Letitia forever: ‘It was painful going back on set without Chad, I could feel his presence’

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

Look at my face!’ gasps Letitia Wright, momentarily losing her poise. We are at a photoshoot and the actor has taken a quick break to watch the trailer for her forthcoming film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, for the first time. ‘That’s frickin’ amazing,’ she says, transfixed by her phone screen, as the camera pans over the mountains of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda and the stirring beats of the soundtrack play. ‘Okay, I’m done, back to work.’

We’re in a studio in Tottenham, close to where Wright grew up. Dressed in an oversized white suit that, she says, fits her ‘androgynous vibe’, she is in a playful mood, pulling goofy faces and cracking jokes.

The original Black Panther film, released in 2018, is a hard act to follow. ‘I was so nervous making the first film,’ says Wright, 28, who won a loyal following for her portrayal of Shuri, a tech-whizz princess who is the Wakanda equivalent of Q in the James Bond films. ‘Doing it again was even scarier — you don’t want to disappoint the fans.’

The movie marked Wright’s big break in Hollywood, smashed box office records taking $192 million in its first three days and, as she says, proved to a sceptical swathe of Hollywood executives that hit superhero blockbusters can have an all-Black main cast. Wright is regularly approached by women who have been inspired by Shuri. ‘I’d never seen a character like her before,’ she says. ‘A young Black girl who is good at science and not picked on for it or called a nerd.’

Director Ryan Coogler describes Wright as ‘the love and the light’ of the Black Panther universe. She clearly has a strong work ethic and boundless energy — as well as the Black Panther follow-up, she has two other imminent films, Aisha and The Silent Twins, and in person she is lively, making gags about her football team (Arsenal) and frequently exclaiming ‘dang!’ in an American accent. But she also has a steely side, which reveals itself when I raise the subject of the controversy surrounding an anti-Covid vaccine post she shared on Twitter (of which more later).

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

When Wright first saw the script for Black Panther, she says that she ‘couldn’t fully fathom what it would be, but knew it would be special because of the cast’. Lupita Nyong’o returns in the sequel, along with the new addition of Michaela Coel, who plays a queer warrior, as the Wakandans fight back against a rival kingdom rising up from the sea. ‘It has that adrenaline rush you go to the cinema for, but it also has depth. I want you to leave the theatre in bits. And if you don’t?’ she deadpans, pulling a face. ‘Something’s wrong with your heart.’

But there is also a sadness hanging over the Black Panther reunion. The star of the first film, Chadwick Boseman, who played King T’Challa, died of colon cancer in 2020. His role has not been recast, and the film includes a song by Rihanna, ‘Lift Me Up’, composed in tribute to him.

‘It was painful going back on set without Chad,’ says Wright. ‘I could feel his presence. We acknowledged that we were grieving — you can’t master grief, but you have to try and find ways not to let it overtake you. It was one of the toughest projects I’ve done in 10 years of my career. I tried to make him proud. I miss him daily. It is still not real to me that he is not here.’

It was Boseman who eased Wright’s anxiety on the first film when, she says, ‘I was nervous, I didn’t know if I was doing a good job and did a lot of crying in my hotel room looking at my script.’ One of the most joyful moments they shared was when Boseman invited her to take a helicopter to Santa Barbara with him, to promote the film.

Doing Black Panther again was even scarier — you don’t want to disappoint the fans

‘We were like excited kids, taking pictures of the view,’ she says. ‘At the time, I didn’t understand how much I should cherish being up in the air with Chad for that 45-minute ride. Then, I went through my phone and found the pictures. That’s how I am dealing with it now, going through old photos and text messages.’ Boseman also used to send her voice notes. ‘I found a cute one he sent of him drumming. I would do anything to sit by his drum now.’

After the shoot we meet at the Shard, where Wright orders a mint tea that she proceeds to spoon honey into. She has already made friends with the waiter by the time I arrive. ‘I tried to disguise myself,’ she says, gesturing at her black cap, which reads ‘space’, and her oversized pale green tracksuit from a brand called Fear of God (‘Justin Bieber has one and I’m always battling him as to which of us can wear the coolest outfit’).

Wright was born in Guyana and moved to north London when she was seven with her mother, Michelle, a teacher (she taught at Wright’s school in Guyana, ‘and my friends would always tell me off when she gave them detention’).

‘My mum told me about the weather in London and the Queen,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t expect it to be so cold. It was strange being the new kid at school. People didn’t understand my accent, so I was quiet. I didn’t know if I would make friends.’ At home, Wright watched a lot of American television (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Scooby-Doo) but she never thought she could be an actor. ‘I wanted to be a basketball player,’ she says.

