Marvel's What If…? star Jeffrey Wright talks charting a new path with the all-knowing Watcher
Jeffrey Wright is righting a wrong he's noticed throughout pop culture when it comes to the role of the wise narrator.
The Emmy-, Golden Globe-, and Tony-winning actor stars in What If...? — the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first animated series — as Uatu, the all-knowing and all-seeing extraterrestrial being known as the Watcher. Serving as the narrator for the Disney+ series, the Watcher takes viewers on a journey, showing what would happen if certain pivotal moments from the MCU unfolded differently. And while some would instinctively voice the Watcher with a British accent given his vast knowledge and powers, Wright had other ideas.
"A lot of times, we hear a character like this that's very powerful and wise and dramatic, if you look at some of the old films of Greek mythology and even Egyptian mythology and things like this or history, we find that the characters have a British accent," Wright tells EW. "And I have never really figured out why that is. Why does every wise man in the history of cinema or wise woman or sage need to be British? So the first time we encounter the Watcher in the comics on the moon, I figured it was wide open where we could go with the voice and how can we craft together an idea and music to his voice that's resonant today. So I just went for it and put it down."
Wright laughs as he points out how "every ancient Egyptian seems to have spoken with a British accent, every ancient Egyptian went to Cambridge apparently. I don't know how that worked, but apparently, that's how it went down." So he figured it was time to do something different with his version of the Watcher.
Below, Wright talks to EW about bringing the Watcher to life on What If...? two weeks ahead of its debut, as well as the episode that features Chadwick Boseman's final MCU appearance as T'Challa/Black Panther, which the late actor recorded before dying of colon cancer in 2020.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much did you know about the What If...? comics before landing this role?
JEFFREY WRIGHT: Just like marginally versed. But I went back and dug in, went back to 1963 to the moon with the Fantastic Four to discover Uatu, the Watcher, first, and then I dipped into some of the What If...? comics themselves, which I think began in 1977. It's a really exciting opportunity to go back and reinvent some of the characters from the MCU that everyone loves, reinvent not only the characters but more importantly, reconfigure their stories and their narratives and their heroic arcs. There's infinite possibilities with this thing that is pretty exciting and fans will be surprised by.
What was your reaction when you were offered the role of the Watcher?
I had to do a little research as to what Marvel was, you know? [Laughs] But I got the invitation to be a part of all of this incredibly dynamic and well-loved storytelling that Marvel is putting out now and so it was a very easy invitation to accept.
What kinds of conversations did you have with head writer A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews about how to approach voicing this all-knowing, all-powerful character?
There was a lot of discussion about how does this guy talk? How does he sound, this extraterrestrial celestial all-knowing being who has powers in some ways beyond most of the characters that we've seen from the Marvel films? So how does he speak? I wanted to make sure that the tones of the character were new, that they were born of the moment now.
So how did you go about finding his voice?
It took us some time to develop the voice and to settle in on something that we all felt good about. That took a bit of time, a little exploration. And then it was just the process of looking at some of the visuals that they would show me, different ideas about what he was, different ideas about the tone of the show, because the animation is really dense and edgy and cinematic but at the same time really warm. So that gave me a sense of what we were playing with. And then I would get the scripts and we got to work.
What was it like when you finally got to record the voiceover?
We recorded some of these episodes during lockdown during the pandemic last year. I recorded a bunch of stuff in my closet in Brooklyn. [Laughs] So the preparation was setting up the little mini recording studio and closing the closet door, and banging it out next to my underwear drawer. But it worked out! Good acoustics in there.
What did you enjoy about bringing the Watcher to life?
He's described as the most dramatic being in all the multiverse when he first appears in Fantastic Four in 1963 on the cover of the comic book, so this idea of the most dramatic being in anyone's imagination gives you a lot to play with. I love the idea of just being able to be theatrical and a little over the top and at the same time kind of subtle with the language. That's always fun.
What are you getting to do with this role that you've never gotten to do before in your career?
Record and work from my closet in my pajamas. That's new. [Laughs] No, it's really new for me to be a part of this Marvel Universe. I've done animation before, I've done voice work before, but to jump into this huge landscape of story and character and just to know how passionate fans are about these stories and to be a part of that and trying to bring something fresh to the fanbase and meet and even surpass their expectations, that's new. And that's a good place to be so I like that.
Do you have a favorite episode that you can't wait for fans to see?
I was really taken by the Doctor Strange episode, which you will see when you get there. For some reason, it just really pulled at my emotions. [Laughs] And as well, it becomes a story of interest to the Watcher too, so in that way, we kind of see things from a similar perspective. So yeah, check out the Doctor Strange one when it comes. When you land on that one, you'll land in a place where I sat up even further in my seat.
But also, I was really moved to hear Chadwick Boseman voice T'Challa again as he does in the show. I actually first met him when Black Panther was being introduced at Comic-Con. We saw each other from time to time after that and just to watch him grow as an actor and watch him take on this character, to see what that character meant, and to understand that he was doing that while facing serious challenges, I just find to be on the level of heroism that Black Panther himself is on. So to be a part of just a little bit of what some of his last work is is really special. And I can't wait for folks to just hear him.
What If...? premieres Aug. 11 on Disney+. Check out EW's exclusive debut of the Watcher's character poster above.
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