Jeffrey Wright on finding the soul of Hobie (and New York) in The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch (2019 film)
Hobie offers a peaceful refuge within the epic world of The Goldfinch. A kind man who runs a Manhattan antiques shop, he becomes a lifelong friend to the story’s protagonist, Theo (played by Oakes Fegley and, later, Ansel Elgort), in the wake of a terrorist attack that killed Hobie’s partner and Theo’s mother. As portrayed by Jeffrey Wright in the film (adapted from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), he exists in a sort of mournful, empathic time capsule, protecting and guiding Theo through the incredible, painful journey life takes him on. EW caught up with Wright on capturing Hobie’s essence, telling a deeply New York story, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Had you read The Goldfinch when you signed on for the film?
JEFFREY WRIGHT: I hadn’t read the book before I did the movie, but I was aware of it and aware of its popularity — and how personal it was for people who had read it. It’s one of those books that resonates on humanistic, personal levels. I was approached by [director] John Crowley to play the part of Hobie. I read the script and I said yes. It was a pretty simple process. Hobie is many things. He’s a soulful person.
Hobie is the heart of this story in a lot of ways, particularly for Theo. He’s the rock through the journey Theo goes on.
There is an ambiguity in terms of the loss that they have both suffered. Obviously, Hobie has lost his business partner, but perhaps he lost more than that. When they find each other, mysteriously borne out of this strange, fateful event that intertwines their destinies, Theo finds strange solace in this man and in this place that have resonances of his mother, of all the things she loved and she shared with him. But also, he brings back this token of this man who was integral to Hobie’s life. There’s solace on both sides in that initial meeting that they provide one another. What’s borne of that is this strange new New York family. [Laughs]
You mentioned the New York family that develops, and The Goldfinch is a very New York story. Did the setting help you find Theo and your part in this epic story?
It’s funny, it’s been a while since I’ve shot in New York. When we began filming, I was just reminded of the density and detail and tonality and texture and life that the city brings to the screen. Much of the movie, too, is an ode to New York, and the humanity that lives inside what seems to be at times a cold, callous, careless city. All of us who live there know it’s anything but that.
Watching your performance, there’s something almost comforting about the way Hobie lives in this space: the way he touches the antiques, how at home he seems. Did you draw at all from your relationship to New York, your own sense of home there?
You get the sense that Hobie has found himself in the city. He’s found himself as a man, but he’s also found himself as an artist and as a species-being. [Laughs] He’s found a place where he’s defined by the work he does and is comfortable within that, and celebrates that work. It does ground him in this city that’s steel and concrete. There’s a realness to that for him. There’s a sturdiness for him, in the midst of all the energy of New York. That, for me, as I tried to convey this character, allowed me to lock into something really meaningful. The same things that attract Theo to him. And so for me, yes: When I first moved to New York before grad school, I got a job as a bike messenger. You went into these places that were completely unimaginable. “Oh, you make 5,000 cheesecakes a day?” You’d find these worlds that intertwine their destinies, worlds that exist, like [Hobie’s].
What kind of research did you do?
I went down to meet with some of the restorers down in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just to get a sense of the work and all that. I got a [sense] from them of what their work entailed, but also you got the sense of a place out of time — this cocoon that exists every day, quietly; the den of taxis and traffic and madness above the street. There was a sense of quiet there that informed me about what this character was about and this place that he was inhabiting was about. Spaces like that are made any place in the country, in the world. But there’s something about the contrast between the frenetic energy that is New York and the quiet, focused energy of a place like that, that intensifies its uniqueness of meaning.
Did you visit any antiques shops?
A man named Jonathan Burden took me under his wing; more specifically, I went to his shop out in Queens. He’s a restorer and also a fabricator. He showed me the ropes and how to touch these pieces. How to see them. He was incredibly helpful. But I used to go antiquing with my mom when I was a kid. This opportunity allowed me to reflect on some of those memories. After understanding the piece and getting trained in some ways in the craft, it was an easy piece to play because it’s so well-defined. The touchstones were, for me, so obvious, and grounded in a type of love for things and love for humanity and empathy. And I think particularly now, for some reason, the opportunity to play within that world was attractive, because it’s antithetical to so much of what exists in the air right now.
The Goldfinch opens Friday.
The Goldfinch (2019 film)