Actor Jeffrey Wright

The Tony-, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor explains the choices of characters he portrays.

Jeffrey Wright is one of the most versatile actors of his generation with a résumé that includes historical figures, as well as a wide array of strong supporting characters. He won a Tony for his performance in Broadway's Angels in America, which he recreated in the TV miniseries—winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe—and was acclaimed as star of the film biopic Basquiat. The DC native first ventured into acting in high school and honed his craft off-Broadway and in regional theater. A longtime activist, he's established a company focused on ethical mining in Sierra Leone. Wright co-stars in season 4 of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and in The Hunger Games feature installment, Catching Fire.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Jeffrey Wright’s distinguished career has included a Tony award winning turn in “Angels in America” on Broadway, a role he reprised for HBO, resulting in both an Emmy award and a Golden Globe.

Earlier this year he joined the cast of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” playing a Harlem-based gangster. He’s now costarring with Jennifer Lawrence in the second installment of the certain-to-be-blockbuster “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Busy man, no doubt. Let’s take a look first at a scene from the movie, which opens, of course, this weekend.

[Clip]

Tavis: Glad to have you back on, first of all.

Jeffrey Wright: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Wright: Good to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: How did you – well, your talent is immense, as I said a moment ago. You’re one of my favorites. You’re so versatile.

Wright: Appreciate it.

Tavis: How did you end up in “The Hunger Games?”

Wright: Well, I was asked to be a part of “The Hunger Games.”

Tavis: That usually helps.

Wright: Yeah. The director, a brilliant director, Francis Lawrence, and I had come close to working together on another of his movies he wanted me to be a part of. I couldn’t for time constraint reasons.

But he circled back to me on this. He said, “Take a look at the script. I’d love to have you be a part of this.” I think like many parents, initially I was a little perplexed at the first movie, at how a movie that features kids fighting to the death in a gladiatorial arena could pass as entertainment. I was confused about that.

But then I delved a little further. I saw the first movie, I read the script, I read the books, and I realized that there was a much more complex social and political commentary that was being made using this exploitation of children as kind of a central point within it, and it’s really very fascinating stuff.

It’s not fluff. It’s touching on, in many ways, some kind of classical mythological themes for Jennifer’s character of Katniss Everdeen. She goes on this heroic journey in the midst of this dystopian society, but really her journey is like many classic heroes.

She really just wants to be home. She wants to be reunited with family, and the priorities and things that she values are very much universal: Love, friendship, loyalty.

So I was really drawn to it, and then my agent as well said, “Oh, and by the way, it’s bigger than Bond.” (Laughter) I said, “Oh, okay. I’ll take a look.”

Tavis: I think the first one did like what, 700 million?

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: It was crazy, yeah.

Wright: A couple dollars, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, a little money.

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: You’ve started to intimate it now, Jeffrey, but what are some of those – my phrase here, not yours – those deeper truths that you’re suggesting that you saw once you got a little deeper into the stuff that goes beyond kids killing kids?

Wright: Right. Well, I think this is a great movie for kids, younger audiences, but also parents to take in with their kids, because it’s a dystopian society that’s kind of a strange reflection of – or a deterioration of our society, potentially.

So it’s escapist, but it’s not escaping entirely. There’s still these themes that are relevant and topical that are being explored. Issues around war, the consequences of war, classism.

What’s fascinating about it is the way that Suzanne Collins has written it, since she’s the author of the books, is that you can find yourself within these stories across party lines.

It’s non-partisan, across denominations. I’ve talked to some fans who are attracted to the story because they see this 1 percenter versus the 99 percent dynamic that they think is reflective of something that’s going on now.

Others say, well, it’s about corrupt government, and maybe take a kind of Second Amendment position that we need to be strong against the tyranny of government. So it’s really fascinating.

She’s created this universe that people can just place themselves within, and then there are others who find other characters that they relate to, or Katniss’s story. The strong woman at the center is something that’s attractive to many young girls.

That she’s brave, and that she’s, as I said, fighting for these elemental things. She’s not necessarily standing on a political soapbox; she’s just fighting for her own sense of security.

