opportunity, but also potentially, we’ll see, we’re not out there yet, a commercial opportunity, and she said, let’s put our money where our mouth is. It’s pretty much that simple. It’s about who’s making the decision, has the understanding of what’s possible, and we are fortunate to hear that it seems like we’re in pretty good shape as far as that goes.
RM: Absolutely. Some of the best moments I think in the film are your reactions to these unbelievable situations and statements that are happening to Monk in those moments, just the phone conversations, or like you’re saying in the beginning of the film. So I wanted to know how much of that is drawn from you from real life and you bringing that into the film?
JW: No, I understood those notes. I had played those notes before, maybe not necessarily on camera so much as I had the opportunity to do here. But again, yes, this character is one that, shall we say, it’s very close to my heart. I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in a lot of different places, within a lot of genres that seem separate from one another. I’ve built in a type of flexibility into the way that I work. I appreciate that. I like that. I like building characters that are outside of myself. I like trying to inhabit a person’s life that has no resemblance to mine, except that we share a quality of humanness. In this instance, there wasn’t such a stretch to find this person. It was more about aligning our sensibilities, aligning our interests and frustrations and observations.
I’m not in complete alignment with Monk’s perspective, but I certainly understand the challenges he faces. I understand what he’s responding to in terms of the imposition of limitations by larger society onto him. I understood, as I mentioned, his relationship to family and particularly the pressures that he finds himself under in terms of care taking of his mother. There was a lot there. It was a wonderful gift from Cord to be able to exercise some of these experiences in a creative way and perhaps, yeah, some of the tacit responses to the world outside him were not very different than my own.
RM: You mentioned family, and I think that that’s a great way to mention that. Beyond the satire Monk’s relationship with his family, it’s very personal. There’s a lot of regret in there. There’s some loneliness and sadness that it’s involved with it. For you, talking with Cord, how important was it to show Monk is ultimately human, he’s a work in progress?
JW: Yeah, I think, again, going back to Cord’s script, there was a lot of tonal information that I could glean from it. Also in watching the film with the audience the other day, I realized in this instance, anyway, satire is really tragedy in disguise. It’s a way for us to laugh as opposed to the opposite. So for Monk, what was clear was the level of introspection that he moves through life with and the level of isolation that he experiences is tied to a type of vulnerability. Again, relative to family, relative to his father, any number of things. But it was important also to ground the film in a way that was funny, but not comedic or farcical, certainly. I think there’s a lovely blend of emotional depth and glitter and lightness that really give the film and the character a breath.
That’s how I read it on the page because they all are born of one another. The frustration, the vulnerability gives breed to the humor, or gives life to the humor. The family struggles, or rather his need to live this duality out in the world that becomes absurd, is really bred by the necessity of, not entirely, but to some degree the necessity of responsibility to family. They’re not two separate stories. There’s a certain symbiotic relationship between the two. One is born of the other. I thought that was really cool.
RM: Obviously this is a big collaboration with Cord, his first time feature film and everything here, but you also have this great ensemble that you’re working alongside with. Could you speak quickly about your experience working with all of them and crafting this film together and creating this great film as an ensemble?
JW: Yeah, fantastic group of people and actors. Again, everybody on the same page in that we read the script, we loved it, and we showed up with a passion to tell this story. We got together, looked around. I mean, just Tracee Ellis Ross, first off, as my sister, I mean, what can be said? The only problem I had with Tracee is that I ruined so many takes just laughing with her as the camera was rolling. That was the only issue. She’s so funny. She’s so quick and at the same time grounded but unpredictable. It was just wonderful. You never know how you’re going to get on with someone. We got together. We started reading, and the relationship was there from the start. Likewise with Sterling, we’d never worked together before, but we came in and he has such a solidity and such a strength, but also in this instance, again, an irony and a type of madness and a vulnerability. That’s my younger brother.
With Leslie Uggams, I’ve adored her forever. Gosh, I mean, how could I not look at her and think, yes, that’s my mother? She was also so embracing of the opportunity to be a part of this, and she’s so beautiful and she got it. She just took, as we all did, delight in being able to inhabit these lives and tell this story, which we thought was rare. So we all came together as a family. Myra Lucretia Taylor, who plays Lorraine, who has been the caretaker of the family since we all were kids. She had the first line in the first scene that we shot within the film as a family. The first sound out of her mouth when we rehearsed and when the cameras rolled, she set the tone and it was perfect. I said, “Okay, we’re at home.” It was just a wonderful group of actors. Wonderful group of actors across the board.
Erika Alexander who has this wonderful strength, but also vulnerability as well. She provides this proper equal foil to Monk that was just right there from the start. But not only the central characters, there’s a young guy who plays Ned in the bookstore. I’m ashamed that I don’t know his name. I’ll have to look it up. He was there for one morning. He was wonderful, perfectly cast and immediately helped me understand, yes, okay, that is Ned where I understand how to work with Ned. It was perfect. John Ortiz is an actor that I’ve had respect for for many years and I’ve known for many years from the theater in New York, but I never had an opportunity to work with him When I found out John was on board, okay, let’s go. We got together and I knew how we would work together, even though we never had and we just played. He’s wonderful, so generous, so smart, and he as well passionate about doing this, as was Adam Brody the same.
Everybody came wanting to be there and bringing their best. Issa Rae, who I think legitimizes in some ways our film because she gives such depth and credibility to the character that she plays, this author whom Monk is strangely jealous of and whom he wants to confront through this prank of a book that he writes. Everyone came to this because they wanted to be there. They loved the idea of being there. Once we got there, we absolutely loved working together and working with Cord. We did the best we could and I think we felt we did pretty good, yeah and we did well together moreover.
RM: Yes, you did. Lastly, the first time I ever saw you on the big screen was in Syriana, and I was captivated by your performance and you as an actor. It made me want to see all your previous work and everything you did after that. You set, I think, the standard for my generation of actors and audiences to see work as both quality and profound in every single performance. So for yourself, when you were young as an actor, was there an actor or an actress that you saw on the big screen that moved you and inspired you to give quality performances every single time, empty the tank, set that example, follow through and pass that torch on to the next generation?
JW: Well, thank you for that. That’s a wonderful question. Yes, there were many, I had the good fortune early on in my film career in the first lead role that I had in a film Basquiat to work with many of them who had inspired me, Dennis Hopper, David Bowie, less as an actor, but more as an artist and a musician. Chris Walken. I’d done a play with Chris in Central Park and he blew my mind open, just, he played a Iago to Raul Julia Othello, and it was just the greatest series of lessons in this work that one could ever imagine. There was another, and I will say that maybe this was the actor in that film who had most immediately impacted me and influenced me in terms of the way I worked in that movie and in some subsequent movies, that was Gary Oldman.
When I saw Sid and Nancy in the theater, I said, “Oh wow, we can do that. We can go there. We’re not limited to this range, but there’s a whole range of other things that we can bring to the table.” He really opened up a lot of possibilities for me, and yeah, I would not have done Basquiat and a few other movies around that time in the way that I had, had I not seen Gary’s work before, and then I had a chance to work with him. So in answer to your question, there it is. Yeah, thank you for that question. I’m gratified that you think that I’ve maybe passed that tradition on to some degree.
RM: You absolutely have, sir. You’re fantastic in this movie. You’re one of the greats. Thank you so much for your time.
JW: Thank you, man. I appreciate it.
American Fiction will be in select theaters from Amazon MGM and Orion Pictures on December 15 and wide on December 22.