Mr. Wrong Is Mr. Wright

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A dazzling breakthrough makes for a killer villain
By JESS CAGLE

Jeffrey Wright makes quite an entrance in Shaft. He arrives with a phalanx of lackeys and junkyard dogs, an ice pick in his pocket and a trash-talking mouth aimed point-blank at Samuel L. Jackson. It's the kind of grand, self-important entrance you haven't seen since Liberace stopped making TV specials. And for the rest of the movie, Wright lives up to that moment with his broadly drawn, carefully shaded performance as Peoples Hernandez, a drug kingpin and the first great movie villain of this millennium.

"He's representative of something I want to comment on," says Wright, 34, "a self-absorption and a nihilism which I see in our culture now." While members of the Latino community have complained about the sometimes comical accent he uses for the Dominican bad guy, Wright insists he "did it that way to point out that Peoples wasn't assimilated."

Wright specializes in the more subtle points of raging characters. A native of Washington, he studied political science at university before turning to acting. "It seemed to make sense that you could marry the two," he says, and that approach has served him well as a militant gay nurse in Broadway's Angels in America: Perestroika (a role for which he won a 1994 Tony); as the drug-addled subject of the 1996 biopic Basquiat; and as the ex-slave who fights for the Confederacy in the recent Ride with the Devil.

It was his stage work that brought him to the attention of Shaft producer Scott Rudin, who recommended Wright when John Leguizamo dropped out of the role. "We did a read-through, and I said, ŚCook up some more scenes for this guy,'" says Rudin. "It's such a witty performance. Peoples is completely despicable but never understands why people are mad at him. He's like a really intelligent little kid."

Case in point: in one memorable scene, Peoples has a meeting while sitting on the toilet with all the abandon of a two-year-old. The positioning was Wright's inspired idea, though it was not his idea to have a rude noise on the soundtrack while he's sitting there. "When I saw it, it got a big laugh," he says, "and that's not what the scene's about."

This statement is worrisome. Here, in the age of Adam Sandler, is an actor opposed to bathroom humor. There's another dilemma. Asked about the lack of choice roles for black actors, Wright pauses. "If there's a positive for actors of color, it's that there are so many undiscovered stories from our perspective," he says. Some of those stories will fill a screenplay he's writing based on inner-city kids he grew up with; this could mean that Wright will make some noise of his own.
-With additional reporting by David E. Thigpen