Jeffrey Wright is an American actor who ranks among the most compelling performers to grace our screens. Over three decades, Wright has mastered his craft, working with the film industry’s most respected names. Hollywood’s biggest directors trust him. Actors love working with him. Audiences are magnetised by him. Wright has starred in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises: James Bond, The Hunger Games and, most recently, Batman. He’s worked on independent films, played Basquiat and done quirky collaborations with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. Jeffrey Wright films carry a stamp of excellence. Whether it’s on TV, stage or the silver screen, Wright leaves his mark wherever he goes.
In many ways, Wright is a shapeshifter, stepping into a diverse range of characters’ shoes, none of which are the same. He has earned a reputation as the Rolls-Royce of supporting actors, rubbing shoulders with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Anthony Hopkins and a long list of the industry’s greats. Wright has won a Primetime Emmy and a Tony for his contributions to the arts. His broad portfolio demonstrates his impressive scope as an actor, and leaves us guessing what he’ll do next. His work is carefully considered. Wright often stars in films that probe us to view the world through a different lens and ask life’s biggest questions.
All of Wright’s riveting performances seem to lead to the critically acclaimed American Fiction (2023), where he lands the major lead role he has always deserved. Wright recently received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his layered performance. Ahead of American Fiction’s UK release, it only seems right to celebrate the powerhouse that is Jeffrey Wright. Here’s a look at 15 times where Jeffrey Wright stole the show.
In Julian Schabel’s 1996 Basquiat biopic, Wright stars as the legendary graffiti artist Jean Michel-Basquiat, a free-spirited Brooklynite whose meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s saw him become a leading figure in the New York art scene. Wright strikes a nuanced portrayal of the neo-expressionist artist. We see Basquiat’s brilliance, goofiness and rebellious streak as he immerses himself in the art world. We see his vulnerability and complexity, as he struggles with addiction. Wright skilfully mimics the artist’s distinctive speech pattern. Basquiat’s star-studded cast features the late David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s roommate Benny, Gary Oldman as Albert Milo and even Willem Dafoe as an electrician. To get into character, Wright would spend long days painting in a studio, trying to emulate Basquiat’s style. In Basquiat, Wright’s special kinship with the artist shines through.
RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999)
Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil is the last American Civil War film of the 20th century. We follow a group of pro-Confederate Missouri Bushwhackers who engage in guerrilla warfare against the pro-Union Jayhawkers. Wright plays Daniel Holt, a former slave fighting alongside protagonist Jack Roedel (Toby Maguire). Wright supports the Confederacy out of a loyalty that binds him to his former master George Clyde (Simon Baker). Ride with the Devil explores moral dilemmas, contradictions and ambiguity. It questions what being on the wrong side of history means. Elusive at first, Holt becomes a key character by the end of the film. This is more than a story about war, violence and slavery, it’s about Holt’s journey of emancipation. Wright’s emotive portrayal of Holt and his awakening provides some of the most poignant moments in the film.
Almost 30 years on from the first Shaft film, John Singleton revived the character for his 2000 crime thriller. Samuel L Jackson steps up as John Shaft, with Christian Bale as the film’s main antagonist, Walter Wade Jr. But Walter’s not the only one causing trouble. Enter: Peoples Hernandez (Wright). Peoples is a Dominican drug lord operating in Harlem. He is charm personified when he wants to be, and a loose canon if you’re not careful. Wright’s energetic performance is full of charisma, fire and intensity. The actor keeps viewers guessing what side of Peoples they’ll be confronted with next. It’s exhilarating to watch. Peoples is the villain you can’t help but love.
Michael Mann’s Ali stars Will Smith as the iconic Muhammed Ali. The film focuses on 10 years of the former World Heavyweight champion’s life, from 1964 to 1974. Wright portrays Howard Bingham, Ali’s trusted friend and photographer. Bingham might be the man behind the camera, but his presence is always felt on screen. He’s a grounding force for Ali during a tumultuous period in his life. Wright breathes depth, soul and compassion into this role. Wright said having the opportunity to get to know Bingham off-screen to prepare for the film made him fall in love with him.
Angels in America (2003)
Angels in America was a turning point in Wright’s career. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning Broadway play was later adapted for HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries. Wright won a Tony for his portrayal of Nurse Belize in the Broadway production. He went on to become the only actor from the stage version to be cast in the miniseries. Wright plays Belize and the imaginary Mr Lies, bringing great creativity, playfulness and tenderness to his roles. Wright won an Emmy for his performance. Angels in America revolves around different individuals going through the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s. Their stories become entwined. The cultural impact of Angels in America cannot be ignored. It played a crucial role in both challenging and fighting the stigma around AIDS. The impressive cast includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Justin Kirk.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is full of humour and heart, with Wright at its core. Don (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from a former girlfriend informing him that he’s got a son he’s never met. His neighbour Winston (Wright) is an amateur detective who loves solving crimes – or attempting to. Winston encourages Don to embark on a cross-country search to locate his old flames and solve this mystery. He shortlists five women who could have sent Don the letter, with comedic results. Wright plays Winston with delightful warmth and irony. In Broken Flowers, Winston is the glass half full to Don’s half empty. Witnessing the chemistry between Murray and Wright makes this bittersweet comedy all the sweeter.
