How does a level-headed actor from North London remain true to herself while scaling the heights of Hollywood? It's complicated, as she explains to Liv Little
It is one of the hottest days of the year when I speak with Letitia Wright. It’s uncomfortably sticky and, while the rest of the UK can be found flouting social distancing at recently opened pubs, the 26-year-old actor is hanging out in her north London flat (also her office) making the most of the dry air to get her washing done.
Her webcam is down when we speak, but when she does talk, in her soft, comforting tone – first about our shared Guyanese heritage, but later about, well, everything – it feels like I’m sitting at the table with an old friend.
She’s been busy during lockdown – largely because she’s used the time to set up her own production company, 316 Productions. It is, she tells me, her way of creating roles for those who don’t often get a seat at the table. ‘It’s an opportunity to create the roles that I didn’t see for Black women and men, or Asian people...’ she says.
If you don’t know Wright, you will undoubtedly recognise her. She’s one of the stars of Black Panther, Marvel’s runaway box-office hit, which made more than $200 million in its US opening weekend back in 2018, and quickly made Wright a face for Black girls everywhere to look up to. While, for some, a rapid ascent into the stratosphere of celebrity can become catastrophic, she is quite possibly one of the most wholesome people I’ve ever met – her commitment to faith, family and friends is evident throughout our call. This is perhaps aided by the fact that she’s been in the acting game for a little while now, having started her career as a teenager on Holby City, and then in Channel 4 crime drama Top Boy.
Her first project through 316 Productions is a short film called Things I Never Told My Father, which, she says, is intended to explore the dynamics of grief. ‘I saw my friend deal with the loss of his uncle, who was basically his father,’ she says. ‘The way he dealt with it was like Damn, you’re really trying your best to grit your teeth and get through this, but you’re hurting. I want to make things where the subject matter is really important, but [also] giving Black actors – your brothers and sisters – something to work with, like a character, a full human being,’ she explains.
She tells me that she’s turned down roles in massive Hollywood productions because they didn’t feel quite right; being deliberate with every role is important to her.
Wright is a rarity in that sense: not every actor is able to maintain a steady sense of integrity when they make it big in Hollywood. But, for her, it’s paid off – taking her from small-screen appearances on British TV (including a particularly hard-hitting season finale of Black Mirror) straight into the heart of Hollywood.
In Black Panther, which eventually took over $1.2 billion worldwide, Wright played the role of Shuri, a princess in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda. It was a life-changing role, catapulting her into the realm of celebrity where even a supermarket shop can become a minefield. ‘As soon as you go to Sainsbury’s, you could even be wearing a hat but they’re like, “Yo, I swear that’s my girl from Black Panther!”’ she says. People still show her their ‘Wakanda arms’, the now-iconic stance of crossed arms over your chest, a signal of solidarity and Black power. But she never grows tired of the support. She sees it as something to be celebrated, all good vibes.
I saw Black Panther when it was first released, but it was another project that Wright did at the end of that year that stood out for me. The Convert was a play written by fellow Black Panther star Danai Gurira following the story of Jekesai, a young woman who finds herself having to convert to Catholicism after fleeing a forced marriage. Wright reveals that the role of Jekesai was her favourite to date. (Though, I should point out, she does this with excruciating hesitation because she finds it so hard to choose between them.)
It turns out I wasn’t the only one blown away by her performance at the Young Vic that winter – Kenneth Branagh also went to see The Convert and was struck by Wright’s performance. ‘I used to watch Much Ado About Nothing with him and Denzel Washington,’ Wright says. ‘He’s a bad-boy actor so, for him to come to the play was amazing... It opened the gate for me to get another role, which is a blessing.’ She’s talking about Death On The Nile, the Agatha Christie thriller about a murder on a luxurious cruise, starring everyone from Sophie Okonedo to Gal Gadot, and directed by Branagh himself (who also reprises his role as Hercule Poirot).
Being back on a big Hollywood set at the end of last year to film Death On The Nile was a gear shift from a summer spent filming Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, an upcoming series for the BBC, comprising five films that follow London’s Caribbean communities from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. The title of the series is based on the proverb: ‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe’, meaning that even the most marginalised of voices can have transformative power.
Wright spotted the project as soon as it was announced online on movie database IMDb. She moved to the UK from Guyana at age seven and, as such, Caribbean culture plays a hugely important role in her life and identity. ‘The amount of struggles my mum had in this country, people don’t really know what we’ve been through’, she says. But, while she watched the project from afar, director Steve McQueen was also watching Wright. When she eventually met the director in London, she asked when she’d have to officially audition. ‘He was like, “You just did. I’ve seen your work and I think you’re phenomenal”,’ she says. ‘He said that was how he worked with all his main actors. Michael Fassbender was the same... They met and they vibed. I remember thinking: He’s an Oscar-winning director. How is he not going to audition me? I tried to act cool about it and be lowkey, but it was so simple. I was thankful that all the years of saying no to certain things and all the years of sticking to my integrity; those projects are [now] speaking to me.’
Wright also stars as activist Altheia Jones in Mangrove, which has been chosen to open the BFI London Film Festival this year. In preparation for the role, she got to meet Jones, who was instrumental in the fight for Black liberation in the 1960s and became known as part of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protestors who were arrested in the 1970s for conspiracy to incite a riot at Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant. They were cleared of the charge and the case became significant as the first time a judge officially acknowledged racism in the Metropolitan Police.
Wright was clearly inspired by Jones and her grassroots efforts: ‘She’s a beautiful woman. She studied biochemistry, she was extremely intelligent. She faced racial tensions, and she faced teachers laughing and mocking her, telling her that she would never be anything.’
