The guy who runs through walls
Mankind’s savior from nuclear frogs
Basquiat is repeat-viewing essential for anyone obsessed with black bohemian manhood. Back in 1996, Jeffrey Wright captured with an eerie precision the tragic fragility and prodigious talent of the self-destructive young painter in his prime. Since then, few other actors this side of Leonardo DiCaprio have embodied so many historical figures so spot-on—Muddy Waters (Cadillac Records); Martin Luther King Jr. (Boycott); Colin Powell (W.); Bobby Seale (Chicago 10). Broadway playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer for 2002’s Topdog/Underdog with the help of Wright’s excellent turn in the co-lead role. (Wright himself had already won a Tony Award for 1994’s Angels in America, the first of his three collaborations with director George C. Wolfe.)
The next decade brought Wright a wife in actress Carmen Ejogo, two kids, and not a little bit of Hollywood disillusionment. In 2011, both The Ides of March and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close showcased Wright in similar ways, with brief appearances at the beginning and scene-stealing lines toward the end. The actor spends a substantial amount of his time these days traveling to Sierra Leone to manage his philanthropic Taia Peace Foundation.
For this interview, Jeffrey Wright spent hours drinking red wine and chewing tobacco at the bar of Dino, an Italian restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he’s lived for years. He took off for the airport directly afterward to continue filming director Allen Hughes’s crime thriller Broken City down in New Orleans.
—Miles Marshall Lewis
BLVR: I know you founded the Taia Peace Foundation in 1997 to help rural communities in Sierra Leone. Can you relate to me your first trip to Africa?
JW: I first went in 1996. Basquiat was going to the Venice Film Festival, so it was to be my first entrée into the more glamorous side of acting and the film industry. But I had never traveled to Europe prior to that. I was about twenty-six, and neither had I been to Africa. I kind of fantasized about going to Africa first. So I asked the producers of the movie to fly me to Dakar, Senegal, a week before I was due to be in Venice, so that I could meet up with them when I was scheduled to. That was my first trip to Africa.
It was a desire to pay homage to that genetic pathway and to skirt Eurocentricity, which is something I’m always cautious of: trying to set a balanced viewpoint of the world, one that’s not skewed to dominant cultural messaging. It was also born out of a mistrust of all of the things that potentially orbit around an actor’s life. So it was a desire to ground myself in something more meaningful, and something more healthy, than all of those things that I perceived that I was preparing to meet. And I was right.