On a Mission
She’s the Guyanese-British female lead of the world’s highest-grossing superhero movies, whose next big-screen role is in the all-star cast of Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile. Here, actor LETITIA WRIGHT tells ELLEN E JONES about returning to our screens in the Agatha Christie adaptation, as well as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, and the valuable advice she’s received from her close-knit industry family
Letitia Wright is in a reflective mood when we meet on a park bench by the River Thames on a crisp, clear London day. She’s fresh from the first cast-only screening of her latest project, Small Axe, the anthology of five films by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, about Black Britons in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. “I’m still trying to process it. It’s special,” she says, looking out across the water.
In Wright’s other upcoming release, Death On The Nile, she plays put-upon daughter Rosalie Otterbourne in Kenneth Branagh’s second big-screen Agatha Christie adaptation, with an all-star cast that also includes Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer. She’s very excited about that, of course, but Small Axe connected on a different level during filming. “I immediately got it, y’know? Hearing the lingo that you’re so used to hearing in your own household, how we dress, how we interact… That was beautiful to see.”
Wright was born in Guyana and moved to London with her family aged seven. In a career that started out with a guest part on the UK hospital drama series Holby City, she’s played British, African-American and, of course, Wakandan, but starring in Small Axe as the British Black Panther Party leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe was her first time playing a character with a background so similar to her own. Today, dressed in a powder-pink tracksuit, wearing tortoiseshell glasses and clutching a notebook on her lap, she looks more like a student on study break than a strident activist, but her affinity for the role is still abundantly clear. “I’m so used to seeing other people’s cultures. Now it’s their turn to be educated,” she says.
“I immediately GOT it, y’know?… I’m so used to SEEING other people’s CULTURES. Now it’s THEIR turn to be educated”
It was playing the legendary Alabama bus boycotter, Rosa Parks, in her school play that first set Wright on the path to an acting career and, like many Britons, she knew more about the history of anti-racism in America than at home. “That’s one of the reasons why I feel it’s so important that we do Small Axe – because so many young people, especially young Black people, are walking around without the knowledge of what’s happened prior, and of the people who were taking a stand.”
Learning about all this for the first time in adulthood hit hard: “I think the New Cross Fire [the 1981 suspected arson attack that killed 13 young Black people in south-east London] for me was… I went to bed after reading about that and I felt tormented.” She brought these feelings up during an emotional meeting with the real Jones-LeCointe, now a research scientist in her seventies. “We just cried and held each other’s hands – and I promised her that I’d leave a mark with who she was as a person as best as I can.”
“The THOUGHT of doing Black Panther without him [Chadwick Boseman] is kinda STRANGE. We’re just grieving at the MOMENT, so it’s trying to find the LIGHT in the midst of it”
Despite this heaviness, the Small Axe set was all “good vibes”, providing a cherished opportunity to “just enjoy our culture, being unapologetic about it.” Wright goes to London’s Notting Hill Carnival every year, mainly for the food, and would like to return to Guyana – only it’s not that simple: “It’s gonna be a ‘thing’ to go home. I have to really make a plan, because I want to visit everyone, and everybody’s so supportive of me and my career, as a Guyanese woman.” I think this is her characteristically humble way of saying that she’d likely be mobbed by fans to the point of making it impossible to travel without a motorcade.
This is the reality that Wright has been adjusting to ever since the record-breaking Black Panther came out it 2018. Among the many things that landmark movie transformed – the coffers of Marvel Studios and Pan-African identity, to name two – was Wright’s daily life. She’d had other breakthrough moments, like having her talent compared to a young Leonardo DiCaprio by director Michael Caton-Jones. Or playing a teenage gangster in drama series Top Boy. Or being named among Bafta’s ‘Breakthrough Brits’ in 2015. But landing the role of Shuri was something else. This super-smart living embodiment of ‘Black Girl Magic’, who was both a Q to Black Panther’s Bond and his much-beloved little sister, became an instant icon.
“It’s SOMETHING that my FATHER instilled in me… I’ve given up MILLIONS for my integrity”
It became something else again in August, when Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played T’Challa, aka Black Panther, died, aged just 43 following a four-year battle with cancer. Boseman was family to Wright – she refers to him as “my brother” – and a month on from his death, any discussion of reprising her most famous role remains impossible. “We’re just still mourning Chad, so it’s not something I even want to think about,” she says. “The thought of doing it without him is kinda strange. We’re just grieving at the moment, so it’s trying to find the light in the midst of it.”
She continues to do so with the loving support of many good industry friends and, over the course of our conversation, she mentions the advice of several. John Boyega wants to know why she’s not dating (“I was like, ‘John man, it’s a waste of my time! Like date for what? Do you date?’ He replied, ‘Tish, man, of course, I date! I need to scout my wife!’”) Moonlight star Naomie Harris wants her to start planning a family (“she was just like, ‘Sis, I’m gonna tell you now, do not just work, work, work…”). Meanwhile, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler is on her case to launch a rap career (“he texted me a couple of months ago, ‘Tish, man, the streets need that mixtape’”). At times, it sounds like Wright is the much beloved little sister not only of T’Challa, but of the entire film industry.
“I love it and RESPECT what they’ve created, but I got consumed with the DESIRE to show Black girls in a different light. I didn’t want to JUST be one thing”
One day on set, Steve McQueen pulled her aside to offer some guidance of his own: “He said, ‘Tish, man, you’re an artist! This stuff that you’re doing now, that’s it. Don’t get lost in Hollywood!’” Wright’s sweetly innocent quality makes this urge to guide her understandable, but it’s also obvious that McQueen needn’t have feared. That other aspect of Wright’s powerful screen presence – the calm integrity in her eyes – is also authentic. “It’s something that my father instilled in me… I’ve given up millions for my integrity.”
Not many 17-year-olds for instance, would have quit a role in Drake’s favorite Netflix show, Top Boy, after the first hit season. “I love it and respect what they’ve created, but I got consumed with the desire to show Black girls in a different light. I didn’t want to just be one thing and, at the time, the example of Shuri, or Nish [Wright’s Black Mirror character], or Altheia Jones-LeCointe wasn’t afforded to us… I’m so grateful to everybody on that show, but I was on a different journey.”
“I’m SUCCESSFUL, I’ve got all of these things going on for me, but FINDING the person that’s for me is PROVING… difficult”
The latest stage in that journey is starting Threesixteen Productions, which she named from a Bible verse and intends to use to diversify storytelling in the film industry. “It was a name that was pressed on my heart. When I was in a dark place, God reached out to me and I kind of see my production company in that sense: there’s an issue and it needs a little bit of saving.”
The trajectory of Wright’s career seems to be inwards – even as it shoots upwards – involving more personal projects, which is why I ask whether she’s ever considered partially following John Boyega’s advice by taking on a romantic role. This suggestion causes an eruption of laughter, “Wow! You are coming with the sauce today!” It turns out Wright recently collaborated with British writer-director Dominic Savage on a romantic storyline for his I Am series. “We had a conversation and I was like, ‘I don’t get it! I’m successful, I’ve got all of these things going on for me, but finding the person that’s for me is proving… difficult…’ We literally wrapped on Friday, so it’s still messing with me!”
From here, though, it seems Wright could go anywhere and do anything. All the possibilities and more are opening up in front of her. But having already become the on-screen role model she lacked growing up, there is plenty of time just now for the 26-year-old to stop; to just sit down on a park bench, look across the water and ask herself the question, “What next…?”
Small Axe premieres on BBC1 and BBCiPlayer on November 15; Death on the Nile is released in cinemas on December 18 (US and UK)