Jeffrey Wright on ‘American Fiction,’ ‘Rustin,’ and the Most Personal Role He’s Played Yet

Pop Culture

“People don’t very often go out looking for a ‘Jeffrey Wright type,’ you know?” says Jeffrey Wright with a laugh. “There’s not a lot of films that are written for a Jeffrey Wright type, so I have to sometimes do a little morphing.”  

He’s won a Tony and an Emmy, and has starred in everything from Angels in America to Westworld, but Wright had never encountered anything quite like American Fiction—a movie that really did call for a Jeffrey Wright type. The film, written and directed by Cord Jefferson and adapted from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, centers on Monk, a down-on-his-luck Black novelist who stumbles into commercial success when he glibly writes a novel that trades in what he considers to be the basest of stereotypes about Black people. “When I was still reading Erasure, I started reading Monk’s lines in Jeffrey’s voice,” Jefferson told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “I started thinking of Jeffrey when I started imagining the scenes.”

On this week’s Little Gold Men (listen or read below), Wright drops by to chat about starring in American Fiction and tackling a role that’s perhaps closer to him than any other part he’s encountered in his 30-plus years as an actor. “I think this film and this character is more personal for me than any other role that I’ve done, maybe aside from Basquiat,” he says. “This role is probably more similar to who I am than any other role that I have ever played. It didn’t require a lot of alterations. It really just required more emerging and a kind of synthesis of the internal.”

Wright was more concerned with the external when tackling the titan Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for Netflix’s Rustin. Directed by Wright’s longtime collaborator George C. Wolfe, Rustin stars Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, the queer civil rights activist and organizer of the March on Washington, and features Wright in a rather adversarial role as Powell, a pastor and the first African American to represent New York in Congress. Wright was meticulous about capturing Powell Jr., down to the accuracy of his birthmarks. “Powell had these two moles on his cheek,” he said. “So if you want to play Powell, let’s play Powell. Come on.”

On Little Gold Men, Wright expounds on “the sandwich years,” the lengths to which he’s gone to avoid being pigeonholed in Hollywood, and the extremely personal process that was making American Fiction.

Vanity Fair: How did you get involved with the project? Were you familiar with the source material, Erasure by Percival Everett? 

Jeffrey Wright: I hadn’t read the book. I read the book late in the process. I was drawn to the words on the page—that’s usually what kind of catches me first. It was clear that Cord was a sharp thinker and a great writer. He hadn’t directed before, but it was clear from the script that he knew his way around story. What drew me in more so than kind of this sharp satire and social commentary was the story of this man and his relationship to family and to love. 

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