In the highly-anticipated sequel “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Tony Award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee, one of two tribunes from District 3 who has won the deadly event in the past and is now brought back to fight for his life again in an All-Star type competition. During our interview, Wright, 47, who has starred in such films as “Casino Royale” and “Cadillac Records” and has a recurring role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” talked about the complexities of the sci-fi genre and what he thinks of the die-hard fans of “The Hunger Games” franchise.
The sci-fi genre is something you’re fairly new to in your career. We saw you in “The Invasion” in 2007 and “Source Code” in 2011. How are the sci-fi elements different with a film like “The Hunger Games” compared to others you’ve done in the past?
Well, “The Hunger Games” does contain some serious futuristic and sci-fi elements, but those make up only one of the layers of the stories. There’s also a good deal of social commentary that’s offered. There’s a classic mythologizing of the hero or, in this case, the heroine. These stories are wonderfully complex and detailed. I don’t think I’ve been a part of a franchise that has achieved that in as a complete of a way as these films.
I also don’t think you’ve been in a film franchise that has such an immense following, unless you count your work in the recent James Bond movies. Does that put added pressure on you as an actor to make the fans happy or is a lot of it out of your control?
Yeah, there are very few films out there that have the type of fans with this voracious appetite for the work. I don’t know if that adds additional pressure. I always try to do the most interesting work that I can do at any given time. But you certainly do want to match and ideally surpass fans’ expectations, particularly with these stories because the fans feel like they have a kind of ownership of these characters. I wouldn’t go far as to say that I’m working on set every day thinking about making the fans happy. There are so many fans out there, there would be no way you do could something that would be manageable. You just have to serve the best interest of the story and hope that in doing so, you’re doing justice to those stories and to the expectations.
The only person you really need to make happy, I’m guessing, is (director) Francis Lawrence.
Yeah, there’s only one person on set, really, whose vision I’m really trying to keep a hold on – that’s Francis’. What he has done in “Catching Fire” is masterful. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been with a film that I’ve been a part of for fans to experience his work and the work of this tremendous group of actors who have assembled around this movie.
Talk about working with Francis. What kind of conversations did you have with him about what you wanted to do with a character like Beetee? Did you want to stray from the books or stay as close to that literary character as possible?
I mean, we have this very comprehensive reference material in the books that allows you a lot of insight into who the character is. I think Francis and I interpreted what we read in similar ways and who Beetee was. Beyond that, Francis had his vision for the film in his head. As an actor, I have to trust that vision. With a director like Francis, it’s very easy to trust that because he is very clear but at the same time very collaborative in his process. I didn’t fully realize what he was doing until I saw the final product, which I think is absolutely stunning. When I saw the movie, I came away floored by the level of filmmaking that was achieved under his guidance.
Some actors might find it limiting having to stick to what the books give you. You didn’t feel that way?
Well, if I hadn’t read the books, it would’ve been like acting with one eye shut. When you have what is essentially an encyclopedia of information in this trilogy and in this cosmology of the world you’re trying to play a role in, I think it would be foolish not to consider the books.
How do you read books these days? Would we see you reading a hard copy of “Catching Fire” or flipping through it virtually on an iPad?
No, I read the whole trilogy the old-fashioned way – on what I liked to call processed wood.
This year we marked the 25th anniversary of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat death. It’s been 17 years since you portrayed him on film. Is that one of those roles that stays with you long after you finish shooting or are you the type of actor that can move on fairly quickly after a project is completed?
You know, I felt at the time – and I still feel – a close kinship with Basquiat as an artist. One of the reasons I was so attracted to playing the role is because I feel his work fits into similar cultural and historical and creative reservoirs that I use often in my work. So much of his work is an absolute celebration of not solely the African American experience, but the diasporal African experience. Those are things I take a huge delight in exploring when I work. You look at his work today and see the references to these ancestral artists that came before him like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and other iconographic figures like Muhammad Ali and references to slavery. He used all of those things to form the vocabulary of his art. Those are all things I hold precious myself. Beyond that, when I did his film I, too, was a feasibly creative guy trying to explore New York City and trying to find my creative voice within that world. So, I still feel very close to that story – to his story – and to the movie as a result.
What do you think Basquiat would say about the recent attention he has been getting from people in the entertainment and fashion industries? Musicians like Jay-Z are including his name in song lyrics. There’s also a new clothing line that was just released by Supreme New York that is inspired by Basquiat’s work. For someone who thrived for so long as an eccentric, how do you think he’d react to his work and his name being commercialized like that?
(Laughs) You know, [Basquiat] was a guy that used to wear $1,000 Armani suits while he painted. (Laughs) So, if he was materialist at all, he was subversive about it. If he was commercial at all, it was in the subversion of it. I’m not sure how he would take it, but I’m sure he would encourage people to wear the clothes and destroy the clothes at the same time.
Basquiat, of course, was the first artist to bring street art to the mainstream. Today, we see artists like Bansky going around doing their thing. Do you think the art world has learned to embrace that genre since Basquiat? I mean, I know artists teaching at the college level who started their careers tagging trains as teenagers. So, do you think it’s now a fully accepted form of art?
Well, I don’t know if it’s fully accepted yet, but certain aspects of it and certain artists have been accepted. When one of Basquiat’s paintings sells for $43 million earlier this year at auction, I would say that’s a pretty warm embrace of at least his street art and the way it has evolved over time.