“It was probably the most powerful experience I’ve had, and probably the most challenging,” admits Jeffrey Wright about his role as a convicted murderer in HBO’s film, “O.G.” A Tony and Emmy winner for the stage and television versions of Tony Kushner‘s “Angels in America,” Wright has earned two additional Emmy nominations for his role as Bernard on “Westworld.” In our exclusive interview (watch the video above), Wright discusses the impact the telefilm had on him and how it shines a light on the link between violence, mass incarceration, and poverty.
“O.G.” tells the story of Louis, a middle-aged convicted murderer who is about to be released after 24 years in prison. The movie is unique in that it was shot in an actual maximum security prison in Indiana, and much of the supporting cast consists of many of the inmates housed at that prison. Wright jokingly says that “the production designer is the state of Indiana.”
To prepare to play Louis, Wright made several trips to the prison to interact with the inmates in order to “understand their experiences, not only inside the prison but the experiences that led them to the prison.” Those interactions not only helped Wright build his character, but also helped him understand the inmates in a new way. “I learned insight on [Louis] through the men that I worked with. At any given time, I had about a hundred expert consultants in a guy serving a multi-decade sentence,” Wright explains. “All of that educated me a lot on issues around mass incarceration… and what leads a child that’s born to a mother, what leads that child on a pathway to confinement.”
One of the inmates that Wright worked most closely with was Theothus Carter, who plays Beecher, a younger inmate who crosses Louis’s path and complicates his upcoming release. Wright calls Carter, who is serving a 65-year sentence for attempted murder, “the star in this film.” But he also acknowledges a certain tragedy in working with Carter. “For me it speaks to the waste,” Wright says. “How can a guy find himself shunned by society when he clearly has something more to offer than the life of a criminal?”
Wright says that part of the film’s appeal is both the discussion of the issue of mass incarceration, as well as society’s reluctance to address the types of issues that landed his co-stars in prison. “Mass incarceration and the systemic imbalance that we see in the way people are led to the system, and remain stuck in the system…all of these things come into play, this is true,” Wright argues. “But if we take a step back, we have a problem with crime. We have a problem with violence, and we particularly have a problem with those things as they relate to communities that are disadvantaged.”
The lack of an answer to that question is mirrored in the film’s ambiguous ending, which Wright says illustrates the purpose of the film. “What do we do with these men that we have punished, and we have turned our backs on — justifiably, perhaps — but what do we do when they get out?” Wright asks. “Once the day’s work was done, the gate opened and I could leave. Most of my colleagues could not. I never under appreciated that.”
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