If the world hadn’t placed itself into deep freeze, this spring might have gone down as the Season of Jeffrey Wright. The 54-year-old, who could be fairly called either a character actor or a lead depending on the budget of a project, had two highly anticipated films set for theatres: No Time to Die, in which he reprises his CIA agent/James Bond buddy Felix Leiter, and Wes Anderson’s latest exercise in mannered comedy, The French Dispatch.
But even with those projects being put on pause, Wright is nearing omnipresence. The third season of his HBO head-trip Westworld is set to air its finale next weekend, and his new film, the intense family drama All Day and a Night, in which he plays a jailed father who sees his son follow his criminal footsteps, premieres May 1 on Netflix (where you can also catch his recent turn in Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat).
Ahead of All Day and a Night’s premiere, Wright spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about using his career to explore his interest in the criminal justice system.
This is your third film about prison life in a few years, after 2018′s O.G. and All Rise. How have your views on criminal justice evolved since making these films?
I kind of viewed those films as a personal trilogy of sorts. The interest in doing this film was amped up after my experience working on O.G. – we shot that at a working maximum-security prison in Pendleton, Ind., with a group of men incarcerated. All but three roles in that film of incarcerated men were played by men doing time. In learning their personal histories – we shot six weeks, 13 hours a day on the inside – of how they found themselves where they were, there was an almost universality to their stories.
Most often they involved parental abuse, parental neglect, and a host of other things, but it was that realization that compelled me to [writer-director Joe Robert Cole’s] story here, and to the character of J.D. [in All Day and a Night], to kind of try to portray one aspect of how the young men who find themselves on the street involved in activities that will lead to their self-destruction. J.D. represents one driver that leads them to that pathway. He’s not the entirety of it, and he himself is part of that same cycle, but his influence clearly on his son is not what he might’ve hoped from the beginning.
How deep did you get on that character with director Joe Robert Cole, who was working here as a first-time filmmaker.
Well, he’s a first-time director but not a first-time filmmaker. You’re a writer, give yourself some credit, c’mon! [Laughs] Joe wanted to look at the flaws of this character and wanted to find the humanity and the vulnerability as well. We talked about it on those terms, and on the terms of a guy who clearly might’ve been able to do more. Like those guys who I spent so much time with at Pendleton. They were ambitious, curious, clever, capable guys who were ground down by the limitations of their experiences growing up and their opportunities growing up, and the narrow portholes available to them toward opportunities that might’ve allowed them to realize their abilities in more constructive ways. They wound up frustrated and angry and dangerous, not only to themselves but to everyone around them. That’s how I viewed J.D. – capable of more, but having difficulty being more.
Have you kept in touch with the men you met in Pendleton?
I was just exchanging via email with one last week as he was telling me about the situation with COVID-19 inside the facility. He’s no longer at Pendleton, and I was trying to share the information that I had as to how he might best protect himself. He could quite possibly be seeing his way out of incarceration shortly.
Although you and Ashton Sanders, who plays the adult version of J.D.'s son, don’t have a lot of screen time together, the father-son connection – I hesitate to use the word bond in this case – comes across strong.
Oh, Ashton is an interesting young actor. Our interaction happens from afar for the most part, but he’s got so much going on internally, so those are the best types of actor to play across because they’re giving you so much information. You’re able to process that, and have that inform the performance that you in turn deliver back. Ideally it creates for an interesting portrait. Ashton was wonderful in that regard.
You’ve done a lot of bit parts, cameos really, in comedic projects such as Game Night, The Venture Bros., Rick and Morty, but I think most audiences wouldn’t associate you with comedy.
I love doing comedy! Jim Jarmusch also gives me an opportunity to play those notes in Broken Flowers and Only Lovers Left Alive. When he sends me his scripts, I immediately hear the music, the irony, that he intends. The thing, though, is that the old saying is true, particularly with Game Night: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That little part, it was so much more complicated than it seemed. Timing is key, and you’ve got to make it count. That was more stressful than I thought it might be.
This interview has been condensed and edited
All Day and a Night is available to stream on Netflix starting May 1
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