Jeffrey Wright
Actor, Entrepreneur
01:52

How to Find Your Own Voice

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Americans have an inferiority complex when it comes to many things British, from the royal family to Shakespeare. But not Christopher Walken.

Jeffrey Wright

 

Jeffrey Wright is an actor best known for his roles in Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” and Julian Schanbel’s film “Basquiat.” Born in Washington D.C., Wright attended Amherst College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. Afterwards he changed course, moving to New York to pursue acting rather than law school. His first big break came in 1994 with his Tony-winning portrayal of the gay nurse Norman “Belize” Arriaga in the Pulizer Prize-winning “Angels in America.” In 1996 he had another breakout performance on the big screen, portraying the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in Julian Schnabel’s biopic.

Wright has gone on to perform in such movies as Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil,” Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” Oliver Stone’s biopic “W.,” “Boycott” in which he gave an award-winning performance as Martin Luther King, Jr., and both James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig.

In 2007, Wright co-founded the non-profit organization Taia Peace Foundation, whose mission is “to assist rural African communities in overcoming the so-called ‘resource curse.’”

 

Transcript

Jeffrey Wright: We as Americans I think really struggle with finding our own identity within Shakespeare.  I think we generally have this inferiority complex relative to the English.  There's still this adoration for the idea of monarchy, and the English represent civility and intelligence and divinity even.  

When we, American actors, try to take on Shakespeare it’s a real challenge to find our own voice within it, to find an American voice within it, to personalize it, to resist all of the reverence and the preciousness of it and really break it down, destroy it, recreate it in our own image.  

The person who was most effective at that for me was Chris Walken.  He played Iago to the late Raul Julius, Othello.  Chris is a highly intelligent guy, but the way he was able to craft that language was like nothing I had ever seen.  He didn’t give into anyone else’s idea about what this language was or who Shakespeare was.  It was vicious and improvisatory and just brilliantly his own, and it’s a very rare thing that American actors are able to do that. You hear people and it’s like this kind of these faux British intonations or this middle American, whatever that is, but it doesn’t speak to a real persona.  

So that’s the real challenge I think for us as performers, but also as readers of Shakespeare, really to claim it for our own.

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