Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Character: Jeffrey Wright

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

Click on Jeffrey Wright’s IMDb profile and it says what I cannot think to say better.  Jeffrey Wright is the epitome of a great character actor.  A vastly underrated chameleon that elevates whatever he’s in.  Wright has already been in two movies this year, and is slated for an Oscar-friendly third.  After I saw the muddled Source Code, a friend of mine asked me how it was.  “Eh” I responded.  “But it had Jeffrey Wright, so all was not lost.” 

“Who is Jeffrey Wright?” my friend asked. 

Questions like these, while fair for the seemingly unaware moviegoer, simply baffle me.  Who is Jeffrey Wright? One of the best actors of this or any generation, that’s who. 

Here’s why.

Five Essential Roles
Basquiat (1996)
Jean Michel Basquiat
Famous painter Julian Schnabel took a big risk in casting a feature film unknown for his first movie, a risk that has since paid off for everyone involved with Basquiat.

Schnabel’s film works for a number a reasons, none more prevalent than Wright’s seamless portrayal of one of American’s most tortured artistic souls. Wright is simply revelatory as Jean Michel Basquiat. The voice, the mannerisms, the drug highs, the painting; it’s all utterly flawless.  If you’ve seen Tamra Davis’ documentary The Radiant Child, then you know how perfect Wright’s encapsulation of the artist is.  If you haven’t seen the doc, no worries, you’ll appreciate Schnabel’s film, and Wright’s performance, all the same.

There are two scenes in particular that stand out for me.  First is when Basquiat initially approaches Andy Warhol (played effortlessly by David Bowie) in a restaurant.  “Hey you wanna buy some ignorant art?” Wright says, asking but really telling. Warhol looks at a few of Basquiat’s works, mumbles to himself, buys a few, and a tumultuous friendship is born.  Wright plays the moment subtle, yet forced, eager yet blasé.  It’s simply electrifying.

Secondly is a scene when Basquiat, now rich and famous within his world, sits in a fancy restaurant with his ex, played by Claire Forlani.  Basquiat – wearing crusty clothes, sporting thick dreadlocks, and boasting a halfway-to-strungout demeanor – takes notice of a nearby table occupied by middle aged white men in business suits.  The men are casually poking fun at Basquiat’s appearance, and the ivory skin tone of his dining partner.    Basquiat calls the waiter over.

“Put that table’s meal on my tab.  Don’t tell them.  Just do it,” he quietly says.  He looks at Forlani, “What year is this, seriously?”

It’s a wondrous, understated Fuck You to the man; a great scene from a performance that marks the birth of a natural star.

Angels in America (2003)
Mr. Lies / Belize / Homeless Man / The Angel Europa
Cash, check, or credit card?

Playing no less than four parts, Wright was the only actor from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play to reprise his role(s) in Mike Nichols’ epic HBO miniseries.  His two most prominent performances are travel agent Mr. Lies, a chain smoking figment of Mary-Louise Parker’s imagination, and gay, unassuming nurse Belize. 

His moments with Parker are playfully amusing in their own right.  The two share a cadence and rapport that mark some of the best exchanges in the miniseries.  But it’s as Belize that Wright truly shines.

In one scene, Belize engages in a long, heated exchange in his half-friend, Louis (Ben Shankman).  Louis rants on and on about the cruelties of the world, about having to constantly defend his Judaism and ward off claims that he’s a racist (which he clearly is).  Once Belize finally cuts him off, Wright dives into one of the most successful and effective bitch-outs I’ve ever seen on film.  Never speaking an octave above a loud whisper, Belize throws all of Loius’ insecurities in his face, capping his speech by describing a fitting scene from his favorite book. 

The first time I saw Angles in America, I was blown away by its awesome scope.  I was impressed and never bored by its nearly six hour running time.  Many scenes grabbed me, but a handful actually made my jaw drop.

Wright’s provoked attack on Shankman’s character is as good as screen acting gets.  It more than merits the Golden Globe and Emmy he won for his performance.

