Jeffrey Wright is a National Treasure

Abe Beame takes a look at the varied roles of the established character actor.
By    October 24, 2018

Art by Gage Skidmore

“Only kings understand each other.” – Abe Beame

The first time I can recall seeing Jeffrey Wright, it was the early aughts in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. It had a great run on one of those indie deep dial cable channels like Sundance or IFC or something when I still had cable. The film opens with a meditation on Van Gogh and the idea of the unrecognized genius, how he lived his life in relative obscurity and because it took his passing for him to be discovered, there is a kind of motivating fear in the art world that a genius could be working right under our noses without our recognizing him.

I’ve been thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman a lot lately as we’re approaching the fourth anniversary of his passing. I mention him because we’re coming up on what feels like a moment for Jeffrey Wright. His career trajectory is startlingly similar to Hoffman’s and he appears ready to assume Hoffman’s mantle: the best working actor of his generation.

Wright was 31 when he played Jean Michel, four years older than his subject was when he died. Before that he had bounced around playing a handful of small roles on screen and one massive career making role on stage in Angels in America. He was awarded a Tony for his part as Belize he’d eventually reprise in an HBO miniseries. Wright spent the next two decades making interesting decisions and eating off a steady diet of character roles.

He’s worked with Jim Jarmusch, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Allen Hughes, Jonathan Demme, Woody Allen, M. Night Shyamalan, Ang Lee and Schnabel. He’s played Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King, Colin Powell, Howard Bingham, Bobby Seale, and Basquiat. In his Tony winning role he played a transgender person, he was a credible Dominican bad guy in a Shaft remake, a C.I.A. agent in two Bond films, (deep breath) a human inventor and a robot learning to become like the human who invented him, a faux woke Harlem Renaissance era gangster, and an animated Hamster suffering from existential despair.

There are no paycheck, mailed-in performances on Wright’s resume, in this he’s like

Hoffman. They are of course very different performers. Hoffman was the most human among us. He played a steady diet of creeps, assholes and oddities. He was a lit fuse and the joy of his performances was in anticipation of the explosion. Wright is quieter, with some notable exceptions. Even when he plays evil, as he does in Source Code (one of my favorite deep cuts in his catalog), he’s awkward and spectrum-y. It’s fitting that the arguable breakout role of this period of his career is portraying a humanoid cyborg learning to portray humanity. The two men shared the screen twice, in George Clooney’s earnest The Ides of March, and insanely, in The Hunger Games. Not surprisingly, they’re the best things in both pictures.

Regardless of the size of the role or the tone of the film, you can depend on Wright bringing naturalistic intensity and quiet dignity to his time on screen. He’s like Gene Hackman in that he seemingly emerged from the womb with gravitas. There’s an impossible thoughtfulness to every delivered line and acted motion. I imagine when Jeffrey Wright goes to the grocery store and the clerk asks if he wants to pay cash or credit, he takes a pregnant pause, exhales softly, looks into the middle distance and wistfully responds, “credit”.

The impetus for this piece is Wright’s fantastic new Netflix film, Hold the Dark. It’s your run of the mill neo-noir tinged with supernatural horror. Insomnia plus The Grey plus a non-pretentious season of True Detective condensed into two thrilling hours. It’s directed by Jeremy Saulnier whose Blue Ruin and Green Room are two of the most intelligent pieces of pulp made this century. Unsurprisingly he made a perfect casting decision in his lead this time out. Wright’s naturalist (no pun intended) who gets roped into the plot is the anchor that keeps the whole thing from spiraling off its axis.

What’s most exciting is Hold the Dark is Wright’s first effort as a lead since Basquiat. His latest project, O.G. just sold to HBO. It sounds like something I made up in a fever dream and I’m extremely hype for it. Just this year Wright’s Emmy category for West World was adjusted from supporting to lead. Philip Seymour Hoffman was just truly entering the leading man stage in his career when it was tragically cut short. Perhaps this time we will get to enjoy the long, brilliant career of an American talent we never got to fully enjoy with Hoffman.

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