So there’s any number of things, and what I think is really wonderful about it too is I think there’s a lot of cynicism in movie-making, particularly these large-scale Hollywood films that come out, where there’s a lot of technology and CGI, but there’s no there there.

But here, you have all of these elements, but at the same time you have a very human story, and the story does not give way to the scale of the filmmaking, to the technology. It’s really very well balanced, and again, that’s a credit to the director, Francis Lawrence, who I think does a masterful job with this. There’s something in it for everyone.

Tavis: One of the beautiful things about your career, and I don’t know if this is by choice or by chance, but you seem to bounce between not just movies and theater, but blockbuster franchises.

We mentioned Bond a moment ago; now it’s “Hunger Games,” and knowing you, a few weeks from now you’ll be on the stage in some theater somewhere. Let me just ask the question – is that by design, or it just sort of happens that way?

Wright: If there’s any design, it’s design by improvisation. It’s very difficult to plan in this business. But what I’m attracted to really is the written word, what’s on the page. What jumps off at me.

The Bond stuff obviously I think is like “The Hunger Games,” it’s big movie, big action stuff. But it’s always done with a degree of intelligence, and it’s also cool. The politics of the Bond thing is complicated, but there’s always a sense of relevance to those stories.

We have a blast making those. So do other films – for other reasons, though. I’ve chosen some films lately because I wanted to stay closer to home. I’ve got two kids now, and for the past 10 years I’ve kind of pumped the brakes on film work to some extent because I didn’t want to be away from home for too long.

I was also doing some other things that drew my interest. So it varies. There’s no, like, any one kind of method that I undertake. I just try to be open to the process, try to find things that I respond to and that make sense for me.

Tavis: But it must feel good, though, at this point in your career, and I can say this; you don’t need to say it. But it must feel good at this point in your career, though, to be sought out for some of these characters.

I read, obviously, to prepare for these conversations, and it is amazing to me the number of times I’ve had you on over the course of my career here for conversations where the director sought you out. They wanted you for this particular character.

Wright: Well, yeah, that’s – yeah, they do. (Laughter) Sometimes they regret that they did, (laughter) but most of the times not. But I’ve been doing this for a little bit now, and I guess if you don’t know by now what I might be able to do, then you’re not going to figure it out.

Thankfully, there are a number of directors out there and other creative folks in the business who’ve said, “We like what you do and we want to work with you.” I have to say if there are any people that I do owe a good deal of thanks to in the industry, it’s the artists.

It’s directors and writers who took an interest in my work. I don’t know – I haven’t always felt that welcome by the industry, by the business aspects of it, the studios, necessarily, although that changes as well, has changed to some extent.

But certainly there are these other artists who for some reason have gravitated toward my work, and I don’t take that for granted.

Tavis: I wonder what difficulty you have in deciding what it is that you do want to do. Because I notice even in answers to certain questions you wrestle with how you’re going to explain why you took a particular role, as if somehow you owe me, just because I’m hosting the show, or the viewers an explanation.

But I get a sense that you really do feel that way. That you have to justify to yourself why you take certain roles, given, I think, your politics.

This stuff doesn’t just happen easily for you because you are such a complex human being that has views about issues in the world. We’ll come to some of those issues in just a second.

Sometimes it gets you in trouble, (laughter) sometimes they’re controversial. But I wonder, is the journey, the process, rather, of you choosing roles that fraught with difficulty?

Wright: No, no, I don’t suggest that it’s difficult. I just try to find those things that resonate for me, and not everything does. I guess as well, early on in my career I did “Angels in America” on Broadway, and it kind of spoiled me, I like to say, to the idea that you could find work that was meaningful, that the actor wasn’t just the guy at the other end of the bar, but he was actually somebody who -

Tavis: That’s what I was getting at, that I get this sense that you are looking for stuff that has relevance and meaning.

Wright: Well, I’m looking for stuff that connects to my interests, and I’ve always – I grew up, I was born in the middle of the ’60s, grew up in Washington, D.C. When I was a kid, it wasn’t so much free Chris Brown, it was free Angela Davis. (Laughter)

That’s where we were then – that was then, this is now. So for me, those things were formative, and when I started acting, I thought that you could bring those things to the table.

