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For Jeffrey Wright, the racial satire of ‘American Fiction’ is ‘tragedy in disguise’

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This week we bring you conversations with Kemp Powers, award-winning playwright and co-director of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” and the acclaimed actor Jeffrey Wright, who currently stars in “American Fiction.”

Powers talks about growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and attending Howard University before deciding to pivot into filmmaking after a 17-yearlong career in journalism. Wright, known for his work in the likes of “Angels in America” and “Westworld,” discusses tackling the serious subject matter of race and representation with humor in his new role.

Shawn Finnie: Welcome to another episode of “The Envelope.” My name is Shawn Finnie and I’m joined by Yvonne Villarreal and Mark Olsen. Today we’re going to be speaking with one of the three directors from “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” Kemp Powers, as well as the actor Jeffrey Wright from “American Fiction.” But first, Golden Globes. Where do we start? We’re still talking about the Golden Globes.

Yvonne Villarreal: I thought we were supposed to stop talking about the Golden Globes. And now we’re back at it.

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Mark Olsen: Well, thanks to the reporting of some of our fine colleagues here at the Los Angeles Times that revealed the financial dealings of the group and also their shortcomings as far as the diversity of the group. You know, they really had some setbacks, but they’re going to be on CBS, having switched over from NBC this year. And so, due to some sort of backstage corporate machinations, like their new ownership and how they’re trying to run the place, they seem like they’re kind of back and ... I don’t want to say bigger than ever. We’ll see. I think it’s going to be baby steps of coming back. But Shawn, did you have thoughts on any of the nominations that came out?

Finnie: I’m just like, when are we going to get the host? It’s going to be interesting to see. I mean, one of us could if we had to. If we had to, I think one of us could do it.

Villarreal: Why can’t it be all three of us?

Finnie: You’re right. You’re right. It could be the three of us. The trio from L.A. Times is hosting.

Olsen: Well, I think the inside-out aspect of when Jerrod Carmichael hosted this show [in 2023] set a pretty high bar for hosts trying to address the issues that the Globes have as an organization. It will be intriguing to see who they end up with.

Finnie: Who do you have? Any surprises, shocks from the nominations?

Villarreal: Well, we have two new categories. One of them was TV’s stand-up special ... the other was the box-office category, which [was] a chance for a film like Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert movie to be nominated. And I don’t know, it’s a different kind of category.

Olsen: Also, “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.”

Villarreal: “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Olsen: Exactly. With movies, it’s going to be interesting because I know the academy has floated the idea of a category similar to that and it was quickly talked it down. And so it’s interesting to see how that’s going to play out. You know, it’s almost like the Globes get to kind of be a test case for how it turns out.

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Finnie: “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are leading, as we expected. No real shock there. I’m really just curious to see the sustainability of it throughout the rest of the season, because I think the Golden Globes, for better or for worse, I feel like they kind of inspire voters to place people where they should be. And so I think it’ll be interesting to see that for sure.

Villarreal: The big shock to me was just to see, you have a film like “The Color Purple,” which we have our expectations for where they should fall, and for it not to be nominated in the musical or comedy category. Like, isn’t this exactly the kind of film [for that]?

Olsen: “础颈谤” nominated in that category; “May December,” as we talked about before, nominated in that category. So the movies that are a little bit harder to place or that aren’t fully like drama-dramas kind of backwards fall into that category. Then a just full-on, actual musical like “The Color Purple,” which seems like the most obvious movie to be celebrated in that category, somehow falls by the wayside.

Finnie: I mean, I’m glad to see Fantasia [Barrino] and Danielle [Brooks] getting their just due. Yeah. To your point, like, where’s everything else for it?

Villarreal: Well, America Ferrera, too, didn’t get the nomination that I thought seems so obvious as well. But and then there’s people like Adam Driver ... I know there can’t be everyone in it, but it is just shocking to see some of these people that we do see in contention for Oscar nominations get shut out so early on.

Finnie: I think the good thing is like there’s still opportunities to see where it can go ... I feel like it’s shifting and Golden Globes is just coming back. I feel like we’re going to take it for what it is as we continue to see how the rest of the season unfolds. I feel like we can still see some surprises there for sure.

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Villarreal: Well, I want to talk about one of the nominees for the Golden Globes, Jeffrey Wright. He’s in the film “American Fiction,” and he plays Thelonious Ellison, who goes by Monk. And in the film, things aren’t going well at work or at home. He’s in the position where his mother’s health has taken a turn and he has to sort of take on this caretaker role. And at the same time, career-wise, his books haven’t done well. And the one that he’s currently pitching isn’t getting bought anywhere. So he does this thing where, as a joke, [he says], “I’m just going to write the sort of book that I hate,” which plays on every trope of Black people that he knows white people sort of eat up. And it turns out that this is the book that sells and it sells for way more money than any of his real books have sold for. And he’s in a position where he sort of needs this to work. And it really makes for this wry but also heartwarming sort of race satire that comes from Cord Jefferson. Cord we know from TV and has also been a journalist. But this is his first time directing a feature film, which he also wrote. This is a really fun conversation with Jeffrey. I’m excited to get into it.

