”People in the industry are actively looking for new white actors,” says Basquiat‘s Jeffrey Wright. ”But they’re not so actively looking for young black actors.” Not unless the actor in question is Wright, who’s been demanding notice on Broadway since 1993’s Angels in America and, currently, as Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk‘s slinky narrator. Now with his gutsy turn as Jean-Michel Basquiat, the painter who made his own waves in the mostly white ’80s art scene before dying from an overdose at 27, it’s official: Jeffrey Wright, you’ve been discovered.
The 30-year-old Washington, D.C., native practiced crashing white bastions at Amherst College, where he studied political science and played lacrosse. ”Then I started acting,” he says. ”I became a real flake on the field. I’d go, ‘I can’t get hurt — my director’ll kill me if I show up with a broken leg.”’
No director could have been more frightening than Julian Schnabel, the notoriously prickly artist who wrote and directed Basquiat and admits to some on-the-set tension with his star. ”For some reason he’s built up all this armor,” says Wright, choosing his words carefully. ”We all lent him a little humility” — we meaning a cast that includes Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and David Bowie. Despite the friction, Wright’s work left the director duly impressed. ”People who knew Jean-Michel well feel [Jeffrey] touched on his nature,” says Schnabel.
After taking up painting and shedding 30 pounds to play the spindly artist, Wright was equally impressed, not as much by his performance as by Basquiat himself. ”Once someone like Basquiat arrives,” Wright says, ”he insists the whole room change. And the room might not want to change.” It would appear that the actor and the role couldn’t have been a better match.