Jeffrey Wright: Hiding in Plain Sight in Our Favorite Characters


Despite his insistence on “Jeffrey or nothing” for “American Fiction,” Jefferson said he wasn’t quite prepared for the experience. “To be honest, I was a little terrified of directing him,” he said. “It felt like telling LeBron James how to dunk a basketball.”

But “he’s great not because he says, ‘I’m Jeffrey Wright — leave me alone to do my work,’” Jefferson said, “but because he says, ‘What do you think about this line, what about my emotions here?’” Wright “did two things in this role that were spectacular and that needed very little guidance,” Jefferson continued: He allowed audiences to see the pain and hurt beneath Monk’s anger, and he played the comedy subtly rather than broadly. “His eyebrow acting is better than what some people can do with their entire bodies,” Jefferson said.

Issa Rae, who appears in the movie as the author of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a novel that infuriates Monk because he feels it caters to white readers’ stereotypes of the so-called Black experience, said it was fascinating to watch Wright improvising and riffing on different options for each scene.

She added that “the layers of his intimidating presence fell away” quickly, as he hung out with the other actors, told the story of an earlier theatrical rejection in a moment of downtime and marveled about American history, inspired by his bike rides along the Paul Revere Ride to Freedom bike trail in Boston, where the movie was filmed.

Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Monk’s acerbic sister, Lisa, recalled their first scene together, set in a car. “I’m trying to smoke and roll the window down and drive, and I’m saying my lines and improvising a little,” she said. “And I look over and Jeffrey’s laughing. And he said, ‘You’re cracking me up,’ and I thought, ‘I made Jeffrey Wright break character!’”

“Lots of people would intimidate you with the body of work he has and the skill he has,” she said. “But you feel incredibly welcomed, and there’s a sense of play as you work together.”



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