Finnie: “American Fiction” is hilarious. I had a chance to talk to Kemp Powers, one of the three directors from “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Spider-Man, we all know the legacy that is, but I really appreciated understanding a bit more of the nuances, some of the decisions that were made as we went across the Spider-Verse this time watching Miles Morales grow up and the complexities with his family, the nuances. I feel like Spider-Man always sweeps, right? I mean, if you’re signing up for a Spider-Man movie, you know, it’s going to go far. And I feel like Kemp speaking to the specifics around the three directors is one of the things [I asked]. Like, “How do you all make decisions?”

Villarreal: Well, it’s like us. How do we all make this work? It’s an interesting collaboration to see how three minds work together.

Olsen: Well, Kemp is also formerly a journalist, before becoming a screenwriter and a director.

Finnie: Yeah, for 17 years.

Villarreal: Guys when are we going to write a screenplay?

Finnie: Well, we’re going to host the Golden Globes first and then we’re going to write the screenplay.

Villarreal: Coming up next, Shawn will be talking with director Kemp Powers.

Miles Morales as Spider-Man in "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse."
(Sony Pictures Animation)

Finnie Welcome back to “The Envelope.” My name is Shawn Finnie, and today I’m really excited about our guest. He’s somebody I’ve got to know a little bit throughout the years and somebody whose work I really, really admire. He is a playwright, a writer, director, producer, father and co-director of this year’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Welcome, Kemp Powers.

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Kemp Powers: Thanks for having me, man. Thanks for coming out.

Finnie: We’re going to talk about “Across the Spider-Verse” because it’s the time, we’re going to get into all that. But I want to talk about, before we do that, your journey and who you are and how that propels in what you do. First, can you tell us where we are?

Powers: You’re in my office. It’s in my backyard. It’s a little [accessory dwelling unit] I had built during COVID because we were finishing “厂辞耻濒” and “One Night in Miami during the height of COVID. And I was already kind of going stir crazy from being in my house. So I have an office in my house and I was just like, “I got to get out of the house.” Even walking 20 paces to a new space was something that I needed. So I constructed this. And ever since this is kind of like where I do most of my work.

Finnie: You’re from Brooklyn, I hear. So we’re here for all things Brooklyn. [I’m from] Crown Heights.

Powers: [I’m from] Flatbush. Flatbush and Kensington.

Finnie: Growing up in Brooklyn, how has that shaped and propelled you as you started to just kind of step into this space writing, directing and producing?

Powers: It’s interesting because New York has changed, obviously, so much. I don’t have to tell you this, but growing up there — people often grow up in a place and they want to leave. And one thing I noticed about growing up in Brooklyn is we didn’t even want to leave our block. Like, you really do feel like there’s no place else in the world that really exists or even understand you. And I think a lot of that just came from the time in which I was growing up during the ‘80s ... Back then, the music we were listening to, the stuff we were wearing, the art that you saw, punk rock was really exploding. The city was coming out of bankruptcy. So the negative of that is that we were all pretty poor. But the positive of that is that there was a creative flourishing in a city that at the time was pretty cheap. It had plenty of problems. That was probably when New York’s crime rate was the highest it had ever been. But I was a city kid. You know what I mean? You learn to navigate these things and they become kind of like badges of honor. So even going into the city, which is what we call Manhattan, that was something we did like once a year on a school trip.

Finnie: It was like a journey.

Powers: It literally was a journey. It was kind of like, “All right, kids, we’re going to the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty.” Or “We’re going to the Museum of Natural History. We’re going to the Empire State Building.” I remember those things because that was the one trip a year. And I give my mom a lot of credit because she took me to my first Broadway play. At the time, I think there were a few big plays. There was like “The Tap Dance Kid” with Alfonso Ribeiro. There was “Cats,” which everyone was going on and on about. “A Chorus Line.” And I was like, “Oh, mom, I want to see a Broadway play so bad. I want to see ‘Cats.’” And I remember when she was like, “I got tickets to a Broadway play.” I was like, “Cats?” She was like, “No, it’s called ‘La Cage aux Folles.’” And it was the original production with Harvey Fierstein. And I was like, “What’s it about?” She’s like, “I don’t know, but it’s a Broadway play. Shut up and let’s go.” And it was awesome because that being my first musical really just opened my mind up to the amazing kinds of stories that could be told. And that’s how I always described myself. Sometimes I’m a filmmaker, I’m a writer, I’m a playwright. But at the end of the day, man, I’m just I’m a storyteller.

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Finnie: You went from there. I was thinking your imagination would be expanded there. Then you went to Newport News, [Va.] Where I was born. Then Howard [University]. And I talk to you about that because I feel like Howard is when you really kind of started to shape your voice as a journalist.

