Jeffrey Wright: Angel, Agent, Blues Legend & More The actor plays Muddy Waters in the new film Cadillac Records, which tells the story of Chicago's Chess Records, where Waters launched his career alongside Etta James, Chuck Berry and others.
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Jeffrey Wright: Angel, Agent, Blues Legend & More

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Jeffrey Wright: Angel, Agent, Blues Legend & More

Jeffrey Wright: Angel, Agent, Blues Legend & More

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TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest Jeffrey Wright is in three current films. He plays Colin Powell in "W," a CIA agent in "Quantum of Solace," and he stars in the new movie "Cadillac Records" as blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters. "Cadillac Records" is based on the story of the Chess record label, which released now-classic recordings by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and Willie Dixon. Wright starred in the 1996 film "Basquiat" as the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He won awards for his performances in the stage and screen productions of "Angels in America," and more recently was in the films "Syriana" and "Broken Flowers." In "Cadillac Records," Jeffrey Wright does his own singing. Here he is as Muddy Waters on a recording from the film's soundtrack.

(Soundbite of song "Hoochie Coochie Man")

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT: (Singing as Muddy Waters) The gypsy woman told my mother before I was born you got a boy child's coming. He gonna be a son of a gun. He gonna make pretty womens jump and shout. Then the world wanna know what this all about but you know I'm him. Everybody knows I'm him. Well, you know, I'm the hoochie coochie man. Everybody knows I'm him.

GROSS: Jeffrey Wright, welcome to Fresh Air. Is this the first time you've sung in a movie?

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT (Actor): Yes. And I thought it was critically important to this portrayal that I sing, that we all sing, because the expression of character and culture through the music is very direct. It has an immediate relationship to the people who created this music. So it was an entry point for me into the character and the lives of Muddy Waters.

GROSS: So what did you do to try to get Muddy Waters' voice?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I grew up in Washington D.C., but I spent a lot of time in the South, in Southern Virginia and North Carolina. My grandparents were from the Tidewater area of Virginia, my maternal grandparents. And my grandfather was a waterman, oysterman, crabber, also had a few acres that he farmed, you know, where he grew corn and okra and butter beans, lima beans, you know. And then he would - when that was done, he would come back and he would sell his wares and there was liquor, as well, and he was a very magnetic character.

So the people just kind of gathered around him and around the house so just a constant flow of language and story, and I was always just intrigued by the language, by the poetry and the personalization of language. So to discover Muddy Waters, for me, was - there are things specific to his voice, obviously, but as well, it was just a journey back into my familial past.

GROSS: So, it's interesting that at the same time you're playing Muddy Waters, you played Colin Powell in the movie "W." And, you know, they're both - your performances are both based on real people, one living, one dead, and two people who are really different from each other. You've done a bunch of characters who are real. I mean, you played Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist, in "Basquiat." It seems like there would be very specific kind of responsibilities and pressures when you're playing a character that's based on the real person.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, yeah. I have done a fair amount of nonfictional roles. I guess each of these roles has had a different purpose for me. With "Basquiat," he was an artist was who relatively unknown outside of, you know, certain circles, and so the idea to bring his story, his life, his death and his work to a wider audience was attractive for me. With Muddy Waters, there's a similar impetus, I think, because I don't think there's a full appreciation for the specifics of who he was and what his contribution to American and world culture was.

So the idea that we could just push a friendly reminder out there of who these people were and what their contribution was, was attractive to me. With the Powell situation, the idea was that maybe we could add our two cents worth to the political discourse prior to the election. So that was exciting as the idea as, you know, actor as a responsible citizen. There's something actors tend to be generally pretty useless, but when we can use our work to be relevant to the times, we gain some, you know, an iota of legitimacy.

GROSS: One of your breakthrough roles was in "Angels in America," which you played on Broadway. And you got three awards for that, including a Tony. And then you played the same role in the HBO series a few years ago of "Angels in America," and you got an Emmy for that. And "Angels in America" is set during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and you play someone named Belize. Why don't you describe your character?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Belize is a retired drag queen turned nurse. And as the play unfolds, he becomes the caretaker of Roy Cohn, who was kind of the embodiment of late '80s decadence and denial and latency and all wrapped up in a veneer off harsh conservatism.

GROSS: And he was also Joe McCarthy's chief counsel during the anti-communist crusades.

Mr. WRIGHT: Right. So it makes for a great marriage, Roy Cohn and the retired drag queen.

GROSS: So in those scenes where you as the nurse, Belize, is taking care of a still-closeted Roy Cohn, who's dying of AIDS, what was it like to work with Al Pacino, who played Roy Cohn in the HBO adaptation of the play? I mean, this is kind of like Pacino in a way we haven't seen him before, you know, with sores on his face, being like at death's door, weakened by AIDS and being really, kind of, bitter. Do you want to talk about, like, working with Pacino on those scenes and how his process compared to your process for getting into character?

Mr. WRIGHT: It was a very interesting process. For me, I had done the play on Broadway for a year and a half, seven-hour play. So I had kind of gone over pretty much all of the various choices there and settled on something that I wasn't going to yield from. I had a lot of rehearsal. Al hadn't. So what he'd like to do was call rehearsals absent of Mike Nichols, the director, or anyone else. He would get a space somewhere in midtown, and I'd get a call saying, Al wants you to rehearse. Come on over. And so we'd go over, and we'd just rehearse by ourselves. And this was, you know, a couple of months before we started to shoot, and we did it regularly.

