Jeffrey Wright wonders what's next. The Pacific Ocean, for starters


“I've never had a meeting like that before in my career for any movie I've ever been a part of, and certainly not one where I was the lead,” Jeffrey Wright says of a packed post-actors' strike meeting of people planning their promotional schedule for “American Fiction.”

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Jeffrey Wright finished filming “American Fiction” two September ago and immediately, happily, became what he calls his daughter Juno’s “executive assistant,” helping her navigate college applications and all the other stresses of senior year. secondary school. When she went to school in the fall, Wright thought she would feel liberated, that she would enjoy, as he puts it, “a new phase of freedom.”

“But I realized I've been doing the parenting thing for 22 years and I think I'm finally good at it,” Wright says, punctuating the thought with a laugh. (He also has a son, Elijah, with his ex-wife Carmen Ejogo). “Being a father has been the most important thing I've ever been… and now I miss it.” She pauses, as he often does in a conversation. Wright is a man who considers every word. “Yeah…I wonder what's next.”

We just met 15 minutes ago. Being a parent is how you see yourself, I ask. More than an actor?

“Oh, fuck yeah,” Wright responds without hesitation.

“So, in some ways, my life now seems purposeless,” Wright continues. “It certainly seems empty in multiple ways.”

This sounds serious. And it is, although two things must also be noted from the beginning. First, virtually everything Wright says in his deliberate, resonant voice resonates with meaning, with contemplation, with weight. I could read the Taco Bell menu… supreme boat – and convince you that it is a lyrical marvel.

Second: Wright is fine. Actually. He is simply a man given to introspection.

In the fall, Wright had time—too much time, actually—to reflect. The actors' strike prevented him from taking a job or attending the Toronto International Film Festival, where “American Fiction” premiered and he won the event's audience award. Wright would have loved to be there and talk about playing Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an author and professor who, frustrated with his career, drunkenly writes “My Pafology,” an indulgent book that fully embraces clichés about the urban experience. of the blacks. Improbably or perhaps naturally (the movie lets you decide) it becomes a bestseller. Monk, an artist, doesn't know how to feel about his success. After all, he wrote it in a fit of pique.

Two men talking on a porch at night.

Jeffrey Wright, left, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Sterling K. Brown as his less responsible brother Cliff Ellison in “American Fiction.”

(Orion Images)

So, yeah, there's a lot to discuss, it's just that Wright couldn't get a word in. So he headed west from his home in Brooklyn to a rental in Malibu just down the coast from fried seafood destination Neptune's Net, where he keeps his surfboards, truck and bike. It's time to work on yourself. Mind. Body. Spirit. He finds some decent waves. He takes eight-mile bike rides through the hills. (“I have a little bit of electronic assistance,” he says of his electric vehicle. “I try to use it sparingly…but is uphill.”) Regular workouts at a wellness center, doing Pilates, acupuncture and weight training.

“I was trying to get back to the old ways a little bit, to the extent that's possible in these old days,” Wright says. She recently turned 58 years old. He knows that he won't return to the form he had when he played lacrosse in high school and college. He couldn't, not even with all the training in the world. That's because when he was 24, Wright was playing Puck in a touring production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” and at the end of the first act, he jumped off the stage and tore his ACL.

“The loudest silent scream in the history of theater,” says Wright.

Did you return to the stage?

“Limping,” Wright says. “But yeah, there was a second act to do.”

Being “young and dumb,” he never had his knee fixed until eight years later, when he got stuck in a backswing while playing golf. He's still not great, but being in the ocean helps. Wright started surfing about a dozen years ago and became passionate about the sport when he moved to Los Angeles after being cast in the HBO series “Westworld” in 2015. During the show's first two seasons, he lived in Santa Clarita. He then moved downtown. Then to Marina del Rey. He finally got this seasonal rental, just south of the Ventura County border. It's yours until March.

“The only advantage of living here is the Pacific Ocean,” says Wright. “It's just a magnificent creature. “I could never leave it.”

The morning after the actors' strike ended in November, Wright opened his email and found a message from one of the producers of “American Fiction.” Do you want to come to a meeting? When? Tomorrow morning, 10am at the MGM. When Wright appeared, he was taken aback. There were two dozen people in the room bursting with energy and ideas, spitting out how to support the film. A person handed him a provisional promotional calendar. It worked until March.

“I've never had a meeting like that before in my career for any movie I've ever been a part of, and certainly not one where I was the lead,” Wright says.

Actually? Not with the three Bond films, the “Hunger Games” trilogy or the latest “Batman” reboot? Or with “Westworld” or the two films he made with Wes Anderson?

“No,” he answers. “Never.”

Jeffrey Wright crosses his arms, sits on a stool and looks down at a portrait.

“The only advantage of living here is the Pacific Ocean,” says Jeffrey Wright. “It's just a magnificent creature. “I could never leave it.”

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

When Wright earned his first Oscar nomination a couple of weeks ago, that tentative schedule he was given became permanent, including more post-screening Q&As, more career retrospectives (“it's like your life flashes in front of your eyes”). eyes”), plus interviews like This Lunch Conversation We’re Having, all of which inspire the kind of “intense self-reflection” that Wright hopes will end up being a constructive exercise at some point.

After learning he had been nominated, the first person Wright called was his 94-year-old aunt, the woman who helped his late mother raise him. (Wright's father died when he was 1 year old.) He lived with Wright for a couple of years until Wright had him build a house near the Chesapeake Bay, where the sisters grew up.

“I called her and asked her, 'Did you hear any news this morning?' ”Wright says, smiling. He made the call because his aunt's eyesight is not very good. “She said, 'Oh, I heard that. Congratulations.' ” Pause. “'But you know, you should have been nominated long long time. You should have been nominated for 'Basquiat'. Wright laughs. “So is she”.

The aunt was the first person he called, but not the first person he spoke to that morning.

“I was in my living room/office area in Brooklyn. I actually grabbed some dumbbells that my son had there for some reason,” Wright recalls, pantomiming bicep curls at a breakneck pace. “And I looked at my phone and a message popped up. 'Congratulations.' And then I looked up and saw my mom's picture on the shelf.” He smiles. “We had an exchange.”

Wright's mother, Barbara Whiting-Wright, had appeared several times during our conversation. A lawyer, she was the first black woman to work as a customs law specialist for the U.S. Customs Service, where she began her legal career in 1964. She also had season tickets to the Washington professional football team and a collection of albums that included “Miles Davis.” The incarnation of the devil. “She died four years ago from colon cancer.

“As far as my life goes, she was a visionary,” Wright says. “My mom basically lined up a series of doors around me from a very young age. And they all led somewhere good.”

“Pretty difficult too,” Wright adds, making sure to paint a complete picture. “She had expectations.”

Did you feel like you knew them?

“When I told a very good friend of mine how I had cared for my mother at the end of her life, he said, 'Your investment paid off,'” Wright says. “He knew my mother quite well. I think what he had described to her, what I found reasonably comforting, was that she trusted me. And that was great.”

Wright looks down. Our table has been cleaned. The time we said we would talk has passed and he has had adequate introspection for today.

“Okay, enough of this,” he says, standing up and extending his hand. It's time to return home.

Too late to surf? Probably. But Wright already has a session marked on his calendar.

“I'll be in the Pacific the morning of the Oscars,” he tells me. “Calm down the system.”



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