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Jeffrey Wright, On Screen in 'Syriana'

ED GORDON, host:

Though he has an Emmy, a Tony and a Golden Globe to his name, Jeffrey Wright may be one of the most underrated actors working today. Wright has demonstrated his versatility in roles as diverse as the ghetto drug kingpin in the film "Shaft" and a nurse in Broadway's "Angels in America." Wright continues to make his mark with a gripping performance in the new geopolitical thriller "Syriana." Wright plays Bennett Holiday, a rising lawyer at a Washington firm assigned to investigate the merger of two oil giants. Bennett takes on the task with the understanding he must do anything in his power to make sure the deal goes through.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT (Actor): (As Bennett Holiday) One word: Dalton.

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Bob Barnes) Danny Dalton?

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Bennett Holiday) Defrauded the government of Kazakhstan of funds to which it was entitled. Defrauded the people of Kazakhstan of the right to the honest services of their elected and appointed officials.

Unidentified Actor: Dalton's a bit of a rogue, it's true.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) And he'll have a nice little trust fund waiting when he gets out.

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Bennett Holiday) Look, Don, we can spend the next five years in court to get back to the very place that we're at right now. And they will fight tough. They'll fight dirty. They'll pressure your boss. They'll pressure the people who appointed your boss. They'll pressure the wives of the people who appointed your boss. And you will never hit them any harder than this, and you know it.

GORDON: Writer and director Stephen Gaghan crafted "Syriana" through four interlocking stories that depict the corruption of the global oil industry. Wright likened "Syriana" to socially conscious political thrillers that used to be common in Hollywood.

Mr. WRIGHT: You know, in the late '60s, early '70s, you had films coming out of Hollywood, out of major studio releases that, you know, whether implicitly or explicitly, had a political bent to them, had some social relevance to them; and then, you know, after, I guess, '76 and "Star Wars" and "Jaws," the birth of blockbusters, you know, that kind of fell to the wayside. But it's not typical Hollywood fare, but it is aided, you know, by the presence of George Clooney and the influence that he brings to it; but also by a guy named Jeff Skoll, one of the founders of eBay, who has started this film company with the idea of promoting films with social relevance and films that are about social justice and things like this. And he co-funded this film with Warner Bros., so he mitigated some of the risk for the studio to allow them to, quote, unquote, "take a chance" on a film like this.

GORDON: Talk to us, if you will, and, in a nutshell, explain the movie. It gives you kind of a peek behind the curtain to see how so many things are interconnected in the world today, particularly when you're talking about big business and money and politics.

Mr. WRIGHT: Sure. I mean, I think a peek behind the curtain is an apt description because that's exactly what Stephen Gaghan was able to do in researching this film. What Gaghan did was he went around the world to all these various nether regions of the geopolitical structure, if you will. He got the chance to meet up with the Hezbollah members in Lebanon, I think, and with arms dealers in the south of France. He really got to peek behind the curtain and to draw the conclusions for himself. And it really is a rare view for us on some of these issues, issues revolving around our relationship to oil and oil's relationship to politics, or the implications of America's wealth, of America's dependence on oil, to the regions in which these resources occur.

GORDON: Let me ask you this as relates to your character, Jeffrey. And I don't know if this speaks to the respect that people have for you individually as an actor, if it speaks to the door opening to some degree for African-Americans in Hollywood, if it speaks to the individuals that are producing this film solely, or if it speaks to all of the above, but one would think that casting you in this role as an African-American would be seen as an aberration almost in Hollywood in that you are a very high-powered Washington lawyer, and you don't blink to think that there's a black man sitting in that chair.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I think it's probably more specific to this production. I wouldn't say it's necessarily, you know, a trend in Hollywood, but I think it's the folks who were involved in this production--were going after something complex. And I think the film tows the line of a lot of moral ambiguities; in my case, you know, some racial ambiguities, and I think it, you know--it just makes for an all the more interesting portrayal.

GORDON: You and I have had an opportunity to talk on a number of occasions, not only on mike, so to speak, but off, and I know that you have received your BA in political science from Amherst College. Talk to me about the intrigue that this brought to you just based on your personal likings.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, I grew up in Washington. My mom was a lawyer for the government for many years so, you know, this stuff is home for me. And I, you know, as you said, studied political science with the intention probably of going on to be a lawyer. But more specifically, when Steve Gaghan gave me the script, the reason that we found ourselves kind of, you know, on common ground is that I've been spending a fair amount of time in the last four or five years in Africa, particularly West Africa. And in that time it has become increasingly apparent to me how the relationship of a region to its natural resources informs its political climate and its social stability. You see that what drives it is the necessity of access to valuable resources, whether they be oil, industrial resources; whether they be precious metals, precious minerals. We take for granted that we have a cell phone that uses coltan or uses aluminum or these things, but, you know, aluminum is not mined in Midtown Manhattan, you know?

GORDON: Right.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's mined in places like Guinea. And coltan is found in the Democratic Republican of Congo. But what are the implications of our having access to that for the folks of that area? I think it's really important for us, you know, as Americans to understand, you know, the implications of our excesses and the implications of our wealth. And I think the film is--obviously, it's not going to answer all the questions about that, but it's certainly trying to dig at these issues and hopefully inspire some more informed questions about, you know, how we live.

GORDON: Well, the film is "Syriana." Jeffrey Wright, as always, man, good to talk to you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Ed, thank you so much for having me.

GORDON: "Syriana" opens nationwide today.


GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.