Powers: I think it was sophomore year, my mom moved us down to Virginia, and I ended up in Newport News and I went to Warwick High School. And it was quite a transformation because, you know, I went to Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, which it’s become even more popular since I’ve been there. But it was a super creative school. Murrow was most famous for selling its football [field] to Midwood, which was another school, and getting rid of all the sports programs. Instead, they replaced it with a theater program and news program. The Edward R. Murrow production of “Don Quixote” or “Cabaret,” these were like professional level. It wasn’t like in Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman.” These were serious productions. We were kids given this incredible amount of responsibility. And then we moved down South. I was only down there for a couple of years in Newport News, but I was suddenly in a school that was 85 to 90% Black . But I found myself in this weird position where a lot of the advanced placement courses I was taking, I was the only Black kid. I actually became a lot more cognizant of different things. In hindsight, I loved elements of Virginia because I don’t think I’d be who I am today if I didn’t get the contrast.

Finnie: And the awareness.

Powers: Yes. I wouldn’t have been aware I was in a bubble in New York. And going down South exposed me to a different way things were. And I actually needed them both. You know I love the South. My mom used to send me down to North Carolina for summers for like a couple of weeks every summer. But actually living in Virginia, it opened my eyes and it was part of living in Newport News that made me want to go to Howard, to be perfectly honest... When I was in New York, I was like, “Oh, I want to go to an Ivy League school. Maybe I want to go to [New York University], try to get into Columbia or go to Hunter.” And after about a year in Virginia, I was like, “I want to go to a Black college. I want to be around other Black kids like me.” I didn’t graduate from Howard. I left before graduating. Like a lot of people, I ran out of money, but I went right into working as a journalist. It was a career that I thought I was going to retire doing. I loved journalism. I bloomed early in journalism, and I pretty much burnt out. I really was burning myself out. And I was having one of those quarter-life crises. You know, you’re in your late 20s and you’re already feeling tired and [thinking] “What else am I going to do with my life?” And that’s what got me to start writing again, creatively writing. And I wrote my first short plays and wrote my first full-length play and it was really well received. That was “One Night in Miami.…” My first produced play was “One Night in Miami…” here in Los Angeles.

Finnie: And when was that? 2013?

Powers: Yeah, 2013. And things picked up fast. But through it all, I was still trying to hang on to be, “Well, I’m a journalist and this is what I do on the side.”

Finnie: From there we had “One Night in Miami …,” “Soul.” Culminating all towards now “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” When we talk about your voice, I told you this before, your voice connected to me as a viewer, it’s just like community. It’s culture, it’s connectivity. It’s all of those aspects of it. And I’m curious, what you feel about your voice and contribution, specifically your voice in “Across the Spider-Verse.”

Powers: In every single film that I work on, I look for very specific characters I can relate to that speak to themes that I believe are universal that anyone in the world can understand. That’s always been the case. There was a Q&A once when one of my plays was running, I think it was in Denver, and it was a play that featured all Black characters. And someone in the Q&A said, “Look, how does it feel for you to have this audience that’s not Black watching and consuming this play?” And I was like, “It feels fine. You enjoyed the play didn’t you?” And they were like, “Yeah.” No one ever asked someone, “Do you need to be Italian to enjoy ‘The Godfather?’ ” It’s actually the specificity of these characters is what kind of makes you lean in because it’s interesting. But what really moves you is that the challenges these characters are dealing with is something that anyone and everyone can understand. I think everyone in the world wants the same thing. They want their kids to do well. They want their kids to do better than them. They want safety and security for their families. Fathers want their sons to look up to them... [There’s something] so universal in the hyper-specificity of young Miles Morales, who’s this half Black, half Puerto Rican kid. That excites me because that’s a world I know because I’m from that community. I know that community. But our humanity is what connects us. So if I’d say there’s like a thematic thing in all the work that I do, in the work that I’m drawn to, it’s that I’m always looking for some greater truth.

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And I think it really helped for me to work on a film like “Soul,” which was so unusual for a Pixar film. You have a protagonist who’s in his 40s, a certain person who is a late-blooming artist. This idea of like, “What does success mean? What is the artist’s journey?” Your success, what other people define as success, might not feel like success for you. What happens after you win, so to speak? You get up the next morning and then you have to do something else. These are things that like really wrack the minds of a lot of creatives. Not just in Hollywood. You always are kind of like, “OK, what have you done for me lately?” You look at a film like “Spider-Verse,” what I love about it is we have a crew of 1,000 people and I think if you talk to all 1,000 of those people, they could point out and see themselves in this film because that’s what we encourage. This collaboration isn’t just like, “Give us all your stuff.” It’s like, “What’s passion? What are you passionate about? What’s important to you?” It’s not just delegating down, it’s also receiving.

