Nina Timofeyeva / Daily Nexus

Jeffrey Wright took the stage at the Arlington Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 15 to receive the Montecito Award, which recognizes an individual who gave the performance of their career in film in the past year. Wright is being honored for his work in the film “American Fiction,” directed by Cord Jefferson, which premiered in September 2023. 

Wright’s stellar performance in “American Fiction” has earned him not only the Montecito Award but also a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the upcoming 96th Oscars. The film is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) by the Academy. 

The tribute to Wright’s accomplishments began as he walked the red carpet, taking pictures and answering questions. In conversation with the Daily Nexus about whether he would be willing to take on a purely comedic role, Wright responded, “If it’s a smart script and it makes me laugh and it moves me, yeah. It doesn’t matter to me what the tone is or the genrel, so long as I’m touched by what I read.” Willing to take on any role that moves him, Wright’s expansive filmography reflects his dedication to film across all genres and creative platforms. 

Wright speaking to student press on the red carpet. (Nina Timofeyeva / Daily Nexus)

Introducing his filmography and the origins of Wright’s career was Roger Durling, director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Durling first took the stage to introduce Wright, calling him “the ultimate shapeshifter.” 

“[Wright’s] a character actor. [His] own personality does a disappearing act when he embodies roles,” Durling said. He continued on to list some of the iconic characters Wright has materialized, from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Muddy Waters to Martin Luther King Jr., emulating the word which describes him most: range.

The honoree was then welcomed onto the stage with a thunderous applause, hoots and hollers echoing amongst the audience. The two shook hands and took their seats. Durling not only introducing Wright but also proceeding to be the moderator for the event. The banter between the two radiated with enthusiasm and passion for film, as Wright and Durling delved into the beginning of his career up until “American Fiction.” 

Durling started from the very beginning, asking what prompted Wright to pursue acting. Wright was quick as he answered, “my mom.” He spoke with gratitude and empathy as he continued, “She laid out in front of me a number of pathways when I was young. Each one of those pathways led to opportunities. One of them was taking me to the theater when I was young. And those are some of the most memorable evenings of my childhood.” 

However, despite his mother’s support, Wright explained that he did not truly pursue acting until his junior year at Amherst College. He discussed his fear leading up to his first performance, which was a series of monologues in a small black box theater “probably behind the snack bar,” Wright joked. This opportunity would then spur into seven years of live theater before his “big break” in film. 

Wright’s origins in theater opened up many doors for him within the world of film. Durling presented snippets and questioned Wright about some of his earliest, yet most influential works, “Basquiat” in 1996 and “Angels in America” in 2003. Wright paralleled one of his oldest performances in “Basquiat”(1996) to his character in “American Fiction”(2023), agreeing with Durling that they are almost “bookends.” He expressed his gratitude to have been able to work on these projects that provided a “marriage of [his] interests,” those being film and politics. They challenged him, allowing him to broaden his acting abilities through the craft itself. 

Wright continued speaking about his experiences of challenges within filming, such as his experience playing a gay man in “Angels in America” and filming in a real prison with incarcerated men as his co-stars in “O.G.” (2018). Wright touched on his effort of consistently stepping out of the box in order to best portray these complex characters in complex environments saying, “It’s ultimately about honoring the character — about doing it justice.”

The night continued on with clips of Wright’s memorable performances from the past 30 years. Durling’s use of the word “shapeshifter” came to life on-screen as he appeared almost unrecognizable between his many films, from drug-lord Peoples Hernandez in “Shaft” to brilliant engineer Beetee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Different tones emulated throughout each performance, showing Wright’s vast range. 

Wright explained that “[He] just loves the idea of creating character. Of being one person in one film and one person in another. I just thought that was the magic of it.” 

The crowd clapped in admiration and agreement, clearly engaged as Wright portrayed his dedication and love for the craft of character building. 

Nina Timofeyeva / Daily Nexus

The event wrapped up as Durling shifted into the conversation of Wright’s work in “American Fiction,” for which he was being given the award. As Durling asked Wright about the essence of the film, he responded immediately, saying that “‘American Fiction’ puts the fun in dysfunction.” 

The depiction of complex family dynamics, racial stereotypes and loss and grief within the film are what make it, in Wright’s words, “universal and truly beautiful.” Wright’s character, Monk, attempts to balance his relationships with his distant siblings, mother with Alzheimers and new love interest in his own dysfunctional way. Monk deals with loss, crisis and change in a way that is incredibly endearing to watch. 

Wright similarly touched on how this film addresses heavy topics in a new manner. He explained the intention behind this component of the film, emphasizing, “We’re not smart at talking about race, but we’re all thinking about it. It’s at the forefront of our political conversation right now. 

“We’re all thinking about [race], but we don’t come together easily to have these conversations. But we can do it in this film. And we can even have a laugh while we’re doing it,” he continued. Amidst these tough topics is what Wright defines as the true essence of this film: family.

“It’s a family that’s recognizable. Cause it’s a family as crazy as everybody else’s family,” Wright said, as laughter and nods of relatability spanned throughout the crowd. 

Wright concluded by saying, “Family is the heart, spirit, soul and body of [‘American Fiction’].”

As the crowd clung onto the last words of Wright’s and Durling’s conversation, Durling began to tear up. His emotion made his words shake as he expressed ultimate gratitude for Wright being there and exclaimed how Wright has “brought so much joy to [his] life, the theater and film.” 

Through the audience’s erupting celebration, Durling announced that it would be John Ortiz, Wright’s co-star in “American Fiction,” that would be presenting the award to him during the event. Ortiz made his way onto the stage, grinning from ear to ear at his co-star as he began his speech. 

Ortiz expressed how Wright has constantly “inspired and raised the bar.” What started as “comparative competition,” in the words of Ortiz, turned to inspiration as one of his career goals was to have the chance to work with Wright. He exclaimed, “I gotta work with this guy!” as the audience laughed at his enthusiasm. Ortiz conveyed his gratitude for the opportunity and applauded his co-star for the amazing work he has done throughout the years.

Wright once again addressed the crowd, thanking everyone for being there as well as thanking those that organized the event. He excluded graciousness and humility, ultimately leaving the audience with the last “Thank you!” as he made his way off the stage.