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'American Fiction' star Jeffrey Wright searches for 'strange humanness' in roles


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and our guest today is award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright. From blockbuster movies to independent films and television, Wright is often referred to as an actor's actor. He's portrayed important historical American figures, including artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Muddy Waters, Colin Powell and Martin Luther King Jr. Wright has also appeared in three Bond films, "The Hunger Games" series, "Batman," and Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch" and "Asteroid City." He was a series regular in the HBO shows "Boardwalk Empire" and "Westworld."

This year, Wright is up for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in "American Fiction." It's about a frustrated novelist and professor fed up with the literary world profiting from stereotypical stories about Black people. To prove his point, Monk uses a pen name and writes a book that leans into all of the stereotypes. And he's offered a huge advance, making him the very kind of author he's tried to avoid becoming. The film is adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson and is based on the novel "Erasure," by Percival Everett. Jeffrey Wright is a Tony, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor. In addition to "American Fiction," he also stars as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the recent film "Rustin."

Jeffrey Wright, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JEFFREY WRIGHT: Thank you, Tonya.

MOSLEY: So we've talked to several folks from "American Fiction" on FRESH AIR, including director and screenwriter Cord Jefferson, who said, basically, your voice was in his head as he was writing the screenplay. And everyone has said that they've come to this project because of you. Is that a lot of pressure going into a project?

WRIGHT: No. In fact, it's the opposite. It means that people want to be there, that they're as passionate about this work as I was, and that they want to come and play. They want to come and work together. That's what you want. The pressure is when there's someone there who doesn't want to be there. When you bring a group of collaborators together that are as understanding of the timeliness of a piece such as this, understanding that this could be something special, understanding that we can do something special together, yeah, that alleviates the pressure.

MOSLEY: I want to talk about that a little bit more, because I've heard you say that the synergy on this set was pretty dynamic and that everyone was bringing their A-game from cast to crew.

WRIGHT: Well, yes, the crew, you would see copies of Percival Everett's "Erasure" lying around the set. They were reading the book, wanting to understand more about this story that we were telling. I think what's exciting about our film, and I think what's helped capture audiences' attention, is that we're having conversations within this film that are being had all over the country right now.

The film opens with a scene in a classroom that's being had in classrooms across the country right now. It's a discussion on race and history and language and context. I'm a professor teaching a class in American Southern literature. And there's a word, a verboten word...

MOSLEY: Right, right. Yes.

WRIGHT: ...On the whiteboard behind, and one of the students takes offense. And it really kind of drops, you know, a small bomb off, you know, at the middle of - at the beginning, rather, of the film that kind of provides context for the story that we're going to tell. And it also gives us a bit of a description of who this guy is. But again, that is at the forefront of the national discourse right now. So everybody was like, yeah, I want to be a part of this. I want to help tell this story. I want to do it in a way that maybe elevates the conversation, at least for the two hours in which the film happens. And you know what? We can have a laugh while doing this because - you know what? - we're not afraid of this stuff. And the message, I think - one of the messages - is neither should you be.

MOSLEY: A lot of people came to the film, of course, because it's a satire. But I want to play a clip. As I mentioned, you play Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, a frustrated novelist, a professor fed up with the literary world. In this scene I'm about to play, your character, Monk, is catching up with his sister Lisa, who is played by Tracee Ellis Ross, who is a doctor for Planned Parenthood. And the two of you are talking about the stresses of your jobs and the purpose behind what you do. Let's listen.


WRIGHT: (As Monk) How's work?

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Lisa) It's not very glamorous. I go through a metal detector every day.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Well, what you do is important.

ROSS: (As Lisa) Oh.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Meanwhile, all I do is invent little people in my head and make them have imaginary conversations with each other.

ROSS: (As Lisa) Books change people's lives.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Has something I've written ever changed your life?

ROSS: (As Lisa) Absolutely, absolutely. My dining room table was wobbly as hell before your last book came out.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Oh, my God (laughter).

ROSS: (As Lisa) It was, like, perfect. I'm telling you...

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Take me back to Logan, please.

ROSS: (As Lisa) Logan cannot help you, Monk.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Oh, my God.

ROSS: (As Lisa, laughter).

MOSLEY: That was Jeffrey Wright and Tracee Ellis Ross in the Oscar-nominated film "American Fiction." You were drawn to this screenplay for several reasons - one that you just mentioned, it really sits in the moment that we're in now. But you were also especially drawn to the storyline of family and love. You call it the meat and the most subversive part of this story. Can you say more?