Finnie: People don’t understand how long it takes to put a film like this together. Justin [K. Thompson] was a former production designer. Joaquim [Dos Santos] is an illustrator as well. So how did you all make decisions as co-directors and how did you carve out those lanes individually and then come back collectively?

Powers: Initially at least, we built this world, these characters in this story, together. So what that means is that for the first year or so, there were a lot of daily meetings and all of us were in all the meetings, and we voiced a lot of opinions about everything. Everything like, you know, Spider-Man 2099’s costume. Jefferson’s shirt, Rio’s pants. Discussion after discussion after discussion. Every piece of the set, the look, the designs of the world, visual development. The three of us as well as, you know, [screenwriters] Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller], we were just in it, building it together. So it was literally the definition of directing as a team. But then you have to now execute this world that you built. And once you get to the execution stage, I think each of us had strengths based on our previous experience and what we brought to it. And we would overlap, but we’d also focus on our lanes as much as humanly possible. Like Joaquim Dos Santos, one of my co-directors, you know, he’s probably one of the best action choreographers in animation: “Voltron,” “[The Legend of] Kora,” “The Last Airbender.” When it comes to action, Joaquim is the man. Justin K. Thompson was the production designer on the first film. So when you were conceptualizing things like this mood ring world, Justin is the guy who can really get into the details of things like the color script. And because of my background, I kind of naturally floated to working with actors: get the casting, record all of the cast, sitting in edit... We all kind of went into our lanes and our specialty areas. I think for me that meant a lot more time in edit and cutting the film together. That meant a lot more time working with the actors recording. It also meant a lot more time kind of poking at the story at the script level with Phil and Chris and Dave Callaham and kind of throwing out ideas to massage that script from the director’s chair to [make it] as clean as humanly possible...

Everyone just wanted to make it better all the time. And it was never too late to make it better. A great example of that is one of the scenes in the film takes place in Mumbattan. And this is a world that introduces us to [Pavitr Prabhakar] Spider-Man India. And that was a scene that we worked on for a long time and we felt like we had gotten it pretty good. We were really happy with how it was playing and suddenly we got an email from a bunch of animators of Indian descent. And long story short, they had some notes. The email was like, “It doesn’t feel authentic. It doesn’t feel cool enough. It doesn’t seem to reflect this type of character as we know it.” And there’s two ways this could go. I mean, this was far along in production. It was being animated and you could be defensive about it and say, “Look, it’s too late. It is what it is, good enough.” But it was not even a second of [before we said] “We got to go back and crack this back open. This is not going to stand.” First thing we did, because everyone was spread all over the place, we had a Zoom meeting with all the Indian animators and we just were taking notes, just getting all the stuff that they said, hearing it all out. It was was a conversation, a really nice conversation. And then we quickly convened a writers room of Indian writers and Indian American writers.

We invited in Karan Soni, the actor who played Pav, who was shocked. “Wait, you want me?” I was like, “Yeah, we want you. It’s your character. We want you in the room too.” And we just locked ourselves in the room and they talked all day and we just made notes. Then Phil and Chris wrote a new version of the script. That sucker went right back into production. We rebroke it. We laid it out again. We reanimated it, and it was completely different. And that went from one of the scenes that was giving us the most agita — it felt like, “this is kind of a weak spot” — [to] almost everyone’s one of their favorite scenes in the film. And that wouldn’t have happened if we were just leaned on “Look, it’s too late.” So as chaotic as this process can be, it’s also what allows us to achieve these magical things. They’re not done by accident. It’s because it’s never done. You’re going to try to make it better until they pry the film away from you.

Finnie: And I love the development too of Miles.

Powers: When the film starts off, one of the very important things was that it’s been a little while. Miles is not just bigger. He’s competent, because when the first film ends, he’s just getting his sea legs, you know? The last scene is him [saying], “I’m Spider-Man,” then [he] slips and falls off the wall and he gets hit in the face by a drone. We jump forward in time. It was important for people to believe from the very beginning that this was a character who could be the Spider-Man, who protected his whole city on his own, just like every other Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Spider-Pig had to be. He had to be a city-protecting superhero. It was really key to establish that, especially knowing the journey we were going to have him go on. Knowing that by the near the end of the film he was going to be chased by and have to fight off hundreds and hundreds of Spider-People. So we have to establish that Miles not only was Spider-Man, but might be one of the best, most competent Spider-People there had ever been. And of course, the introduction of the Miles character in the comics was a point of controversy. Unfortunately, I think there were some people who pushed back against this idea of this character. It’s kind of heartbreaking because Miles Morales isn’t Peter Parker. He’s his own thing. He’s actually so different. Peter Parker has his Aunt May who doesn’t even know what he’s doing. Miles has two parents and he’s close to them. There are unique challenges to being Miles Morales.

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Finnie: You can see him conflicted.

Powers: Totally confused.

Finnie: And wanting to share with them.

