Jeffrey Wright Recalls the Acting Advice Sidney Poitier Gave Him

As a young actor, Wright had the opportunity to work with the Academy Award winner when he asked Poitier for his advice.

Actor Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction

Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright may have continued his streak of award-nominated performances with the film American Fiction, but Wright still considers himself a student of acting. Speaking with NPR about his education in his craft, he recalls an early acting experience with an iconic star that helped him learn about how to approach his roles.

As a young actor, Wright had the opportunity to work with Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier, generally regarded as one of the greatest actors in film history. Wright recalls asking Poitier for advice, though he was nervous to speak with the all-time great. Wright remembers:

“My first significant role on film was opposite Sidney, which was frightening. I mean, I was, I think 23 maybe. I was 23, 24, just out of college, you know, a couple of years before. I had started acting my junior year of college, so I didn’t really have a lot of experience. And the only reason I got that job was because I had a – I didn’t have – it wasn’t because I had an MFA in theater and acting. It was because I had a political science degree, and they assumed that I knew a little bit about the subject. It was a miniseries called Separate But Equal about the Brown v. Board of Education case. I was to play the youngest of the lawyers working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a man named Bill Coleman, and I had no clue really what I was doing. But, you know, there I was.

“And I remember just, you know, my first single shot was opposite Sidney Poitier, who was everything. […] I mean, he was the captain of the ship for an actor such as myself, and he was so wonderful, so gracious, so generous and just, like, kind of a naturally elegant man. And he was everything that you would expect he would be. […] And so anyway, at the end of the production, I said, so, you know, Mr. Poitier, you know, any – have any advice for… You know, for me? And he said, yeah, irony. That was it. And I understood exactly what he was saying. I understood exactly.”

When asked why he said that he understood what Poitier was saying, Wright responded, “Cause I was playing everything right down the middle of the road. […] He was saying, yeah, paint outside the box, you know? Come at it sideways. […] A performance is more than just the words on the page. So you have to find a way to make them live and to make them compelling. You’re not just reading, though. You’re not just reading what the – you’re interpreting. […] And that’s what he was saying, I think. It was about interpretation and finding – you know, finding the strange humanness in things when you can and finding even, oh, wow, that was a mistake.”

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