Jeffrey Wright is finally in the Oscar hunt. He’s ready.

Jeffrey Wright is finally in the Oscar hunt. He’s ready.

The American Film Institute’s annual AFI Awards luncheon is one of Hollywood’s most glamorously understated seasonal rituals. Held early each year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, it’s the kind of exclusive, untelevised event designed to allow its honorees simply to bask in the assurance that, on this particular Friday in January, they’re in exactly the right room.

And it’s a room in which Jeffrey Wright finally found himself this year, after decades of mostly being on the outside. “I’d been to a different AFI event, where I got a thing for ‘Boycott,’” he says after lunch, referring to the 2001 television movie, and the AFI Award he received for his portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “That was 20-plus years ago.” Today, he was celebrating with the cast and creators of the movie “American Fiction,” which was honored alongside the likes of “Oppenheimer,” “Barbie” and “The Holdovers.”

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At one point, Wright had stopped to greet AFI founder George Stevens Jr., who had cast him in one of his first significant roles, in the 1991 miniseries “Separate but Equal,” about the Brown v. Board of Education case. Although his co-stars in that project were no less than Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster, his most memorable moment was with the revered character actor Albert Hall, who had played Chief in “Apocalypse Now,” a movie Wright had watched over and over. On the last day of filming, Hall gave Wright the spiritual memoir “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Recalls Wright, “On the front flap he wrote, ‘Jeffrey, evolution is when a kid comes up to you and says, “Jeffrey, I like your work, I’ve seen your movie 50 times.” Your friend always, Albert.’”

If Wright is in the mood for taking stock, that’s understandable. Since “American Fiction” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, he’s been on the kind of trajectory that invites both dizzying exhilaration and more somber reflection. With “American Fiction,” nearly 30 years after his most famous feature leading role and after more than 30 years of being the best thing in just about everything he’s in, Wright is squarely in what’s euphemistically called “the conversation” — about awards, better movies, bigger parts and the paydays that go with them — but mostly about recognition from an industry that’s somehow never fully appreciated his talents. His performance in “American Fiction” has been lauded by festivals, critics and industry groups, a flurry of recognition capped by Wright winning the Film Independent Spirit Award for best lead performance; a week and a half after the AFI lunch, he learned he had been nominated for his first Oscar.

To which the most obvious reply can only be: What took them so long?

Then again, maybe the timing couldn’t be better. “American Fiction,” adapted by Cord Jefferson from Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure,” is a movie literally written for Wright, who slips into his character like a second skin. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a college professor and author, who rails against the assumptions of the White publishing industry by writing a stereotypical “Black” novel under an assumed name; when the book becomes an unexpected hit, he grapples with sudden fame and fortune, the pressures of adopting a fake persona and the family stresses of death, dementia and sibling rivalry. Throughout “American Fiction,” Wright delivers the kind of star turn he was born for, deftly navigating comedy, pathos, spiky social commentary and a sly performance-within-a-performance — all with his signature blend of screen-friendly charisma and judicious understatement.

Jefferson, who makes his writing-directing debut with “American Fiction,” had Wright in mind from the moment he first read Everett’s book. “When I finished the script and sent it out, every agency in town was sending me Jamie Foxx or Denzel Washington, Will Smith. Really huge stars,” recalls Jefferson, whose response was always the same. “No. Jeffrey’s the guy. He’s the only one that I wanted.”

It took Wright a minute to say yes.

“I was living a pretty close approximation to the circumstances that [Monk] finds himself in, in terms of being the caretaker of my mother,” the actor recalls. A little over a year earlier, his mother had died, after living with him and his two teenage children in Brooklyn (his son and daughter have since entered college). After his mother’s death, Wright’s 90-year-old aunt Naomi, who had helped raise him, moved up from Washington and began experiencing her own health issues — all in the middle of the covid pandemic. “I had reached that stage in my life where I was juggling a lot,” Wright says. “The notion, born of blissful youth, that things get easier as you get older was just obliterated. The emotional hook for me was knowing that too well.”

Wright, 58, grew up in Southeast Washington, the son of customs attorney Barbara Evon-Whiting-Wright, whose husband James died when Jeffrey was a child. He attended St. Alban’s School and studied political science at Amherst College.

It was during college that he decided to be an actor, having gone with his mother to see touring Broadway shows at Ford’s Theatre, or the Warner, or the National. “I’d see everything from ‘For Colored Girls …’ to ‘Give ’em Hell, Harry!’ to ‘The Wiz’ to ‘Annie’ to ‘1776,’” Wright recalls fondly. And when he told his mom that he was going to pursue acting rather than attend medical or law school, as she expected, he says: “She was surprised. But she had been the catalyst.”

