Wright, Jeffrey 1965(?)–
WRIGHT, Jeffrey 1965(?)–
Born December 6, 1965 (some sources cite 1966), in Washington, DC; mother, a customs lawyer; married Carmen Ejogo (an actress), August, 2000; children: Elijah. Education: Amherst College, B.A., political science, 1987; attended New York University.
Addresses: Agent—Jim Darmody, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Career: Actor. Arena Stage, Washington, DC, guest artist, 1989; Round House Theatre, Silver Spring, MD, member of resident company, 1989; Graduate Center of the City University of New York, presenter of the American Theatre Wing seminar "Working in Theatre," 2002. Worked as a bicycle messenger and at a law firm.
Awards, Honors: Antoinette Perry Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award, all best featured actor in a play, 1994, for Angels in America: Perestroika; Independent Spirit Award nomination, best debut performance, Independent Features Project/West, 1997, for Basquiat; Toronto Film Critics Association Award, best supporting actor, male, 2000, for Shaft; Obie Award, outstanding performance, Village Voice, 2001, Special Achievement Award (with Mos Def), Outer Critics Circle, 2001, Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best actor in a play, Lucille Lortel Award nomination and Drama Desk Award nomination, both outstanding actor, all 2002, all for Topdog/Underdog; Television Award, actor of the year in a movie or miniseries, American Film Institute, Golden Satellite Award nomination, best performance by an actor in a miniseries or motion picture made for television, International Press Academy, and Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, all 2002, for Boycott; Emmy Award, outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or movie, Golden Globe Award, best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a series, miniseries, or motion picture made for television, Black Reel Award, best supporting actor, television, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a male actor in a television movie or miniseries, and Golden Satellite Award nomination, best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a series, miniseries, or motion picture made for television, all 2004, for Angels in America; honorary degree, Amherst College, 2004; Black Reel Award nomination, best supporting actor, 2005, for The Manchurian Candidate.
All's Well That Ends Well, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC, 1989.
Les Blancs, Arena Stage, Washington, DC, 1989.
Juno and the Paycock, Arena Stage, c. 1990.
Hastings, She Stoops to Conquer, Arena Stage, 1990–91.
Search and Destroy, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, 1990–91.
Gentleman, Othello, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 1991.
Mr. Lies and Belize, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (performed with Angels in America: Perestroika), New York Shakespeare Festival, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, c. 1993–94.
Mr. Lies and Belize, Angels in America: Perestroika (performed with Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; A Gay Fantasia on National Themes), New York Shakespeare Festival, Walter Kerr Theatre, c. 1993–94.
"Da Voice" (the narrator), Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk (musical), New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, then Ambassador Theatre, both New York City, 1996.
The fool, King Lear, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, Anspacher Theatre, New York City, 1996.
Lincoln, Topdog/Underdog, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, Anspacher Theatre, 2001, then Ambassador Theatre, 2002, later Royal Court Theatre, London, 2003.
Celebrity Charades: The Rematch at the Roxy (benefit), LAByrinth Theatre Company, The Roxy, New York City, 2004.
Cody, This Is How It Goes, Public Theatre, Anspacher Theatre, 2005.
Appeared in Daylight in Exile and Playboy of the West Indies, both Yale Repertory Theatre. Appeared in productions at Round House Theatre, Silver Spring, MD, 1989; also appeared in productions of the Acting Company and the Huntington Theatre Company, Boston, MA.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
William Coleman, Separate but Equal, ABC, 1991.
Norman "Belize" Arriaga, Mr. Lies, and the Angel Antarctica, Angels in America, HBO, 2003.
Voice, Broadway: The American Musical (documentary), PBS and BBC Four, 2004.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boycott, HBO, 2001.
Small Paul, Lackawanna Blues, HBO, 2005.
1001 Nights (also known as Scheherazade), HBO, 2006.
Television Appearances; Specials:
In the Wings: Angels in America on Broadway, PBS, 1993.
The Making of "Ali," 2001.
Stage on Screen: The Topdog Diaries, 2002.
Narrator, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (documentary), PBS, 2005.
The True Story of Hannibal, History Channel, 2005.
Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:
The 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, ABC, 2004.
The 61st Annual Golden Globe Awards, NBC, 2004.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Sidney Bechet, "Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues, Chicago, April, 1920," The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ABC, 1993.
Sidney Bechet, "Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues, Chicago, May, 1920," The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ABC, 1993.