WRIGHT: Sure. I think there is an answer to the tropes, the stereotypes that are being forced upon him and that we explore on that side, and it's this portrait of this family. Because despite how he's perceived or misperceived, his everyday life is simply the ordinary, ordinary because it's so common - the ordinary tasks of taking on responsibility to family, and particularly to his mother in that he's reached that place in his life where he is tasked with being her now caretaker. And that was - yeah, that was really resonant with me because there were many overlaps...

MOSLEY: Right, right.

WRIGHT: ...To this journey of our protagonist, Monk, for me. So my mom passed away a little over a year before I got this script. I had the great good fortune of being raised by my mother and her eldest sister, my aunt Naomi (ph), who's 94 years old now, who immediately came to live with me after my mom passed. And so my mom passed very quickly - colon cancer. But I, you know - only child, it was all down to me. And then my aunt came to live with me, I have kids, it was the middle of the pandemic. It was like, wow, you know, the walls were creeping in. And that's where our character finds himself, really, at the - yeah, very early on in this film where he is all of a sudden supposed to be the adult in the room of his family.

MOSLEY: And it's such a universal experience.

WRIGHT: It's a universal experience and it applies to people across backgrounds. Many of us have known this experience, and many more of us will know this experience. But it just - I just got it. I understood that on a really intimate, like, kind of, like, psychological and emotional level, the pressures that that applies to a person's existence, whether it be on the creative side, professional side or personal side, particularly. So, you know, the hook really was plopped into my mouth by, you know, the social commentary, that first scene, but it was set by the portrait of this family.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the film "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking with award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of frustrated novelist and professor Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in the film "American Fiction."

You saw yourself in Monk. There's another person that you play, too, that you also saw yourself in - the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose to fame in the '80s with his paintings and drawings that combined graffiti and street culture and neo-expressionism. This was the first time you appeared as a lead. I want to play a clip from the film. In this scene, Basquiat has achieved great success and is being interviewed by a reporter played by Christopher Walken.


MOSLEY: Let's listen.


CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As The Interviewer) Your father's from Haiti. How do you respond to being called the pickaninny of the art world?

WRIGHT: (As Jean-Michel Basquiat) Who said that?

WALKEN: (As The Interviewer) That's from Time magazine.

WRIGHT: (As Jean-Michel Basquiat) No, no, no, no, no. He said I was the Eddie Murphy of the art world.

WALKEN: (As The Interviewer) Oh, my mistake (laughter). Let me just open something up here. You come from a middle-class home. Your father's an accountant. Why did you live in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square? Do you feel that you're being exploited? Or are you yourself exploiting the white image of the Black artist in the ghetto, you know?

WRIGHT: (As Jean-Michel Basquiat) Ghetto? I don't exploit it, no. Other people - see; you make me put my foot in my mouth. Other people - it's possible other people might exploit it. It's possible.

WALKEN: (As The Interviewer) Is it true?

MOSLEY: That was a scene of Jeffrey Wright playing Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1996 film "Basquiat," being interviewed by a reporter played by Christopher Walken. Jeffrey, Walken is making this assertion that Basquiat might be a fraud, essentially, that he's capitalizing on this rags to riches story. Of course, I see this connective tissue between what Basquiat experienced and what this fictional character Monk is going through.

WRIGHT: Absolutely.


WRIGHT: There's a direct throughline.



MOSLEY: Say more about that because - did you see it immediately once you received the screenplay for "American Fiction"?

WRIGHT: I think I did. You know, I kind of see these two films as bookends to my career. Certainly they are because it's the first lead that I played and the last lead that I played. So in that way, they are. But there are a lot of overlaps between those two narratives, as you say, one fictional, one non-fictional. But, yeah, it's - I guess I'm just kind of, you know, circling back to a theme in some ways. But these are the two characters as well that I've felt most closely related to or felt a closer kinship with than anything else that I've ever done, Basquiat for different reasons because, you know, I was a young, creative guy showing up in New York and living on the Lower East Side and traveling in spaces that he had traveled in.