As well, the early movies that I took in as a kid – I remember going to the cinema and seeing “Claudine,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” all of these things that even if they weren’t overtly political, there was a social relevance to them and they were very much connected to the day.

They weren’t trying to mask some of the warts of American society. They were trying to examine them. But it was just a different era, prior to the big blockbuster, the “Jaws” and “Star Wars” eras. Those were the films that resonated for me, so that’s the stuff that I still am attracted to.

Tavis: So you mentioned that you were raised in Washington.

You have been a Redskins fan for your entire life. (Laughter)

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: You had the nerve the other night (laughter) – and I’m being somewhat jovial about this – you had the nerve to show up on a talk show the other night for a conversation wearing a Washington Redskins hoodie.

Wright: Oh, absolutely.

Tavis: And you knew when you walked out on that set with that jersey on, given all the debate now about the name, that you were stepping into the middle of it.

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: So tell me your thoughts about the name and whether Mr. Goodell and the commissioner of the NFL, or Mr. Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, should do something about the name of this team.

Wright: Well, I guess yeah, I wore that jersey, I think that logo is beautiful. For me, growing up, as you said, in D.C., about five minutes from RFK Stadium in southeast D.C., and I don’t mean to be nostalgic about it, and I was a kid who was in love with football and who lionized those players.

The Redskins in Washington, the biggest thing going. They’re bigger than the federal government. They do something that no political in Washington does – they unify the city in a really significant way, and they’re elevated.

There’s no mockery there. For me as a kid that image was in fact subversive of mainstream, exclusivist, white American heroic symbolism. So I took great pride in it, as opposed to, for example, the Cowboy imagery.

The Dallas Cowboys, they’re from Dallas – enough said. But the idea of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan riding off into the sunset was something I could never identify with.

But as a young kid in southeast, I looked at that and I didn’t see something disparaging. I saw something that I took great pride in, and in fact that there was a figure among the human mascots in the NFL, a figure of color on the side of that helmet. It meant something very meaningful to me.

So what I take exception to is that you have this group of journalists who said, well, you can’t even use the word. These kind of white, liberal journalists saying we can’t even approach this word.

I think Lenny Bruce is doing backflips in his grave at that. But that it necessarily needs to be seen as a slur is something that I challenge, and in fact if you go back and you look at the origins of the word – there was a fantastic article in “The Washington Post” in 2005 by a senior linguist at the Smithsonian, Yves Goddard, I think his name is.

Where he finds examples where it was Native Americans themselves who actually referred to themselves as redskin to differentiate themselves from the white aggressor.

So it could be seen – what is inherently racist about “red” and “skin” together, unless you aspire to have white skin? Then you may see it as inferior. But for me, I’m just suggesting that I never viewed it in that way, and I don’t think that fans are doing it disparagingly when they elevate the team in saying, “Hail to the Redskins.”

You’re not singing it in a mocking way. It’s not this coony, minstrel image. It’s something that is very stoic and very – and in fact, I think to some extent drawn from portraits of Sitting Bull.

Now I’m not going to sit here and say listen, people shouldn’t be offended. I understand people’s sensitivity. But I just want people to understand that it doesn’t necessarily have to be seen through the lens of a white, racist aesthetic.

Tavis: I guess the question is that your point notwithstanding, and I take everything you’ve just said and it makes perfect sense to me. I guess the question is whether or not it matters how we view it, whether we be Black or white. Does it matter how we view it versus how they view it?

Wright: No, you’re absolutely right, and -

Tavis: I don’t know the answer to that question.

Wright: Right, right, and there’s some -

Tavis: But it’s like white folk can have their opinions all day long about the use of the word “nigger.”

Wright: Right.

Tavis: I could care less what you think about the use of that word.

Wright: Right, right.

Tavis: What matters is what we think of the use of that word.

Wright: No, no, no, absolutely, and there are some native groups, growing in size, that are saying that it is offensive. There are others who say it’s not. They may be Redskins fans in the area.

But so no, we have, absolutely have to be sensitive to that. But I just want to pump the brakes a little bit on the suggestion that there’s some kind of -

Tavis: Right, racist intent.

Wright: – newly fashioned Klan rally that people were associated with. In fact, there were some criticisms that say well, the Washington Redskins, the Klan marched in Washington in the mid-’60s saying keep the Redskins white.

