Jeffrey Wright has carved a career with rich and complex roles — whether as a scientist, an inmate or a wolf expert. With almost three decades of experience under his belt, the actor does justice to every character he crafts.
In the upcoming original Netflix film Hold the Dark, based on a novel by William Giraldi, it’s suspected that wolves are responsible for the deaths of three children in a remote Alaskan village. Wolf expert Russell Core (Wright) is hired by the mother (Riley Keough) of a missing six-year-old boy to track down and locate her son in the wilderness. When the boy’s father (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from war, he is determined to find out what exactly happened.
Hold the Dark premiered at TIFF this year and will debut on Netflix on Sept. 28. I had the chance to sit down with Jeffrey to discuss his role in this film, his experience working with wolves and asked him what’s the “Wright method.”
This is an intense psychological thriller. What was it about the script that appealed to you?
The script was wonderfully descriptive, lyrical, and evocative and the cinematic imagery was really clear. It was beautifully written. What I discovered when we started shooting it, which I appreciated when I read it first but fully appreciated once we threw ourselves into it, was that it was structured in a wonderful way. The architecture of the scenes was infused with dramatic tension and these interesting cross-currents that pushed you through to the other side. I literally sat there and said to myself, “Wow, this thing is really wonderful.” You have all of this structure around you that’s informing every moment that you’re playing.
For example, there’s this very simple scene in the beginning, where the story begins in essence, having received this letter from Riley’s character with a request that my character come and help her find the remains of her son. Simply sitting on an airplane reading that letter and we hear her voice speaking the words, which are echoing in his head, there was something so poignant about it. It was very simple, very structured. But it had so much weight to it. Also, the nature of the language — would you come help me find my son’s bones? It’s beautifully written. For me, it just provoked emotion and imagery in a really complete way. It’s always about the words on the page for me, and the director obviously and the collaborators. But the word is first.
You bring incredible depth and humanity to your characters. How do you achieve that?
Ooh. We all have our experiences. We all have a story or series of stories that we have lived and survived and been informed by. I just try to pull those things off the shelf of my personal life and layer them into the characters that I build and hope that it brings some authenticity.
Was there anything you reflected on for this film?
Yeah. You can’t do any of this stuff without that. I think the primary thing was the love of canines and my love of dogs. Never had a wolf, but always had dogs growing up. Always felt the canine in my heart that I treasured.
You have a few scenes with the wolves. Can you talk about that?
The wolves were fascinating. I didn’t realize how playful they were. Pretty much all they want to do is play. They’re constantly wrestling one another. There’s a clear pecking order in their relationships that they continually play out and that’s played out through physicality. They’re intensely sensitive, curious, and inquisitive. That said, their idea of play is probably a bit more extreme than your idea of play. One of the trainers was handling one of the wolves, and there was a second wolf behind him, who was jumping up and snapping at the back of his neck as though it were a low-hanging apple from a tree that he was trying to chop. And I think he gripped him and it was just wolf play (laughs).
But I looked at that and was like, “Wow, that’s a pretty easy way to lose the back of an ear or have the back of your head opened up like a soup can!” They’re a little rough, but at the same time there’s a child-like quality to them that I found. But they weren’t really that into me though, I have to say. In those scenes, wearing this caribou coat and boots, I was a little hesitant because I wasn’t certain if they would perceive me as something appetizing (laughs). And so as I stepped into their space that day, I was mindful of them obviously, but they had the exact opposite reaction that I thought they would have. They were so paralyzed with fear of me. I think they thought I was this odd-looking caribou that walked on two feet and was speaking this strange language and holding an intimidating rifle in one hand. They literally stopped in their tracks and just hauled off in the opposite direction. That was quite a surprise, but speaks to their sensitivity.
Director Jeremy Saulnier said that he didn’t need to overexplain some parts of the story and a close-up of your eyes was all the explanation needed. Is that how you prefer to humanize your characters?
Oh, yes! In the theater, the voice is the actor’s primary tool. But for me, in making films, the eyes are the primary tool. I just try to open those windows.
You have such range and gravitas, which allows you to be cast as a nerd in one project and a prison inmate in another. What’s the “Wright method?”
The method? Ooh. Just be open to whatever it takes to any given project. I don’t have any method. I just try to be flexible and available. I enjoy doing films or characters, at least, that are very different from previous characters and keep me on my toes and keep me interested. I just take it as it comes.
Thank you and it was a pleasure chatting with you!
Thank you, Marriska. Lovely to meet you.