It's not that Jeffrey Wright couldn't predict the impact that American Fiction would have; it's that he wouldn't. "When I'm on set and those types of thoughts enter my head, I use a series of mantras to get them out, because they're distracting," he explains. "I can't control anybody's ideas or opinions about what we did together; I can only do my work. Otherwise, if I think that way, a little bit of madness lies."
Based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure and adapted by screenwriter and first-time director Cord Jefferson, American Fiction casts Wright as author Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, whose new novel is rejected for not being "Black" enough. To prove a point to his editor, he pens an exploitative autofiction full of tired tropes, which unintentionally becomes the hottest title in the literary world. At the same time, Monk finds himself dealing with family tragedy, a new romance, and the general messiness of life.
The character actor is best known for films like Basquiat (1996) and his regular collaborations with Wes Anderson (2021's The French Dispatch and 2023's Asteroid City), along with a robust CV of franchise work (three James Bond movies, three Hunger Games movies, and 2022's The Batman). But American Fiction offers Wright a still-too-rare leading role. When the film debuted at TIFF, it took home the much-coveted People's Choice Award.
"We made a wonderful film. I feel perfect about it, very proud of it, and good about my contribution," Wright tells A.frame. "First and foremost, I look forward to people taking it in and perhaps finding themselves in this story in unexpected ways. For now, that's reward enough."
A.Frame: Did what you were expecting American Fiction to be as a piece of work match the experience that you had?
I have to say no; it did not match the expectation. This film came together organically. It's a character that I felt a kinship with very early on in reading the script, but I still don't always know what I'm going to do. I am still a little trepidatious before any project, so my expectations are probably a little skewed by a sense of neuroses and anxiety that comes along with this work. American Fiction was one of the most gratifying experiences I've had working on a movie, and it was one of the rare times that I felt the production, the process, and myself getting stronger as we drove toward the finish line. It was a short shoot, only 25 or 26 days, but there was a growing momentum as we made this film and a sense among all of us, the actors and also the crew, that we might be onto something special. You could sense it in the air.
It happens occasionally and is wonderful, because the crew also starts to work with a little more pride in what they do. Crews are always extremely hardworking, but they work much harder, and they add an extra layer of detail to whatever they're doing. There was just a sense that we were in this together and doing something good. We like this story, we think it's meaningful, and we gathered around Cord in that way. This all comes from him. It was his vision. He's a first-time director, so there was a sense that we had to both be led by him and support him, and it all came together beautifully. I think it is ultimately owing to the quality of his leadership and the quality of the material he provided us.
Cord is a seasoned writer, and, as you say, American Fiction is his directorial debut. As an actor with the experience you have, was there something in his writing, or his vision, that you knew made him a great storyteller behind the camera as well as on the page?
After he'd sent me the script and I'd read it, one of the things that he talked about early on was what he did not know. He said, 'Look, I've never done this before. I've never directed so much as traffic around an accident in the middle of the street. Nothing.' That was a significant tool in his toolbox, because he recognized that there would be limitations and he would need a little assistance at times, until he came up to speed. It can be pretty unwieldy for a director when you get on a movie set, even if you're experienced. Beyond learning where the levers are and what buttons need to be pushed to get what happens, he's a quick study. We all appreciated that, despite not having the experience, Cord understood his way around the story clearly — as evidenced in his writing — and he was also a very clear communicator, not only through the script but also on set. Without that, there's chaos, but if we understand your vision and how you want to get there, and you communicate that clearly, and we like you, then good things happen. Cord also has a great sense of humor and created a great atmosphere for us all to work in. He did a beautiful job.
As an actor, your job is to pretend to be someone else, but you've said that Monk is closer to you than any character that you have played previously. Does that make it harder or easier for you?
It made it a little simpler to find the externals of the character. Often, and I enjoy working this way, I like playing with my body and voice. In this instance, I didn't have to do much of that, but it was about emerging the interior and more personal side of this character, which didn't take a whole lot. That was not so much because of the challenges and the frustrations that the character is facing as a creative person, but it had more to do with the challenges that arise for the character as someone who is asked to be the caretaker of the woman who was his caretaker — his mother. That's something that I understood. The ways in which that level of responsibility asked for sacrifices on the personal and professional level hit home for me. Monk is a man at that point in his life where it dawns on him that the youthful understanding that thinks the world gets easier as you get older is entirely folly, and life can hit you like a freight train. I understood that pretty well, so we were very much aligned in those ways.
Monk's relationships showcase the different kinds of love he feels for the people in his life, but he's resistant to being loved. There is a line where Cliff, played by Sterling K. Brown, tells Monk, 'People want to love you. You should let them.' What was it like to explore so many different versions of love in one piece of work?
There was a lot that I was able to play in this film, which is rare. That familial love, those dynamics, was something I had never experienced in a role before. I don't think we see that too often — the messiness, the complications, the inability despite best efforts to escape the love that exists inside the DNA of a family. I found that to be so thrilling to play, but at the same time, so important, because it's not seen. When I saw the film the other day with an audience for the first time, I looked at it at one point and said, 'Wow, what a beautiful, messy group of people. They're like any other people, any other family, except they happen to be Black.' There's an accessibility and a universality to it that I thought was wonderful.
Then there's the love of self, which is another challenge for Monk, and the love with Coraline, played by Erika Alexander, and the relationship he finds himself in with her. There are so many layers and facets to this examination of love that it very much, at the end of the day, is precisely that. Simply put, it's a story about the search for love in all its many forms. That's a good question, because it really sits at the heart of this story that, in some ways, pretends to be something else.
The use of humor in American Fiction is very clever, and it is often as powerful as the film's dramatic elements. How did you find your comfort zone with that?
I like to laugh as much as anyone else. In this instance, it's funny, but I wouldn't call it a comedy; it's satirical, and in some ways, the satire is a tragedy in disguise. There are layers to it that give it depth and make it seriously fun to play. The humor here is also born out of, or at least married to, the drama in an interesting way. Monk is forced into these absurd situations partly because he feels this obligation to his mother. The use of stereotypes and the proliferation of these tropes is, in some ways, answered by this portrait of this family that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. The two sides of the movie, if you will, are almost symbiotic and married together in unexpected ways.
I've done a fair amount of comedic stuff. I'm not known for it, but Angels in America is rife with humor born out of bleakness. I did Broken Flowers, and there's a fair amount of humor there; there's the Wes Anderson stuff and Game Night, so I love doing comedy. In fact, when I first started as an actor in college, I had this dismissive New England professor tell me, 'Well, I think you might be an Eddie Murphy type, but I don't see you necessarily as being a serious actor.' I love Eddie Murphy — he's brilliant — but this guy saw me as very limited to the comedic side. So, it wasn't such foreign territory for me, but that's also because I enjoy finding the humor even in the darkest things.