And I also, I think, draw from some of the same sources that he draws from in his work - you know, the references he'll make to Ali and Miles Davis and undiscovered genius of the Mississippi Delta. I just really, really understood his language, both his visual language and his poetry. He just spoke to me, and the more I took in his work, the more I just came to love him. So, you know, physically, obviously, he was a very specific guy. And so I had to find that. But on the interior, there was - you know, there wasn't a lot that I needed to kind of, you know, change to find him, likewise with this character Monk in unfortunate and unfortunate ways.


WRIGHT: Yeah. It was - it's pretty much - you know, my daughter saw the film. She said, you know, there's a lot of your humor in there. Other people who have seen the film says, dude, that's you.

MOSLEY: In which one - in "Basquiat" or in "American Fiction"?

WRIGHT: In "American Fiction." Yeah. So, yeah - so a lot of parallels there. But, yes, they're both the stories of these two, you know, pretty talented, smart, creative men, creative minds who are trying to be intellectually and lyrically themselves and are, you know, up against a, you know, battle from the outside to prevent that from happening. And so, yeah, I mean, that scene, in fact, could - you know, you could place that scene some - in our film, in "American Fiction," as an interview of Stagg R. Leigh, this pseudonym that - you know, that he takes on, that my character takes on. And, you know, it could be after he's discovered, and it would work just fine.

MOSLEY: I thought it was really sweet and also a lens into just how families are that - I was listening to something that you said about - when you were nominated - you received the nomination for an Oscar for "American Fiction." And you talked to your aunt, who is one of those who raised you.


MOSLEY: And she was like, OK, that's nice, but I thought you should have gotten it for "Basquiat," right?

WRIGHT: (Laughter) Yes. She did. Yes, yes, yes. She - yeah. She said, you should have been nominated a long time ago. And I don't know if that was an indictment of me or the system, but I guess, you know, my mom and my aunt are pretty tough. People would know. She was - yeah. She was saying what a lot of people have said. But, you know...

MOSLEY: Do you feel that way?

WRIGHT: Do I feel that way? I mean, I feel I've done some pretty good work over the course of my career. There's, you know, some performances that I'm fully proud of and - you know? But the thing about this phenomenon, you know, this award stuff is it's not solely about the quality of the work. There are a lot of elements that come together in order to make this possible. One, you have to have good work. You have to be in a film that's well-crafted. You have to have great colleagues around you. You find a piece like ours that's timely, that kind of captures the, you know, collective imagination in some ways.

MOSLEY: You also have to have studio support.

WRIGHT: One hundred percent. You have to have the studio behind you make an investment in you and say, hey, you know, one, we see potential in you. And we're willing to place resources behind you to put your work in a position to be recognized because, you know, we think it'll do well for us, too, a relationship with you. So we'll make an investment of time, resources and energy to make that happen because we think you're worth it.

MOSLEY: What do you think was different this time? You think it was all of those things you were - talked about before, that it was just the moment for it?

WRIGHT: Yeah, I think that's partly it. It didn't hurt that we won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. But at the same time, even prior to that, the studio - Orion, Amazon, MGM - was excited about the prospects for this film, particularly Orion. When we went into production, we were pretty much independent. Orion came in very early in the process. There's a woman named Alana Mayo who runs Orion Pictures. I think she's the only Black woman in her position in this town that can greenlight projects. She recognized that this was a story that wanted to be told. She recognized, too, that this was a story that wanted to be heard.

Cord Jefferson, who, you know, wrote and directed this - and, as I said, you know, was the quarterback, you know, behind the team that was trying to get this thing made - said, you know, he shopped the project around, the script around to at least a dozen of the powers that be with me attached. And they said, oh, it's the best script we've ever read. I haven't read a script like this. Oh, my God. And, oh, we love Jeffrey, we love it. We just don't love you guys that much that we're going to finance this. But, you know, good luck to you. And meanwhile, you know, these are groups that finance $150 million movies. Our film was far less than that. You know, we made this film for, you know, well under $10 million in 26 days. And, you know, yeah, I mean, the budget on our film was the catering budget, probably, for the Batman movie that I did.

But, yeah, no one wanted to touch it except for Alana Mayo at Orion. And they've been vigorous in supporting us, and that has made the difference. I've done a lot of great work, you know, was, I think, worthy of being recognized. But, you know, it wasn't. That's OK, though. I'll tell you why. Even though there wasn't necessarily interest and support coming from the executive suites of the studios, there was always support coming from the creative side. There were always directors who took an interest from the very beginning of my acting career, let alone my film career. But in my film career, I worked early on with Sidney Lumet, whose film "Dog Day Afternoon" was the first adult film that I saw in the theater when I was 8 years old, and who's one of - who's just Sidney.

