Jeffrey Wright on How Trump’s Shoddy Coronavirus Response Is ‘By Design’
The “Westworld” star opens up to Lloyd Grove about helping his Brooklyn community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s poor response, and his scary run-in with the police.
Westworld star Jeffrey Wright was in London in early January filming The Batman—Hollywood’s latest epic interpretation of the DC Comics franchise in which he plays Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon—when he started paying close attention to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.
“I googled Wuhan to see where the town was and realized that it wasn’t a town at all but in fact a city of 11 million people, and a transportation hub with trains and airplanes going throughout China as well as international flights, including flights to the United States,” Wright told The Daily Beast. “What we knew at the time was that the virus spread essentially like the common cold. I realized that this was a story to keep an eye on.”
When he wasn’t on call for scenes in the movie, Wright took side trips to Paris and Biarritz—“dodging the pathogen,” as he put it—but by late January, he could see the potential catastrophe looming over America.
Not so President Donald Trump and his enablers, such as Trump’s fourth White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who blithely predicted in late February: “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.” Less than two months later, COVID-19’s nationwide toll is surpassing 600,000 cases of infection and 25,000 fatalities, with more than 10,000 deaths in New York state alone.
“January 21st was the confirmation [in news reports] of the first case in the United States, in Washington state,” Wright recalled. “If that didn’t prick up your ears, I don’t know what would. In the days prior to that, you had 45 million people, initially, in China in forced isolation and government workers in hazmat suits wandering the streets, and the occasional leaked video of health-care workers being overburdened inside hospitals.”
Wright, 54, was speaking from his house in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood—within sight of the Brooklyn Hospital Center—where he’s sheltering in place with his 90-year-old aunt, a retired nurse, and the teenage son and daughter he shares with his ex-wife, actress Carmen Ejogo. The family carries hand sanitizer and dons protective face masks to walk the dog and buy provisions at the nearby farmer’s market, he said.
Like many Netflix subscribers, Wright said he’s been binge-watching Tiger King. “It’s an odd reflection on the White House in a lot of ways,” he said. “The guy at the center of both stories is kind of full-up with fraud.”
Wright, meanwhile, recently launched a GoFundMe page for a tax-deductible nonprofit—Brooklyn for Life!—with the dual mission of saving more than 30 pandemic-shuttered restaurants (especially his favorite Fort Greene haunts, Brooklyn Moon and Graziella’s) and delivering more than 20,000 meals so far to health-care workers and first responders who are battling the coronavirus in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
In the days before New York state granted Brooklyn for Life! 501(c)(3) status—IRS approval is pending—Wright was personally advancing the money to pay the various restaurants for food and deliveries.
“In China, it increased very quickly to 70 million people on lockdown throughout Hubei Province,” Wright recalled. “So if that didn’t tell you that something extraordinary was happening, and needed to be paid attention to urgently, I don’t know what else might. This excuse that no one saw this coming is absolutely ridiculous and it’s an insult to the intelligence of the American people! It’s absurd!”
By mid-March, the mushrooming pandemic was forcing The Batman production in London into hiatus—maybe just for a couple of weeks, the producers erroneously believed at the time—but Wright booked his flight back to New York promptly after watching “the press conference in the Rose Garden where various CEOs were paraded out as though they were somehow health-care heroes,” he recalled.
When a reporter asked the president why the U.S. government hadn’t stopped flights from the U.K. (where the Trump Organization owns golf resorts), Wright realized that the arbitrariness of that policy had just been publicly exposed and a British travel ban was imminent. He managed to make it home two days later.
Since his return, Wright’s Twitter feed boasting nearly 256,000 followers has become a mix of exhortations to stay indoors and stay safe, Brooklyn for Life! fundraising, acid political commentary (“Fuck no,” he opined concerning a New York Post story that moderate Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar is running ahead in the Joe Biden veepstakes), music recommendations, and hand-to-hand combat with Trump acolytes such as fellow actor James Woods (whom Wright has nicknamed “April fool”) and jejune far-right pundit Candace Owens.
“There are two viral outbreaks right now—one is biological and the other regards misinformation, disinformation and ignorance,” Wright noted. “I hope I’m not contributing to the latter. So I try, to the best of my ability, to put out useful information and also try to have a laugh at the idiocy, so my head doesn’t explode.”
