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Jeffrey Wright interview: ‘Acting? It’s just silliness’

It’s early here in Pittsburgh,” says Jeffrey Wright. “I’m muting myself.” Off goes the Zoom camera. Right now, he’s shooting civil rights drama Rustin – yet another tasty-looking film in a first-class career. Over the years, he’s worked with Oliver Stone (W), Steven Soderbergh (The Laundromat), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch), and Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). He’s also been CIA operative Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films and Beetee in The Hunger Games franchise. But does he take his career – or himself – seriously? Not a bit of it.

Take his eclectic choices. “It’s always fun to mix it up a bit,” he says, his now-disembodied voice the equivalent of being swathed in velvet. “I try to find variety. It keeps me interested.” A thought occurs and he chuckles. “If you can’t beat them, confuse them! So just try to do a bit here, a bit there. At the end of the day, it’s just acting. Yeah. It’s just silliness.” This, coming from a man who won a Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe for his role as the male nurse in Angels in America, both on Broadway and in the HBO movie version, is refreshing.

Yet quite why the screen stalwart remains underrated is a mystery. Perhaps it’s just the perennial fate of the character actor, secondary to the leads. In Stone’s 2008 George W Bush movie W, he excelled as secretary of state Colin Powell, but naturally was pushed into the shadows by Josh Brolin’s Dubya. Last year, his turn as a James Baldwin-like writer in The French Dispatch was easily one of the best performances in the film, but in an enormous ensemble, conducted by Wes Anderson at his most eccentric, it was somewhat lost.

There’s a good chance his name even won’t register with your average moviegoer (perhaps not even with TV fans who recognise him from Boardwalk Empire and Westworld). But maybe that will change with The Batman, the latest – and maybe grungiest – incarnation of DC Comics’ Caped Crusader. He stars opposite Robert Pattinson, who plays Gotham City’s brooding superhero, and his millionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne. It couldn’t be further from the camp Sixties TV show with Adam West, with director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) inspired to create the darkest Batman movie yet – a detective story with the vibe of David Fincher’s Se7en about it.

Wright plays James Gordon, an ally to Batman who as fans know ultimately becomes the police commissioner of Gotham City. Pattinson’s Batman, who must battle classic villains the Riddler (Paul Dano) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell), is still a newbie here. “This is Year Two,” explains Wright. “So it’s a bit of a post-origin story for Batman. But that said, we are at the ground floor of the building of the relationship between Batman and Gordon… it’s still new and maturing. And so that’s where we are at the beginning of our film and we take it from there and we see where it goes.”

Gordon was played by Gary Oldman in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight trilogy”, the Batman films that feel closest in tone to Reeves’s movie. “Matt’s Gotham is a very specific one,” says Wright. “And I think, a justified one. It’s one that, we hope, is an advancement in the historical arc of this series that goes back to 1939 [when Batman first appeared in comic form]. But he’s chosen to ground it in a noir-ish tone and energy and it’s very much focused on mystery and the sleuthing side of things, particularly of course for Batman and Gordon. So it’s grounded in an authenticity that I think is a fresh lens on the series.”

For Wright, it’s yet another significant marker in his career following his turn as Felix Leiter in three of the five Craig 007 movies, including last year’s much-delayed No Time to Die. “I’ve had the good fortune in my career to work on some fairly popular franchises,” he says, admitting he’s been delighted by his association with Bond in the modern era. “Daniel really brought a full bloodedness to the role. Obviously, the Broccolis are masterful producers as well. They breathed new life into the franchise.”

How was it appearing in two such epic films back-to-back? “Well, busy,” he answers. “A lot of aeroplanes back between New York [where he lives] and London [where both were primarily filmed].” He then proceeds to give an almost academic analysis of these popcorn pleasures. “Bond is the most successful franchise in cinema, but I’ll have to say that there’s a passion around Batman, and the level of expectation around Batman from fans – from a global audience that I’ve not experienced before, even these huge monster franchises that I’ve worked on.” He pauses. “This is kind of new territory for me.”

Wright as James Gordon in ‘The Batman’

(Warner Bros)

Typically, the erudite Wright “gave thought” to why these films are so popular. “I think there’s an element of trust that audiences have in these characters and that they’ve had over many decades, that generates a passion for them, particularly in an increasingly untrustworthy world, an increasingly kind of unstable and fluid world. These characters and these stories are, I think, grabbed onto even more intensely by fans, because it’s a place that they can lay down their trust, even in the villainous. They know what to expect, or they know within parameters what to expect. Certainly with the heroic characters. There’s something that’s deeply personal and deeply important for fans, I think – particularly now.”

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That he should end up in such populist fare seems surprising. Wright grew up in Washington DC, surrounded by high achievers. His mother was a lawyer at US customs – the first Black woman to specialise in law there. His aunt was head surgical nurse at DC General Hospital. He was into sports at school, and later attended Amherst College on a lacrosse scholarship and studied political science. Initially, he intended to be a lawyer, but after moving to New York, he had a change of heart, joining the acting programme at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For years, his mother had taken him to watch theatre in DC – “the seeds planted toward my life as an artist”, as he puts it. Those eventually blossomed.

While his stage role in Angels in America in 1993 truly kickstarted his career, his movie life took off with his role in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat, playing the Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (opposite a cast that included David Bowie as Andy Warhol and his fellow Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman, as a Schnabel-esque artist). Four years later, Wright married British actress Carmen Ejogo, who has her own credits in major movie franchises, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. They’ve since divorced but have two children – Elijah and Juno.

Alongside the trials of parenting, Wright has also invested a lot of time in activism. In 2007, he co-founded the Taia Peace Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to social development initiatives in Sierra Leone, in west Africa. He also founded Taia Lion Resources, “a mining company for the 21st century, as we like to describe it. A community-inclusive mining company that benefits not only itself, but also benefits the local folks who live in proximity to the areas in which we operate.”

Wright played Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films

(Eon Productions / MGM)

While this all came out of “a desire to see if I could help”, as he notes, Wright is so low-key about it all, you’d hardly know it was on his CV. Juggling activism and acting – he was recently in Spain, shooting Wes Anderson’s next movie, Asteroid City – means the one thing he’s not had time for is directing. He recalls one particularly “pompous” film festival director – he doesn’t reveal who, sadly. “He was convinced that I would one day be compelled to direct something. Only to reject his thinking entirely, I would say, ‘No, I’m not interested in it at all!’”

The truth of the matter is, he’s thought about it. “If you’re going to be in film, probably the most interesting place to be is the director’s chair,” he says. “The more diverse perspectives that can be in charge of the director’s lens, particularly in America… is a healthy thing. I think there are too few perspectives like mine, that are projected onto the screen. Particularly characters outside the mainstream… I think it’s healthy if we have as many cultural voices in the mix as we can.”

A film by Jeffrey Wright… now that would be something to take notice of.

The Batman is in cinemas on Friday 4 March

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