Powers: Just the idea of keeping a secret from his mother, let alone his mother and his father. That poses a really unique challenge for Miles. I think that’s what makes the character so rich. And don’t forget, for a certain generation of kids, Miles Morales is their default Spider-Man.

Finnie: Exactly.

Powers: For me, Peter Parker was a Spider-Man that I grew up with, and I love them both. I know that there was this kind of vocal thing for a long time about “Miles isn’t a legitimate Spider-Man. He’s not the real Spider-Man.” We’re like, “What’s a clever way that we can have the natural story also be a metaphor for pushing back against the idea that this character shouldn’t even exist in the first place?” I hope that people received both the obvious and the kind of subversive elements of it in a positive way... When Miguel says to him, “You’re not supposed to be Spider-Man,” some people hear it exactly the way he said it based on the story. The spider bit the wrong person. But we all knew that some people were going to hear a different way... I feel like Miles is a Spider-Man for everyone. But depending on who you are and your own background, he’s going to be important to you for different reasons.

Finnie: And going to that, I want to talk about that scene when they were all chasing him down. How long did that scene take to actually lock in?

Powers: Oh, my God. First, that was our biggest set piece. It took years. We worked on that scene for years and we kept on making changes until the bitter end. I think it’s funny, though, one of the lines, Miles says, “Nah imma do my own thing.” I’m sure on my computer I have 50 different lines that [voice actor] Shameik [Moore] read. We just couldn’t. We worked. We tried it. We put it in there. It was like, “Ah, that sounded good, but this doesn’t work.” He did everything from like, “I’m Spider-Man.” And we tried so many different things. And it’s funny because that line on the page, I remember having a conversation with Phil Lord about it. I was like, “Oh, man, I don’t know, the line on the page doesn’t really read.” But then Shameik did the line. It was like, “No, his read is great. Like, I actually buy it coming out of your mouth.” You read, “Nah, imma do my own thing.” And you go like, “Ehhh, I don’t know if that’s going to work.” But then Shameik delivered it and you felt it.

Finnie: One of the last things I want to talk about too is Donald Glover in the live-action component in animation, because I don’t know that people quite understand how complex that is. We haven’t seen that in a while.

Powers: That came together very last minute. It was a real leap of faith. It was kind of one of those things where we were doing test screenings and we had a cardboard cut-out of Donald Glover face, kind of like “South Park” with the flapping lips. And it wasn’t his voice. [We were wondering], “Are we going to be able to actually get Donald Glover to do this?”

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Powers: And it came together. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I believe it was something like a month before the movie came out. Very quickly set up. Donald was in New York, Chris Miller flew out to New York and me and Phil Lord were actually sitting on video here, kind of giving direction while Chris was in person in the studio in New York. We had a costume designer very quickly build this prowler costume. And Donald was like sitting cross-legged. And honestly, we were just throwing him lines... It was almost like a comedy ad lib session. And we shot it from a few different angles, and we just tried a few of them out and made it work. But that’s the process, man. It’s exhilarating. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying at times because there was no backup. We knew we wanted to do something with live action. And I think that you hear the buzz of all the things that people may or may not be expecting. And you don’t want to just give people what they expect. Let’s surprise people. Let’s maybe try to delight them in a different way. I love that that little moment.

Finnie: I mean, surprising us you did. The ending surprised us. You almost lose track of time. You’re like, “Oh, I could have kept going with this for a little while longer.”

Powers: I’m like, “That was two hours and 20 minutes.” And we cut you a break when we did. I love our cliffhanger ending because part of the reason why it was such a “Whoa!” moment is because we introduced a new wrinkle at the last minute. That was a very conscious decision: “OK, now that Miles knows the truth, he knows exactly what he needs to do.” Or does he? And that was the way that we decided to tackle the cliffhanger.

Finnie: What you and the team and everyone there has done — because, as you said, animation is a collective — it’s so incredible. The five worlds in one that you all created. And just honestly want to tell you what you mean to the animation space and your voice is vital and it’s important that you know that.

Powers: Thank you.

Finnie: And I’m excited to see this film continue throughout the awards season.

Powers: Oh, thank you very much man. And that means a lot coming from you, Shawn.

Finnie: Yeah, 100%. Thank you for joining us.

Powers: Oh, my pleasure.

Finnie: When we come back, Yvonne is going to be speaking with Jeffrey Wright from “American Fiction.”

Adam Brody, left, and Jeffrey Wright in "American Fiction."
Adam Brody, left, and Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction.”
(Orion Pictures)

Villarreal: Jeffrey, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jeffrey Wright: Thank you for inviting me.

Villarreal: “American Fiction” had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice award, which is, you know, the most desired award you could get so early in the season. And recently, you got five Independent Spirit Award nominations. Not a small feat. And also, you were named as part of American Film Institute’s top 10 films, which is also quite the feat. I imagine none of that was on your mind when you were making it. So what were your expectations at the time?

