Jeffrey Wright on the Truths of 'American Fiction': "I Was Living a Pretty Near Approximation to That Myself"

The actor discusses his award-worthy performance, which combines timely social discourse with timeless family drama

Photo: Claire Folger

BY Rachel HoPublished Dec 20, 2023

"There can be something cathartic in the process of working on a project such as this," actor Jeffrey Wright tells Exclaim! during a press visit to Toronto. "Ideally, you're able to make sense of the experiences for yourself and find some type of meaning in them that lends meaning to others."

It's through this empathetic and generous lens that Wright's performance in his latest film, American Fiction, has captured the attention of audiences and critics alike. Already nominated for a multitude of awards — including the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards — playing frustrated author Thelonious "Monk" Ellison brought a sense of release for Wright, who found parallels between himself and the character in a way his previous works hadn't.

The directorial debut of Cord Jefferson (who also wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of Percival Everett's novel Erasure), American Fiction follows Monk's journey in attempting to sell another one of his high-brow academic deep dives to no avail. Frustrated with a publishing landscape that seems to only want Black authors writing about stereotypical Black experiences, Monk decides to flip the bird at all those perpetuating this problematic brand of literature by writing his own stereotype-laden manuscript. Unfortunately for Monk, his joke novel, My Pafology, becomes a success. 

Given the timeliness, it's only natural that the social discourse within American Fiction has prevailed as the primary talking point of the film — but for Wright, it's the family dynamics between Monk, his mother and his siblings that centres the story. It's here that he saw himself in the character. 

"The heart and soul of the film is this family in crisis and Monk's relationship to that, and the responsibilities that fall upon him to become caretaker, not only to his mother, but to the family as a whole," says Wright. "That struck me, because when Cord sent me the script to read, I was living a pretty near approximation to that myself."

In the film, Monk's mother, played by the heartbreaking Leslie Uggams, receives an Alzheimer's diagnosis, placing Monk into position of caretaker. Just prior to receiving Jefferson's script, Wright's mother passed away and his 94-year-old aunt, who helped raise Wright as a child, moved in with the actor. Alongside this grief and new responsibility, Wright also had two children to care for, creating a time in his life he refers to as "those sandwich years — a monstrous triple-decker I was squeezed into the middle of." 

He explains, "I appreciated the pressures that the character was facing, and also the sacrifices that one is forced to wrestle with relative to their personal and professional life when faced with these intensified responsibilities to family. [It's] a universal experience for people across backgrounds, people of a certain age. Many people have experienced that, and many more will experience that. There was just a really vibrant human tone to that aspect of the film."

He continues, "One of the wonderful but strange aspects of what we do is when we find stories to tell that overlap so much with our lives — when art and life marry. It happens from time to time, and very often out of that, wonderful things can emerge. I don't know whether the stories come to us or we come to them, but when it happens, it can be fertile for [those of us] making the film, but also for audiences."

Arguably, it's this human element that has driven much of the film's success. Winner of the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival — a distinction with an excellent track record for almost guaranteeing a Best Picture nomination from the Academy — the buzz around American Fiction spread largely by word of mouth. Ask any critic or festival-goer who caught the initial screenings of the film: American Fiction was the one to catch, so much so that additional showtimes were added to the festival's already packed schedule.

Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, Wright and the rest of the cast weren't on hand in Toronto as the film's must-see status steadily rose, though he was fully aware of the film's underdog success story. He reflects, "It was a wonderful gift to our film that, on its first showing, it was so well received and recognized. There are certainly films out there that were bigger than ours, that were more promoted than ours, but that really had no relevance to what we were doing. We were telling our story."

For all the accolades and recognition American Fiction has received, there's a particular audience that has Wright's attention more than any other, especially given how closely the film reflects his experiences. A couple weeks prior to speaking with Exclaim!, Wright's son watched the film for the first time, and with a tremendous amount of pride in his voice, Wright reports that his son saw himself in Monk and also found the film to be "a beautiful homage to grandma."

"I said to him, 'You've got it,'" Wright remarks softly. "If it's only that, then it's worth it for me, and whatever difficulties that come in the process of doing it are worth it. As with everything that I do, I discover every day that it's all owing to [my mother], including my work in this film. It doesn't exist without her and everything that she made possible for me."

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