Broken Flowers (2005)
If you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s long-lost-son road movie, then you know the performances are what carry the film.  There is, of course, Bill Murray, who in my opinion far surpassed what he did in Lost in Translation, along with a handful of excellent female performances (I particularly enjoy the unrecognizable Tilda Swinton).  And, most important for our purposes, there’s Murray’s caffeinated, Ethiopian neighbor, Winston, who plans Murray’s entire adventure.

As Winston, Wright brings to the film what Jarmusch is best at: the subtle comic relief.  The thick accent, the tacky clothes, the smooth music, it all equates to a wondrously expressive supporting performance.  Why is Winston so hell bent on sending his friend around the country on a journey to nowhere?  Maybe he longs for vicarious excitement.  Maybe he’s simply bored.  I’m not quite sure, but the way Wright plays it, “why” isn’t necessarily important.

Syriana (2005)
Bennett Holiday
Many things were prevalent in discussion upon Syriana’s release.  The tumultuous filming conditions, George Clooney’s weight, the loopy narrative, and so on.  One aspect of the film that wasn’t mentioned (or at least not mentioned enough), was Jeffrey Wright, whose character resonated with me more than any other in Stephen Gaghan’s film.

As level-headed D.C. attorney Bennett Holiday, Wright, yet again, proves that subtlety can be as powerful as any screaming monologue.  Always with a cold, if not entirely indifferent, demeanor, Wright managed to make a D.C. stiff the standout performance in a film filled with great ones. Not unlike Benico Del Toro’s character in the Gaghan-penned Traffic, Holiday is covertly recruited to examine the company he works for, and possibly take them down.  Scene by scene, we never know where Holiday’s allegiance lies. There are so many sides to play, and Wright plays them all perfectly.

While Wright’s shifting boardroom antics are enough to make his performance great, it’s the scenes with Holiday and his helplessly alcoholic father that have always stayed with me. 

Writer/director Stephen Gaghan (a recovering addict himself) always manages to fit a character(s) battling addiction somewhere in his scripts, and Holiday’s father (played remorselessly by William Charles Mitchell) is a grand example.  Mitchell isn’t in the movie much, but when he is, Wright is right there with him, patronizing and apathetic.  He’s the stern, disapproving father figure to his own father.  There’s a scene in the film when Holiday comes back from a run, only to find his father sitting on Holiday’s doorstep, beyond drunk. 

“What are you looking at, man?” Holiday blurts.
“I didn’t say nothing,” his father responds.
“That’s because you’ve got nothing to say.”

As Holiday approaches the door, his father stands and gets in his face.  Holiday stops, takes off his glasses and stares him down.  Syriana is a film filled with the subtle, lacerating moments.  The scenes with Wright and Mitchell represent many of them.

W. (2008)
Colin Powell
There are many faultless personifications in Oliver Stone’s W.  Josh Brolin’s Bush, Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney, Toby Jones’ Karl Rove, Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice, and, most significantly, Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell. 

From W.’s first scene, Wright play’s Powell pretty much how I think the real man played it: as the sober voice in the room, that ultimate devil’s advocate.  Just watch Wright’s face as Bush decides (or is convinced) that “Axis of Evil” is a proper label for America’s war on terror.  Powell looks around the Oval Office and stares at the floor. What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened? he thinks. 

If only we knew.

The Best of the Best
Shaft (2000)
Peoples Hernandez
I have a system for creating these In Character posts.  Once I’ve decided on an actor, I list all of the films I enjoyed them in from memory.  Then I look at their filmography to see what I’ve missed.  If I haven’t already in my head, I then pick their five best roles and their best in particular. 

This one I did a little differently. 

As soon as I locked onto Jeffrey Wright, I got a piece of paper out and wrote: “Best – Peoples Hernandez”.

Basquiat or Angels in America may seem like more obvious choices, but for me, I’ve never been more enamored with Wright than I was in John Singleton’s refurbished Shaft.  As local drug lord Peoples Hernandez, Wright is a slithering goon, a terrifying beast who makes the acts of walking, talking, and smoking, utterly petrifying.  Oh, and he’s funnier than all hell.

