‘Asteroid City‘ Star Jeffrey Wright On His Love Of The Theater, Leaving The 007 Universe & Bonding With Wes Anderson: “I Just Dig Him. I Think We All Do”

It’s a testament to Jeffrey Wright’s onscreen presence that he is now the longest-serving Felix Leiter — an often-thankless part that’s perhaps the 007-universe equivalent of a Star Trek redshirt — in the entire James Bond franchise. But, then, Wright has a charismatic gravitas that has served him well in the years since Basquiat, an experimental portrait of the ill-fated New York graffiti artist, first launched him in 1996. Emmy-nominated for his stint in HBO’s Westworld, he comes to Cannes with his second Wes Anderson hook-up, Asteroid City, after stealing the show in The French Dispatch as food writer Roebuck Wright.

DEADLINE: Wes Anderson’s films are always shrouded in secrecy, but what can you say about Asteroid City?

JEFFREY WRIGHT: Well, it’s more Wes Anderson [laughs]. It’s set in a fictional town in the American West of 1955, or at least it was 1955 when last I understood it to be. There’s a gathering around science and innovation centered on a group of young inventors or ‘stargazers,’ as we call them. The story flows from that until it doesn’t, and it’s disrupted by an event that affects everyone. When I read the scripts, I asked Wes if he had written it during lockdown. He said he had. It made a poetical sense to me that that was the case. But it’s a wonderful, ironic, and quirky, but also fantastical film. Perhaps in a way that many of Wes’ films are fantastical, but I found this one particularly so. And it’s a story that, for me, became even richer and more interesting on performing it. It really unfolded with increasing detail and wonder as we got together to put it on its feet.

DEADLINE: What can you reveal about the character you play?

WRIGHT: I play General Grif Gibson, who’s a five-star general. He’s the host for this event, a gathering of young, brilliant scientists and inventors. And he’s there because the United States military has an interest in these young minds and their various experiments. And so, he oversees the days spent there and the itinerary.

DEADLINE: How did you first get involved with Wes Anderson?

WRIGHT: I first got involved in the somewhat usual fashion when my agent reached out and said that Wes would like to meet me. This was, oh, I guess — geez, time is so strange now, since the pandemic — four or five years ago. My agent said that Wes would like to meet me to talk about an upcoming project he had planned, in which he’d written a part with me in mind. As it turned out, I was traveling with my kids to Paris later that week, and Wes was living in Paris at the time. We met at a cafe in Saint-Germain and talked about The French Dispatch and the character of Roebuck Wright. And I found out over lunch that he had seen pretty much every play I’d ever done in New York.

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I was very touched by that, and surprised because I hadn’t met him backstage after any of those shows. And it was very gratifying to know that he had taken the time to do that, and that, after having taken in my work over so many years, he’d kept me in mind with the intent to work with me someday. And so, The French Dispatch was the beginning of our working relationship.

DEADLINE: Roebuck Wright would be a fantastic part for any actor. It’s probably one of the best parts in any of Wes Anderson’s films, to be quite honest.

WRIGHT: I couldn’t say [laughs]. There are so many wonderful characters and performances in Wes’ films. But when he sent me the script, and it was only Roebuck Wright’s story that he sent me, I just immediately fell in love with the words on that page. It was one of the most carefully, wonderfully written pieces that I had read. And by the time we got to set, I knew every comma and dash in the thing. It just spoke to me.

DEADLINE: There are so many characters in that film, but Roebuck Wright is one of the more real and emotionally grounded.

WRIGHT: Yeah. All the characters in The French Dispatch were autobiographical for him in their own ways. I think it was a very personal film for him. But you’re a writer, so you’re biased.

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DEADLINE: What’s Wes like to work with? We hear that he’s a perfectionist and obviously a stylist.

WRIGHT: I’m probably less stylistic in my life than Wes, but I’m equally a perfectionist. So, I understand him, and I know what he wants. He’s all of that and a real taskmaster but in the best way. He has a very vivid vision for his films, clearly, and he asks a group of actors to come together that he believes can help him realize that vision. Because he has such a specific and personal signature, we all understand what he’s doing — and if we don’t, then we’re in the wrong place. We understand that we are there to be in service to him and to his ideas and his framework. I find that to be gratifying. Wes is unique.

So, I seriously enjoy working with him because of his specificity and also because I think his films are genuine. He’s not putting on an affectation. He genuinely desires to tell a story in this way on film. And I love partnering with him in that, to the extent that I do in these characters that I’ve been able to play with him. I just dig him. I think we all do.

DEADLINE: You’re quite unusual, in terms of American actors, because you have a lot of stage experience. What is it about theater that attracted you in the first place?

WRIGHT: Well, the actors that I appreciated growing up, and most actors of the generation that I watched as a kid, were theater actors. Folks like Dustin Hoffman, Sidney Poitier, [Marlon] Brando, these are theater actors. [Al] Pacino is a theater actor. And what first drew me to acting wasn’t film; it was theater. It was just going to the theater regularly as a kid with my mom in Washington [D.C.], seeing all the touring shows that came to town. Everything from Black musicals like The Wiz and Purlie to Annie, to James Whitmore in Give ’em Hell, Harry! and the one-man show that Avery Brooks did about Paul Robeson.