He was invited to enroll in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts but lasted only a couple of months; he had already appeared in the Lorraine Hansberry play “Les Blancs” at Washington’s Arena Stage, and he wanted to join that production when it traveled to Boston. Upon his return to New York, he auditioned for a play at the prestigious Yale Repertory Theatre and booked the part. “From then on, I’d get a play every year up at Yale, [and] I would get a play every year at Arena Stage,” he says.

After making his feature and TV debuts respectively in “Presumed Innocent” and “Separate but Equal,” he worked steadily both in theater and on screen, winning a Tony in 1994 for his spellbinding portrayal of Belize, the nurse tending to a dying Roy Cohn in the play “Angels in America” (he would win an Emmy and Golden Globe for reprising the role in Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO adaptation). When Wright starred in “Basquiat” in 1996, delivering an indelible portrayal of 1980s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat, his path to stardom felt not just assured but inevitable.

But, inexplicably, the path curved. In subsequent movies, he was relegated to secondary characters, continually drawing the audience’s eye in whatever scene he was in. He created a villain for the ages in his hilariously on-point depiction of Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez in John Singleton’s 2000 iteration of “Shaft”; when he showed up in “Casino Royale” as James Bond’s “brother from Langley,” CIA agent Felix Leiter, he infused the borderline cartoonish franchise with his signature brand of quiet, unforced cool.

His versatility could always be counted on to feel effortless, allowing him to go fabulously, flamboyantly big (his Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in last year’s “Rustin”) to gently playful (the Ethiopian amateur sleuth Winston in “Broken Flowers”) as the moment requires. And yet, those moments have almost always been in service to someone else.

“I was just always like, why doesn’t this guy have bigger roles?” Jefferson observes. “Why is he Commissioner Gordon instead of Batman? Why is he Felix in 007 and not James Bond? He’s so elegant, it’s so easy to believe he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s got such gravitas and such dignity.”

Wright makes it clear that the choices were his. “It wasn’t that I was suffering and sitting in stunted frustration. … My son was born, my daughter was born; I didn’t want to go away from home for long stretches,” says Wright, who’s been divorced from actress Carmen Ejogo for 10 years.

“At the same time, I had become disillusioned with some of the dynamics within the industry,” he adds. “I’d had experiences on film sets that I was disappointed by. Places that were horribly run, and dishonorable.” Without going into further detail, Wright explains that the way he approached his career fundamentally changed. “I’d go off and do a film for a couple of weeks, come back home, pay for diapers and food multiple times a day that my children insisted on eating. So the roles I chose were chosen for pragmatic reasons as well as creative.”

In the early 2000s, Wright also began to pour most of his energy into a project in Sierra Leone designed to create a new model for sustainable gold mining. “We almost got there,” he says. But when the venture failed, “I had to circle back to my day job.” In 2012, he joined his first Hunger Games movie and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” and his passions were reignited. “The old feelings began to creep back in,” he says. “It was the beginning of enjoying it again and being invested in it again.”

Since then, Wright has been more visible, not just in big movies such as “The Batman” and the Bond and Hunger Games franchises, but also in cult hits like “Westworld” and the repertory company of Wes Anderson, who first saw Wright onstage in “Angels in America,” then in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog” and John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color.”

“I was just a great admirer for a very long time, and I also knew his way with words,” says Anderson, who cast Wright as a James Baldwin-like food journalist in 2021’s “The French Dispatch,” then wrote a role specifically for him in last year’s “Asteroid City.” “There was nobody else we were ever considering, and in fact Jeffrey wasn’t even available to do it,” Anderson says. “Everything had to be kind of bent around in every direction to make it possible for him to come over because he was in the middle of something else. But we had to have him. And, in fact, I’ve written another part for Jeffrey in the next film I’m making.”

From the looks of things, Anderson might have to get in line. Wright seems finally to be enjoying the kind of extravagant praise and promise that’s been his due for way too long — and will be on display at the Oscars ceremony March 10, when he will compete with Paul Giamatti, Cillian Murphy, Bradley Cooper and Colman Domingo for best actor in a leading role. And amid the swirl have come full-circle moments that are even more meaningful.

Wright recalls crossing paths with Teo Yoo, the co-star of Celine Song’s breakout romantic drama “Past Lives,” at yet another awards season event just the other day. “He came up and talked to me about ‘Basquiat,’ and how many times he’d seen it,” Wright says, echoing what Hall had written to him so many years ago. “I said, ‘You have no idea how much I appreciate hearing that.’ Maybe I have evolved.”

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