“I’ve just finished filming my work on the next ‘Hunger Games,’” Jeffrey Wright, class of ’87, casually said. Starring in big name films is nothing new for Wright, who’s played roles in dozens of high budget commercial films. Indeed, this Emmy, Golden Globe, and AFI Award-winning actor — appearing on big screens worldwide — is an exceptional member of Amherst College’s already impressive list of alumni.
Growing Up in D.C.
Wright was born on Dec. 7, 1965 in southeast D.C. to two African-American parents. His father passed away when he was only one year old, so Wright was raised by his mother and his aunt. Both women were strong and independent; his mother was a lawyer for the U.S. customs service while his aunt was a nurse at the D.C. General Hospital. As he calls it, he had a “middle-class upbringing by two tough, professional African-American women from Virginia”.
Being brought up in D.C. in the 1960s and 1970s, Wright experienced first hand many of the iconic movements that we college students have only read about. Having matured during the Civil Rights Movement, the Watergate years and the Vietnam War, he was subject to what he called a very “politicized environment” and, having traveled around in D.C. every day, he was “granted exposure from a variety of perspectives” which was very meaningful in shaping what would eventually become his political views. As a result of this, Wright admits to have done a lot of “talking and debating with peers” during his early teenage years.
Wright also had a number of other interests, mainly anything to do with a ball. He recalls fondly that if he wasn’t doing something academic he would “be playing football, something with a ball, some type of sport with a ball — I always had a ball in my hand.”
Athlete, Activist and Actor
Naturally, it makes sense for his childhood experiences to culminate into activities and interests at college. Accordingly, Wright was a lacrosse player for Amherst and a good one, too. The team went undefeated his senior year and many of his classmates went on to become lacrosse All-Americans.
As for his political interests, Wright translated these into a Political Science major, using his first-hand knowledge of political events to supplement his didactic experiences here at Amherst and push for political change even while on campus.
“I was involved in the divestment of Amherst funds from companies supporting apartheid in South Africa,” Wright said. “It helped me focus on ideas that continued to develop and shape my ideologies.”
But while these two passions took up much of his time and energy at Amherst, Wright also found a new calling: acting.
Wright started acting late in his junior year, taking part in the college theater group.
“My first play was actually a set of dramatic readings. It was a monologue by a student named Kevin Fraser, in the perspective of veterans of the Vietnam War,” Wright recalled.
Naturally, his political passions and his newfound passion for acting went hand in hand, especially when he could act in such powerful and meaningful plays.
“From an early stage, I perceived acting to be testifying,” Wright said. “It was expressing creative urges, but more importantly expressing the ideas of the playwright or author.”
On the other hand, lacrosse and acting often came into conflict for Wright.
“I remember being chastised on both sides by the play directors and by my coaches. The directors would chastise me for coming in with bruises and without energy, while my coaches would chastise me for spending less and less time on lacrosse. I suppose I felt that acting was the bohemian side of the fence and I regret not reconciling those two interests. Now that I look at it, they’re actually quite similar things,” Wright said.
Pursuing His Passion
After graduating from Amherst, Wright went on to enroll in the theater department at New York Univ. (NYU). As a testament to his acting abilities, Wright was able to win an acting scholarship to stay at NYU. However, after two months he decided to drop out and take on the world as a professional.
In 1994, he had his breakout performance in Tony Kushner’s award-winning Broadway drama, “Angels in America.” Wright won a Tony award for “Best Feature Actor in a Play” for his outstanding portrayal of Belize, a gay nurse taking care of the homophobic Roy Cohn.
“My true coming-of-age play was ‘Angels in America.’ Working with Tony Kushner on such a deep and thoughtful play — I think it might’ve spoiled me to the idea that acting could always have something meaningful and relevant,” Wright said.
In 2003, he was again cast as Belize, but in HBO’s miniseries adaptation of “Angels in America.” For his performance, he won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a TV Miniseries or Movie and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.
Wright has been acting in a mélange of roles, receiving critical acclaim for virtually every role he’s played.
“He is such a chameleon as an actor, playing everything from Basquiat to Martin Luther King,” said Terence Winter, Emmy Award winning writer and executive producer of “The Sopranos.”
Over the years, Wright has received nine awards and 17 nominations from varying organizations for his exceptional acting in theater and on film.
For one of his most recent roles, Wright is playing Dr. Valentin Narcisse in the fourth season of Winter’s drama series “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I will never forget the first time I heard him speak Dr. Narcisse’s dialogue aloud at a cast table read. When I heard him say those words, I thought to myself, ‘So that’s who Dr. Narcisse is,” Winter said. “He is a magnificent actor and a wonderful collaborator who brings so much to the overall process.”
Beyond the acting, Wright is also an avid philanthropist, working to bring about social and economic justice to Africa. In 2003, Wright, along with a number of retired military generals, co-founded a company by the name of Taia LLC. According to Wright, there are two aspects to the company; the first being a mining exploration company and the second being a peace foundation to bring about social justice using parts of the profit created by the first. The mining portion of the company describes itself as “a junior precious metal and mineral exploration company in Sierra Leone which aims to achieve the highest sustainable profits and shareholder value through the implementation of a commercially viable, ethical and sustainable business model.” The peace portion of the company seeks “to understand the factors inhibiting economic growth and social cohesion and support community-partnered projects to counteract them.”
“It is a pragmatic, western response to economic and social injustice in Africa. Places in Africa have been impoverished by manipulation by outsiders. We want to see the strengths in Africa. I want to redirect the narrative toward root causes to better contextualize our understanding of what’s happening on the ground to reshape the ways we think as outsiders,” Wright said.
Fred Leigh, a retired Major General with the U.S. Army and one of the co-founders of the Taia Peace Foundation, recalled meeting Wright.
“I met Jeffrey in late 2002, early 2003. I met him because he needed help with strategic planning in Sierra Leone for his foundation,” Leigh said. “What struck me about Jeffrey is that Jeffrey has a different business model. He brought a new way of creating wealth as a business/creating wealth in the country. I was very impressed with his sincerity … He wants to break the cycle of outsiders coming and exploiting the Africans.”
As part of his philanthropic work in Africa, Wright helped restore an 18-mile road that had once connected the chiefdom of Penguia to the rest of Sierra Leone. Without that road, the villagers of Penguia were virtually isolated. As a gesture of thanks for his work, Wright and Leigh were made honorary members of the tribe.
“They made Jeffrey an honorary paramount chief, which is the highest level of chief. Then, the town, section and paramount chiefs all gathered below the stage in prayer and gestured for Jeffrey to join them. And he did; it was a very powerful moment to watch,” Leigh reminisced.
Life as He Knows It
When asked to describe a typical day in the life of Jeffrey Wright, Wright simply laughed and said, “I’m happy to say there is none. Right now, I’m in a hotel at Atlanta, having finished my work on the next Hunger Games.”
He then somewhat jokingly added, “On a typical day, I’m at some point dreaming of surfing the North Shore of Oahu!” in reference to his experience learning how to surf last year while filming in Hawaii.
“I have a creative lifestyle, so there’s no typical lifestyle for me, and I absolutely enjoy that,” Wright said. “Amherst allowed me the exploration of creativity, which has given me the gift of not having typical days, of not living my life in a predetermined way.”
To Amherst students, Wright says: “Use your considerable hours to fire up curiosity about things unknown. Be less dependent on precedent and more dependent on your abilities to reimagine each day.”
Political activist, lacrosse player, actor, philanthropist, creative mind, aspiring surfer, Amherst alumnus: that’s Jeffrey Wright.