On Monday Wright tweeted: “US is a little over 4% of the world’s population. We’re the wealthiest country in the world. We have almost 20% (and counting) of the world’s confirmed COVID deaths. There’s nothing to spin. This is horrible.”
Wright is considerably better informed than most Americans (notably Trump) about how lethal viruses spread and go global. In 2017, he served as narrator of Unseen Enemy, a chilling, eerily prophetic CNN documentary that pretty much delineates how the current pandemic is playing out.
“There was a sequence in which a wet market in Cambodia is filmed while an epidemiologist from the Pasteur Institute describes what we see,” Wright recalled. “It hit me when I first saw it. It stuck with me. He basically gives a play-by-play of how, in such a place, a virus might hop from animal to human.”
When the Ebola epidemic exploded in West Africa in 2014, Wright was invited to meet at the Obama White House with, among others, Dr. Anthony Fauci and renowned epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, who three decades earlier had helped eradicate smallpox as a scientist for the World Health Organization.
Wright, it turns out, had been spending a great deal of time in Ebola hotspot Sierra Leone for more than a decade, having first visited as a cast member of the 2001 Will Smith vehicle Ali. Since then, Wright—an African-American who feels a deep kinship with African cultures—had been working to improve the desperately poor, civil war-torn country’s fragile health-care infrastructure, such as building a safe facility for Sierra Leone women to give birth. He was also trying to create sustainable businesses, including training about a thousand farmers and members of a women’s vegetable cooperative in techniques to improve the quality of their agriculture exports, along with formulating plans to exploit Sierra Leone’s potential wealth in natural resources.
“When Ebola hit,” Wright recalled, “we diverted funds away from those agricultural projects, around $10,000, toward allowing the chieftain leadership [of Penguia, Sierra Leone] to organize PPEs and bleach, and also organize a border patrol of their community of 15,000 people so they could keep an eye on who was coming in from the outside. That community was located about 40 miles from ‘patient zero’ across the Sierra Leone/Guinea border… But they only lost one person in that community of 15,000 people.”
A gimlet-eyed January 2014 New York Times Magazine piece, which focused on Wright’s occasionally testy negotiations over mineral leases and royalties with the tribal chief in Penguia, was titled “Jeffrey Wright’s Gold Mine”—a headline that still rankles.
“There is no gold mine. There never was a gold mine,” he said. “That was a New York Times clickbait headline that was not grounded in fact whatsoever… It’s a shame that article was written in that way and perceived that way. What we were doing is we were developing, with the local community, a model that would lead us potentially to the creation of a mine if the resource there supported it, and that would include a community ownership component.”
In any case, Wright became a high-profile advocate for aggressive American leadership in the fight against Ebola. In October 2014, Wright happened to be in an MSNBC green room awaiting one of his Ebola-advocacy television appearances when he spotted then-Celebrity Apprentice star Trump in the flesh, walking past the doorway.
“If you remember at that time during Ebola, the most unproductive voice in this country was Donald Trump’s,” Wright said, citing the future president’s blustery demands that the Obama administration ban direct flights to and from West Africa (there were virtually none anyway) and stop American health-care workers who had traveled to the region from returning (memorably tweeting: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away [sic] places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”).
“His Twitter feed was replete with ignorance, misinformation, disinformation and, unfortunately, volume in terms of the decibel level,” Wright said. “He didn’t have the influence then that he has now, but what he was expressing on his Twitter feed was absolute garbage.”
In the MSNBC green room, Wright considered chasing after Trump: “I was so incensed at the misinformation he was putting out that I was, for a minute, compelled to go speak with him and confront him about it. But I thought better of it and instead told myself, ‘get your facts together, get your head together, get your thoughts together, and tell it to a national news audience,’ as opposed to dealing with that nonsense.”
If presented with the opportunity today, however, Wright said he would definitely give Trump a piece of his mind. “I think that in some ways, the lack of coordination, the inefficiency and lack of robustness in the federal response, is by design,” Wright said. “The mantra at the beginning of the Trump administration, as expressed by Steve Bannon, was the deconstruction of the ‘administrative state.’ And look at us now! This is the result of that.”