I mean, that work in the '70s around, you know, that time period of "Dog Day Afternoon," it's one of the great eras in all of American filmmaking. And in some ways, our film - in that it's story-driven, you know, it's character-driven - harkens back to that style of filmmaking. But he said, hey, I want you to come do this film with me, a film called "Critical Care" that, you know, we shot up in Toronto. But it was wonderful. Ang Lee, likewise, did a film with him called "Ride With The Devil" very early on. He was such a wonderful collaborator and wonderful teacher, too, and took an interest. And so now I have this relationship with Wes Anderson, for example, George C. Wolfe for many, many years and many projects. So there was always interest from really exciting, smart, ingenious creative people. And at the end of the day, it's the work that I can control. I can't control the other stuff.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Oscar-nominated actor Jeffrey Wright. More of our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today my guest is actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a frustrated novelist and professor named Thelonious Monk Ellison in the film "American Fiction." Wright has portrayed several important historical figures, including artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Colin Powell, Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell in the recent film "Rustin." Wright has also starred in three "Bond" films, "The Hunger Games" series, "Batman" and Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch" and "Asteroid City." He's appeared in the HBO dramas "Westworld" and "Boardwalk Empire," and Wright has received many awards, including an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award for his performance in the 1993 theater production of "Angels In America," which was written by Tony Kushner and directed by George C. Wolfe.

Early in your career, Sidney Poitier gave you some advice about embodying a character that I thought was really interesting. It was something about irony.

WRIGHT: That was it. It was one word. Yeah. I had - it was really - my first significant role on film was opposite Sidney, which was frightening. I mean, I was, I think 23 maybe. I was 23, 24, just out of college, you know, a couple of years before. I had started acting my junior year of college, so I didn't really have a lot of experience. And the only reason I got that job was because I had a - I didn't have - it wasn't because I had an MFA in theater and acting. It was because I had a political science degree, and they assumed that I knew a little bit about the subject. It was a miniseries called "Separate But Equal" about the Brown v. Board of Education case. I was to play the youngest of the lawyers working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a man named Bill Coleman, and I had no clue really what I was doing. But, you know, there I was. They said, yeah, you know, he - guess he's reasonably smart. Get him in there.

And I remember just, you know, my first single shot was opposite Sidney Poitier, who was everything. You know, he was the - I mean, he was the captain of the ship for an actor such as myself, and he was so wonderful, so gracious, so generous and just, like, kind of a naturally elegant man. And he was everything that you would expect he would be. So at the end of the experience - and I brought my mom down, of course. We shot down in Charleston, S.C. She got to meet him. You know, she - you know, she's a lawyer. You know, these were heroes of hers. Thurgood Marshall, Sidney was playing. And so anyway, at the end of the production, I said, so, you know, Mr. Poitier, you know, any - have any advice for...


WRIGHT: ...You know, for me? And he said, yeah, irony. That was it. And I understood exactly what he was saying. I understood exactly.

MOSLEY: What was he saying to you about it?

WRIGHT: 'Cause I was playing everything right down the middle of the road.

MOSLEY: And he was saying, go between the lines.

WRIGHT: He was saying, yeah, paint outside the box, you know? Come at it sideways.

MOSLEY: Well, how do you do that especially when you're playing a real person?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, a performance is more than just the words on the page. So you have to find a way to make them live and to make them compelling. You're not just reading, though. You're not just reading what the - you're interpreting.

MOSLEY: Right, right.

WRIGHT: And that's what he was saying, I think. It was about interpretation and finding - you know, finding the strange humanness in things when you can and finding even, oh, wow, that was a mistake. Oh, yeah. Make it again, as a musician friend of mine, he'd say. He was teaching me to play clarinet. I was playing Sidney Bechet in this TV series, and my friend was a saxophone player. He played everything really. But he said, you know, you make a mistake, make it twice, you know, things like that, just - like, I was - you know, I was kind of a little too literal. And, yeah, he saw it, and I got it. Yeah.

