Jeffrey Wright Explores a ‘Virtuous Villain’

The actor discusses with The Root his new Boardwalk Empire role, based on a real-life gangster.

Screenshot of Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse in 'Boardwalk Empire'

TR: Did you feel like the characters Chalky and Narcisse were typecast at all? The light-skinned intellectual and the dark-skinned street-smart criminal? Do you think Boardwalk Empire does a good job with black characters in making them believable and complex characters?

JW: I think there’s historical context for that tension between them that’s being drawn upon honestly. I don’t think they necessarily hired me because I’m light-skinned. I think it plays well into the storyline and colors the relationship in a way that’s not superficial but meaningful, in that there’s precedent for it.

But at the same time, Narcisse is awash with contradictions. This is intentional because he’s like a gangster-W.E.B. Du Bois-Garveyite, which only makes him curious. In terms of the look, I think the writers are referencing Du Bois, but more heavily Garvey.

There’s a rivalry between Narcisse and Chalky, but there’s also a rivalry at work within Narcisse himself. There’s this intraracial turmoil between himself: He talks a pan-African game, but he says so in a very Eurocentric manner. That’s why I described him as a funhouse-mirror distortion of a character out of the historical fiction of that era.

It’s not an era that’s been overly exposed in pop culture. I hope we can pluck out something even though the show is set almost 100 years ago, so hopefully we can pluck out something original from the time.

TR: What do you like about the Narcisse character?

JW: We are not always virtuous, we are not entirely villainous. Why I think Narcisse is so interesting and relevant is that both now and during that time period, not everyone who espoused virtuosity and espoused the uplift of the people matched their actions to their words. What I’m delighting in is playing a character that may be relatively new on-screen but is very familiar offscreen.

Narcisse perceives Chalky to be beneath him, and while Chalky may be undereducated or self-educated and he’s Southern — all of these things that Narcisse perceives to be inferior — there’s a moral integrity in spite of his criminal activities that’s undeniable. He’s representative in a genuine way of more than himself. He is genuinely one that seems to be concerned about community and seems to respect some moral boundaries and a sense of responsibility.

TR: Is there anything likable about Narcisse? I know you said he gets worse after the fifth episode.

JW: The most likable thing about Narcisse might be his suits. Even then he dresses like a half-cleric, half-undertaker.

TR: Were there any gangster movies or television shows you watched to get inspiration for the character?

JW: I don’t like to reference other performances because oftentimes it becomes visible on-screen, but because Narcisse is such a performer, I have found myself referencing some other performances, a little bit of Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon with a bit of Albert Finney from The Dresser, a good amount of Adolph Caesar thrown in, largely borrowed from his talent for expressing disdain. Somewhere out of that, I hope there’s a recipe for something new.

At the end of the day, these characters are more fully human, and that’s the journey as African Americans, on and off the screen, the freedom to be fully human. If you have to sever and suppress what makes you most human — that being your flaws and weaknesses — then you’re still repressed and probably a little dangerous, which brings us back to Narcisse. He’s guaranteed to have folks scratching their heads.

Ericka Blount Danois, a journalist and author, released her first book, Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train, on Sept. 17. 

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