When we meet Peoples, he’s dismissing Shaft by waving the cop away with a pair of chopsticks.  When we hear Peoples, we know we’re in for something different.  “Dis is Egyptian cotton, muderfuck, two-twenty thread.  Izz like, half yo shitty azz paychek,” he tells Shaft through an impossibly thick Spanish accent.  From then on, Shaft is only really alive when Wright is on screen (put him and Christian Bale together, however, and you have dynamite).

The first time I saw Shaft, I was astounded by the terror and comic lunacy of the Spanish actor playing Peoples.  It wasn’t until years later (The Manchurian Candidate, maybe) that I realized the actor playing Peoples couldn’t be any less Spanish, which, obviously, made me appreciate Wright’s Shaft performance even more.

Shaft isn’t any better than a mediocre action film, which, given the caliber of Wright’s performance, is a real shame.  Wright has an uncanny ability to raise the stakes of whatever film he’s in.  You ever see a movie you didn’t really like, but you still feel that your time was well spent? “Why?” you may wonder.  The answer in some cases is simple: actors like Jeffrey Wright.

Other Notable Roles
Wright in Cadillac Records
Ali (2001)
Boycott (2001)
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Lackawanna Blues (2005)
Casino Royale (2006)
Cadillac Records (2008)
Source Code (2011)
The Ides of March (2011)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (out Christmas 2011)


  1. Wright's had a really interesting career and takes on a lot of varied roles in mainstream and smaller movies. I'd totally forgotten that he was the lead in Basquiat. This isn't a movie, but he also had a strong guest role on Homicide: Life on the Street in a three-part story that also included James Earl Jones. Nice post.

  2. Thanks man. I bought every season of Homicide last year, but haven't had a chance to watch it past the first season. I'd love to see Wright in that.

  3. Great actor. The scene from Basquiat sounds awesome.

    I started to warm up to Wright after Casino Royale. I thought he was totally wrong for the part but he proved me wrong. And then he ended up being one of the best parts of Quantum of Solace.

  4. You should Basquiat. Everyone and their mom is in that flick. Great cast, great movie. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Might have to give W a watch now! Hadn't heard the best things about it but sounds worth it for the scene you describe alone.

  6. He's definitely underused in the film, but he's constantly giving subtle looks like that. Decent movie, great performances. It's on Hulu for free right now.

  7. I didn't even notice Wright in all these films you mention except Source code and Basquiat.Re. Bowie in Basquiat, I found his British accent distracting, and that kind of ruined those scenes for me.Overall Basquiat was pretty good, though.

    I haven't seen the radiant child doc, is it worth seeing even if I've already seen the movie?

    1. Huh? Wright didn't have a British accent in Basquiat.

    2. I'm surprised that you had an indifferent reaction to Source Code; I thought it was quite good, and would recommend it to everyone here.

    3. Nah, Wright didn't have a British accent in Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat was from Brooklyn. I think moviesandsongs365 was referring to David Bowie's British accent in the film...

      As for Source Code, man, I honestly haven't thought about that flick since I saw it. Pretty unforgettable in my opinion.

  8. I'd say the doc is worth it only if you're curious about Basquiat. It isn't a great film, but it's cool to see a relaxed side to such an elusive guy.

    Check out Angles in America when you have a free...six hours. It's astonishing.

  9. I think a truly great character actor is one whose name you don't know. I certainly did not know this guy's name, but after reading what you've written, I'll be certain to keep an eye out for him in future.

  10. Yeah I completey agree. Wright is one of my favorite actors period. Can't recommend the films listed highly enough.

    Thanks for commenting everyone!

  11. I thought that he was a lil too light to play Muddy Waters, but it really didn't matter once I seen his performance. He really pulled it off.

    1. Oh I completely agree. Wasn't quite sure if that would work, but he killed it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!