MOSLEY: "Angels In America" - it was one of your formative experiences, playing the role of Belize in the theater, a hospital nurse and a former drag queen, in which you won a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play. You later portrayed the same character in the HBO adaptation in 2003, for which you won an Emmy. I want to play a scene. In this scene I'm about to play, your character, Belize, is talking to his patient, Roy Cohn, the ruthless, homophobic and closeted attorney who is in the hospital with AIDS, and he's played by Al Pacino. And Cohn, who is at the end of his life or close to it, asks Belize what comes after death. Let's listen.


AL PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) Can I ask you something, sir?

WRIGHT: (As Belize) Sir?

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) What's it like after?

WRIGHT: (As Belize) After?

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) This misery ends.

WRIGHT: (As Belize) Hell or Heaven?

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn, laughter).

WRIGHT: (As Belize) Like San Francisco.

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) A city - good. I was worried it'd be a garden. I hate that [expletive].

WRIGHT: (As Belize) Big city overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds, on every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that, windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind and a grey high sky full of ravens.

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) Isaiah.

WRIGHT: (As Belize) Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cow-spit streamers in the wind and voting booths and everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion and all the deities are Creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history are finally overcome. And you ain't there.

PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) And Heaven?

WRIGHT: (As Belize) That was Heaven, Roy.

MOSLEY: That was Jeffrey Wright in the 2003 HBO adaptation of "Angels In America," in which you won an Emmy and a Golden Globe playing the character of Belize. You know, Jeffrey, I was struck by - of course, this was an amazing performance. You also wanted this character to be smart. That was something that was intentional for you when you took this on.

WRIGHT: Oh, well, he is smart.


WRIGHT: Yeah, it's on the page. And George Wolfe wanted that to be at the forefront of his character. He is funny, you know, and he's flamboyant. But he wanted him to be smart, witty, sharp and a type of, you know, warrior. And so there had to be - because what he's confronting is dangerous in Roy Cohn, the individual and what he represented. And so yeah, there had to be, like, kind of equal footing for the two of them. And so yeah, I mean, that's there on the page. And it was in the intentions when we did that on stage to make him so.

Yeah, when he - in that moment there, when he essentially describes the right-wing nightmare, he - I'll tell you something about that. The first time that that bit of writing appeared in the play was when we did it on Broadway. It hadn't existed before. We were in rehearsal for "Perestroika," the second part of - the second half of the play. And Tony came in one day, and he said, I've written something for you. And he handed me this sheet of paper with those words on it. And I went, wow because I was - I think I was kind of looking for something that could be, like, kind of confrontational, just a little bit more forceful. And he handed me that, and it was like, wow. It just, like, dropped down like that feather in the play drops down from the sky onto the stage. It dropped into my hands. And I was like, oh, my God, this is incredibly beautiful.

And so what you heard there, of course, is the film. I was waiting to play that scene on film because it gave me an opportunity to be so intimate and so subtle with the language in a way that you can on stage. When I got the invitation to come and do it again on film, that was the part that I was just cherishing more than any other to get to.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, we're talking with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his performance in "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, we're talking with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of frustrated novelist and professor Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in the film "American Fiction." When we left off, we were talking about his work in Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels In America." Wright performed in the play for a year and a half, starting in 1993. When it was adapted into the 2003 HBO series, he reprised his role as Belize, the flamboyantly gay nurse in a hospital AIDS ward. In the filmed version, he was in scenes with Al Pacino, who played the homophobic, closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn, who was dying of AIDS.

You were the only cast member from the play adaptation to be in the series.

WRIGHT: Yeah. I think that's just, you know, I was young. I was the youngest, too. So, you know...


WRIGHT: ...I think it had more to do with that than anyone else. I did "Angels In America" for a year and a half, revisited it every night, knew it so well, that play, inside and out and had visited and revisited all manner of choices over the course of the time and understood what the audience heard, how they responded. So I knew it like the back of my hand. By the time we got around to doing the film, I'd had a lot of rehearsal. So when we were filming "Angels," I was doing "Topdog/Underdog" on Broadway. So I would go in the morning to the studio and film the - and do the film. And then I would go in the evening and do the play. My son was about 2 years old. I wasn't sleeping so consistently. There are some nights when I was on stage at, you know, "Topdog," and I was like, man, you - keep it together. Don't fall over. I was just exhausted. But because of my schedule, I would have to leave filming at around 6 o'clock in the evening to make it to the theater on time. So we shot that - we shot Al's side of the scene first. And it was about...