Get ready to be on the edge of your seat. Stephen Gaghan’s Oscar-winning political thriller Syriana has that effect on viewers. Centred around the Middle East oil industry, Syriana explores the capitalism, corruption and terrorism surrounding America’s reliance on fossil fuels. Wright plays Bennett, a corporate lawyer investigating a dubious merger between two oil companies. Wright delivers a gripping performance, as we see Bennett contending with his moral dilemmas, trying to keep corruption under wraps. George Clooney stars as a veteran CIA agent, and Matt Damon as an energy analyst who becomes part of a Gulf prince’s inner sanctum. Their narratives overlap. Wright has a BA in Political Science and his mum was a lawyer. In his own words: ‘[...] this stuff is home for me’.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a twisted romance with plenty of bite. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are centuries-old vampire lovers trying to find their place in modern society. Wright rejoins forces with Jarmusch for a second time to play Dr Watson, a jumpy doctor whom Adam bribes for blood. To collect his blood from the hospital, Adam disguises himself as a Dr Faust. Dr Watson is uncomfortable with the set-up, and unnerved by the so-called Dr Faust. He prefers calling him Dr Strangelove. Wright’s small part in the film leaves a lasting impression. He brings vitality to this offbeat vampire tale.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)
The Hunger Games is one of Hollywood’s highest-grossing franchises of all time. Revolving around Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and a dystopian society where she finds herself having to compete in the annual Hunger Games. This is a televised show where contestants must fight to their deaths. Wright joined The Hunger Games franchise in 2013’s Catching Fire, along with director Francis Lawrence. He also stars in Mockingjay Parts One and Two. Wright portrays Beetee Latier, a likeable tech genius who radiates empathy. Audiences might assume Latier will be an early casualty, but his digital knowledge saves him. Latier bonds with Everdeen. In Catching Fire, Latier emerges as a man with a plan who you want around. Wright’s character takes on a darker arc in Mockingjay but it’s one Wright, ever the shape-shifter, pulls off with ease.
Now for a role that has defined Wright’s career. HBO’s critically acclaimed series Westworld takes place in a futuristic amusement park, populated by robots. One day, the robots malfunction and begin killing visitors. The plot thickens. Wright plays Bernard, the head of Westworld's programming division and creator of artificial people. But there’s a twist. Shocking revelations lead Bernard to grapple with his own identity. With Bernard, still rivers run deep. Wright couldn’t have nailed the brief more. With the most subtle expressions, his face tells a thousand stories. Acting alongside Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood, Wright delivers one of the most arresting performances of his career.
Wright describes working on O.G. as an experience like no other. The HBO movie was filmed in an Indiana prison, and incarcerated men were Wright’s co-stars and mentors. Madeleine Sackler’s drama centres on Louis (Wright), a convict in a maximum-security prison. Louis is serving the final weeks of his 24-year sentence. He quietly feels apprehensive about leaving. The intimate conversations Louis has with officers about his impending release reveal his vulnerability. It’s something he tries to brush off around inmates. Wright lets us into both Louis’ inner and outer worlds. He keeps tensions continuously bubbling away. Especially when Louis befriends new prisoner Beecher (Theothus Carter), whom he tries to persuade to stay away from gang life. It’s nail-biting stuff.
No Time to Die (2021)
Wright joined the James Bond franchise as CIA officer Felix Leiter for 2006’s Casino Royale. Bond’s grittier ‘brother from Langley’ and only true friend, Leiter is a man of few words, but what he does say leaves a lasting impression. Leiter mostly lurks in the shadows in the Daniel Craig Bond movies Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, materialising to help 007 out of sticky situations when needed. He comes into full view in 2021’s No Time to Die, where Wright delivers his most moving performance. Jeffrey Wright is now the longest-serving Felix Leiter in the 007 franchise.
The French Dispatch (2021)
Now for Wes Anderson’s charming love letter to journalism. The French Dispatch centres around the story of an American newspaper published in France. Anderson’s anthology brings a collection of absurd tales from the publication to life. The French Dispatch’s all-star cast features Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton – to name but a few. Wright stars as Roebuck, a food writer who is a hybrid of James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and AJ Liebling. Roebuck thought he was going to write about a famed chef, but finds himself caught up in a kidnapping rescue mission instead. Wright’s melodic voice narrates this story with a rich poetic texture. He recites lines like ‘dire caloric depletion’ in one witty breath. He acts out scenes with a quirky, uncanny energy that is tailor-made for Wes Anderson films. Most recently, Wright rejoined the director for 2023’s Asteroid City.
The Batman (2022)
Matt Reeves’ Robert Pattinson-starring The Batman is a grungy take on the DC Comics superhero – with an investigative-thriller twist. Wright plays the role of James Gordon, a member of the Gotham City Police Department and a fan favourite. Wright’s refreshing portrayal of Gordon sees him as Batman’s true ally, helping him keep Gotham City safe from criminals. Batman and Gordon act as equals. How much they value one another is never overstated, but it’s clear how integral they are to one another. Wright perfectly plays into the moody and atmospheric film, while adding lightness to its noir elements. He even manages to make the sombre Batman chuckle.
American Fiction (2023)
The director of American Fiction, newly minted Oscar nominee Cord Jefferson, is an Emmy-winning writer best known for The Good Place (2016) and Watchmen (2019). American Fiction, which Jefferson adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001’s novel Erasure, marks the filmmaker’s feature directorial debut. Wright plays Thelonious ‘Monk’, a novelist who is fed up with the lack of imagination the publishing industry has with Black stories. Monk decides to prove a point. Under a pseudonym, Monk writes an outlandish stereotypical ‘Black’ novel that reinforces offensive tropes and reductive stereotypes. It becomes a bestseller. Wright must now pose as a gangster to sell his novel. Critics are calling American Fiction the best performance of Jeffrey Wright’s career – and the Oscars certainly agree, since they nominated him for Best Actor. We get to see Wright in a light we haven’t before, and he steals the show. For all its laugh-out-loud moments, American Fiction explores the deeper themes of family, relationships, wealth and race with poignant effect. The cast of American Fiction also features Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K Brown and Issa Rae.
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