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November 2005
Syriana: An Interview with Jeffrey Wright

Syriana: An Interview with Jeffrey Wright

By Wilson Morales

If there one actor who command respect from all of peers and know that if he's in a film, it has substance and not just fly by night commercial film, it's Jeffrey Wright. Having recently won the Emmy, Golden Globe, and a Black Reel award for his supporting role in the acclaimed HBO miniseries, Angels in America, which he also won a Tony in the stage version, Wright is one of Hollywood's most gifted actors. From roles in "Basquiat", "Boycott", "Ali", and most recently "Broken Flowers" with Bill Murray, Wright brings a level of authority and understanding to the character he plays. In his latest film, "Syriana", a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigues and corruption of the global oil industry, Wright is probably playing his most complex character to date. He plays Bennett Holiday, a man who consciously has to decide to what's right and wrong in his job. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Wright examines his character and talks about the sort of films he looks for.

How would you best describe your character?

Jeffrey Wright: My character is a corporate lawyer who is brought in by major oil company to investigate the investigation of a merger that this oil company is trying to pull off with a smaller company. The Justice Department senses that there has been some violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the acquisition of a natural gas concession in the republic of Kazakhstan and so they're holding up the merger brings in my character, Bennett Holiday to excise any dirt from the process.

There are so many stories told in the film. How serious is the subject matter that your character is investigating?

JW: Well, for him, it becomes increasing serious because it becomes apparent he could go to jail for essentially obstruction of justice; so it becomes much about protecting himself as protecting his client. This is very serious stuff. He's operating in a snake pit and there's a lot of money involved and a lot of power involved and he has to be very careful how he handles this case. It's very serious for him.

Within the film, there is this strange dynamic relationship between your character and his father. How does this play within the film in terms of cohesiveness and what do you think is going on between the two men?

JW: Well, the father in some ways represents the moral conscious of my character and I think he is probably torn between his objecting to what his son is doing and his resentment of his success at doing it. I think the father is probably frustrated that Bennett has access to all corridors of power that he might not have had access to. Bennett is uncomplicated in his relationship to these corridors of power and I think that's the point of friction between him and his father.

Was there more about the father and son relationship that might have been left out in the film because there seem to be some ambiguity about the physical state of his father?

JW: There might have been.

In working with writer-director Stephen Gaghan, what were you looking to bring to the character?

JW: I think what we see in the film is very clear that in spite of everything that we see, what I hope we see is that Bennett continues on. He goes on. His work continues. He, in some ways, represents the machine and I think in many ways, Bennett is like any of these young guys who are so about the pursuit of power and money. It's become so much about young black culture; the pursuit of power and money and in any kind of moral considerations are tossed out the window if they get in the way in the pursuit of money and power; and really, in many ways, if they stand in the way them having access to that. Bennett is that guy. It's a subtler playground that he's working at, but he's about being a part of the power side of the system as opposed to being excluded from it and that's what's he going to do.

In making this film, did your political views change?

JW: This film is so connected to the current political geo-landscape, that it wasn't so much making this film that informed my politics, but the events of the film aspires to address. We are at war in Iraq right now and it's disputed but it seemed clear to me that oil is the core of that conflict; even it's about spreading democracy and creating a more stable Middle East; we want a more stable Middle East so we can have access to the natural resources there so for me it's definitely about oil and so the events happening now informed me more about politics that this film did. This film is a continuation of that and it's connected to the current state of play that it didn't have any changing effect in that way.

You don't have any scenes with George (Clooney) or Matt (Damon). Did you guys ever get together on the set and discuss the film?

JW: We shot in different countries, so no. I was in Texas and Washington D.C, so we didn't get chance to cross-over.

What sort of films do you look for?

JW: I look for films like this. I look for films that have a political relevance and are contemporary and speak to what's happening outside the theater. I feel films are not a distraction from the world at-large but we stand out immediately.

Do you think this is a film that most people can watch and figure out what's going on without getting lost in the multiple storyline?

JW: I think everybody has some stake in this film because the film is very much about and some people might think that it has political agenda or think that's it's an indictment of the current administration or something like that but I think the film is more about all of us and how we live; and what it takes to support the lifestyle that we enjoy; the luxuries that we enjoy. All of us are addicted to oil and by the nature of our lifestyles addicted to natural resources that come from other places outside of country. What it takes to have access to those luxuries is what this film is about. So it relates to all of us.

Coming up next for you is M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water. What role do you have in the film?

JW: I play a father to a young boy. The film takes places in an apartment complex which starts to take on these mystical qualities and we find that each of the inhabitants or tenants in the apartment have some role to play in this mystical reality in the place.

What else are you working on?

JW: I'm working on a film called "The Visiting", another Warner Bros. film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who directed the film "Downfall" with Bruno Ganz.

Is there any chance of you going back in the theater?

JW: Maybe, at the end of next year. There's a play about New Orleans that has been in consideration that we have been talking about for a year before the storm.

Will you be working with your wife (Carmen Ejojo) again on screen?

JW: She actually just landed a role on a TV show. Possibly.


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