MOSLEY: Al Pacino.

WRIGHT: Al Pacino. It was about 5:15. And Mike saw it, you know, would take us a while to turn the cameras around, and we really wouldn't be able to get into it in 45 minutes. So he said, we'll come back tomorrow morning, and we'll finish the scene. And I said, nah. I said, we're in it, you know? And, you know, we found this wonderful space, you know, Al and I together. And, you know, you when you get there, you want to...

MOSLEY: Want to stay there.

WRIGHT: ...Stay there. So I said, no, let's just turn it around. It's not going to take me long. He said, you sure? I said, yeah. So they turned around. And we had - you know, I think we had about, you know, 20 minutes. And I did it in two takes. I think that's probably the first take. But I was ready. I'd been ready for years.

MOSLEY: Playing this character, Belize, I've heard you say it changed you as an artist, a human and a citizen.

WRIGHT: Yeah. Doing that play, working on that play, being inside of it, hearing those words, those ideas, those aspirations and also seeing the reaction from the audience, the sense of celebration, of validation, of need for that story and also watching the way it ultimately connected to legislative change in our country in real time - not that it was the sole catalyst, but it was there. It was absolutely a driver on the cultural side, pushing the discourse. That was really moving. And that was very early in my career as well. So it kind of spoiled me to the idea that this work could, wow, maybe be important. Also in terms of what it asked of me - you know, I was a jock in high school.

MOSLEY: What did you play?

WRIGHT: I played everything, ultimately, in high school. Football and lacrosse were, you know, my focus. Then I played lacrosse in college. But I spent more time in locker rooms than in dressing rooms, you know? The dynamics within "Angels In America" are very different than the dynamics in a high school locker room.


WRIGHT: I wasn't the most evolved cookie in the box. You know, not to say that I didn't understand something about the fluidity of my sexuality and sexuality generally, but, you know, it was like - it was a kind of, man, OK, I've got to go on stage and present this person who, yeah, I have inside of me as well - sure, this side of myself, you know? And that took work. In fact, George Wolfe, you know, who has said, Jeffrey, it's not working (laughter)...

MOSLEY: And George Wolfe...

WRIGHT: George Wolfe.

MOSLEY: You all have worked together many times.

WRIGHT: Many times.

MOSLEY: Yes, including "Angels In America" as the first time.

WRIGHT: This was the first time. He said something incredible to me at one point in rehearsal. He said - I said, you know, George, I'm just not comfortable just yet. You know, everybody else has done the play already. Marcia Gay Harden and myself were the newcomers on Broadway, but the others had done it in Los Angeles, in San Francisco. And they are all, you know, very close to the material, you know? And I felt kind of watched. I wasn't a gay man. But, you know, I said to George - I said, you know, I'm not feeling necessarily comfortable just yet. He said, Jeffrey, I don't want your comfort. I want your talent. And I was like, oh, OK.

And so, yeah, there was a real, you know, kind of artistic awakening that was required - taught me how to work as an actor, taught me not to focus on the superficial but to focus on the central, you know, not - you know, I had to understand that this man was a caretaker and that he was a lover and that he was all of those things and a friend before I put the boa on. So they were - yeah. They were - on multiple levels, it really - yeah. It's the epicenter of my work.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for best actor in his performance in "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today we're talking with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a frustrated novelist and professor named Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in the film "American Fiction." In the movie "Rustin," Wright also plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Baptist pastor and politician who became the first Black American to be elected to Congress from New York.

I want to talk about family. You grew up in Washington, D.C.


MOSLEY: Your mother, as you mentioned, was a lawyer. She exposed you to a lot of things...

WRIGHT: Everything.

MOSLEY: ...Including the arts. What was your mom like?

WRIGHT: Oh, my mom was - you know, she's the architect of everything that I do. She put a series of doorways in front of me or an array of doorways, and every one of them led to opportunity. And she put those in front of me at a very young age. But the reason that she was the woman she was and my aunt as well - they came to Washington after graduating from Hampton Institute at the time. But...

MOSLEY: Interesting.

WRIGHT: They had been educated in Brooklyn. So my grandfather had an aunt who lived in Bed-Stuy, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She worked for a family there, a Jewish family. She kept house and maintained the household. I always wondered why my mother and my aunt made matzo ball soup growing up, and it was because they learned from their Aunt Bessie.