Wright grew up in Washington, D.C.’s Hillcrest neighborhood, a leafy enclave populated by middle-class African-Americans who lived in single-family homes. His parents separated early and his father, a Brooklyn-based sales executive for Rheingold beer, died in 1967 when Jeffrey was a baby. Wright’s mother, a career U.S. Customs Service attorney who died last November at age 83, and her sister, the retired nurse who had supervised various divisions at the now-defunct D.C. General Hospital, raised him, along with his grandfather, who was a waterman from Virginia.
“My mom was someone people looked to in a crisis,” Wright recalled. “Crises focused her.”
Wright attended posh private schools—Washington’s boys-only St. Albans, where he played varsity lacrosse, and then Amherst College, where he was a star lacrosse player, majored in political science and acted in college productions—and discovered that he was massively talented. Washington theater doyenne Zelda Fichandler had helped him get into the acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but Wright soon dropped out to accept offers of actual roles in professional stage productions.
His career took off almost immediately, and after winning the 1994 Best Featured Actor Tony award for his portrayal of Roy Cohn’s gay nurse in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, he went on to play dozens of meaty movie and television roles, notably the title character in the 1996 biopic Basquiat, brainy contestant Beetee Latier in three different Hunger Games movies, a scene-stealing Dominican crime lord in the 2000 version of Shaft, the deliciously sinister Dr. Valentin Narcisse in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and the sensitive and melancholy (if occasionally homicidal) android, Bernard Lowe, in HBO’s Westworld.
Wright even worked with Woody Allen—a bit part in Allen’s 1998 film Celebrity—though he has little to say about the divisively scandalous director. “I haven’t really given it any thought,” he parried when asked if he’d ever appear again in a Woody Allen movie.
In sum, a fabulously successful showbiz career.
In July 2008, Wright—who was cast as Colin Powell in the Oliver Stone movie W—was pepper-sprayed, arrested, handcuffed and tased by officers of the Shreveport, Louisiana, police department who arrived in force to remove him from the production’s wrap party at a local bar after the bartender, a white woman, called the cops to complain.
A few nights earlier, the same bartender had denied Wright entry, claiming the place was closed even though customers were inside eating and drinking.
“Upon seeing the bartender who had a few nights before told me that the place was closed, I asked her for a drink, which she poured. I quipped, ‘Ah you’re going to serve me tonight!’” Wright wrote in an account of the incident for CNN. “At that, she pulled the drink away and told me that I had to leave. I asked if she was kidding. She went on to say that if I didn't leave, she would call the police.”
In all, a belligerent army emerged from the nine cop cars and a fire engine deployed to the scene; Wright’s co-star Josh Brolin tried unsuccessfully to defuse the situation.
“Disoriented and blinded by the pepper spray, I remained standing until I was kicked in the knee and forced to the ground,” Wright wrote. “I did not completely relax one of my arms as it was twisted behind me, so I was tasered in the back of my ribs repeatedly, eventually handcuffed, left to lie in the street for several minutes, then arrested and hauled off to jail, and charged with impeding police.”
Charges against Wright and several others in the film crew were ultimately dropped. Shreveport’s mayor, Cedric Glover, privately apologized to Wright, the actor wrote, but publicly defended the police.
“The police in my case backed unquestioningly the suspicion of a white woman that the black man she accused must be guilty of something,” Wright wrote. “Once that die of accusation was cast, a ghost of racial bias, misperception, and the potential abuse of police authority was set free to make mischief.”
Asked about the incident a dozen years later, Wright said only: “That’s probably a longer story than we want to get into here... There were a lot of ingredients that went into that gumbo. It wasn’t just about hyper-militarized cops, although it was about that, too.”
Yet it’s not lost on Wright that he’s one of the very lucky ones, when, as and if the coronavirus pandemic runs its course.
“I obviously have a job waiting for me when it does, because we were in the middle of filming Batman,” he said. “But not everyone is so fortunate. I live in a community, here in Fort Greene, that in some ways is a small town. I love this place and I love my friends and my neighbors. And if there’s a way I can help support some other folks, why not? Why not do that?”
“Because at the end of the day, when this is over, I want to go over to Mike’s [Brooklyn Moon owner Michael Thompson] and I want to have some jerk wings and grab a drink. And I want to go over to Vito’s [Graziella’s owner Vito Randazzo] and have a slice of pizza and a beer.”