During the summer of 1981, Jeffrey Wright was working at a community swimming pool in the historic Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He had gotten the job through the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program and worked with two other boys, one of whom would later inspire some of the mannerisms in a character Wright would play.
Wright was raised in Southeast D.C. by his mother and aunt, a lawyer and a nurse, respectively, whom he describes as “working-class professionals.” In 1983, he moved north, to suburban Massachusetts, to attend Amherst College, where he majored in political science and played lacrosse. After graduating, he enrolled at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, but ultimately dropped out. Wright now plays Bernard on HBO’s Westworld. He was recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
I spoke with Wright about the marriage of the arts and athletics, a changing Washington D.C., and how irrationality makes us human. This interview has been condensed lightly for length and clarity.
Lolade Fadulu: I know you were a political-science major and played on the lacrosse team at Amherst. How did you have time to act as well?
Jeffrey Wright: I started acting when I was at Amherst my junior year, and my lacrosse career kind of started to flop sideways after that. I got injured in the first game of the season my junior year, and then again, like, the second game of the season my senior year.
And the directors that I was working with at the time were not pleased about that. One of them gave me an ultimatum: “Are you gonna be an actor, or are you gonna be this lacrosse player?” It just flipped my psyche a little bit. My real glory days were freshman and sophomore year, when I was a leading scorer on the team. So there were a lot of expectations. But then my senior year, two of my teammates were All-American and I was the guy that they were asking, “What happened to you, dude?” But I’m still close with a lot of the guys I played with, and yeah, we did some good damage on that field.
Fadulu: Was there anything you learned from lacrosse that has carried on to the rest of your life?
Wright: I played football and lacrosse in high school. They wanted me to play football at Amherst, which I did not do because my schedule was full enough as it was. But over the course of my student days, I played pretty much every sport out there.
So athletics and the type of teamwork and collaboration that goes along with most athletics informs what we do in the theater, or what we do on Westworld, because these things are collaborative processes, too. But also, I consider some of the coaches that I had among the most influential educators that I had.
I also think that there is a correlation between athletics and the arts that I didn’t quite appreciate when I was at Amherst. I thought of the arts as existing outside of athletics, in a kind of bohemian space. And I think there was a tension between my creative pursuits and my athletic pursuits.
I wish I had been more sophisticated and nuanced back then to understand that there’s a marriage between the two of them. I don’t want to be too Eurocentric in this, but the Greek festivals, Dionysus in arts and athletic festivals, there was always a marriage between the two.
I find that the work I do as an actor that’s most challenging commands an athleticism, or certainly a physicality. And also a rigor, a physical rigor. Westworld, this year, asked for a physical performance.
Fadulu: Did you have any campus jobs? What was your first-ever job?
Wright: No, I did not. I would just try to save up as much as I could from my summer jobs and try to roll throughout the school year, some times more successfully than others.
My first-ever job was when I was 14 or 15 in Washington, D.C., a job that I got through Marion Barry’s summer-youth-employment program.
It was working in the locker room of a public swimming pool, deep inside Anacostia in Southeast D.C., about five to 10 minutes from my house. I grew up in Southeast, in Hillcrest. And I had this gig in the locker room, just taking kids’ clothes and storing them back there while they went in and enjoyed the water. I will never forget that job.
One, because it would seem that it would be a boring gig, and on the surface, it was. But at the same time, it was one of the most vividly memorable summers of my youth because of the characters that I encountered, and the intensity of the place. I mean, this is a pretty hard-core neighborhood. In fact, the pool was shut down before the end of the summer because there was a riot that happened. Somehow, by the grace of Jah or some other forces, I was enjoying my day off that day. But a lifeguard had apparently kicked some girl out of the pool. She took exception to that and returned with her people, and they proceeded to wreak havoc. And the dogs of war were visited upon that little public swimming pool, armed with everything from baseball bats to hedge clippers. People were hot that summer. It was that kind of neighborhood. It was real life over there. The pool ended up closing, like, mid-August.
I made friends that summer. And it was just life in Southeast D.C., which is so much a part of who I am, and so much a part of what I’m proud of, and the people that I come from.
And, in fact, there’s a movie that I have that’s coming out, called O.G., that we shot in a prison, a working facility out in Indiana, largely with incarcerated men playing the roles of the incarcerated. I’m one of only two full-time actors that plays one of the incarcerated. And I can tell you that some of the physicality of the character that I play, I drew from a guy who I worked alongside in that pool.
