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Actor Jeffrey Wright discusses 'American Fiction'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When the nominees for the Golden Globes were announced this week, our next guest, Jeffrey Wright, got a nod for Best Performance by an Actor in the film "American Fiction." He plays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, who's trying to make a name for himself in a publishing world that keeps insisting he be not just a writer, but a writer who writes about, quote, "Black stuff." The industry wants him to traffic in tropes about poverty and violence. And there's a scene where he's looking for his titles in a bookstore, and he finds that they've been shelved in the African American Studies section.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Monk) Wait a minute. Why are these books here?

RYAN RICHARD DOYLE: (As Ned) I'm not sure. I would imagine that this author, Ellison, is Black.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) That's me - Ellison.

DOYLE: (As Ned) Oh, bingo.

WRIGHT: (As Monk) No bingo, Ned. These books have nothing to do with African American studies. They're just literature. The blackest thing about this one is the ink.

FADEL: (Laughter) Can you tell me what Monk's going through in his career here when we - really, when we first meet him?

WRIGHT: Well, he writes about the things that interest him. (Laughter) And...

FADEL: Yeah.

WRIGHT: Unfortunately, those consumers of books, those who still read, are not necessarily so interested (laughter). He writes about Greek mythology as it relates to the Black community, things like this that are esoteric but are meaningful to him. So he is frustrated because he has, prior to this, encountered a writer named Sintara Golden, played by Issa Rae, who writes, oh, more accessible stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

NICOLE KEMPSKIE: (As Sintara's Moderator) How did you come to write this book?

ISSA RAE: (As Sintara) What really struck me was that too few books were about my people. Where are our stories? Where is our representation?

KEMPSKIE: (As Sintara's Moderator) Would you give us the pleasure of reading an excerpt?

RAE: (As Sintara) Yo, Sharonda. Girl, you be pregnant again? If I is, Ray Ray is going to be a real father this time around.

WRIGHT: Ultimately, he decides, out of frustration and spite, to write his own version of a novel like that. Hoping that he's going to kind of reveal the hypocrisy of the publishing world, he writes an urban novel, and which blows up in his face. It blows up in terms of its success - it becomes the most successful novel he's ever written - and it blows up because he's written it under a pseudonym and has to assume this character, Stag R. Lee...

FADEL: Yeah.

WRIGHT: ...Who becomes a kind of Frankenstein's monster that circles back to come after him.

FADEL: And this person that he has to assume, the character of Stag R. Lee is quite the opposite of anything that Monk is. If we could, we're just going to play a clip of him trying to pretend to be the person he's created.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Lee, is this based on your actual life?

WRIGHT: (As Monk) Yeah. You think some [expletive] college boy can come up with that [expletive]?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, no. No, I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: And, I mean, this is the opposite of who Monk is, from this upper-class Boston family. And if you could, just talk about your character realizing, like, oh, this is about to publish and I'm going to get more money than I've ever imagined.

WRIGHT: Well, yes. I think the impulse for him is to recognize the absurdity of it and in many ways to resist the temptation. But at the same time, his family is kind of crumbling around him.

FADEL: Yeah.

WRIGHT: His mother is ailing. There are other crises that the family has endured, and he is asked to be the adult in the room. And there are pressures that come along with that. It was one of the reasons that I was really drawn to this film on an emotional level.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, he struggles with the decision and multiple times thinks about pulling out. But like you point out, he's dealing with trying to figure out care for his mother, and it's quite expensive. He's partially estranged from his brother and sister at the beginning of the movie and finds himself to be the person who has to pay for everything. You say you were drawn to the film because of this family story. If you could, talk more about that.

WRIGHT: Well, yeah, at the time that I received this script, I'd lost my mom about a year or so prior.

FADEL: I'm so sorry.

WRIGHT: I understood, yeah, very - in a very specific way what that moment is for a person. And I also think that aspect of our film provides some universal space for people to inhabit. This is a family that's, you know, dysfunctional and functional and loving and maddening, like anybody else's family. It just happens to be inhabited by these Black folk. It's in some ways extraordinary in its ordinariness. I haven't seen, you know, a family like this often that's messy and beautiful and Black (laughter), just universally human.

FADEL: So much of the storyline is about white guilt, white America's idea of what representation is. There's a great line in the film - I'm paraphrasing here - white people think they want the truth. What they really want is absolution. Can you talk about that?

WRIGHT: Well, I don't think that the film is targeting any one demographic and laying blame there. What I appreciate about the film and about the book that it's based on is that the writers are fluent in race, and race language particularly, and context. And so they can create dialogues that are smart. I don't think we do that enough in our country. I don't think we have the capacity to do that. We see it bubbling up and, like, just boiling over now. We are informed from the beginnings of our country and every day by race dynamics, all of us, whether we want to admit it or not.

FADEL: Yeah.

WRIGHT: And either because we are afraid to confront that messiness or we have been damaged by that messiness to the point where we lack a clarity and objectivity, we're not capable of having smart conversations about the issues. And therefore we keep repeating the same stupid mistakes over and again. So the film, I think, at least for the couple hours that it's shining on a screen, at least provides a space, I think, for a bit of a heightened conversation.

FADEL: That's Jeffrey Wright. He was just nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the new film "American Fiction." Congratulations and thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "MONK'S DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.