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Wright: Yes, certainly none of that was on my mind. I don’t think that considerations like that really have a place when working. If any strangeness drifts into my head I try to delete it, to focus on the work at hand. But our sense was when we were working on the film that we were enjoying the work. We were enjoying working together and it seemed that we might be doing something good. We certainly thought it felt right. And I guess for me, the first gauge is the response of the crew. Crew is, in some ways, the first audience. And there was just a gathering momentum as we worked. And you could feel people just taking a little extra pride in their work. I mean, crews are the hardest-working people across any industry, and they work often thanklessly. And at the same time, they sense when something is going well and you can feel that energy grow as you go on and you can sense that quiet when the camera’s rolling. And there was also just a sense of joy that kind of overtook the process. We only shot for 25 or 26 days. It was quick. It was efficient. But yeah, we had a sense that we were making a story that maybe people wanted to hear.

Villarreal: I know Cord Jefferson, the writer and director of the film, wrote Monk with you in mind. Is it a strange feeling to have someone say they’ve written something for you?

Wright: If it’s not a very interesting or good piece, it could be strange. That wasn’t the case here. He wrote me a letter. He sent me the email and he wrote a letter saying that he had my voice in his head early on in the process of reading the novel and then when adapting it. And he also said, “And I have no Plan B.”

Villarreal: Oh, my God, no pressure.

Wright: That was pretty compelling. And then I read it and really from the first scene I was drawn in. I loved that conversation around race in the context of race [and] language. And it’s a conversation that I think we’ve been having in our culture recently. It’s a conversation I’ve had with myself and with others. And it was just smartly done. I think one of the problems that we face today is that there’s so much conversation around race. Race is always informing us. It has from the beginnings of our country, but we kind of lack of fluency. So it becomes an obstacle to real progress and this was sharply drawn [in American Fiction]. I thought it would be interesting to play. And so when I read that, I was in.

But there were other elements of Monk’s journey that were really striking to me because I had experienced them myself. My mom passed about a year before I got that script. I had the good fortune of being raised by two women, my mother and my aunt, her eldest sister, who is now 94 years old. And she came to live with me after my mom passed... I became caretaker to these two women who had been caretaker to me. And so that point in Monk’s life really kind of echoed my own. And I felt a really close emotional tie to it and an understanding of the pressures that come with that and the sacrifices that asks of a person, whether it be personal, creative, professional, whatever. I also got the sense that a lot of people would be able to relate to that. That it had a universal quality to it. And that would lend a lot of interesting space within our film for people to join us.

Villarreal: I have to know. Cord has mentioned that the original title for the film was going to be “F—”. Did you get it in that form when it had that title?

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Wright: I did.

Villarreal: What was that like for you to sort of see that and did it give you pause or were you like, “Oh, this is interesting.”

Wright: No, it didn’t give me [pause]. I mean, it made sense. Once you read the script for the film, you understand why. And you know, I was hoping we could get away with it. But Cord tells a funny story that there is someone on the marketing side of things who said, “Google the movie and see what comes up, your movie will never be found on the interwebs.” So I think he put that idea rightly out of his head.

Villarreal: Cord obviously has worked in TV for a long time and before that he was a journalist, but this was his first time directing a feature film. And I’m curious for you, like, what was it like to watch him sort of find his way over the course of making this film?

Wright: It was wonderful. As I said, there was a gathering momentum from the first day to the last. Cord obviously had to learn where the levers are and the buttons are that make a film set work. But he’s a fine communicator, smart guy. You know, he’s one of the sharper knives in the drawer. So he was able to galvanize all of us. I mean, directing at the end of the day is about communicating through the camera aperture onto the screen. But it’s also about communicating on set, not just to the actors, but to everyone involved. And he showed wonderful leadership. Again, that’s also what directing is about, is just leading the thing. And we all kind of gathered around and we played pulling guard when we had to. And we recognized, too, that it was his first swing at directing. And what he did as well, to his credit, was he acknowledged what he did not know, which is super important. He came without ego and understanding that the nature of this work is collaborative. I think we protected one another. And at the end of the day, we worked in a pretty efficient way over the course of those 25, 26 days. I forget exactly how many. And much of that had to do with wanting to support Cord.

Villarreal: What was the conversation like when you were having to embody the alter ego of your character, of leaning into that stereotype when there’s the conference call? What were the conversations like between you and Cord about going there, and how did that feel for you to sort of lean into that?

Wright: There wasn’t a lot of conversation necessary. John Ortiz, who plays Arthur, Monk’s literary agent, is an actor that I’ve never worked with before, but I’ve known for over 20 years from New York. In fact, we’ve done plays at the same time at the Public Theater where we shared a green room space even though we were on separate stages. I’ve known and admired John for some time, and so I couldn’t wait to work with him. ... We rehearsed a bit on the set. We bounced some ideas around, the three of us, and then we turned the cameras on. And again, the tone was so clear and Cord would come in and make adjustments here and there. But the larger questions had been answered by the script. And I just had a ball playing with Ortiz. I had a sense of how he would go about working, my expectations were matched and exceeded. We just went after it and had good fun together.