In that locker room, back in 1980, 1981, there was a guy named Thomas Pratt. There were three of us. It was Pratt, one other guy, and myself, who worked in the locker room on shifts. And Pratt had been in and out of juvie, and he was about 17, I think. I was younger.
Pratt used to walk around like at any moment he was about to step into the ring. He was just coiled, like it was about to pop off as soon as the bell rang. He just had this swagger and this tension inside his body that I’ll never forget. And he hunched his shoulders and just, like, lurched around the place.
I think the shifts were, like, half an hour. We would switch half hour on, half hour off, because it was kind of musty and damp back in the locker room. We’d come out and we’d kind of chill out by the pool a little bit and then we’d head back in.
And one day my shift was up, and I came out to Pratt. And he was kind of hanging out by the pool, you know, checking out the girls or whatever. And I walked over to him and I said, “Pratt.” I said, “Your shift, man. It’s your time.” And he looked at me and he said, “ Nigga, if you don’t get out of my face ...”
And I proceeded to walk gingerly back toward that locker room, and carry on with my overextended shift. I afforded Pratt the opportunity to come back and take over his shift at his convenience.
Fadulu: Probably for the best.
Wright: That stuff stayed with me, and it informs my work, on some level. On a not-insignificant level. But I wanna talk about two other jobs, though, if I could, quickly.
Wright: My first acting job was actually children’s theater down in D.C. Touring around, early in the morning, doing American history through folktales. It was my first year out of college; I had just graduated from Amherst.
That job, from a performance perspective, taught me so much. Because we’d, literally every morning, be sitting in an auditorium or in some room in some school with a bunch of kids. Like, elementary school kids, at the oldest. And those audiences taught me something that I won’t forget: Children cannot be fooled. If you do not compel them, if they are not entertained, they will leave the room. Perhaps they won’t leave in body, but they will certainly leave in mind and spirit—and maybe in body. And so it taught me a lot about how to respect the audience, and how to command their attention, or not.
Fadulu: And the other job?
Wright: The best job I ever had was working for the Washington Gas company. That was the summer after my freshman year at Amherst. The job was fixing gas mains for the company. And so I’d go around on a truck with a crew. We were the guys out working on the big mains in the street.
So when somebody smelled a gas leak on the street somewhere, we would go in, break the concrete up, find out where the leak was, go down, dig a hole, and patch it up. And it was so satisfying. I was a member of a union for gas workers; I got my card, my union card.
And I was making what, at the time, for me, was big money, man. I don’t even remember now, but it was maybe $13.25 an hour, 50 percent more on overtime. On weekends, you triple that. I was killing it, man. And it was one of those early jobs that taught me the value of work. And when I got my check every Friday, it had sweat on it. And it felt good in my hand.
Mainly I worked the jackhammer, and I worked the shovel. So I’d jackhammer and I’d shovel the thing, and then I’d do some of the tarring, and stuff like that, to repair. But I’d let them do the more skilled stuff. So I was like the grunt. But at the end of the summer, I was as fit as I’ve ever been in my life.
The funny thing was, though, the first hour on the job, I split my hand open with a sledgehammer and a steel rod that I was driving down through the surface of a street, in order to stick a device down that would read the gas fumes. I split my finger open. Blood’s gushing through my glove. The foreman looked at me and he said, “Yo, man. You all right?” I looked at my hand, and I was just like, “Oh, yeah, it’s okay.” He’s like, “No, it’s not okay.” And he made me go directly to the hospital, where I had eight stitches in my finger so that the bone would no longer show when I pointed it.
Fadulu: They didn’t fire you?
Wright: No, they put me on light duty. One thing I learned from that is how to properly swing a sledgehammer.
Fadulu: Have you been back to Southeast, recently?
Wright: My mom and aunt still live there. And I go to certain spots, like, I used to play football for the Police Boys Club. I played at No. 2 and No. 6. And we’d play over at No. 11 around Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and I’ve gone back over there.
I mean, that was a very different place than it is now. I think they’re converting it into condominiums and things like that. I don’t spend as much time in D.C. as I once did, but gentrification stretches across the city.