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

I want you to leave the theatre in bits. If you don’t, something’s wrong with your heart

Her life changed when a teacher introduced her to drama. ‘Miss Angela said I had a lot of energy so needed to come to acting classes. I didn’t know what that was. But it was so fun — there were loads of other kids and it helped me feel like I could express myself.’ Her best performance was The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol. ‘I thought I was excellent,’ she says, becoming animated. ‘Even now I watch it every year on television and think nobody can top what I did at primary school.’

After playing Rosa Parks in a school play for Black History Month, she emailed casting agents and eventually ended up at the Identity School of Acting with John Boyega. By 18, she had roles in Holby City and Top Boy, but as her career began to take off, she had an attack of self-doubt. When she was 20 she became depressed and wondered if she should give up acting. It was religion that helped her through — and she is now a devoted Christian, turning down a role in a film with Nicole Kidman in 2015 to focus on her faith.

Her language often takes a mystical turn. She picks roles that, she says, ‘flow with my spirit’, and she remains philosophical about her career. ‘I see Hollywood not as something to conquer but something to contribute to. I’m taking things one step at a time.’ In Los Angeles, Wright has attended Hillsong church, where she had a brush with Justin Bieber: ‘I see this kid in a hoodie and it is Justin Bieber waiting to pray. It was inspiring. He is so talented; he does his own thing,’ she says.

Christianity provided solace once again in December 2020, when Wright shared a video on Twitter in which the presenter said they hoped ‘the Covid vaccine doesn’t make extra limbs grow’. Wright has since apologised, saying: ‘My only intention of posting the video was it raised my concerns with what we are putting in our bodies.’

When I ask whether she has had the vaccine, she is evasive: ‘I am respectful of everybody’s choices. I don’t think that’s the right thing for me to answer right now because I am here to discuss films that I love and that impact people. The only thing I know is that I love my job.’

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

She describes the ensuing backlash as a life experience that showed her the importance of real life over Twitter. ‘It’s been two years and so far, I am proud of the ways in which I’ve been able to learn and make better choices. It makes you rethink ways you can be positive towards society. I remember years ago Naomie Harris told me how you carry yourself is how people approach you. I try to carry myself with humility and with kindness, and to inspire people.’

She selects her roles carefully, saying: ‘It’s sad if you do something you don’t want to do — you can tell if something is just a money job’. Hollywood is becoming more inclusive, thanks to Black Panther and The Woman King, which stars Viola Davis leading a band of African women warriors. ‘But that took so long to get made,’ she says. ‘We’ve reached a new stage. We have shown it can be done. Now we need to get to the point where we are talking about the project, not the difficulty of making it.’

During lockdown, Wright set up her own production company, Three Sixteen Productions. Her first film, The Silent Twins, which she co-produced (‘that work never stops, it’s so hard’) and also stars in, is out in December. It is the harrowing true story of sisters June (Wright) and Jennifer Gibbons (Tamara Lawrance). The only Black girls growing up in a small Welsh community in the 1970s, their reaction to the racism they experienced was to stop talking. They ended up in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital for 11 years. ‘It was rough being the only Black kids in school and they got bullied a lot,’ says Wright. ‘They experienced racism when they were too young to know what it was, and that is scarring — they were called names like “chocolate drop”. You don’t always know how to process trauma like that.’ Wright hopes that, ‘if the twins existed in today’s society, they would be more understood — there is so much more support for mental health.’

The third film in her cinematic triptych is Aisha. It’s another difficult — but important — watch. ‘I’m always trying to make someone cry,’ she says. Wright plays a Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Ireland, who makes friends with a security guard (Josh O’Connor) as she is constantly thwarted by the Kafkaesque immigration system.

Sometimes you look at a scene and you have to cry in the morning, afternoon and night

Before the project, Wright didn’t know much about the immigration process but, she says, ‘it is intense, there are so many children in the system — that is why we made the movie, to give a voice to those who feel like no one is really hearing them’. Being reminded of the humanity of Aisha and what she is fleeing from is a corrective to the brutality of our Home Secretary’s plans to deport immigrants to Rwanda.

She breaks the seriousness saying: ‘I’ll do a comedy one day. Sometimes you look at a scene and you have to cry in the morning, afternoon and night. It is a physical and spiritual sacrifice and can mess you up a bit. I watch my films at least twice to see what I can learn, then I have to let go.’

But right now, she is ready to take a break and enjoy the success of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. ‘At the premiere of the first one I didn’t know what it would be like but when I saw it, my fears crumbled in a second,’ she says, looking at me. ‘It made me see that I am talented and I am good enough.’ Praise be.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ opens in cinemas on 11 Nov