I want to tell you something. If the Klan marched in post-1968 southeast D.C. outside RFK Stadium, (laughter) they would have had hell to pay. In fact, I remember as a kid the Klan decided to march on Washington, and there were some brothers who met them in black robes, saying “We’re just here to greet them.”

It has no relevance to what people were celebrating there, but I understand the sensitivity, and in fact at one point I thought maybe the name, maybe the Washington Powhatan would be a more apt name, which was the federation of peoples in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area.

I would hate to see this native imagery just completely disappear, because I think in some regards, you take the land, you take the culture, the people are marginalized.

Now you don’t even see in mainstream America any representation. I think it can be used as an opportunity. It’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation, the Washington Redskins.

They could – not done in an optical way, but in a highly considered and mutually planned way with certain native communities who are open to it, find a way that there can be a connection made between this mainstream entity and Native American communities.

Because the journey’s not over for Native Americans in this country, and it could be a real opportunity for a new type of engagement, setting a new benchmark that could be an example for mainstream America, including the U.S. government.

I’m entirely sensitive to folks’ perceptions, but I think there are some creative solutions that could be found that could be really interesting.

Tavis: I want to move on here quickly, though, but does this say anything to you about political correctness? Let me jump in some hot water with you.

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: One of my pet peeves, and I say this lovingly to all of my white liberal friends, my white progressive friends who I talk to and hang out with all the time, I find myself checking them from time to time.

Sometimes they are so well-meaning that they – but they end up missing it. They end up – sometimes they miss the issue by a mile sometimes trying to be politically correct. They end up missing it.

Wright: Sure.

Tavis: So since you raise this notion earlier, I wonder whether or not some of this – what does this say to you at least about political correctness in our era?

Wright: Well, I think it’s a real danger to suggest that if you – simply because you don’t write or mention the word “Redskin” in an article that you write, that you have somehow purged yourself of your racism.

I think folks are, as you say, missing the larger idea. I worked on a native reservation, actually, in my senior year, after my senior year of high school. There was a guy named Tom Vennum who was, had written books on the Ojibwe drum.

He invited me to go up to an Ojibwe reservation up in Wisconsin to coach lacrosse – I played lacrosse in high school and college – to native kids. The program didn’t go as well as we had hoped.

We were only there for a few weeks as opposed to the whole summer, because there was a lot of apathy, there were a lot of challenges there, a lot of socio-economic challenges, as we know.

But it wasn’t that the Washington Redskins existed that those challenges were there, and there’s this letter that was written by members of Congress suggesting that the term “Washington Redskins” has caused low self-esteem in Native American youth and things like that.

What I saw when I was there was that there was an absence of proper and effective educational opportunities, there was an absence of economic opportunities, there were land issues, there were housing issues that needed to be addressed.

There was depression, there was alcoholism. So I’m just hoping that folks who, out of this sense of political correctness, are taking the stance are equally concerned, or are equally concerned with those issues as they are with their ideas of what this language represents, and their struggles with the language.

Struggle as well with the social and economic challenges that these communities are facing, and then I think we would be much more impactful and would be convinced that it’s not just about political correctness, but it’s about attacking these problems.

Tavis: That’s my sense, and I’m not trying to paint anybody with a broad brush, but I can’t -

Wright: But you see it as well – you see it in Africa as well. For example, there was this Kony 2012 thing that the world went, or the country went crazy over, and you had all of these young, idealistic kids rallying behind this idea, 30, 40 million people on YouTube viewing this thing.

The idea was that we’re going to go over to Uganda and we’re going to hunt down this criminal, Joseph Kony, and that was representative of a progressive, political engagement by America with Africa today.

I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was no talk of root causes for the challenges there. There was no talk of underlying economic challenges. But rather, it was criminalizing this outlaw, this Black outlaw figure who’s, granted, has done some heinous things.

But that’s a much easier sell to a white liberal audience that there’s this, let’s demonize this Black face over there. That’s a much easier sell than the sell that suggests well actually, African people are really willing economic partners with you.

