Wright way to the screen
FLITTING FROM BOND’S buddy to a political powerhouse to an illiterate bluesman, American actor Jeffrey Wright is never afraid to tackle diverse and demanding roles.
The Emmy and Golden Globe winning dramatist is currently promoting two of his latest movies,
W and Cadillac Records, at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).
In W, Oliver Stone’s sideways look at the life and presidency of George Bush Junior, Jeffrey portrays former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Meanwhile, in music biopic Cadillac Records, he plays the role of Muddy Waters - now regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century - alongside Adrien Brody and Beyoncé Knowles.
City Times met with Jeffrey at DIFF to discuss his latest roles, as well as America’s political past, present and future.
Does W live up to the expectations you had while filming it?
I think it was the film we should have made. It was a very tight schedule and Oliver was very lucid about his objectives and the shape of the film. He gave it a seriousness and a directness which I think is more poignant. He stayed to his path and I think you can see that in the end result.
Was the mood on set lighthearted or did the cast feel burdened by the gravity of the subject matter?
The mood was intense, because we didn’t have a lot of time. For example, one 14-page scene we shot in two-and-a-half days, so it was fairly pressurised as far as film sets go. We still had a good time, we enjoyed each other’s company and we enjoyed Oliver’s company. But he is demanding - in the best way - and driven. So it wasn’t exactly tea at the Dorchester!
Did you find any common ground between two such seemingly different characters as Colin Powell and Muddy Waters?
Well, I would never pay for an album of Colin Powell singing the blues. I might, on the other hand, want Muddy to take on some state department responsibilities! They’re totally different, although I did realise the similarity between the two movies is that they show the sweeping and overreaching influence of American culture globally. In the last eight years, it has been a particularly political influence, as informed by the policies and practices of the Bush administration. Muddy Waters had a global impact but it was through his music, which went on to spawn half the popular music of the latter part of the 20th century. The cultural impact is undeniable, but it has come from a very different place - Muddy was an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi. It’s a testament to his genius and humanity that he had that sway.
How did portraying Muddy Waters alter your perspective of him and the blues genre in general?
My family is from the South, and I’ve always had a deep love for the language, the culture and the history of the blues. It’s very personal for me. But I became more aware of how much Muddy’s influence meant - now I hear allusions to his music in so much modern music it’s unbelievable.
Why were you so interested in being a part of W, and what impact do you hope it will have on a worldwide audience?
We just came out of the most exciting political time in America that I can remember. Leading up to the election it was incredible - people were engaged in politics in a way that we’ve never seen before. We as actors and filmmakers similarly engaged ourselves in the process through our work - my desire to be a part of W was to use my work to participate in a political discourse.
Is there any danger whatsoever of Barack Obama following a similar path to Bush during his presidency?
As president of the USA you have a responsibility to the citizens and the corporations, big or small, which operate within your country - they’re taxpayers and job providers. But Obama and Bush live on opposite ends of the polar political spectrum. Bush didn’t have a passport until just before he became president, whereas Obama was educated for part of his childhood in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. That’s a huge shift in personality and curiosity. At the same time, Bush was reflective of a geographic naïveté. Although Americans have global aspirations, we don’t necessarily as a people have a global curiosity, and that’s obviously a huge fault. But Obama is reflective of the real cultural complexity within the country, and I think he has a deeper understanding of the global cultural complexity than his predecessor. I don’t think he’ll follow the same path at all.
How will the United States change after Obama’s election?
America’s a different place than before, there was a transformation that happened. There was a stripping away of these layers which had muted what the country really is. It has always been a complex place, it has always been a multicultural place and it has always been a place where folks from across demographic lines relied on each other for survival. But it’s only now starting to express these things through presidential politics.
What aspects of Colin Powell’s personality did you try to focus on with your portrayal?
Just his pragmatism and his superior military strategy to the administration. I was always amazed at Colin Powell’s lack of inclusion in the decision-making leading up to the war, and the decision to go to war itself. He was the highest ranking military leader, who had co-led the military going into the previous Gulf War, and he was left outside the room as the strategy was being devised for the next military excursion into the same region. It boggles the mind at how civilian leadership with the Bush administration could have been so foolish, so I wanted to inject clarity into the discussion. I was also trying to play out the antagonism between Donald Rumsfeld and Powell - I personally found Rumsfeld to be a disturbing voice in the midst of it all.
Did you lose your initial respect for Powell because of his exclusion, and do you think it was down to personal weakness or forces outside of his control?
In researching Colin Powell, I have gained respect for him. I’ve also become very close to a few retired black generals from the US army through my work, and have enormous respect for what these guys have done in terms of the discipline and dedication that is required of them over the course of 30 or 40 years of service to their country. Powell’s record was exemplary, that’s why he rose to the ranks to which he did. This question of why it was he didn’t handle himself differently leading up to the UN speech is a deep one. I’m still not entirely certain - although the evidence suggests that he was misled by his intelligence. That’s his argument - that there was faulty intelligence which made its way through the filters.
Do you think he could have been deliberately misled by his intelligence?
That’s a question I don’t think even he has the answer to just yet. But he has said if it were his responsibility, he would probe very deeply into why these pieces of data that have been debunked managed to get through to him. That’s the question for me. I think it was Powell’s idea of the good soldier, that he was not open to resigning and stepping away. He says that’s not the way he could best serve the administration. Also, there’s a line in his autobiography where he says ‘If you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding’.
Do you think maybe he had too much respect for Bush and his policymaking?
I think he’s more a soldier than he is a politician. The Commander in Chief is the highest position, so as a soldier you’re always accountable to that authority - whether you’re a private or general - and his mindset was that of a soldier.
But I wonder to what effect Powell could have done things differently the administration was fixated on Iraq in this irrational way, and I don’t think there was much diverting them from that irrationality.