If Jeffrey Wright seems as smart as the roles he’s played in three James Bond films and his HBO show Westworld, it’s no accident. This son of a Washington, D.C., attorney majored in political science at Amherst College and considered law school before a few acting classes led him to change his path — and win a Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. “I didn’t really consider myself to be an actor until midway through Angels” on Broadway, Jeffrey, 54, admits to Closer magazine, on newsstands now.
“That experience is a central part of my life and the wellspring from which everything flows — from my career to [being] a citizen of this country.” And while he’s often cast in serious roles, he still knows how to have fun. “I’m having a ball!” the divorced dad of two says with a laugh. “I truly hope to figure out how to live and surf more. Those are my goals!”
We’re excited for Season 3 of Westworld! This is the longest you’ve done a series. What makes you want to continue?
The writing is so forward-leaning and fantastical, yet grounded in realities and important issues we face today. And working with people you respect and adore is a rare combination, one I’ve grown to appreciate deeply.
You’re also back in a James Bond film, No Time to Die, for the first time since 2008. What was filming it like?
I had been on the Westworld set until around 5 a.m. on a Friday, went directly to the airport, flew down to Jamaica, started filming that Sunday morning — and it was like we never missed a beat! It felt like putting on an old favorite suit, and being back with Daniel [Craig], it was just a wonderful homecoming. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed playing off of him, so it was good right out of the gate.
Now you’re playing Commissioner Gordon in an upcoming reboot, The Batman, due in summer 2021. What was it like to land that iconic role?
I was a completely obsessed Gotham/ Batman nut as a kid. So I’m really, really stoked to circle back to that world and let my inner child kind of marinate in this new Gotham for a while. We just started, but I think we’re going to have the opportunity to explore elements of these characters, that provide even more good tales, ground us in the belief of who and why they are. The script is really dialed in, and obviously the intent is to advance the storytelling into new spaces.
You also have several indie films this year. Any you’re excited about?
I’m excited about The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s new film [out July 24]. I’m really stoked to see All Day and a Night from Joe Robert Cole, who wrote Black Panther — that’s going to be on Netflix pretty soon. I’m really pleased with them.
You won a Tony for your Broadway debut in Angels in America, then an Emmy and Golden Globe for the HBO version.
It speaks even more to the quality of Tony Kushner’s writing. It’s the seminal English-language play of the last 50 years — I don’t think there’s much debate about that. We were still in the midst of a rampant AIDS crisis, particularly in the theater community. So it had a poignancy and an urgency to it that is rare in art. As we experience the politics of cruelty and a politics that lacks compassion, it remains unfortunately relevant.
You seem to have these parallel careers — one in big franchises and one in indie films and plays. Is that intentional?
Whatever they throw my way! [Laughs] No, if I read a script that’s compelling, I’m not concerned about what the budget is… although that changes after you have kids, because they tend to eat multiple times a day and things like that. [Laughs] So there are certain financial responsibilities. But I’ve worked not to be pigeonholed, so I’ll work on [2018’s] O.G. in a maximum-security prison alongside men who are incarcerated, being paid scale. And a week prior, I was working on Westworld in LA. It’s just the way that I live my life.
You also play a lot of serious roles.
I would like to do more comedies. I did Game Night — that was fun, but as they say, dying is easy, comedy is hard. I was more stressed out on that set than any other I’ve been on because comedy don’t come easy!
How did your childhood shape you?
I loved growing up in D.C. in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s the seat of political power, but also a critically important seat of African-American cultural power. I adored being a citizen within that. It shaped me in irreversible ways. I have a profound appreciation for all of it.
Any moment that put you on your path?
From the time I was in single digits, my mother used to take me to the theater. We would see so many shows, from For Colored Girls to Give ’em Hell, Harry! with James Whitmore to The Wiz to 1776 to Annie. While I didn’t act in high school — I started late in college — seeds were planted deep inside me. Those memories were magical gifts to me from my mom.
Is it true you dropped out of NYU graduate school after just two months?
Yeah, because I’m a quick study! [Laughs]
At 54, how would you describe this time?
I am? I still kind of feel about 25! I know a little bit more than I did a few years ago. I enjoy the experience and responsibilities of being a father, and I appreciate the opportunity to grow further. I’m still in many ways that kid I was when I looked in the mirror decades ago; I just can’t run nearly as fast! [Laughs]
Your kids are both in high school?
Yes — one’s a senior, one’s a freshman. Their mom [actress Carmen Ejogo] and I divorced about five years ago, but we have 50/50 joint custody. At the same time, we both work fluid schedules, so we’re very flexible in trying to frame them so when one is away working, the other is at home. It doesn’t always work out that way, but we’re still parents together and try to be as mutually supportive as we possibly can. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about us as it is about our kids.
Do you hope to marry again someday?
Is that a proposition? You know … I don’t know. We’ll see what the horizon brings.
Are either of your kids interested in following your path?
Yes, they’re interested in it. They have broad interests, but my son is a massive fan of story and character and has a vivid visual imagination, and always loves to perform. My daughter does, too, though she exercises that more through dance now. I learned over time as a parent not to try to direct my kids toward anything other than their own self-sufficiency and happiness.
Any other life lessons you’ve learned?
I had a wise old friend who said to me, “You want to know the key to life? Solve problems.” And that’s an efficient, concise and powerful mantra that’s stayed with me ever since.
Reporting by Diana Cooper
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