BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Even though Jeffrey Wright has won a Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe, and appeared in more than 35 films as one of the most versatile actors of his generation, he’s far from a household name.
But he couldn’t care less.
Portraying painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic set the stage for other distinct performances for the 47-year-old Wright, like playing Colin Powell in “W,” Muddy Waters in “Cadillac Records” and operative Felix Leiter in “Casino Royale.”
And his varied dramatic skills prompted the makers of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” to cast the Washington, D.C., native in the role of sinister Dr. Valentin Narcisse this season.
With his latest film, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” setting box office records worldwide, Wright examined his career choices in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
AP: How was it joining the established “Hunger Games” cast?
Wright: It’s easier for me because I didn’t have to take the risk on the first one. I didn’t have to do the hard work of winning over this intensely passionate fan base. I got a chance to come in and surf their success. But that is a little concerning, too, because you want to come into a situation and add to the recipe. You don’t want to be the guy who puts too much salt in this really wonderful dish.
AP: Some feel you are underrated and underexposed. What’s your response?
Wright: I don’t mind that I am not necessarily a household name because I think my characters have outshined me. That was by design. And I’m not wanting for appreciation. But for the past 10 years or so I kind of pumped the brakes on acting and have been intentionally doing smaller roles that didn’t take me away from home for three months because I wanted to be with my son and daughter (with wife Carmen Ejogo). Over the last couple of years I’ve started to go away and work a bit more.
AP: Do you feel people are rediscovering you through your character on “Boardwalk Empire”?
Wright: Yeah. They started writing one of the most interesting stories for me that I’ve ever been a part of. Then they started tailoring this madman to suit what I could bring to it. It’s awesome, and we shoot most of it about five blocks away from my house in Brooklyn.
AP: What struggles do you face as an African-American man in Hollywood?
Wright: I don’t really consider myself a black man in Hollywood. I live in Brooklyn … and on purpose. At the most base level, what an actor represents to the film industry is an investment. Depending on the risk profile, an investor needs 1,000 reasons to commit and one reason not to. That means you’ve got to do more work on your own and that the machine is not going to necessarily do the blocking for you. The machine rarely accepted my code. That can be frustrating, but you just have to be aware.
AP: Out of all of the characters you’ve played, which is most like you?
Wright: I would probably say, although I am older now and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but Basquiat because I was that wild child in the city at one point who was trying to tell my story, too.
AP: The bright orange socks you’re wearing show you’ve still got edge.
Wright: I try to keep it lively! I consider Basquiat a kindred spirit, which is part of the reason I wanted to share some part of his story with a larger audience … even though Jay Z likes to say that he is the new Jean-Michel, we were telling that story 20 years ago. But I’m glad that he and folks who might not otherwise have taken a look at his work are now doing it.