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Villarreal: At a screening that I was at there’s a scene that got a lively reaction, I would say. And it’s a scene where it’s Monk speaking with Issa Rae’s character, Sintara [Golden]. And she has written this novel that Monk sort of dismisses as work that sort of plays on Black stereotypes. And they’re having a debate about who gets to define Blackness and the limited perspective that is allowed for what Black life looks like. What’s your point of view of the argument they’re having? Like if Jeffrey Wright were in the room with them, what would he say?

Wright: That scene is a thesis argument for the film. At least as regards the absurdist side of Monk’s life, the side that is wrestling with perceptions of race and identity and all of that. And what I love about it is that Monk is confronted and Issa brings such credibility to that character and to the argument simply by who she is. It’s just fantastic casting. And at the end, what I appreciate is the ambiguity. “Who is exactly on the right side? Is there a right side? And is there maybe a synthesis of those two competing arguments that actually approaches something more insightful?” I don’t philosophically align entirely with Monk. I feel exact alignment with him in terms of this personal journey relative to personal responsibility, responsibility to family. I feel aligned with him in terms of experiencing the pressures from the outside that misperceive his interior life and what he considers to be his own authentic self. I get that. But he’s flawed like anyone else, so I don’t necessarily feel that he is the arbiter of truth in this story, and neither, necessarily, is she. So I may be somewhere in the evolved, synthesized middle of all of it. But at the same time, I don’t know if I necessarily have the answers either. But I love that conversation because I think it asks us to ask maybe some more constructive and better questions about the issues it centers on.

The criticisms that Monk has are criticisms that exist across the political spectrum, I think, in terms of examining why we are so bad at understanding race and problem-solving around race, whether it be media, whether it be through policy. So I take on board some of his observations. But at the same time, I’m sensitive, in a way that perhaps he is not, that there is a need not for an exclusion of certain stories, but for the expansion and inclusion of more stories that reflect the complexity and the heterogeneity of “Black life in America.” And that the narrowing of that perception of what it means to be Black is one that exists in many pockets of our society. I walk through the airport every day and I sense it. I walk through my neighborhood, which is a pretty left-leaning neighborhood — I sense it from certain people. ... If I go down South to see my family down there and walk in certain towns, I get it everywhere. So I’m not necessarily implying that there is a direct middle there. I’m much more aware the synthesis lies between their two arguments. And maybe there are other perspectives that need to be included too, to really synthesize something that is the most insightful.

Villarreal: Something I heard coming out of my screening was, “Wow, Jeffrey is really funny.” You’re mostly known for your dramatic roles. Obviously, you’ve done comedy before, but your comedic abilities really shine in this film, even in the somber moments. I’m thinking about that beachside scene — I won’t give it away what’s happening there, but let’s just say there’s a mention of Idris Elba. What did you enjoy about leaning more into the comedic sensibility of this film and how did it align with what you’re comfortable with doing?

Wright: I love doing comedy. I mean, “Angels in America” is comedic through and through. And like this film, you have to have that levity in order to to take in the more bitter medicine. I think this film is funny. I don’t think it’s a comedy. It’s satirical. And I think in some ways the satire is tragedy in disguise. ... It kind of matches my sensibilities in some way. Probably closer in some ways to my own sense of humor.

Villarreal: This year, you also starred in Netflix’s civil rights film “搁耻蝉迟颈苍,” in which you play Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who’s a pastor and the first African American to represent New York in Congress. Tell me what your process is like preparing for a character like Monk and how maybe it’s different from how you prepare for playing a real-life figure like Powell.

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Wright: I was aware of him all my life because he was such a charismatic and dynamic figure in American politics and particularly within the Black community. I’m here in Washington, D.C., now, which is where I grew up. Everybody’s political here, politics is just in the blood. He was a hero. He was beloved because he was an influential man. He was politically effective. But he was also a showman. He was like part political shaman, part political showman. He was a character different, of course, than playing a fictional character. You feel this extra sense of responsibility to do justice to that person’s memory.

I’ll tell you, as I said, my mom passed a few years ago. I was doing some stuff at her house trying to get some affairs together and things with the help of a cousin of mine. And he had pulled all of my mom’s stuff from the basement and put it in the living room. We were doing some work down in the basement. My mom had a wonderful book collection and record collection, some fantastic old vinyl. Some of my favorite records that I have are those that I kind of permanently borrowed from my mom’s collection, like Miles Davis’ “Live-Evil,” which is, if you haven’t heard it, a unreal album. I was trying to figure out in my schedule how to do the film “Rustin.” And [director] George C. Wolfe, of course, we worked together so many times before and I love him to death, but I was doing “Westworld.” I had gone off to do “Asteroid City”... And I walked into my mom’s house seeing all this stuff in the living room. The first thing that caught my eye as I walked in was Adam Clayton Powell’s face staring at me from the cover of an album that was a collection of some of his speeches, an album called “Keep the Faith, Baby.” And I called George. I said, “George, you’re never going to believe what happened. I just walk in my mom’s house and Adam Clayton Powell is staring at me.” He said, “Yeah, Jeffrey, that’s your mother telling you to do my movie.” So I said, “OK, I guess I’m in.” You know, things come to you in different ways.

