Bond, Batman And Bernard Lowe: A Banner Year For Jeffrey Wright

Jeffrey Wright
CARDIGAN: Wales Bonner
SHIRT: Tom Ford

Photo Credit: David Clerihew



Jeffrey Wright
SHIRT: Richard James
BOW TIE: Favourbrook

Photo Credit: David Clerihew

If I told you what I was doing right now, you wouldn’t believe it,” Jeffrey Wright declares as he asks me to hold on for the second time during our July phone call. Given that this is the third time I’ve interviewed him over the course of two years about the same project — the 25th James Bond film, No Time to Die — I don’t mind waiting. But I am curious, so I roll the dice. What, pray tell, is he doing?

“I’ve got two aquatic turtles [at my Brooklyn home], and sometimes the male gets a little aggressive with the female, so I have to take him out and isolate him,” he explains.

Is it weird that I don’t think this is weird? I don’t even blink an eye at his current situation, mostly because isolation has become the overriding theme of our third conversation — one chat, incidentally, for each time this Universal Pictures project has been pushed due to the pandemic; it was initially meant to hit theaters on April 10, 2020, and will finally be released on October 8, 2021.

The 55-year-old Emmy and Tony award winner has spent the better part of the past two years jetting back and forth between New York and London, first to shoot Bond, and then in far more stops and starts (January 2020 until March 2021!) filming his role as the first Black Commissioner Gordon in Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman. The first time around (which coincided with our February shoot at the Great Scotland Yard Hotel, a stone’s throw from the real MI6 headquarters, where Wright became so focused on a solo game of chess at the property’s gigantic gaming table that he appeared to momentarily forget he was in the midst of taking photos), he was there until March 15, 2020, when the U.K. first went into lockdown. He returned last September with daughter Juno in tow, only to have the production temporarily shut down when star Robert Pattinson, who plays the caped crusader, contracted Covid-19. Wright crossed the pond for a third and final time from early January to mid-March of this year. And yes, each and every time, he had to quarantine. Think about that seventh circle of hell.

But this last go-around well and truly did him in. “The great danger of this phase in time is the mental wear and tear,” he says, noting that his final quarantine was by far the worst. “It got to me,” he admits now, with the four months since his last lockdown safely behind him.

“I try to never speak about the difficulties of working on films, which are long hours and pressurized to some extent — I just don’t think it’s palatable for anyone else to hear about that. However, I found the isolation to be seriously challenging on this last trip. I think, no matter what work you’re involved with, if you’re isolated from your family in the midst of a global pandemic and if you’re in quarantine for ten straight days in a hotel essentially by yourself, it can be tricky.”

That’s putting it mildly. His first day back on set after nearly a fortnight of solitude was rough. “I went to work and barely remembered a line that I was supposed to deliver that day,” Wright remembers. “And that was the extent of my life over there: going to work and going back to my hotel, because once the spread happened, once lockdown occurred and there was the emergence of new variants, there was no sense in risking my own health, the health of my colleagues or the momentum of the production. I was pretty hermitic.”

Jeffrey WrightPhoto Credit: David Clerihew
He shares what his experience was like, virtually alone in a 200-room North London hotel. “At one point, I think there were only five of us there. I was only aware that there was someone else on my floor by the serving tray I would see on the floor outside a door occasionally, and I would say, ‘Oh! There’s another human here!’ The entire place was shut; no restaurants were open. I would sometimes see a person at the front desk when I entered after work, and it was a bit like waiting for the twins to show up from The Shining when I came home. In fact, during the last quarantine, I found myself unable to leave my room.” (Side note: He clearly wasn’t staying in No. 237.) “London winters are their own animal. Darkness and rain combined with everything else that was going on kind of put a whammy on my head. I was sleeping in two-hour spurts. So, in between the shutdowns and the lurching restarts, it’s been a pretty challenging time. It’s been complicated.”

Although No Time to Die had no such filming complications — it was done and dusted by the time the pandemic set in, needing no further reshoots at any point — its rollout has been an extreme challenge.

“It’s not exactly what we planned,” Wright admits. “We’re just waiting for cinemas to open their doors more fully, and, really, I guess waiting for the vast majority to take this pandemic seriously and put it all behind us. Ideally, by October, more of us will be on board with that idea, and we can have the movie be seen.”

Fans have been waiting with bated breath to catch Daniel Craig’s last go as 007, and when they do, they’ll find the secret agent leading a decidedly uncomplicated life of leisure in Jamaica. He’s traded in his bespoke Savile Row suits for Hawaiian shirts and Sperry boat shoes, and there’s nary an explosion in sight. He’s in a good place, both physically and metaphorically. Lucky bastard.

This onscreen fantasy feels miles away from reality, but in our opinion, this isn’t a bad thing. A little escapism might be just what we need right now. Wright doesn’t disagree. That was, in part, his rationale for returning to the franchise 12 years after he appeared in 2008’s Quantum of Solace to work alongside longtime pal Craig again — he plays, coincidentally, Bond’s best bud, CIA operative Felix Leiter. (Craig even made a financial donation to Wright’s 2020 Brooklyn for Life pandemic campaign and sparked the idea for an awareness video that ultimately raised $1.5 million for struggling local businesses.)

“It felt like a homecoming, and it was good to be back in this home,” Wright confides. “It’s really a welcoming place to work. It’s a family-run business, in a sense, and it very much has that feel to it, even though it seems full of glamour. I was really pleased to come back after having missed the previous two films, and no matter if it’s Daniel’s last film or not, I was looking forward to revisiting Felix and adding to his arc.”

Jeffrey Wright
BLAZER: Oliver Spencer
SWEATER: Hugo Boss

Photo Credit: David Clerihew
Wright is now the only person to have played Leiter in three 007 films; he first took the role in 2006’s Casino Royale.

And while this may seem like a landmark achievement within the Bondiverse, reaching a cinematic milestone certainly wasn’t the reason he decided to return (and possibly return for a fourth time: “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it”). “For me, the interest in doing a third [movie was] because, in the previous films, we only see Felix in passing,” Wright notes. “It does my version of Felix a bit more justice if we actually see him, as opposed to just hearing of him. That’s more gratifying than anything else, to add more layers to the archaeology of the character. In this Daniel Craig phase of the franchise, Bond is imbued with a different type of authenticity. Daniel and I vibed off of that, and I tried to bring a complementary feeling to Felix, someone whom you can imagine hiding out in the underbelly of some far-flung, shadowy corner of the world and being able to handle himself.”

What kid doesn’t secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to be part of Bond’s world? It’s all shaken-not-stirred martinis, gorgeous girls, sexy cars, exotic locations, gambling, hedonism and did we say gorgeous girls? While Wright will cop to the fanboy element (though not the fanboy term), he does so with dignity. “I was a fan of James Bond films from my earliest remembrance of cinema, and it’s a wonderful tradition to be a part of,” he allows.

Jeffrey Wright
James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) in
an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film.

Photo Credit: Credit: Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
It wasn’t typical male fantasy fervor — it was Sean Connery’s cool factor that sold him on the series. “I was always a Connery guy,” he confides. “He just had a wryness about him, an irony and a tongue-in-cheek thing that complemented everything else about him. I really dug his take on things and the way he twisted and undermined them. He didn’t take it too seriously, which made him all the more compelling.”

Naturally, Wright also had an affinity for Jack Lord, who played the first Felix Leiter in 1962’s Dr. No. “He had all this swag about him! When I was asked to be a part of this many years later, all I could picture was Jack Lord and following in his shakes.”

Wright’s childhood fantasy has become a reality threefold. But as to what will shake down in the series’ silver installment, that’s still a mystery. What we do know is this: in No Time to Die, Bond has left active service and is enjoying that beach life in Jamaica. But his peace is interrupted when Felix turns up asking for help. Bond agrees to rescue a kidnapped scientist, a mission that turns out to be far more dangerous than expected, thanks to a new villain, Safin (played by Oscar winner Rami Malek), who is armed with a dangerous new technology. We also know the cast. Familiar faces include Craig; Léa Seydoux as Bond’s love interest, Dr. Madeleine Swann; Christoph Waltz as Bond’s archnemesis and foster brother, Ernst Stavro Blofeld; Ralph Fiennes as MI6 head M; Ben Whishaw as MI6 quartermaster Q; and Naomie Harris as Bond’s ally Eve Moneypenny. Newcomers to the franchise are Ana de Armas, Rory Kinnear, Billy Magnussen and Lashana Lynch, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, best known for helming the award-winning first season of True Detective.

Wright’s lips are sealed with 007-grade level secrecy, too. “I’ll spontaneously combust if I tell you too much,” he deadpans.

What he feels comfortable sharing is this: “I still have people coming up to me saying how much they love Casino Royale. In the midst of so many films, Casino Royale brought something new to the table and added to [the franchise’s] history. The hope now is to do that again, to make a movie that ups the game. With Cary Fukunaga on board, with the style and the intent that he brings to the table, I think we’re in good hands. It’s going to be another hell of a ride.”

One I hope — as Wright also does, no doubt — is significantly less bumpy.

Although there’s something to be said for its prophetically telling title — one that a year ago inspired a feverish kind of excitement instead of an impetus for survival. The irony of this is not lost on Wright. He says dryly, “It has occurred to me that — for all of us — it is no time to die.”

Jeffrey Wright
TUXEDO JACKET: Favourbrook
SHIRT: Richard James

Photo Credit: David Clerihew

It is later in our third discussion — our second by phone — and we’re back on the topic of isolation. But it’s purely coincidental.

Wright’s talking about his other upcoming big role — the one that’s not Bond — which has also been rescheduled three times and which also comes out in October (on the 22nd): Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. The Searchlight Pictures film follows a triptych of storylines as the French foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas newspaper puts its final issue to bed. His costars include the massive ensemble cast of Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Timothée Chalamet, as well as his No Time to Die costar Seydoux.

In the movie, which opened the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, he plays Roebuck Wright (no relation), a food journalist based on an amalgamation of writer James Baldwin and journalist A.J. Liebling. “[My character] is a portrait of isolation in a way that may be more relevant now than when we [filmed] it a couple years ago,” he says. Yet, had he filmed it now, he wouldn’t have had to act — and Wright is a truly great actor. He imbues each role he takes on, big- or small-screen, with passion and precision, be it artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the biopic Basquiat; Boardwalk Empire’s educated underworld boss Valentin Narcisse; The Hunger Games’ brilliant tribute Beetee; or Belize, the openly gay transvestite nurse in Angels in America (the latter of which earned him a Tony, an Emmy and a Golden Globe award) — and each is so brilliantly realized. But of course, each character is carefully chosen.

“I’ve had a good little run after many years of doing this, where I’ve become a little wiser and a little more free in my ability to choose what I work on and who I work with,” he says. “Each project that I’ve been involved with has been as enjoyable as the next for different reasons. I tend to have a kind of ‘love the one you’re with’ type of perspective on this stuff. It’s much easier to do that when you choose wisely.”

To say that Wright, who celebrated his 30th anniversary as an actor last year, chose wisely by opting to play “host” — the fully humanoid robot Bernard Lowe — on HBO’s dystopian series Westworld would be an understatement: he celebrated his third nomination for the role (virtually) at the 2020 Primetime Emmys.

At present, he’s back to filming the show’s fourth season, though like everything Westworld, his workplace seems like a brand-new world. (But then, it does for all of us.)

“We’re working under protocols,” he says. “We’re tested pretty much every day on set, and we’re all masked. The biggest improvement to things is that the vast majority of us are fully vaccinated now and can breathe a moderate sigh of relief that we’re protecting one another and protecting ourselves.”

Jeffrey Wright
BLAZER: Richard James
SWEATER: Peregrine

Photo Credit: David Clerihew
And sadly, that’s all he’ll say about the fourth season, which is shrouded in complete dystopian mystery. “It’s kind of what Westworld fans have come to know, but cubed. It’s increasingly unfolding and increasingly Westworld.” I should note that when I ask Wright to expand on the meaning of “cubed” (which, really, could mean anything in Westworld terms), he replies with the smart-alecky “You know, it means ‘times itself, three times.’” Hardy-har-har.

It’s nice to see that Wright’s sense of humor is still intact, especially given the hardships of his last year, and given that there wasn’t much to be found on his last production, The Batman, a concurrent topic throughout all three of our interviews, as it was ongoing. “There was a bit of levity here and there [on that set], but it was a pretty dogged workplace, I have to say. I do my best to kind of undermine the seriousness, but it was reasonably pressurized. Still, I think we managed it pretty well. We did what we had to do, and we were there to do it.”

That included much more strict Covid-19 protocols. No one outside the cast or crew was allowed to do a drive-by on set. Each person was tested every single day, and N95 masks were required by everyone at all times, outside of the actors filming a particular scene. There were ten-minute breaks for ventilation, which prolonged the process, and very controlled movements around the studio. Entirely new facilities were built to mitigate the spread of the virus, and each actor had his or her individual pod to do hair and makeup.

