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After developing a prolific and acclaimed career on the stage, actor Jeffrey Wright quietly worked his way into the public consciousness in chameleon-like fashion, playing a wide range of roles in features and on television. Though he spent several years honing his craft off-Broadway and in regional theater, Wright staked his reputation with a Tony Award-winning performance in the widely acclaimed play, "Angels in America: Perestroika," which he later reprised almost a decade later in the highly lauded HBO miniseries. In between the play and the six-part movie, Wright built a resume that included deft performances as such divergent historical figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as an array of strong supporting roles in "Celebrity" (1998) and "Shaft" (2000). After earning an Emmy for "Angels in America," Wright had finally broken through to the mainstream, earning meatier parts in "Syriana" (2005), "Casino Royale" (2006) and "W" (2008). The versatile actor continued to genre hop, jumping from the musical biopic "Cadillac Records" (2008) to the sci-fi thriller "Source Code" (2011) to the prescient political drama "The Ides of March" (2011) with impressive ease. While...
After developing a prolific and acclaimed career on the stage, actor Jeffrey Wright quietly worked his way into the public consciousness in chameleon-like fashion, playing a wide range of roles in features and on television. Though he spent several years honing his craft off-Broadway and in regional theater, Wright staked his reputation with a Tony Award-winning performance in the widely acclaimed play, "Angels in America: Perestroika," which he later reprised almost a decade later in the highly lauded HBO miniseries. In between the play and the six-part movie, Wright built a resume that included deft performances as such divergent historical figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as an array of strong supporting roles in "Celebrity" (1998) and "Shaft" (2000). After earning an Emmy for "Angels in America," Wright had finally broken through to the mainstream, earning meatier parts in "Syriana" (2005), "Casino Royale" (2006) and "W" (2008). The versatile actor continued to genre hop, jumping from the musical biopic "Cadillac Records" (2008) to the sci-fi thriller "Source Code" (2011) to the prescient political drama "The Ides of March" (2011) with impressive ease. While not the marquee draw of some of his contemporaries, Wright could always be counted upon to deliver a performance on par with the very best.
Born on Dec. 7, 1966 in Washington, D.C., Jeffrey Wright was raised by his mother, a customs lawyer, after his father died from unknown circumstances when he was a year old. When he was a kid, Wright was obsessed with sports, especially football, which he played in the Metropolitan Police Boys Club while attending Naylor Road School. When he was around nine, he received a so-called risk scholarship to attend St. Albans School, a private college preparatory school for boys, where he dealt with the pressures of being in a school filled with the children of the moneyed elite, while excelling at both sports and his studies. After graduating in 1983, he matriculated at Amherst College as a political science major with an eye towards becoming a lawyer. He did, however, make his first venture into acting in his senior year by doing his first play, despite having to overcome stage fright. In 1987, with his Bachelor's degree in hand, Wright returned home to appear in several productions at the Round House Theater, Arena Theater and even local schools. Though his mother held hopes that her son would become a lawyer - she even secured him a summer job at a law firm - Wright was determined to pursue an acting career.
In 1988, Zelda Fichandler, founding director of the Arena Theater, helped Wright obtain a full scholarship to New York University's graduate drama program at the Tisch School of the Arts. But after only two months in attendance, Wright dropped out, never to return. Meanwhile, he returned to the Arena theater, before performing at the Yale Repertory Theatre and in off-Broadway productions. Moving from stage to screen, he made his film debut with a bit part in "Presumed Innocent" (1990), which he followed with his first bow on the small screen, appearing in "Separate But Equal" (ABC, 1991), a two-part historical miniseries that dramatized the events leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, "Brown vs. Board of Education," which ended segregation in public schools. As he made strides in front of the camera, including a small role in "Jumpin' at the Boneyard" (1991), Wright continued building an impressive stage resume, performing in productions of "Juno and the Paycock" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which he played a dreadlocked and streetwise Puck. Wright had one of his bigger television roles to date, playing early jazz musician Sidney Bechet in two feature-length installments of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (ABC, 1991-93).
