Jeffrey Wright Biography
Jeffrey Wright has established himself as one of the most respected and versatile character actors of his generation. Equally at home on the stage or on screen, he has performed in roles ranging from mobster to artist to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Washington, D.C., on December 7, 1965, Wright was raised there by his mother, a lawyer with the U.S. Customs Department, and his aunt after the death of his father when the boy was just a year old. Wright attended St. Alban's School for Boys in Washington, where he was an all-star athlete, and then enrolled at Amherst College. Planning to become a lawyer like his mother, he majored in political science. But as he told New York Times writer Phoebe Hoban, when he enrolled in a college acting class he realized immediately that "this was going to be it." Despite his mother's dismay, he abandoned plans for law school and, after graduating from Amherst in 1987, sought work on stage.
Returning to Washington, Wright obtained roles in several productions at the Arena Stage, where he earned the admiration of founding director Zelda Fischandler, who arranged a full scholarship for the aspiring actor in the graduate acting program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After only two months, however, he dropped out of N.Y.U. to seek professional work, landing small roles in off-Broadway plays and supporting himself as a bicycle messenger. He also appeared in various productions at the Arena and at Yale Repertory Theater, honing his skills in everything from Shakespeare to modern drama. Joe Dowling, who worked with Wright during this period and is now artistic director of Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, told Hoban that "the word 'star' is overused, but from the first day I met him that's what I saw."
In 1990 Wright was cast in his first film role, a minor part in the movie Presumed Innocent. With career prospects dim, he moved briefly to Los Angeles looking for more film work. Soon after returning to New York he landed his first major part in 1994 as Roy Cohn's nurse, Belize, in Angels in America: Perestroika. The play was a huge success, and Wright won a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards for his performance. "That was the first time I could comfortably call myself an actor," he told Hoban. But the role was the most difficult he'd ever performed, and it took him so long to get into the character that he was almost fired. As the director, George C. Wolfe, commented to Hoban, what sets Wright apart as an actor is that he "goes off to figure out where the jazz, the bebop, of the character is, as opposed to just playing the melody."
Though this deep attention to character resulted in considerable acclaim for Wright's performance as Belize, it did not immediately lead to career success, and the young actor struggled to find subsequent work. After a year without a role, in 1996 he was cast as the lead in Basquiat, an independent film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the avant-garde painter and protégé of Andy Warhol who set the art world abuzz before he died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27. Director Julian Schnabel, who had known Basquiat, cast Wright in the starring role partly because the actor was not well known. "I saw 100 black actors," he told Hoban, "and I knew Jeffrey was the one.… I knew he had the most buttons he could press to turn himself into Jean-Michel." Wright prepared intently for the role and often disagreed with Schnabel on how to play particular scenes. But the end result was a performance that many found unforgettable. "Jeffrey's performance goes beyond acting," said Basquiat's friend and script developer Michael Holman was quoted in the New York Times. "It's possession."
Since that role, Wright has earned parts in several major films, including the gravedigger in Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke, a Puerto Rican gangster in Shaft, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the made-for-cable movie Boycott, and an emotionally-scarred Desert Storm veteran in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. His performance in this film, according to New York Times critic A.O. Scott, was "memorably strange."
Wright also continued to work in theater. In 2005 he costarred with Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet in This Is How It Goes, a play about an interracial love triangle that Variety reviewer David Rooney described as a "sharply honed work that insidiously inches under the skin with its unforgiving insights and…nasty tricks." As Cody, the black husband of white woman Belinda, Wright offered what Rooney deemed a "sharp-edged" performance that aptly communicated the tension between the spouses.
In 2005 Wright costarred opposite Bill Murray in the film Broken Flowers, playing Murray's neighbor, Winston. When Murray's character, Don, discovers that one of his former lovers gave birth to his son years ago, Winston persuades Don to find out who the mother might be. Though writer-director Jim Jarmusch wrote the film for Murray, he had Wright in mind from the start to play Winston. "He has such incredible range," Jarmusch told Los Angeles Times writer Susan King. "He can be very, very subtle or he can be explosive, depending on what the character is, and he has an incredible human compassion thing that I read off him on screen." It was important, stressed Jarmusch, that Winston would not be a cliché, just a comic sidekick; he insisted that the character be a complex person. And Wright "lifted it above what I imagined but also came through with what the film really needed from that character."
Critics agreed that Wright's performance was central to the film's charm. "Jeffrey Wright walks off with his scenes as the nosy and bubbling family man with an active Sherlock Holmes complex," noted Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, while King wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Wright "manages to steal every scene he's in." Wright enjoyed the role, explaining to King that he was attracted to Winston's essential loneliness.
A very private man offstage or offscreen, Wright is married to actress Carmen Ejogo, with whom he has two children. He is happy to succeed as an actor without necessarily living in the limelight. Acknowledging that some of his characters are better known than he is himself, the actor told King that this "suits me fine."
Presumed Innocent, 1990.
Ride with the Devil, 1999.
The Manchurian Candidate, Paramount, 2004.
Broken Flowers, 2005.
Separate but Equal, ABC, 1991.
Homicide: Life on the Streets, 1997.
Angels in America (miniseries), 2003.
Angels in America: Perestroika, 1994.
Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, 1996.
This Is How It Goes, 2005.
Boston Globe, August 5, 2005.
Interview, November 1999; July 2000.
Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2005.
New York Times, August 18, 1996; July 30, 2004; March 31, 2005; August 5, 2005.
—E. M. Shostak
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