When actor Jeffrey Wright found out that he had been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, there was only one person he immediately wanted to thank – his late mother. As he revealed in an emotional interview with Extra, upon receiving the news the first thing he did was turn to a picture of her. "The first person I acknowledged was my mom. There’s a picture of her just there, so yeah… she and I had a moment," he told the publication.
But why his mom? While discussing his Oscar-nominated role in comedy-drama American Fiction, which landed a total of five nods at this year's Academy Awards including Best Picture, Wright reveals that he sees the film as an homage to her. Despite it being the story of how a frustrated novelist's satirical response to stereotypical Black books becomes a bestseller, Wright ultimately thinks that the beating heart of the movie is the mother-son relationship.
He explains to GamesRadar+ and the Inside Total Film podcast: "I think the emotional heart of the film is my character Monk's relationship to his mother. That’s largely driving some of the choices that he makes. Yes, he writes this book out of a sense of outrage. He thinks this kind of farcical, dismissive book is beneath him, so he writes it as a joke to show up the hypocrisy of the publishing industry, whereas the books that he actually wants to write are not well received."
Wright adds: "He does that out of a sense of spite and it leads him to leading this absurd double life because he writes the book under a pseudonym. He has to play this character, Stagg R. Leigh, that's based on this reference to a pimp caricature of the 19th century in America. But, he does all of this as well out of a sense of responsibility to his mother and to his family. So, that's the nucleus of the story and I think my son felt that when he saw it, my daughter too. They recognized that the character is a lot like me – she said there’s a lot of my humor in there. Pretty much anyone who knows me goes, 'That’s pretty much you dude'."
As Wright notes there, he sees a lot of himself in Monk, with the role arriving at a time when he could deeply connect with the character due to his own personal circumstances. The actor's mother had passed away a little over a year before the script landed at his door and so, just like with Monk, his family were looking up to him more than ever.
However, while the family's situation in American Fiction does feel specific to Wright, he also believes that anyone, from any background, could relate. "It’s a family story and I’ve never had that before," the actor adds. "When we were filming this, I looked around and said, 'You know, this is all brand new to me'. And it's also I think, a family that we don't often see portrayed in film, certainly not one that's populated by a group of actors like myself, Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, and Leslie Uggams. You know, we're clearly Black folks, but it's a family that is like anyone's family. It’s crazed at times, it's beautiful at times. We put the fun in dysfunction, like with all families, and there's a humanness to it that’s wonderful, inviting people across backgrounds to find themselves within. We don't see this a lot."
Wright shares that he connected most to the family aspect of the story when he first read the script for American Fiction. "I was trying to be the adult in the room of my family following my mother's passing – she passed about a year or so before I got the script," he recalls. "So, I had the good fortune of being raised by two women – my mother and her eldest sister, my aunt, who's now 94, who came to live with us after my mom passed.
"It was shortly before the pandemic, and I have two kids, so man, there were all these pressures that many of us were experiencing, at that time. And that's where our character finds himself very early on in our film, trying to, by whatever means, keep the family together, and to play caretaker to his mother, which is a very moving aspect of this film. I think that's unexpected, and also something that people have experienced and feel validated by when they see the film."
American Fiction is in US and UK theaters now. For the full interview with Wright, look out for the next episode of the Inside Total Film podcast.
For more, check out our Oscars 2024 predictions of who we think will win big at this year's Academy Awards.