Jeffrey Wright is the kind of weighty actor that directors fiend for, able to handle both indie and big budget movies, down-in-the-dirt roles and parts that require square-jawed strength.
So it’s no surprise Wright took on the intense role of police commissioner Carl Fairbanks in the upcoming political thriller Broken City, directed by Menace II Society filmmaker Allen Hughes and out in theaters Jan. 18. Co-starring Mark Wahlberg as an ex-cop who is hired by a corrupt mayor (Russell Crowe) to photograph his cheating glam wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the noir-ish movie explodes into a full-out scandal laced with murder.
Check out an exclusive clip from the film, below, in which Wright has a heated chat with Wahlberg at a crime scene. EW spoke with Wright about exploring the confines of power in Broken City and working with Wahlberg, playing a much different down-and-out character in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, which premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and taking on the part of District 3 tribute Beetee in The Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire and working with Jennifer Lawrence.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Describe your character in Broken City, playing a police commissioner and working alongside Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe. As usual, you bring so much gravitas to a role.
JEFFREY WRIGHT: I play a commissioner in this world in which Russell Crowe is a semi- or not so semi-corrupt mayor. Mark Wahlberg is a former detective who is hired by the mayor to do some work on the side to have him solve a personal mystery. What I was primarily drawn to, generally the case with me, was the script, as written by a young writer named Brian Tucker. It appealed to me in the way old Humphrey Bogart movies appeal to me. It very much pays homage to noir cinema. I think Mark is very well suited for the central character within that kind of landscape. As I was working with him, and looking at him and taking him in, he has everyman qualities, for a younger, modern demographic. He also has a ruggedness that very well suits this genre of storytelling. Those were the two aspects that appealed to me: the script and Mark. Allen offered me the ability to be a part of it. I’ve been a fan of the work he did previously with his brother.
I’ve read about comparisons to Chinatown: that sort corrupt, noir-ish political landscape.
It lends itself to those comparisons, to Chinatown. I went back to the archetypes in my mind. It has these classic elements, but it also has contemporary cinematic jaggedness to it. It really has a wonderfully stylized sense to it, but in such a way that lifts the story and serves the interests of the film. It’s really lushly shot. It has a brooding, beautiful quality.
How did you prep for such an intense, power-based part? You’ve played such a variety of characters during your career, from Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1996’s Basquiat, a favorite of mine, to a senator a few years ago in The Ides of March.
It seemed to me that my character should remain both within the story and to the audience something of a mystery. To navigate these ways through the various dangers that you find in politics. In many ways, he’s very much an observer of the unraveling of the narrative, and it’s a clinical story. He’s an operator, and his arc is ascending. All these characters are trying to survive the circumstances of the movie. He’s very highly skilled at survival. He’s a guy who has a desire for power, as all of these folks do. I didn’t view him as an establishment guy. I saw him as the opposite. I saw him as more creative. He’s a guy who has not had to rely on external constructs. He’s had to empower himself through his own wiles and instincts. I saw him more of an outsider and playing in the internal power structure. I tend to see the more gangster element of power, whether traditional political desires, or less conventional. With power, there’s always a level of ruthlessness.
It must be fun to play someone with so much political pull.
Tell me about the The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, co-starring you, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, and Anthony Mackie, about two boys in the Brooklyn projects separated from their moms, fending for themselves. It premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, very soon.
It’s good news to hear it’s going to Sundance. Director George Tillman Jr. and I have been trying to work together for a long time. He felt a real personal closeness to this movie. He was a really enthusiastic part of it. I read it, and it reminded me of films we used to see more of during the ‘70s, told from the perspective of kids, ordinary people, within an urban setting, films like Cooley High. These films explore the lives of places and urban settings and do it with an appreciation of the humanity of people instead of garish celebrations of violence, thuggery. It was a much more quiet and human window on ordinary lives.
The movie casts a needed focus on people who live in poverty. So many films today focus on living in wealth or being middle-class, not lower income stories.
We don’t really have the time or patience of sensitivity to take in those stories. These stories are told from the perspective of people who in material ways may be powerless. I think it’s somewhat perverse that there doesn’t seem to be a palette for examination of these lives.
It must have been nice, and fun, to work with the film’s two young leads, Skylan Brooks (Mister) and Ethan Dizon (Pete). You play such a flipped role from your character in Broken City, in this, as a man living day-to-day out on the street.
Skylan and Ethan were wonderful, two urchins weaving their way through the streets of Brooklyn. They were both very clever and genuine boys. I’m just, like them, someone who’s caught out on the street. Our paths intersect continuously. My character is a former veteran of an unspecified war, and him dealing with the realities he finds back home, and these young boys as friends one day, and enemies too.
So how has it been filming the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire? You play tribute Beetee. Exciting!
We’re still in the midst of filming. We still have some work yet to do. I have a break, and then I head back to filming in Hawaii. It’s a very full experience, both the storytelling and the filmmaking. There’s such a broad audience for the stories, and an audience that has a tremendous thirst for these characters and their narrative. It’s pretty exciting. I think as well it’s an interesting window on pretty important contemporary issues that Hunger Games writer Suzanne Collins provides for kids. It’s not brutal for the sake of glorifying brutality. It’s brutal because it’s dealing with issues of war and warriors.
Have you read all the Hunger Games books? Are you ready to be mobbed by legions of fans?
I’ve read all the books. I’ve shot ahead of the popularity ranks among kids at my kids’ school, ha! My son, who has the books, and is 11, had been begging me for the longest time to be a part of a movie that appeals to kids. Obviously there’s a huge appetite for this among kids, and there’s a huge audience among adults now. I think the success of the first one owes to the material, and to the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. She’s a really compelling, interesting actress. Josh and Jennifer have a very special chemistry with one another. The reason in some regard I feel really supported in the work is because of its history and Jennifer Lawrence and the other actors. The design elements of the film are genius. The ways in which found places were used to create futuristic settings that are grounded in recognizable reality. It’s really wonderful.
So how much more do you guys have to film?
The majority of it we’ve done. We’ve still got a few more weeks. It’s a massive undertaking for [director] Frances [Lawrence]. It’s a huge cinematic landscape and multiple worlds.
You must enjoy filming in Hawaii. The ocean, the weather. It sounds glorious.
I got thrown into the waves on my days off. I surf on occasion, and I paddle a lot, and I get munched a lot. I’ll go to Hawaii for any means. I’ve kind of fallen deeply in love with Hawaii. The ocean, but also the people are pretty extraordinary.
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