He called so much so that I started to realize that he would rather rehearse than shoot. It was really about the journey for him. You know, the camera was optional. But it was about his mining the character in the story and trying to get at the essence of the thing, which is what you have an opportunity to do in theater. And so Al took it upon himself to give himself that space by rehearsing over and over outside of what Mike Nichols had wanted. I found that really interesting.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Wright. He's starring in the new film "Cadillac Records" as bluesman Muddy Waters. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Wright. He's starring in the new film "Cadillac Records" as bluesman Muddy Waters. He won awards for the stage and screen productions of "Angels in America" for his portrayal of a gay nurse assigned to take care of the infamous anticommunist homophobe and closeted gay man, Roy Cohn. When we left off, we were talking about working with Al Pacino, who played Cohn in the HBO adaptation of "Angels." I'd like to play a scene from the HBO adaptation of "Angels in America," and this is a scene toward the end. You're with Roy Cohn. You're his nurse. He's very close to death in this scene, and you walk in and he's so, like, disoriented and a little bit delusional because of the AIDS that he doesn't recognize you, he doesn't know who you are.

(Soundbite of movie "Angels in America")

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) Who am I, Roy?

Mr. AL PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) Oh, the Negro night nurse. My negation. Come to escort me to the underworld. Come on.

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) You want me, Roy? Want me to take you away?

Mr. PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) Oh, God, I'm ready.

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) I'll be coming for you soon. Everything I want is in the end of you.

Mr. PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) Can I ask you something, sir?

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) Sir?

Mr. PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) What it's like - after?

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) After?

Mr. PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) This misery ends.

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) Hell or heaven? Like San Francisco.

Mr. PACINO: (As Roy Cohn) A city. Good. I was worried it'd be a garden. I hate that (bleep).

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Belize) Mmm, big city, overgrown with weeds, but with flowering weeds. In every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up caddy-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice, like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray, high sky full of ravens.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jeffrey Wright, with Al Pacino from the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." Had the AIDS epidemic affected you personally? Did you lose many friends to it?

Mr. WRIGHT: I started acting in college, and the - there was a young guy who was a year behind me, a director, who reshaped Wallace Terry's novel "Bloods" into a night of monologues and that was my first gig. His name was Kevin Frazier, died of AIDS. The first job that I got in New York, after coming to New York, was a play at Yale Repertory Theatre. A director and teacher up there named Dennis Scott hired me. He died of AIDS. There was a wonderful teacher that I had at NYU named Paul Walker. He just taught games and poetry and just an extraordinary muse who I visited in the hospital, and he was unrecognizable. He died of AIDS. So, yeah.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like it hit you pretty hard.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, sorry. Sorry. I hadn't thought about that. So yeah. So there were many people, particularly who affected my life as an actor, you know, who had suffered from this disease. So yeah. It was very personal, very personal.

GROSS: Did you have somebody who you could pattern Belize on? Somebody who, as you put it, was a retired drag queen?

Mr. WRIGHT: No. But at the time, I live in the upper west side of Manhattan. But you know, I'd lived as well down in Greenwich Village, and I remember going down just hanging out in clubs and hanging out with drag queens. And I remember, in fact, there was one named Gerlina(ph) who I hang out with for a fair amount of time as I was studying the physicality of the character. And I remember, in fact, the night before we performed, I had a dream, and she came to me in this dream and there was kind of anointing or approval or something like that. But yeah, I just went around and studied folks.

But it was very difficult to wear those stilettos. I had to wear those shoes, because I'm not going to say that I was the most evolved creature in the planet and to, kind of, display this femininity was a bit of a struggle initially, and in fact, George Wolfe called me on a Sunday. I think we were supposed to start preview on a Tuesday, and he called me Sunday morning. And he said, Jeffrey, it's not working. And I said, I know, George. I have two more days. And it did manage to work eventually, but I had to kind of strip away these things and insecurities and all of this and all of that.

GROSS: How did you do it? How did you strip away those insecurities and allow yourself to lose some of your masculine part and get in touch with a more feminine part, and a more gay part?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, it didn't work initially because I think I was trying to work from the outside in and kind of put on the externals first. But what I started to do was to ignore that side and focus on who Belize was as a caretaker, as a nurse, as someone who's lost friends, as someone who was struggling through his day and to focus on the words that Tony had given me. And it was through the inside out that I was able to craft the character and then apply the gesture and the physicality once that had been established. And so, it was a much more organic relationship to my body that I was able to create, and just eventually I'd lost my self-consciousness and was empowered by it.

GROSS: So were the two days that you had remaining after George C. Wolfe's phone call enough time?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, yes. You know, those two days were enough in that there were three months prior to it. But it was just those final two days that I needed to kind of round it out. And also, there's something that happens from rehearsal to performance and particularly with this piece for me, it was - I was young and I'd been acting about seven years, and it was really like the first time after we started doing this that I considered myself, hey, I'm real actor. So it was real, kind of, a violent burst through the door from rehearsal into performance. And so, yeah, there was something that was revealed just by performing it that was not revealed in the rehearsal, you know, you do out of necessity. And so, yeah, it worked.

GROSS: Jeffrey Wright, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Jeffrey Wright stars in the new movie "Cadillac Records" as Muddy Waters. It opens Friday. You can also see him in "Quantum of Solace" and "W."

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