After having struggled on small stages while working as a bicycle messenger to make ends meet, Wright finally broke through with a sterling performance in the play "Angels in America: Perestroika," Tony Kushner's fantastical play about the AIDS crisis striking the gay community in New York City circa the mid-1980s. Wright played Belize, a former drag queen-turned-nurse who works at a hospital where several gay men, including a conservative man in denial about his homosexuality, are dying from AIDS. While the play was hailed by critics and won several awards, Wright was singled out among a stellar ensemble cast, winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1994. Despite his onstage triumph, Wright still struggled to make his name on screen, though he continued to shine off-Broadway, essaying The Fool in F. Murray Abraham's "King Lear" (1996). This led theater director George C. Wolfe to cast him as "da Voice," the highly entertaining narrator of the acclaimed tap-dancing Broadway musical, "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" (1996).
Wright finally had his chance to carry a film with a leading role when he played the radiant, but ultimately doomed young graffiti writer-turned-fine artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in the biopic "Basquiat" (1996). Directed by independent filmmaker Julian Schnabel - who was also a friend of Basquiat's - the film gave Wright the palette to paint the portrait of a complicated and often misunderstood artist who became the darling of the New York art world - thanks to his discovery by Andy Warhol (David Bowie) - only to slip into drug addiction and mental depression that resulted in his untimely death. Wright continued to work steadily in film and television, including landing roles in Woody Allen's "Celebrity" (1998) and Ang Lee's independent Western "Ride with the Devil" (1999). After a brief appearance in a modern day adaptation of "Hamlet" (2000), starring Ethan Hawke as the melancholy heir of Denmark Corporation, Wright earned positive notices for playing a small time drug dealer looking to make it big in the remake of "Shaft" (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson.
As the new millennium rolled around, Wright finally began to land more prominent roles in higher profile gigs more worthy of his considerable talents. Wright maintained the momentum of his burgeoning screen career playing a bartender who takes up with a mother (Ellen Barkin) whose daughter (Monica Keena) plots to murder her drunken stepfather (Michael Ironside) in the dreary "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia" (2000), a modern take on Fyodor Dostoyevski's classic novel. In "Boycott" (HBO, 2001), he earned rave reviews for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this dramatization of the events surrounding the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Also in 2001, Wright began performing in the Public Theater production of "Topdog/Underdog," Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about two African-American brothers (Wright and Don Cheadle) struggling to contend with the streets and their troubled lives. First staged off-Broadway, the play soon moved to Broadway, where Cheadle was replaced by Mos Def. Reviews at the time marveled at the energy between Wright and Mos Def, many of which claimed the two actors played off each other like real brothers.
Boosting his profile, Wright landed the part of Howard Bingham in "Ali" (2001), starring Will Smith as the legendary heavyweight prizefighter. Meanwhile, Wright reprised his stage role of nurse Belize for the critically acclaimed and multi-award winning television miniseries version of "Angels in America" (HBO, 2003), appearing alongside the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. Directed by Mike Nichols, the epic six-part miniseries was a major triumph for the cable network, earning 11 Emmy awards atop of six wins at the Golden Globes. Wright figured into the equation, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie, and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. Back on the big screen, he had a small role in the straight-to-video crime thriller "Detox" (2002), followed by narrating the Civil Rights documentary "With All Deliberate Speed" (2004), a look at how Brown v. Board of Education failed to stem discrimination because many districts continued under-funding schools in African-American communities.