Sidney Bechet, "Young Indiana Jones and the Scandal of 1920, New York, June, 1920," The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ABC, 1993.
Sidney Bechet, "Young Indiana Jones and the Scandal of 1920, New York, July, 1920," The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ABC, 1993.
Andre Foreman, "Garbage," New York Undercover (also known as Uptown Undercover), Fox, 1994.
Hal Wilson, "Blood Ties: Parts 1-3," Homicide: Life on the Street (also known as H: LOTS and Homicide), NBC, 1997.
Himself, "Ali," HBO First Look, HBO, 2001.
Narrator of "Sam Cooke," an episode of Legends (also known as VH1 Legends), VH1.
Prosecuting attorney, Presumed Innocent, Warner Bros., 1990.
Derek, Jumpin' at the Boneyard, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1992.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (title role), Basquiat (also known as Build a Fort, Set It on Fire), Miramax, 1996.
Young man at Rolls, Faithful, New Line Cinema, 1996.
Ben, Blossoms and Veils, 1997.
Raphael, Critical Care, LIVE Entertainment, 1997.
Balzac man, Too Tired to Die (also known as New York Daydream), Phaedra Cinema, 1998.
Off-off Broadway director, Celebrity, Miramax, 1998.
Win, Meschugge (also known as The Giraffe and Die Giraffe), Bavaria Film International, 1998.
Daniel Holt, Ride with the Devil, MCA/Universal, 1999.
Nin, Cement, Keystone Film Partners XIX/Cargo Films, 1999.
Gravedigger, Hamlet, Miramax, 2000.
Peoples Hernandez, Shaft (also known as Shaft Returns and Shaft—Noch Fragen?), Paramount, 2000.
Howard Bingham, Ali, Columbia, 2001.
Jaworski, D-Tox (also known as Detox, Eye See You, and Im Auge der Angst), Universal, 2002.
Al Melvin, The Manchurian Candidate, Paramount, 2004.
Narrator, With All Deliberate Speed (documentary), Camera Planet/Discovery Docs, 2004.
Rex, Sin's Kitchen, Cargo Films, 2004.
Voice, Keeping Time: The Life, Music, & Photography of Milt Hinton (documentary), 2004.
Bennett Holiday, Syriana (also known as See No Evil), Warner Bros., 2005.
Dan Hughes, Fellowship, Anam Films/Powerstone Entertainment, 2005.
Winston, Broken Flowers (also known as Untitled Jim Jarmusch Project), Focus Features, 2005.
Expats, Porter Productions, 2005.
Lord of War, Lions Gate Films, 2005.
The Lady in the Water, Warner Bros., 2006.
Producer, Fellowship, Anam Films/Powerstone Entertainment, 2005.
Current Biography, May, 2002, pp. 81-82.
Entertainment Weekly, August 16, 1996, p. 37.
Essence, November, 2000, p. 68.
Interview, November, 1999, p. 74; July, 2000, p. 69.
Maclean's, June 26, 2000, p. 50.
NME, April 5, 1997, p. 26.
Premiere, December, 2001, p. 102.
Time, June 26, 2000, p. 70.
Jeffrey Wright has established himself as one of the most respected and versatile character actors of his generation. Equally at home on the stage or on screen, he has performed in roles ranging from mobster to artist to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Washington, D.C., on December 7, 1965, Wright was raised there by his mother, a lawyer with the U.S. Customs Department, and his aunt after the death of his father when the boy was just a year old. Wright attended St. Alban's School for Boys in Washington, where he was an all-star athlete, and then enrolled at Amherst College. Planning to become a lawyer like his mother, he majored in political science. But as he told New York Times writer Phoebe Hoban, when he enrolled in a college acting class he realized immediately that "this was going to be it." Despite his mother's dismay, he abandoned plans for law school and, after graduating from Amherst in 1987, sought work on stage.
Returning to Washington, Wright obtained roles in several productions at the Arena Stage, where he earned the admiration of founding director Zelda Fischandler, who arranged a full scholarship for the aspiring actor in the graduate acting program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After only two months, however, he dropped out of N.Y.U. to seek professional work, landing small roles in off-Broadway plays and supporting himself as a bicycle messenger. He also appeared in various productions at the Arena and at Yale Repertory Theater, honing his skills in everything from Shakespeare to modern drama. Joe Dowling, who worked with Wright during this period and is now artistic director of Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, told Hoban that "the word 'star' is overused, but from the first day I met him that's what I saw."