Villarreal: I want to talk more about that dynamic between you and George. As you said, you’ve worked together a lot over the years. “Angels in America.” He directed you in other Broadway productions like “Topdog/Underdog,” “Free Man of Color.” Talk to me about maintaining that working relationship across decades and how it’s grown over the years.

Wright: The reason that we work so much together after the first experience we had with “Angels in America” on Broadway, which began, you know, it was a tough one. That was a big operation, a big story — my first kind of production on that scale. And it was also a role that wasn’t the easiest for me to find or to reveal. It was a kind of vulnerability, a sexuality about it, that took work. I was a jock growing up. I spent more time in in locker rooms than I did in green rooms or dressing rooms. And so I wasn’t necessarily the most evolved person in the room as regards [to] sexuality. And although I was kind of conscious of the fluidity of sexuality, still, to play that character on a stage and reveal that side of myself wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing. The reason I say that is, over the process of working on that, George and I created an incredible amount of trust for one another. That trust was born out of that process. And over time, that trust has only grown. And so I love George to death. He’s also godfather to my kids. He’s got a comprehensive, kind of encyclopedic knowledge of American history through a Black lens. And he at the same time brings such wide, vibrant imagination to interpreting those things. And he is also, as a director, so demanding, but in the best way and so supportive in terms of detail and insight that he gives you. He’s top shelf.

Villarreal: Another person I’m curious about who you’ve collaborated with multiple times is Wes Anderson, with “The French Dispatch,” “Asteroid City.” What is your best Wes Anderson story, Jeffrey?

Wright: Wes is very similar to George.

Villarreal: Really?

Wright: In terms of his attention to detail. And he as well is an absolute dogged taskmaster. He wants your everything. But he’s also so gentle and generous in pulling it out of you. And the two of them are very similar in that way. And in fact, Wes said that he had seen pretty much most of my work in the theater. ... And I was like, “Really? You saw ‘Free Man of Color’? Wow.” And so when he came to me with the script for “French Dispatch,” he said, “I’ve seen everything you’ve done in the theater. I think I wrote this for you because I don’t think there’s anyone else who can play this role.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but it was certainly flattering. And our working relationship began there. I get him, I get his language, I get his tone. I love playing his language. Wes doesn’t place a comma in by accident. There’s so much information to get from the way he crafts a sentence. And I love that stuff.

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This is what I’ve come to realize about him. Adrien Brody’s character in “Asteroid City,” the director seems to become himself or find himself more so on the set than he does anywhere else. I think there’s something autobiographical about that with Wes, because Wes can be somewhat reserved, somewhat cautious, slightly socially hesitant at times. He gets on set. He’s still sensitive, but there’s a clarity and a purpose about him. There’s a transformation between the two that is just so remarkable. He takes on this kind of general-like quality in his own way that’s just so wonderful. And he becomes fully alive. It’s so cool. But then we go back to dinner and it’s fine. And we eat together and we have some nice wine. And he’s his other self and he’s comfortable in that space too. But it’s so interesting, this transformation that overcomes him when he is doing the thing that he loves and wants to do. I absolutely adore working with him.

Villarreal: We’ve been talking about your work on stage. It’s where you got your start, but it’s been a while since you’ve been in a production. Have you been itching to get back on stage?

Jeffrey Wright: I’ve been too busy. I’ve kept myself busy enough that I don’t really have time to go, “Wow, I’d really like to be doing this now.” And thankfully I’ve been working on projects that I’ve been into and working with collaborators that I really appreciate. That said, I’d like to get back to the stage at some point. I want to get myself back to fighting condition because it demands more in some ways of the body. And I want to get myself back to a place where I can get back in the ring. Also, my kids are now away in school, and so I have a greater flexibility to invest the time that it takes to do a show, particularly if it’s on Broadway. Because I did “Angels in America” for a year and a half and it’s tougher to do that when you have kids.

Villarreal: Before I let you go, is there anything you can tell us about “The Batman Part II” Are you close? Have you got a script?

Wright There’s pretty much absolutely nothing that I can tell. No, I have not got a script. I think Matt [Reeves] is still busy chiseling away. I’m excited to read what’s there when the time comes. It’ll be fun to get back to Gotham, but that’s down the road just yet.

Villarreal: Well, Jeffrey, thanks so much for taking the time. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.

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Wright: All right. Thank you. Take care.

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