The timing of Small Axe also felt particularly pertinent. ‘Preparing for it, doing it, giving all that you can to it and then you get to 2020 and you’re like, Hold up a minute, this is happening again. People aren’t going out to protest because they want to. Its aggravation after aggravation, and standing up for justice.’
For Wright, there’s power in bridging the gap between the activists portrayed in Small Axe, many of whom are still alive, and the generation organising on the ground now. ‘If we have someone like Altheia just communicating with youngsters today, then the youngsters also get the knowledge of what they had to go through to fight for us, for what we have now,’ Wright says, reflecting on the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Amidst all the buzz around her new films, Wright recently tweeted some ominous messages about the industry: ‘Now I understand why some folks do the work and dip right away. This industry can be so fake at times. Can’t be around that energy for too long.’ I ask her to elaborate, but she is quick to make clear that the tweet was more a musing and wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular.
‘No one troubled me, it was just a thought. But I find it very important to be around people who are genuine, because it can really disappoint you when people are not real, when they’re not for you,’ she explains mysteriously .
I ask whether the tweet touched on the idea that, because there hasn’t historically been enough space carved out for Black women, some have the mentality that there’s only space for one of us. Wright agrees: ‘It’s sad and it hurts. But, the funny thing is, if you actually step aside from that mentality and go, No, there’s space for all of us [to succeed], we just have to keep building a wall.
The bricks at the bottom have to be laid first before the bricks on the second row can be laid. So, if you say, OK, you lay your brick there, and I’ll lay my brick in the next two months. Let me make sure that your brick that’s laid is good and solid and paid well... Then, soon, you have a wall,’ she explains, before admitting, ‘Yes, I stole that from Will Smith. I’ve listened to that since I was 16, but he has a point: we have to be bricks, we have to be that solid foundation for each other or else what’s the point?’
One of the ways in which Wright has dealt with the pressures of the industry is by keeping her circle of friends tight. ‘I really pride myself on the circle that I keep and it’s a very small circle, it’s almost like a dot,’ she says. ‘I remember I asked actor Naomie Harris a few years back for some advice, and she met with me and said, “How you carry yourself is how people will respond to you.” So, if I turned up and I have a Gucci bag or [I’m] in the club every day – there’s no problem with that, if that’s your vibe – but I’m very quiet and all about the work.’
John Boyega and Damson Idris are still her boys after they all met at Identity School of Acting, the now-famous London drama school that was created in 2003 to reach out to actors of colour (the founder of the school, Femi Oguns, is still her agent). ‘I tend to hide away a lot. Damson is always chasing me on Instagram like “Yo, like where are you at?”’ And she’s close with Star Wars actor Boyega, who is also in Small Axe. ‘I literally hit him up the other day for advice and some photos. We’re all a family, we all support each other. And – I’m not going to lie – in the UK because we’re so small, like, it’s such a small pond of actors, we just support each other and love each other.’
As well as a close-knit group of actor friends, religion is another huge influence in her life. Wright attributes her enormous success as an actor to her connection with God. She tells me she has even attended a session at Hillsong, Justin Bieber’s church in the US.‘They had a free early morning sermon and my friend was adamant we get there on time. Walking through, seeing Justin Bieber therewith his notepad and hoodie on at 9am, I was like, What?’
Religion has perhaps been key to her evolving self-acceptance, something that hasn’t always come naturally. After moving to the UK and settling in Tottenham, she spent time trying to assimilate at primary school, changing her accent fromGuyanese to British by impersonating other kids. ‘I find that so interesting, how you change yourself to fit in,’ she says.
As her acting career took off in her late teens, she put herself under massive amounts of mental strain: ‘I think back to back years of living the same way and thinking the same thoughts and the pressure I would put on myself... I remember analysing every single thing. If I went on a red carpet, I’d analyse the picture. If I did an interview, I’d analyse the video. If I spent time with friends, after I left, I’d think to myself, Why did I laugh like that, why did I show teeth. It was just back to back.’ It was through Christianity, and joining the church in 2015 at age 22, that she started to consider the bigger picture. ‘I started to realise that, you know, it’s not about me, it’s not about how much people can validate me and I started to see the power of God and not the power of man.’
‘I’m on another layer of a self-love journey, taking a step back to re-evaluate loving myself even better than I did a year ago,’ she says. ‘This whole isolation thing is not new to me because I’ve been doing it since I was 16. I retreat, I work, I retreat. I go back on the field. I retreat.’
Like others, lockdown has encouraged Wright to contemplate where she wants to be based. A fan of Guyana’s slow-paced nature, the thought of relocating there is alluring. ‘It’s perfect because, if I need to go to the US, it’s quick. It’s not as complicated as it seems,’ she tells me, sounding like she’s close to making up her mind on a move. ‘It’s so funny – last night, some stuff popped up on YouTube about African Americans relocating to Africa and how happy they are. I was like, This is actually the way to be. Why are we fighting these people? Why are we shouting at them to give us space when we can go to our motherland and have space there?’
A few weeks after our interview, Letitia takes to social media again, but this time as part of collective mourning for Chadwick Boseman. A few days earlier, the unexpected passing of her Black Panther co-star was made public. Boseman, it transpired, had secretly been battling bowel cancer. Wright penned a beautiful five-minute poem, a tribute to her friend, sure to make you weep, in which she says: ‘I wish I got to say goodbye. I messaged you a couple of times, but I thought you were just busy. I didn’t know you were dealing with so much.’ She finally continues: ‘It is written that all things are made new, there is light in the darkness.’ It’s a line she left me with as we said goodbye on that baking day back in August. ‘I’m happy to be a light in the world. That’s my spirit. I can’t be anything else. And if I am, then something’s wrong.’
Small Axe is coming to BBC One this autumn. Death On The Nile is in cinemas December 18.
ELLE's November issue hits newsstands on October 1, 2020.
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