Actor Jeffrey Wright's latest role in Emilio Estevez's The Public, has him taking on Anderson, a library employee caught in the crosshairs of a political standoff between police and protesters in a Cincinnati public library.
The D.C. native chatted with us about the new film and how it's core message has its own political repercussions.
Jeffrey Wright as Andersonin Universal Pictures Content Group’s drama The Public.
When you received Emilio Estevez's script for The Public, what were your first impressions?
JEFFREY WRIGHT: For one, I think Emilio's passion and social sensitivity shines through in the script. It’s really a reflection of who he is and so I was drawn in by him and then by him through his script. And it’s a story, in some ways, that’s a throwback to stories we explored in the golden days of American cinema when there was a rich social consciousness that was infused into filmmaking, filmmaking that was about ideas and issues that we should all be sensitive to. In this case, dealing with wealth disparity, income disparity, institutionalized absence of empathy and how we as individuals within these issues and in society respond to things. All of these things really ring my creative bells and so I was pleased to join him.
And your character, Anderson, seems to be stuck in the crosshairs of those issues, no?
JW: He’s torn between the institutional impulses and his personal impulses and he has to make a choice as to which he will be beholden to. I think that something that’s sort of a common conundrum for people working in similar settings. I thought it was really nicely drawn and explored.
As a cinephile, were there other movies that served as reference points for this one?
JW: There’s a whole genre of movies, there’s Network and even Dog Day Afternoon, which was one of the first films I saw in the cinema as an eight-year-old. It was considered a bit over the top for an eight year old, not anymore, but there were films like this in the 70s that represented a place in the general awareness or consciousness where we all kind of agreed that empathy and the general welfare were aspirational things for the collective in those films were born out of that sensibility. And I think at the same time though, a film like Emilio's, I hope, is a part of a wave of films that will be made now as a result of the cultural consciousness, which has slipped away being empathetic and toward a detached cynical place. But in response to that, artists have been creating and will be creating to challenge that cynicism and I'm all for it.
After watching the film, I realized not only is the library an access point to the world for so many, but it's also a place where some of the political issues we're dealing with today collide. What did the library mean to you growing up in D.C.?
JW: For me growing up, the library was my chief reference point. When I needed to research or write a paper for school in D.C., I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which was in the center of a pretty hardcore downtown setting, but I'd head there on my way home. I plowed through so many index cards [laughs]. We have greater access now to information, but the quality of the information now is far less meaningful and less literary and less comprehensive, and so the library represents all of that and it represents, now, an underused oasis in a desert of illiteracy, superficiality, click bait and titilization we all find ourselves in. We need to celebrate the library and spaces like it, and there are very few, and as we describe in the film, it's democratic. For that reason, it becomes a place where those who don't have other spaces can be seen but also go read.
The truth of the story played out every day where we filmed in Cincinnati because we would start filming at 7:30 or 8 o'clock in the morning, and at 9 o'clock, when the sign on the door said it was time to open, there were 75 homeless people coming in from the cold to hang out for the day.
With that in mind, where do you stand on the impact of social media to information gathering?
JW: In the overall, it is catastrophic to the sharing of information, to the digesting of information and to building a collective understanding of facts. I didn't anticipate the degree to which disinformation would become part of the fabric of the national and global conversation, and I don't know how we stuff that genie back into the bottle. The national dialogue responds around click-bait headlines, not even the whole articles, which are not even grounded in facts, but grounded in the desire to draw eyeballs and attention amidst a sea of other weird fish. I'm really disappointed in the way technology is serving knowledge and conversation now, and I have to say I'm concerned about how we counteract the damage that we all see has been done.
Is there a story, for you, that has been particularly upsetting?
JW: Yeah, it's the 2016 election. Regardless of the outcome, and the outcome was horrific, but at the same time maybe reflective of where and who we are in America—not a healthy grounded place. But the ways in which decisions were being made about the quality of any given candidate were being manipulated as a bunch of absolute bullshit set on fire passing as insight and information. The only way that any individual could navigate through all that and come out on the other side with a clear perspective, was to be highly critical and highly skeptical of almost every bit of data that was coming there way and most of us don't do that. So we're easily swayed by misinformation that was either unintended or was specifically intended by certain domestic or international forces that were working to sew chaos and disfunction. I don't know how it gets worse than that. That, for me, has really been the scum bottom of the barrel.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.