After a short, but unnerving performance as Cpl. Al Melvin in Jonathan Demme's disappointing remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), Wright played Small Paul, a soft-spoken history buff who is rumored to have killed someone in "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005), an autobiographical drama based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Obie-winning play about his growing up in a boarding house run by a woman (S. Epatha Merkerson) who became the caregiver of lost souls. In Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" (2005), Wright had a supporting role a crime novel enthusiast who fancies himself a detective and convinces his neighbor (Bill Murray) to go on a road trip after being shown a letter from an ex-girlfriend claiming to be the mother of his long-lost son. Wright followed with a strong supporting performance in the sprawling ensemble epic about oil and geopolitical power, "Syriana" (2005), playing a Washington, D.C. lawyer helping to broker a merger between two oil company giants, despite their shady business dealings. He next appeared in the much-maligned "Lady in the Water" (2006), playing a delusional tenant of an apartment building where a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) suddenly appears in the pool. In danger of being killed by demon-like creatures, the nymph tries to get back to her world with the help of the building's superintendent (Paul Giamatti) and his motley tenants.
Wright next joined an excellent supporting cast in "Casino Royale" (2006), the 21st installment of the James Bond series and the first to star blonde Daniel Craig, whose cold and calculating take on Ian Fleming's super agent hit closer to the author's original vision of the character. Wright played Felix Leiter, a CIA mole who, along with MI6 operative Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), helps Bond take down a banker for terrorists (Mads Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes card game in Montenegro. Anticipation was high prior to the film's November 2006 release, with most critics agreeing that "Casino Royale" was one of the best in the long-running series. After starring in "Blackout" (BET Networks, 2007), a dramatization of the massive power outage in the northeast in 2003, Wright landed supporting roles in "The Invasion" (2007) and "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007). Meanwhile, he joined an all-star ensemble cast for one of the most controversial films of the early 21st century, playing former Secretary of State General Colin Powell in Oliver Stone's "W" (2008), a surprisingly even-handed look at the troubled life and presidency of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin). Wright followed with a reprisal of CIA operative Felix Leiter in the next Bond film, "Quantum of Solace" (2008).
Continuing his streak of impressive film roles for the year, Wright portrayed blues guitar legend Muddy Waters in "Cadillac Records" (2008), a musical docudrama about the founding of the influential Chess Records, co-starring Adrien Brody and Beyoncé Knowles. After some time away from movie screens to enjoy a brief return to the stage, the actor reappeared as the genius creator of the timeline altering "Source Code" (2011), in a sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga. That same year, the in-demand Wright played an influential U.S. senator in "The Ides of March" (2011), a timely political drama produced, co-written and directed by its star George Clooney. Rounding out the season, he turned up as a man connected to a mystery left behind by a 9/11 victim (Tom Hanks) for his son (Thomas Horn) in the coming-of-age melodrama "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011) prior to delivering a turn as a disapproving contemporary of the titular troubled doctor's in a final season episode of the medical drama "House M.D." (Fox, 2004-2012).
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"Since shooting wrapped, Wright has been starring as the narrator in "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk", the smash Broadway play about the history of tap-dancing and race in America. After a recent matinee performance, Wright was onstage fielding questions from high school students . 'How did you choose the professions for the scene where black men can't get a taxicab?' he was asked. 'They should have added a fifth', Wright suggested. 'An actor trying to get a taxi after the theater'." --From "Jeffrey Wright" by Christina Kelly in Us, September 1996.
"Of getting snubbed by cabdrivers, the actor says, 'It's the assumption that you're a criminal or that you're not going to pay or that you're a f---up when in actuality you just got off a Broadway stage. It makes you want to throw rocks.' Once, he was so incensed that he kicked the door of a cab that refused to pick him up. 'The driver got out and pulled out a bottle of some kind of flammable liquid and was going to burn me', he says. 'It was madness over this slight. But these small slights build up.'" --From "Jeffrey Wright" by Christina Kelly in US, September 1996.
Wright has expressed interest in portraying such other African-American culture heroes as Langston Hughes and Adam Clayton Powell.
"I've had people ask me, 'We'll are you going to stick with this theater thing?' as if there's no joy in craft. And it makes no sense...for me, [theater is] as honorable a thing as making a million dollars."- Wright Ebony
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