For Jeffrey Wright, being an under-the-radar actor keeps him on top
Jeffrey Wright has been described many ways: brilliant, underrated, an actor’s actor. But the description that seems most apt is scene-stealer. Whether he’s playing a Dominican drug kingpin in Shaft, the iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boycott, or commanding a Tony Award for his turn as an acerbic gay nurse in Angels in America: Perestroika, you can’t take your eyes off him. That is, until his 4-year-old son tromps into the room, merrily singing a tune. The little boy (Wright prefers to keep his kids’ names private) has already learned a thing or two about grabbing the spotlight. “Give me a little space so I can have this conversation,” says Wright, 40, gently shooing his son for the third time. “Parenthood is a never-ending story. That’s my best role right now.”
Fatherhood and films are much on Wright’s mind these days as we chat in the Brooklyn home he shares with his wife, actress Carmen Ejogo, and their two children (the couple, who met on the Boycott set in 2000, also have a 1-year-old daughter). On July 21, the actor is set to star in M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, the director’s much-anticipated fantasy about a mysterious creature who lives in the swimming pool of an apartment building. The film also features Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron and star of Shyamalan’s last flick The Village) and is based on a bedtime story Shyamalan used to tell his children. Wright, who plays a single dad confounded by the fairy-tale creature, has nothing but praise for the director. “Night had meticulous and complete control over the film,” says the actor, who will also appear in the newest James Bond installment, Casino Royale, this fall. “He allows you to do your work unencumbered.” But Wright unencumbered can be intense. Broken Flowers director Jim Jarmusch once described how he’d often find the actor on his cell phone before filming his scenes. Wright was calling the Ethiopian Embassy, ostensibly to book a trip to the African nation, but in actuality it was to get the accent just right for his character.
Wright, who grew up in D.C., was raised by his mom, a lawyer, after his father died when the actor was a baby. He often spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Tidewater, Virginia. Even today he speaks with great passion about the man who passed in 1998. “I thought the dude knew everybody,” he says. “He made himself available through his personality and his stories to everyone he met. A lot of my performing comes from him. I’ve just got to be a quarter of the man he was, and half the father, and I’ll be doing okay.”