That they actually don’t want charity and don’t want military intervention so much as they want your investment dollar. That’s a much harder sell. So I agree with you entirely that sometimes we let political correctness, and what seems to be a progressive step, really mask the underlying realities that are much more -

Tavis: We can go full-bore – I agree – too often we go full-bore on the issue, but never get to the real point, which is the contestation of the humanity of the people that we want to -

Wright: Absolutely.

Tavis: But that’s another conversation for another time. I ain’t got but three minutes left, and I – see, this is the problem when you come on, man.

Wright: Oh, my goodness. (Laughter) How did we get here?

Tavis: We get going. (Laughter) We get going. So I got three minutes to go. Let me ask you right quick, speaking of controversies, I’m a big “Boardwalk Empire” fan.

Wright: Oh, God.

Tavis: Oh, yeah. There are people who are concerned, if I can use that word, about whether or not the character that you’re playing is borrowing, taking some creative license, from our brother W.E.B. Du Bois.

Wright: Oh my goodness, yeah, I’m getting – it’s coming at me from all angles.

Tavis: Yeah, social media’s burning up with this.

Wright: Yeah, there is no relations between Dr. Narcisse and W.E.B. Du Bois aside from facial hair. (Laughter)

Tavis: Enough said.

Wright: Du Bois had magnificent facial hair, which Dr. Narcisse was inspired by. But there’s been some criticism around that. That was the most recent. Then there was other criticism that we were somehow trampling on the legacy of Marcus Garvey, because Narcisse has this relationship to the UNIA.

But I think if you do the math, and also if you wait for the full narrative arc to be played out next Sunday, if you do the math, though, if you look at it, Narcisse is using the public virtuousness of the UNIA to mask his criminality.

I think over the course of time we’ve seen that there’s no question about where he stands. He’s not a hero, he’s not an anti-hero. He’s more villainous than anything else, and I think in some ways, the analogy would be to say oh, I read that new testament, but how dare they associate Judas with my Jesus.

I don’t understand why there’s a sensitivity among African American community often to reveal our flaws through dramatic storytelling, and I don’t think we should shy away from the idea of a villain. He is a villain.

Tavis: But I think you know the answer to that. The answer to that is because we’re still longing for that balance. That’s really what it boils down to.

Wright: I understand, but the villain, at times, can be reflective of a higher virtue, and to exclude it seems to be fearful of our humanity, which is, like everyone else’s, flawed at times.

Tavis: This is why I love having Jeffrey Wright come on the program, because I’m just getting started and my time is up.

Wright: Oh, man.

Tavis: We could do this for another two or three shows. Let me just tell you Jeffrey Wright will have a very busy weekend, because opening this weekend, as if you did not already know, is “The Hunger Games,” with an amazing cast that includes one Jeffrey Wright, and this Sunday, the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire.”

Wright: Yes.

Tavis: So I know you’re going to be busy this weekend.

Wright: Busy fending off further criticism as well.

Tavis: Yes. (Laughter) We’ll be watching you all weekend.

Wright: I appreciate it, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Wright: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Come back any time.

Wright: Absolutely.

Tavis: One of my favorites, Jeffrey Wright. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Kathleen Brimlow

    I tune in every day, but today I find that what Mr. Wright is saying makes me want to cry. I feel so upset. At the redskins game, the whole crowd does a mocking war song and uses a chopping tomahawk gesture. It is a mockery of native americans. I do not mind their logo of a warrior, it is an american image. But, growing up, my grandparents heard the term rerdshin preceded by the word dirty. What amazes me is that he sounded like white people who may be well meaning, but do not even realyze how racist what they are saying is. His justification about the term redskins sounded exactly the same as. It just made me sad that he did not realyze how hurtful the term and the whole song and dance at the games are. I have many friends who also do not get it – who try to tell me it doesn’t mean anything. One Thanksgiving, a co-worker, thinking he was well meaning, said to me, “I bet you want to put on your war paint and shoot arrows at the people marching in the Columbus day parade. He understood that Columbus marked the beginning of native american genecide and I appreciated that, but he attributed attributes to me, a modern urban business woman, of a savage wearing war paint and killing white people.

    I just to write something after seeing the show. Thanks for listening.

    Kathleen Brimlow

Last modified: November 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm