Jeffrey Wright is seldom associated with blockbusters, but he doesn’t think roles in movies like Skyfall, and more recently, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, are really different from those smaller, more idiosyncratic ones with which he built his career.
“These stories and [Catching Fire] are not unlike Angels in America or not unlike the movie I did about Martin Luther King called Boycott,” observed the Emmy and Tony award winner. “They’re kind of about a social-slash-political movement.”
Catching Fire augments the political complexity of the The Hunger Games as Katniss finds herself becoming a figurehead, and a catalyst for the brewing conflict between the Capitol’s controlling influence and the Districts’ poverty and unrest. Wright sat down recently at the Los Angeles press day to discuss his role as Beetee, a tribute thrown back into the Hunger Games after winning years before. In addition to talking about the political complexities of the franchise, Wright explained how he came to appear in the film, and how he look at the wide variety of projects he’s tackled throughout his career.
Spinoff Online: Catching Fire doesn’t feel like the kind of movie you typically do. What’s the catalyst for you to join something like this that might be outside your comfort zone?
Jeffrey Wright: Well, I think they’re all outside my comfort zone (laughs). I’m always fairly uncomfortable at the beginning of anything, because you’re trying to figure out a way to not look like an idiot when you put yourself out there. But the first catalyst was [director] Francis Lawrence’s phone call. Francis had wanted me to be a part of another movie he had done and I couldn’t do it, so he reached out to me and I took a look at the material – and my agent said, “Dude, it’s bigger than Bond.” And I said, oh, OK, so my antennae went up, and then having read the material, I realized this is interesting stuff. It’s not just popcorn movie fare. And the questions that I had not having seen the first movie, hearing it’s a movie about kids killing kids, well, what is that about? I asked as a father. And those questions were answered when I saw the movie and read the books. I went, oh, this is social commentary that’s poignant, but also directed towards young audiences, and that, I have not been a part of. I don’t think there have been a lot of movies like this, that have those elements – of like Lord of the Flies, you know, based on real material or based on real literature, focused on these young minds and insisting that they ask interesting questions about their society. But more to that point, my kids have been begging me to be a part of a movie they could actually watch, so all of those things came together in my consideration.
You can’t play and idea or a theme, but there is so much complexity in the subtext of the film. What do you have to do to orient yourself in a character where there is that larger context for his and his co-stars’ behavior?
I play a part within a larger story that’s not my responsibility. That’s the responsibility of Francis Lawrence. My job is to contribute as required. But as I think about it, these stories and this movie are not unlike Angels in America or not unlike the movie I did about Martin Luther King called Boycott, in that they’re kind of about a social-slash-political movement. The difference in this is that there’s – well, no, but as well there’s simple, mythic ideas that course through it about those things that are essentially human. Family. Security. Love. Katniss is an unwitting protagonist, an unwitting heroine in all of this who only steps into the arena for the first time because she loves her sister. So in spite of this kind of larger allegory that’s created, there’s something much more granular and universal that appeals to folks across the political or social spectrum – and that’s kind of singular. And Francis has realized this thing in a stunning way; when the credits rolled after I saw the movie and I picked my jaw up off the theater floor, I just thought, man, Francis Lawrence is a badass! Because he does it all so quietly and with such ease, but such clarity – but totally unassuming. But he was able to lead this group of highly skilled filmmakers, from designers to actors to cinematographers to prop guys. They’re all men and women at the top of their game, and Francis just led us all on this journey with such authority and produced a movie that I just think is an absolute stunner. And I’m so excited – I’ve never been a part of a movie that I was so excited for audiences to see simply because there’s such an intense sense of ownership among the fan base for these stories. I was concerned coming in that I and we meet or surpass those expectations, and I think under Francis’ leadership, we’ve done that. People are going to be blown away.
You mentioned wanting to do this film in part because it meant your kids could see it. But having made breakthroughs in films like Basquiat, do you feel like there was a pivotal role you took that sort of galvanized the trajectory that your career has taken?
I try for the most part to choose stories that struck chords within me, chords of interest within me that were related to things that I think about or want to think about or are meaningful to me. But that changes when you become a father; there are other considerations you have to make, like one, I don’t want to be away from home for too long. So for a while I was doing much smaller roles because I didn’t want to go away from home for three or four months at a time. So there were other considerations. But I don’t think this movie is so much a departure though from the films that I did early on that appealed to me, because, again, yes, it’s modern moviemaking of the largest scale, and it can be perceived as Hollywood as it gets. But there’s the underlying themes and the underlying story within this movie I think is similar to the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat in that there is a core humanity at play. Or like Angels in America, a social commentary is there. There’s a desire within all of that to express something, if we can, about the human condition, and not just making a movie for the sake of making a movie and playing with all of these new technologies, with CGI and all of that. It’s about trying to touch people in whatever ways we can. So I don’t see it so much as a departure, because the material is so thoughtful.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens today nationwide.