Jeffrey Wright on ‘The Goldfinch,’ ‘Westworld’ and James Bond

Jeffrey Wright on ‘The Goldfinch,’ ‘Westworld’ and James Bond

In 2014, as word of a movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” started circulating, so did lists of dream casts. Names of elder statesmen like Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent and even Jeff Bridges were bandied about to play one of the tale’s most endearing characters: James “Hobie” Hobart, a Greenwich Village antiques dealer described as a gentle giant with the heavy, haggard bearing and unhealthy pallor of an Irish poet or maybe a pugilist.

Jeffrey Wright — at 53, younger, leaner and less towering, nowhere near haggard, and African-American — was not on those lists. But he isn’t worried about fans’ reactions now that he’s got the gig.

In fact, Wright hadn’t yet read Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winner when he signed on as Hobie, whose partner dies in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that also kills the mother of 13-year-old Theo Decker — resulting in Theo’s snatching, Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” one of her favorite paintings, from the wreckage.

Only during the course of shooting did Wright finally fast-forward through the 784-page novel, using it for insight into Hobie’s emotional evolution as a paternal figure to Theo (Ansel Elgort) — but paying little mind to his physical traits.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So is the West Coast becoming the best coast for you?

It’s not so much the coast here as it is the water on the coast, so I wouldn’t go that far. But finally, after coming to L.A. practically all of my career, I’ve discovered the single definitive advantage to being here is surfing. It helps, in kind of an ironic way, ground me to be in the water. It just rejuvenates all parts of me and helps denoise my brain and unclutter and reboot my hard drive. And it’s a healthy distraction from everything that’s going on on land in the continental United States right now. Kind of a benevolent addiction.

Let’s surf, then, into “The Goldfinch.” Does it matter to the story that the Hobie onscreen is physically unlike the Hobie in the book?

While there were obvious physical differences described in the book, I don’t think that those things are the most fully impactful in any story that we tell on film. It’s the things that give rise to the goose pimples and the things that spark sentiment and wonder and ideas inside the heart and mind of the audience. And so what I pulled from the character and from the relationship was something entirely beyond the physicality. For me it was about a level of empathy that grief invokes in Hobie, because he too is grieving when he receives this strange waif on his doorstep.

You took up painting for “Basquiat” in 1996. How about furniture restoration to play Hobie?

I was invited down into the bowels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to spend some time with the restorers there. It was an opportunity to immerse myself in the space in which they do their work that is so far removed from the frenetic energy that exists on top of the concrete above their heads.

Then there’s a furniture restorer named Jonathan Burden who works in Queens and taught me some of the specifics about simply touching wood and trying to make an assessment of the character, showing me the smallest details of how his fingers interact with the piece or how he might use saliva to bring out a deeper window onto the quality of the grain. Invaluable.

Like that scene where you lick your finger and swipe it over a chair?

Yeah, that was Spit Varnish 101, as taught by Jonathan.

You’re currently in production on “Westworld.” Where will we find Bernard at the start of Season 3?

I’ll just say that the first season was about generating a type of empathy for these hosts, these not-yet-sentient beings. And I think as we emerge into Season 3, that idea that evolves into a metaphor about empathy or sympathy for ourselves is further explored. The mirrored refractions between host and human are further refracted. Maybe the hosts perhaps spend a bit of time as guests now in a far stranger theme park than even Westworld.

Are you as confused acting in the series as we sometimes are watching it?

No, because I tend to fill in as many of the blanks as I can in order to do any given scene. At the same time, I try to surrender to the absence of certainty, and not be so addicted to some false sense of omniscience. [Laughs] Relax and enjoy the wave, you know?

What was it like shooting “The Laundromat”?

The script for “The Laundromat” was one of the most deliciously ironic and clever scripts that I’d read in a while about an incredibly complex subject, inhabited by a raft of the usual unscrupulous suspects, but woven together almost like a vaudeville skit. It was such a great time working on it with Steven Soderbergh and Meryl Streep.

And in November, “All Rise” is coming out. What’s the story there?

“All Rise” is based on the novel “Monster” about a young middle-class Harlem kid who finds himself on the wrong side of a serious crime. And the film’s story follows the trial that he finds himself at the center of. I play his father, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the young man. He gives a stunning, just riveting performance that I think is easily as good as any performance by a young actor that I’ve seen in years and years.

And it fits within a trilogy of movies that I’ve done around mass incarceration and criminal justice [with “O.G.” and the coming “All Day and a Night.”]


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