And the hard work paid off; the production was safe post-Pattinson testing positive, and the film has managed to stay relatively under wraps. Just like its cast and crew, in a sense. “I have not seen Matt Reeves’, our director’s, face since March of last year. He was fully covered and protecting himself, because he has that responsibility on his shoulders,” Wright says.

While some parts of The Batman were a nightmare, others were a complete dream. “I think [this film had] the X factor, which was being unified around a common purpose,” Wright says, adding, “The thing we haven’t seemed to crack here in the States, and in certain parts of the U.K., even now, is that idea of being unified against this pathogen, so it was gratifying to recognize that we were all in it together — we were united around this thing — and we looked after one another and got through it together, at least on that set.” He hastens to add, “I don’t think I would like to do another film in that way, but we got through it together.”

We can’t say we’re surprised. Life imitates art sometimes, no? The film revolves around Batman’s second year of fighting crime and rallying the citizens of Gotham City against the corruption around them. They, too, are in it together.

Jeffrey Wright
SHIRT: Hugo Boss

Photo Credit: David Clerihew
The film, like so many of Wright’s projects, boasts a truly fabulous all-star cast that also includes Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis and Colin Farrell. And while there’s been a big to-do about the decision to cede previous Batman Ben Affleck’s cape and cowl to Pattinson, it isn’t the only casting choice fans are buzzing about: much has been made of Wright being cast as the first Black Commissioner James “Jim” Gordon in the DC Comics universe. Which, quite frankly, he finds to be asinine. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel, and he doesn’t feel this is a conversation we should be having in the 21st century.

“If you give it a little bit of thought, Batman and the characters within Gotham City are fluid, evolving creatures,” he says. “It would be doing a disservice, in fact, to these stories and to the history if we were actually beholden to the details of the original. When Shakespeare wrote female characters, they were written to be played by young boys. Are we to hold on to that tradition now in the 21st century because that was the limited lane that people were allowed at the time? It’s ridiculous. Beyond that, Gordon is many things. He’s relative to Gotham City, to the Gotham City police department, to Batman, to justice and to corruption — and none of those things require that he be white.”

He continues, “There have been some who I think have made more of it than they probably should, which I think reveals some deficiency [in our country]. In its first iteration in 1939, Gotham City was fashioned after an American metropolis much like New York City or Chicago. In 1939, New York was 90 percent white. The power structure in law enforcement in that city at that time would not have been inclusive of someone who looked like me; that’s the historical fact. But as these stories have continually evolved over these many decades, not only through the comics but also through the films, they’ve been reinterpreted through writers, directors and actors to be more contemporary to the times than they were made. Right now, if we were to imagine a Gotham City based on an American metropolis, to think of it as a place that’s only inhabited by white people is to be pretty idiotic. To be beholden to the demographic reality of 1939 urban America — what the f–k is the purpose of that?”

Especially nowadays, Wright seems to have little patience for idiocy of any variety. He only wants things that are going to bring him happiness. Nearly two years ago, during our pre-Covid, in-person chat, he told me that the greatest luxury in life was being on the ocean, surfing — which he discovered during a Hawaiian vacation with his kids roughly ten years ago. “I’m kind of lost without it; I start to disintegrate. It keeps me in the groove. It is very much my happy place. Whether I’m in Southern California, the southwest of France or in Hawaii, as long as there’s an ocean, a surfboard and a good meal afterward, that’s all the luxury I need.”

Sixteen months later, he’s singing a different tune. Life has changed, and so has his perspective. When I ask him the question again, his answer is, simply, “love.”

It is the love of his family — son Elijah, daughter Juno, ex-wife actress Carmen Ejogo and his 91-year-old aunt, who raised him alongside his mother, who passed away in 2019. Now, he says, “I think the greatest luxury is love. I mean, I think that’s what’s been revealed to me by these last months during the pandemic. Despite everything we may acquire, everything we may own, really, at the end of the day, love is the thing.”

So he may not be drinking Bollinger by the boatload or jumping from a plane like Bond does, but carving and catching swells at Pipeline is nothing to sneeze at, and nor, certainly, is love. Especially love. But really, anything that brings some quantum of solace these days? I say take it.

Jeffrey Wright
SHIRT: Richard James
BOW TIE: Favourbrook

Photo Credit: David Clerihew