Intrigued by the many layers

SPOTLIGHT

Actor Jeffrey Wright is a lawyer caught in the middle in `Syriana'

Spotlight Jeffrey Wright

December 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

NEW YORK — New York-- Jeffrey Wright at age 40 is an actor's actor - and a director's actor, too. He nearly steals the three-part story line of Syriana as a buttoned-up, prematurely aged lawyer. But in conversation, Wright emphasizes how moviemaker Stephen Gaghan contrasts the actor's portrait of a man working the system to George Clooney's hung-out-to-dry CIA agent and Matt Damon's mournful financial analyst, who becomes the economic brain for a progressive Arab prince while in grief over the death of a son.

"All are processed by the [social-political] machine," says Wright. "And at the end they all come to their own conclusions." Wright's character is a victor, Clooney's is a victim and Damon's is a man caught in between.

Wright has scored vividly before in diverse roles. They include an early star turn in the film named after the attention-getting graffiti artist Basquiat (1996), the wild Dominican drug kingpin he played in Shaft (2000), a flamboyant male nurse in Angels in America (both onstage and in the 2003 HBO presentation) and a haunted vet in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). But in Syriana, Wright gives his most lived-in performance as a lawyer commanded to find what's crooked about a Big Oil merger - as long as it's nothing crooked enough to scotch the deal.

Wright knows his Syriana character inside out. "I grew up in D.C. surrounded by lawyers," he says, laughing, "including my mother. My father died when I was 1, but believe me, my mother was enough."

She put him on an educational track that included prep school at St. Albans and a political science major at Amherst. But on the first day of a drama class in his junior year, "I knew that acting was something I would be doing for some time."

He says he doesn't know whether becoming an actor was a conscious rebellion, "but it was certainly subconscious. I never truly assimilated into the role that was intended for me by my education - not the way my character Bennett assimilates in Syriana. The route I was on was not leading to the cinema. But I had creative impulses that I needed to express. What I try to do now - why The Manchurian Candidate was attractive to me, why Angels in America was attractive to me - is fuse the political and the creative and play whatever music comes out of that."

Wright took the part of Bennett because he was impressed "with the way that Gaghan composed the character - I thought there were many layers and subtly drawn racial colors and elements to him." When the head of his law firm (Christopher Plummer) dangles the plum oil-merger assignment in front of him, "In some ways he makes a bargain with the devil. Bennett knows that historically folks like himself were denied access to the corridors of power or to the white-shoe men's clubs. And in Bennett's mind, you're not going to tear the system down - it's not going to go away. The only way to subvert it is from within. And by subvert I think he means, as a black man, to be the power rather than what's under the foot of the power."

To gain that force, Bennett is willing to give up any member of his firm, any ingredient of the deal, "anyone," in short, "but himself. He's in a fairly amoral and soulless, self-serving, materialistic world. And he plays his part."

Wright's segments of the movie have more suspense than more visceral sections featuring torture and assassination precisely because they feel so workaday and common, down to Bennett's terse relationship with his disapproving, hard-drinking father. "The relationship with his father in some ways represents the moral conscience that haunts him as he's pursuing his career. ... And something about his relationship with his father grounds him. It gives us the sense that what Bennett does to get along or get ahead is just life. There's nothing uncommon or extraordinary about it. He's doing what he thinks has to be done, while serving the animal of the American economic structure."

Unlike his character, the actor has never lost sight of his past or his deep roots in this area. "My maternal grandmother was a descendant of Kiskiack Indians. My mom's family is from Southern Virginia, the Tidewater region, along the southern Chesapeake Bay. ... There's an ancestor we can trace who actually happens to be Irish who was probably an indentured servant who was born in 1648.

"I'm black - but I'm an all-American boy. America is multicultural and complicated. But some people have a hard time processing that; they want to simplify it to feel more comfortable with it."

As a kid, Wright spent "a lot of time in Baltimore. In fact, I went to lacrosse camp during high school at Johns Hopkins, and would come up to play games and eat crabs. And we shot some of Syriana in Baltimore. We did the scene in the bar with my father in Fells Point. I think Baltimore is a great city - it's refreshingly grounded, the artifice of Washington doesn't exist in Baltimore. It's a port town, so there's something both colorful and real about it."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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