And some places I don’t even recognize from when I grew up. And also, the general feeling of D.C. is gone. The place that I knew is gone. I was born in 1965, and I left D.C. to go to college in 1983. So I was there inside the deepest, darkest chocolate of the city. It was 80-plus percent black when I grew up there. That black folks in Washington, D.C. are no longer a majority, I’m wondering if my very DNA has been reconstituted.
Those were black folks of all strata. Those were black folks who were of lowest income, of working class, middle class, upper-middle class, and beyond. The majority, though, were folks who were working day to day, often on government jobs, government-associated jobs, or ancillary to that. These were folks who shaped that city, and, at the local jurisdiction, controlled that city. Obviously, there was federal monies. But in the midst of all of those contradictions was a culture produced by the black folks of D.C. that was historically rich, lyrically rich. Rich in poetry, in music, in language, in a feeling that is so much of who I am. And I mourn for it. I mourn for that place.
Fadulu: Do you feel the personal change in socioeconomic class?
Wright: Oh, yeah. My income is far greater than my mother’s income was. My mother worked for the government, and she was a lawyer. But she was a cog in that bureaucratic engine. And she worked her nine-to-five. She was there as a civil servant. And so I went to St. Albans on a scholarship, and I lived in Southeast D.C.
My mom was a single mom. I grew up with my mom and my aunt. My aunt was a nurse at D.C. General Hospital. Again, working as a civil servant, providing health care to the least-affluent communities in Washington, D.C. They were working-class professionals.
There were many times when I moved to New York that I was digging in my sofa looking for quarters to go get some fried chicken and french fries from the corner Chinese joint. But I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve tried to dig out a craft that works, and I’ve stuck with it.
It can be, in some ways, a brutal business to be a part of. And so, yeah, I do reasonably well now, but I still live a block from the projects in Brooklyn. And I moved here about 20 years ago because I had lived here in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, first in 1989, about a year after I moved to New York. And when my son was born, I wanted to move back to Brooklyn for him because Fort Greene reminded me of D.C.
And now it’s becoming a more gentrified place than I had expected. But what I still love about it is that the roots of the culture that drew me here back in 1989, and then drew me back, still remain. And I also like that, yes, I do very well, but a block from me, where I go down to get my hair cut, I get to be in the space of people who remind me of folks from my family and from my childhood.
I’m not one who tries to escape all that simply because I’m doing well. If I isolate myself from that, then I’ve isolated myself from the core of who I am. And I think it’s important that my children are comfortable in all circles.
Fadulu: What advice, maybe drawing on what you’ve learned while working on Westworld, might you have for your children as they face a future that will likely be dominated by technology?
Wright: I think that automation and technology are great tools. They’re obviously tools that are shaped by the corporate hand that uses them. That can be problematic. But I think the extent to which we can drive those things as individuals, or circumvent those things through our creativity, will be reflective of our capacity to adapt.
And I think that holds true across the board. And I don’t solely mean within the arts, I mean across the board. That creative spark is certainly one of the human elements that it will take many iterations to be able to surpass, if ever. The creative spark can be random, can be driven by mistakes. The ways in which the marriage of creativity and irrationality, or instability, or something outside of sanity, is a safe haven for humanity.
So for my kids, I try to encourage them to allow that to flourish inside them. And they’re two very different children, and so their creativity takes many different forms.
One of our household mantras is, “Solve problems.” Don’t languish in it, don’t bitch about it, solve it. A dear old late friend of mine once told me that that was the key to life, and I took it to heart, and I share that with my kids. But in order to do that, you have to see the problem. You have to acknowledge it, and you have to address it.
And I think that’s one of the primary concerns, now, I have about the political discourse around economic change and income disparity within our country. There’s not a national discourse in the right governmental rooms around technology and around automation. We’re being driven by all these simple-minded, xenophobic, short-term, idiotic, worser impulses, which, to me, represent just a simple-minded bitching about the challenge, and not acknowledging the challenge in a sophisticated way and trying to circumvent it properly.
There’s an attempt to lash us to the past, and a version of the past that never existed in the first place, as opposed to having an informed dialogue about the present and about the future. Too many of us would rather marinate in our anxiety, and our fear, and our racism, and our stupidity, and our ignorance, than actually survive, it seems. So it’s a weird time for us all, but nonetheless, here we are.