Jeffrey Wright on contradictions, actor’s choices and the “Cassandra Curse”

As part of the Ringling College Digital Filmmaking Studio Lab’s ongoing commitment to bringing top-notch talent to its students, award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright (Boardwalk Empire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1) is visiting the campus this week, touring the facilities and teaching a master class for a group of young filmmakers. In between teaching and sightseeing, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning performer made a little time to talk Ringling, his artistic process and what he learned from the world’s response to the recent Ebola outbreak.

“This is a very interesting space that students are allowed to explore,” said Wright after a tour of the college grounds. “There are two seemingly competing things happening.” On one hand he noted rigorous technical preparation equipping students with the proper skills to engage the industry side of the arts world. Whether it be graphic design, animation or computer modeling, there will be an industrial aspect, Wright noted. “But at the same time, there’s such a fascinating level of creativity, so that students are given an opportunity to express that imaginative process, the visual dreams that they generate.”

“It’s seemingly contradictory,” Wright continued. “It’s very exciting for that reason.”

In addition to a presentation and Q and A tonight in the Academic Center Auditorium, Wright will be leading a master class with a select group of young directors and filmmakers from Ringling, giving them the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from an experienced professional. “It’s great that there are young filmmakers who want to gain some understanding of what the process is for an actor,” said Wright. “Because most directors really don’t know what actors do.”

A director may work on five films in 10 years, but in that same time an actor could see as many as 30 roles, according to Wright, creating an entirely different mindset. This affects communication between collaborators, he says, and inhibits the director’s ability to get the best performance from the cast. He hopes to bridge that gap. “If I can share that, I will gladly” he said laughing, “so they don’t go through life torturing actors.”

Not wanting to be tortured by directors, Wright isn’t one to torture himself when it comes to preparing for his roles. Not a method actor, he’s not one to disappear into his characters and take the performance off-set. “Everyone has their process,” said Wright, “For me, that’s ridiculous.”

Rather than becoming his characters, Wright engages and empathizes with them, bringing them forth out of himself. It’s not about creating something from nothing, but rather finding those things within and pulling them to the surface. As a result, every performance has a bit of the man himself on display. “If you look at the entirety of what I’ve done,” said Wright. “Somewhere within all those various characters is a composite of me. I can’t create those things that I’m not.”

Which begs the question of the actor’s choices, of what drives him towards one project and away from another. Over the last year alone, viewers have seen Wright as the tech wizard Beetee in the young adult franchise The Hunger Games, as a questionable doctor opposite Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s vampires in the latest from cult director Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive, and as the sinister Dr. Valentin Narcisse in HBO’s period crime drama Boardwalk Empire. He’s done summer fun like Shaft and he’s done political dramas such as Syriana. “At the core, what I’m most attracted to is language,” said Wright. “Story, narrative and character are born out of that. It’s really about the writing.”

Sometimes it’s a character that grabs him and sometimes it’s the story as a whole. It’s changed over time, he says, but it’s about that thing that can “make an impression” on the first read.

More practical considerations do come into play at times, he says. For example, now that he has children, long shoots away from home have a new downside that he factors into his decisions. And in his 25 years in front of the camera, he’s learned “it’s best not to work in places where there are too many assholes.” He contrasts that with his time shooting The Hunger Games. “I’ve made three movies with that group,” Wright says. “You want it to be an enjoyable setting with people that you bond with and feel open to creating with.”

One running theme through Wright’s career, however, has been an interest in politics. He was studying political science in his junior year of college when he first discovered acting through a friend, and though he says he “realized the first day that that’s what I wanted to be doing,” Wright earned his bachelor’s in political science. And when he skipped law school to pursue an acting career, the interest remained. “There’s no denying that I come from that background,” said Wright. “So things like Syriana and Angels In America and even Boardwalk Empire had political and social commentary about them that I find very satisfying as an actor.”

Taking his political involvement beyond the screen, in 2011 Wright founded Taia Lion Resources, a combined philanthropic foundation and commercial enterprise in Sierra Leone committed to spurring development through fair and sustainable use of the region’s natural resources to return wealth to the community instead of extracting it. “There’s an absence of capital,” says Wright, recently returned from Sierra Leone, “but there’s not an absence of value.”

People invoke the Resource Curse or the Paradox of Plenty when they talk about modern African countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, says Wright, but he sees it more as a “Cassandra Curse,” referring to the daughter of Troy cursed by the god Apollo with perfect foresight but never being believed in her prophecies. “The same virus that infected people in Dallas was the one that infected people in southeastern Guinea,” said Wright. “There was a different result because there’s very minimal healthcare infrastructure in those countries.”

Without modern hospitals or even an ambulance system, their leaders are asking for help from the international community, according to Wright, but the response from the West has largely been a discussion of foreign aid and temporary alleviation. Instead of solving these problems at their core, this creates a cycle that “infantilizes” these countries instead of empowering them, says Wright.

“It’s not that there’s a dependency we need to create,” said Wright, “but that there are partnerships that can be created.” By investing in long-term solutions, such as building infrastructure, philanthropic efforts can empower developing countries to handle problems without foreign aid. That would be success. “We don’t expect that Doctors Without Borders is going to come to Sarasota,” said Wright. “We’re expected to take care of ourselves.”

But although philanthropic efforts take more of the actor’s time than before, he’ll still be on the big screen for the near future, with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 coming soon to theaters, as well as more forays into voice-acting, including a new Pixar project and an upcoming episode of The Venture Brothers. It’s a process that he’s still learning, but enjoying. “It’s fairly challenging because even though you’re only using your voice, you’re also implying a body,” said Wright. “It’s a tricky performance balance, how you can animate the body and the voice through the mouth.”

Photo Credit: Evan Sigmund

One thought on “Jeffrey Wright on contradictions, actor’s choices and the “Cassandra Curse””

  1. Whatever “it” is, Jeffrey Wright has it. That guy really lights up a scene. Good to know he has a philanthropic sensitivity, too.

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