From playing the painter Basquiat to Martin Luther King Jr. in Boycott to a lawyer in Syriana, plus roles as Secretary of State Colin Powell in W. and Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records — not to mention the demanding title role in John Guare's play A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center Theater — Jeffrey Wright is enjoying one of the most successful careers in film and theater of any other actor today, black or white.
In the just released powerful political thriller The Ides of March, he aces the role of a senator from North Carolina who holds the outcome of a political race in his hands. At Christmastime, we'll see him change up in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to play a Sept. 11 survivor who befriends a boy whose father died in the World Trade Center attacks. It also stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
The Root: Why do you take so many political roles?
Jeffrey Wright: Some musicians play blues, others classical jazz or bluegrass. I like to play political roles because I can merge my political interests with my creative interests. I was spoiled by being in Angels in America — with thinking you could be an actor and also be relevant. Also, I grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied political science in college.
TR: How do you think President Obama is doing?
JW: With his election, he brought more people into our political process and allowed more people to identify themselves as Americans as never before. He's a clear and deep thinker, and a pragmatist. He can lead in crises. But the backlash from left and right has been very disappointing. I still have faith in him.
TR: Is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close political?
JW: In part, because it deals with emotions and ideas about the events of 9/11. But it affected my head and heart because it explores the relationship of a father and son; it's an examination of the consequences of lost parental love.
JW: I work so they can enjoy the luxury of freedom — personal, psychological, physical and political — which is not something that can be taken for granted by kids of color.
TR: How has being black influenced your career?
JW: I inherited the struggle of other African-American artists, who have produced incredibly compelling work in spite of the obstacles. Our history fuels me. Hollywood is still one of the most segregated environments in the United States, though it pretends it's left-leaning and progressive. The military is more progressive and integrated than Hollywood will ever be.
TR: What are your major interests outside acting?
JW: I founded Taia Lion Resources and its philanthropic arm, Taia Peace Foundation, several years ago, to develop the natural resources in West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone. That's where I put all my creativity when I'm not acting.
After this article was published, Jeffrey Wright’s publicists reached out to us and said the edited version of his answers, which were edited for brevity, were “taken out of context” and “misrepresented” what he said. In particular, they pointed to his responses to the questions about President Obama, what Wright wants for his children, and his charity work. Wright's responses are below:
“With his election, he brought more people into our political process and allowed more people to identify themselves as Americans as ever before. I think that as a result, the extreme right backlash to his presidency has been intense, and criticism and judgment now can be targeted in real time because of the media, but it’s impossible to make policy decisions at the same pace. I wonder when he’s forced to spend so much time being reactive and defensive, how he finds time simply to think deeply and strategize in a clear way. It must be so incredibly challenging to find time to be seriously thoughtful, and that’s a large part of why he was elected, because following the previous administration, he represented thoughtfulness and pragmatism. The backlash from the left has been destructive too, but throughout his candidacy and his presidency, he’s been able to convert liability into asset in a way that’s phenomenal, and I still have faith in him, that he will do that now.”
"This may be luxurious, but I work so that they can enjoy freedom — personal, psychological, physical and political freedom — which is not something that can be taken for granted by kids of color, or any kids for that matter."
"I founded Taia Lion Resources and its philanthropic arm, Taia Peace Foundation, several years ago, to undertake natural resource focused economic development in Sierra Leone. A lot of folks ask me why I don’t appear in more films - that work is where I focus a lot of my creativity when I’m not acting."
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.