WRIGHT: I think the head of the family was a politician who was a congressman or what. But - so she said, Bessie - Bessie Williams was her name - said to my grandfather, bring those children up here to go to school because they have better opportunity here than in the segregated schools of the South. And only my mother and my aunt took her up on the offer. And so my aunt went to Girls' High in Bed-Stuy, and my mother went to middle school in Williamsburg, I think. And I think in some ways, that made all the difference in terms of the opportunities that were afforded me because they got an advantage. And they were, you know, driven by this incredibly tough woman with high expectations that was their aunt. And likewise, they had high expectations. But also, they provided like she did for them. They provided pathways to achieving those things that they expected of you.

And so, yeah, I mean, it was - she was - my mom was - yeah. She was the daughter of her father. She was incredibly hard-working, incredibly committed to family and also to community. She was always trying to lend a hand, whether it be to young women attorneys in Washington. She started an organization called GWAC to assist young Black women. It was a - yeah, an organization that she founded. And she - I remember she was a big sister. We would take - she would look after, you know, young girls who were vulnerable. And it was just - you know, that's just who she was.

MOSLEY: You were on "Finding Your Roots"...


MOSLEY: ...With Henry Louis Gates, and he revealed some information that you hadn't heard before. What were some of the most surprising or maybe the most surprising revelation about your family that maybe you still think about?

WRIGHT: The central figure in my family until he passed away was my grandfather. He was an incredible man. He was an oysterman and a crabber and a farmer and a whiskey-maker/seller and a pitcher in the Negro Leagues. He was 6'1, seemed like he was 6'5, had hands just as long as the day, and he - you know, he would wrap a ball in his fingers, and he could - you know, he apparently - he said he pitched against Satchel Paige even, but...

MOSLEY: Wow. Which league did - yeah.

WRIGHT: He said he played for a team called the Seaford Saints down in Seaford, Va. But - so he's the central guy. He was manhood to me. My father had passed away when I was very young, but he was everything, my grandfather, William Henry Whiting Sr. But I always knew that he had left school very early on. When he was around 14, he began to work, maybe even earlier. But I remember that he only had a very limited education, but he was insistent that his kids have a real shot. And he was insistent on education and on citizenship, on voting. But I found out on Skip Gates' show why he had to begin his adult life so early. It's because my great-grandfather, his father, died of influenza in the pandemic of 1917, 1918.


WRIGHT: And I didn't know that detail. And, you know, it was relevant, obviously, to my, you know, grandfather's story, but it was also interesting because I found that out shortly, I think, before the - or, you know, this recent pandemic hit. And so there was greater relevance there.

MOSLEY: It also probably gave you a lens into him, just who he was and just in the way that he related in the legacy for your parents, your mother and you.

WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. He was - man, he was - you know, you could not work him. You just couldn't.

MOSLEY: He'd get up 4:30 every morning.

WRIGHT: Oh, man. He was gone.

MOSLEY: Did you ever go with him out there...

WRIGHT: Oh, yeah.

MOSLEY: ...To oyster - yeah.

WRIGHT: Oh, well, I didn't go out there to work with him because I was too young. My older cousin used to go out. He was older. He's about seven years older than me. But I would go out on his boat. We would go out on Saturdays and just take family fishing trips out. You know, he had this big 36-foot Chesapeake Bay deadrise, is what the boat is, you know, like a Buick engine in the middle and him at the stick. And we would go out and have these magical, magical days on the Chesapeake, you know, when it was a vibrant body of water. It's coming back now. But, yeah, he - you know, I think that's part of the reason why saltwater is so special to me now. When I'm out here in Los Angeles, I got to be near the ocean.

MOSLEY: I heard you surf.

WRIGHT: I do, yeah, yeah. You know, I got the saltwater in my blood. I come actually from generations of watermen down there on my - on both sides, on my grandmother's side as well.


WRIGHT: Yeah, going back way you know, back in - deep into the records down there.

MOSLEY: Jeffrey Wright, thank you so much for this conversation.

WRIGHT: Thanks for having me, Tonya.

MOSLEY: We talked with actor Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of frustrated novelist and professor Thelonious Monk Ellison in the film "American Fiction." On Tomorrow's FRESH AIR, writer Lucy Sante shares her story of transition from male to female at 67 years old. She describes how she found the courage to come out after seeing her transformation through a gender-swapping feature on FaceApp. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Today's senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.