An Exclusive Interview with Jeffrey Wright
by Wilson Morales
December 1, 2008
Having played General Colin Powell in ‘W’ and Felix Leiter in the latest James Bond film, ‘Quantum of Solace’, Jeffrey is getting used to taking on the persona of well known individuals and characters. It also leads to doing more research so that he can nail the performance down. In his latest film, he will play another well known individual, ‘Muddy Waters’ in ‘Cadillac Records’
In this tale of sex, violence, race and rock and roll in 1950's Chicago, "Cadillac Records" follows the the rise and fall of Chess Records and the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America's musical legends, including Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley. Chess, who co-founded the label with his brother Phil, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Darnell Martin also scripted the film, based on an original idea. Her previous credits include "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "I Like It Like That."
Besides Wright as Waters, the film has Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Revetta Chess, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf, Eric Bogosian as Alan Freed, and Marc Bonan as Keith Richards.
In speaking with exclusively with Wright, he talked about playing Muddy Waters, working with the cast, and his upcoming theater work.
How did the project come about for you?
Jeffrey Wright: I was approached to play Muddy Waters in the movie and initially I was uncertain, but then I got a call from an old and dear friend of mine, Steve Jordan. He’s one of the baddest musicians I know and he told me he was going to be doing the music for the film and I said I was in. I knew what level he was reaching for, and the level of authenticity I was looking for and required to tell the story. For me, my insight into the character and into the story was the music. I’ve always been a fan of the blues. I think a lot of it has to do with me being raised, part of the time, in the South. My grandparents were from North Carolina and Virginia and the blues, I always felt, was more than music. It’s an expression of celebration of the struggle, in particularly language Black American South. As an actor, I’ve always had an ear for language and so the language of the blues always spoke to me. At the same time I deeply respect its authenticity. It was the music that pulled me into committing to the film.
How much did you know of Waters before taking the role?
JW: Muddy Waters was a sharecropper and musician and Alan Lomax is credited with discovering him. Lomax was contacted by a professor named John Work from Fisk University. John didn’t enough funds on his own, so the two of them went on to record many musicians from Mississippi. When they discovered Muddy Waters, they also found an extraordinary poetry; music that would form half the popular music of the latter half of the 20th century. Muddy Waters was illiterate. He couldn’t read or write but at the same time was creating original art and giving history to the struggle through his art.
As much of a fan you are to the blues and with you taking the part of a famed musician, did you take music lessons for the role or
did you know how to play prior to it?
JW: Well, I’ve fooled around with the guitar, but you can the blues with Mozart. That’s how similar the music is. But singing? Singing for me is work. I would be in the studio until 5am just to make sure I got the tone and note right. The sound had to be real. I really worked hard to honor the legacy of his music. The music of Muddy Waters is responsible for the popular music of the latter half of the 20th century. In my mind, rock and roll came after the blues. Guys like Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin; all of these groups and artists who claim ownership of rock and roll genre are deeply in debt to Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley, and many more. Sometimes I think that popular culture overlooks their contribution to the industry. We really felt a responsibility to pay honor to them. Given the struggles they faced politically at the time, the music that they produced in response to it somewhat heroism in my mind. These guys were heroes and their stories need to celebrated and remembered.
How was working with Columbus (Short) since most of your scenes are with him?
JW: We had a big cast in this film with Adrien Brody, Beyonce, Cedric the Entertainer, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Eammon Walker, and Mos Def. Everyone who was part of the film did it because they loved the music and they loved the story. It was an opportunity to celebrate the history of the music. We are all a fan of one another and we raised each other’s game. We felt that much excitement for the material. There was a scene that Columbus did as Little Walter, and I had seen some of his work before, but in the scene with him and myself as Muddy, I really felt proud to be working with him.
Where did the name of Muddy Waters come from?
JW: Muddy had said the name came from his grandmother, and there are many versions of the story. One story that I heard was that he was playing in the mud as a kid and that’s what his grandmother called him. It was originally Muddy Water, and over time the ‘s’ was added in the name.
Can you talk about the hairstyle of the time?
JW: It’s funny that you should ask that. The first day that we rehearsed they showed me the wigs that I would wear and my main concern was putting that thing on and looking in the mirror and see if I look alright in it. Once I put it on, I saw a glimpse of Muddy and then said to myself, ‘Ok, maybe I can pull this thing off.’
What do you have coming next?
JW: I have a play with Geoge C. Wolfe called ‘Free Man of Color’, which is about New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. It will be at the Public Theater in New York City. I’m going back to the theater world. It’s one of the most exciting plays that I’ve read since ‘Angels and America’.
CADILLAC RECORDS OPENS ON DECEMBER 5th, 2008