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I just saw a whole range of stuff on stage, and I was just enthralled by it. And then, I got out of college and started doing theater. I didn’t do any plays in high school. I didn’t do much in college until very late. Getting back to Wes Anderson, Wes’s films are, in some ways, cinematic theater in that we all exist inside these dioramas that are essentially shifting stages for him. He also appreciates the written word in a way that’s rare for the cinema.

Jeffrey Wright The Batman

DEADLINE: Is it the spontaneity of theater that appeals to you?

WRIGHT: There’s a freedom and an unexpected aspect to it that lends itself to spontaneity. And there’s also greater immediacy in the relationship between the performance and the audience. The actor has greater control over that relationship, and that’s gratifying. I was an athlete many years ago, and there’s an athletic quality to acting, a physical quality that, at times, you can explore on film, but you do it at every moment on stage. Even if there are quiet moments. There’s a physicality to it that I appreciate.

DEADLINE: What’s been your favorite role you’ve played in theater?

WRIGHT: I don’t know. Obviously, Angels in America is the most meaningful play and performance, really, of my career, because it was the epicenter of so much. It was early on in my career, and it spoiled me with the idea that we could actually do great things. And it was also happening at a time that really needed it. I mean, I don’t say that lightly: it had a profound relevance. So that’s a big one for me. But I also deeply enjoyed playing in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, which recently had a revival.

DEADLINE: Are you still keeping an eye on the theater?

WRIGHT: I’ll get back on the stage at some point, I think. Yeah. I’ve been working on a lot of movies and, of course, Westworld, so I’ve been jumping from one thing to another. In fact, I was doing Westworld when we filmed Asteroid City. They gave me a break; I snuck off for a couple of weeks to go do it, and then went back. Right now, I’m taking a pause, because there’s been too many airplanes in too many directions over the past few years. I have a project coming out this year, as well as two others. And so, I would like to get back on the stage at some point.

DEADLINE: This interview is going in Deadline’s Cannes magazine. What’s your experience with Cannes?

WRIGHT: I’ve never been! This will be my first trip. I’ve had several films there, and, for one reason or another, I didn’t make it. Mostly because I was working, and they wouldn’t let me. For example, the last time Wes had a film there, I was fully planning to go, and then I believe it was Westworld that didn’t see fit to allow me to take time off to go.

DEADLINE: The films of yours that have been there are all very different: films like W, Only Lovers Left Alive, The French Dispatch

WRIGHT: Don’t forget Broken Flowers!

DEADLINE: What’s the common denominator in these kinds of films?

WRIGHT: Well, when I’ve chosen best, it’s been about the collaborators and the people I’ve worked with. And over time, I’ve gotten better and smarter and wiser in my choices. And that’s, lately, what I think is most central. Yes, of course, the story has to be interesting to me and meaningful, but you can have the best of stories and have the experience of telling those stories be completely undermined by the people that you work with. I’ve learned over time that that’s the key to this work: do it well and do it with others who are also doing it well — and who aren’t assholes.

DEADLINE: Basquiat put you on the map. How do you feel about it now?

WRIGHT: I’m pleased to see the ways in which Basquiat has grown in the eyes of the world, and I think that our film was the first introduction to him and his work for many people. And for that reason, I felt, at the beginning of working on it, that it needed to be done carefully. “Treat it gentle”, as Sidney Bechet wrote. I felt that I was being asked to be a caretaker for the telling of this seriously delicate story. So, it’s just been amazing to me, from that moment to now, to see his influence on aesthetics around the world and in so many different media and ways. It’s cool because I fell in love with him as an artist when I began to study his work preparing for that role. His work, his language, just speaks to me really deeply. I get him, and I’m pleased to see that others are beginning to get him too. I’m proud that I might have played a little part in that.

DEADLINE: What was it like working on the Bond movies? Would you go back if they reboot it?

WRIGHT: Yeah. Or if there’s a ‘ghost of Felix Leiter’ moment, then I’ll certainly consider doing that [laughs]. But, at the same time, I had a great run on those films, together with Daniel [Craig], Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson and I’m very happy to let that be. I’d never expected to be a part of that franchise. I was an enormous geeky fan of the Bond films as a kid, as many of us were. I’m completely satisfied with what we did there. I’m happy to move on and let someone else be part of it.

DEADLINE: What are you up to now?

WRIGHT: I just finished a film last fall, which is, as of now, untitled, directed by a first-time director, Cord Jefferson, who also wrote the script. It’s a film based on the Percival Everett novel, Erasure. I think we did something interesting there. But after we finished that in the fall, I decided to take some time off and lay low with my daughter, who’s in her last year of high school, and play the role of executive assistant to her as she applied to colleges and all that stuff. I just decided to chill for a while. I looked up one day and realized that it’d been over 35 years since I’d done nothing but work as a professional actor. Now, I’d like to carry on working for as long as I’d like to work, but I also think I’m OK with a little break here and there right now. And so, I’m taking a break.

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