In 1990 Wright was cast in his first film role, a minor part in the movie Presumed Innocent. With career prospects dim, he moved briefly to Los Angeles looking for more film work. Soon after returning to New York he landed his first major part in 1994 as Roy Cohn's nurse, Belize, in Angels in America: Perestroika. The play was a huge success, and Wright won a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards for his performance. "That was the first time I could comfortably call myself an actor," he told Hoban. But the role was the most difficult he'd ever performed, and it took him so long to get into the character that he was almost fired. As the director, George C. Wolfe, commented to Hoban, what sets Wright apart as an actor is that he "goes off to figure out where the jazz, the bebop, of the character is, as opposed to just playing the melody."
Though this deep attention to character resulted in considerable acclaim for Wright's performance as Belize, it did not immediately lead to career success, and the young actor struggled to find subsequent work. After a year without a role, in 1996 he was cast as the lead in Basquiat, an independent film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the avant-garde painter and protégé of Andy Warhol who set the art world abuzz before he died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27. Director Julian Schnabel, who had known Basquiat, cast Wright in the starring role partly because the actor was not well known. "I saw 100 black actors," he told Hoban, "and I knew Jeffrey was the one.… I knew he had the most buttons he could press to turn himself into Jean-Michel." Wright prepared intently for the role and often disagreed with Schnabel on how to play particular scenes. But the end result was a performance that many found unforgettable. "Jeffrey's performance goes beyond acting," said Basquiat's friend and script developer Michael Holman was quoted in the New York Times. "It's possession."
Since that role, Wright has earned parts in several major films, including the gravedigger in Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke, a Puerto Rican gangster in Shaft, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the made-for-cable movie Boycott, and an emotionally-scarred Desert Storm veteran in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. His performance in this film, according to New York Times critic A.O. Scott, was "memorably strange."
Wright also continued to work in theater. In 2005 he costarred with Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet in This Is How It Goes, a play about an interracial love triangle that Variety reviewer David Rooney described as a "sharply honed work that insidiously inches under the skin with its unforgiving insights and…nasty tricks." As Cody, the black husband of white woman Belinda, Wright offered what Rooney deemed a "sharp-edged" performance that aptly communicated the tension between the spouses.
In 2005 Wright costarred opposite Bill Murray in the film Broken Flowers, playing Murray's neighbor, Winston. When Murray's character, Don, discovers that one of his former lovers gave birth to his son years ago, Winston persuades Don to find out who the mother might be. Though writer-director Jim Jarmusch wrote the film for Murray, he had Wright in mind from the start to play Winston. "He has such incredible range," Jarmusch told Los Angeles Times writer Susan King. "He can be very, very subtle or he can be explosive, depending on what the character is, and he has an incredible human compassion thing that I read off him on screen." It was important, stressed Jarmusch, that Winston would not be a cliché, just a comic sidekick; he insisted that the character be a complex person. And Wright "lifted it above what I imagined but also came through with what the film really needed from that character."
Critics agreed that Wright's performance was central to the film's charm. "Jeffrey Wright walks off with his scenes as the nosy and bubbling family man with an active Sherlock Holmes complex," noted Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, while King wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Wright "manages to steal every scene he's in." Wright enjoyed the role, explaining to King that he was attracted to Winston's essential loneliness.
A very private man offstage or offscreen, Wright is married to actress Carmen Ejogo, with whom he has two children. He is happy to succeed as an actor without necessarily living in the limelight. Acknowledging that some of his characters are better known than he is himself, the actor told King that this "suits me fine."
Presumed Innocent, 1990.
Ride with the Devil, 1999.
The Manchurian Candidate, Paramount, 2004.
Broken Flowers, 2005.
At a Glance …
Antoinette Perry Award, Drama Desk award, and Outer Critics Circle award, for Angels in America: Perestroika, 1994.
Agent—c/o Focus Features, Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
Separate but Equal, ABC, 1991.
Homicide: Life on the Streets, 1997.
Angels in America (miniseries), 2003.
Angels in America: Perestroika, 1994.
Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, 1996.
This Is How It Goes, 2005.
Boston Globe, August 5, 2005.
Interview, November 1999; July 2000.
Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2005.
New York Times, August 18, 1996; July 30, 2004; March 31, 2005; August 5, 2005.
—E. M. Shostak