Letitia Wright: ‘I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if it wasn’t for Jesus’

The ‘Black Panther’ star returns in Channel 4 trilogy ‘I Am Danielle’ after posting a controversial anti-vax video and facing the inevitable backlash. She talks about the experience for the first time to Annabel Nugent and how her faith and admiration for Chadwick Boseman has helped guide the way

Thursday 12 August 2021 06:30 BST
<p>Letitia Wright got her start with a two-episode arc on ‘Holby City’</p>

Letitia Wright got her start with a two-episode arc on ‘Holby City’

Letitia Wright has love on her mind. She’s recently come to the realisation that it’s OK to want to settle down and hold out for the real thing. “I think it’s a pure and beautiful thing to be like, ‘I’m gonna wait for love. I’m gonna wait and save myself for the right person,’” she smiles. “You don’t have to go through…” Dating apps? I ask. Wright laughs. “Listen, I’m not really familiar with the Hinge world but I have friends on it, and I have huge respect for people that have the capacity to do it.” But the dating app life is not for her; her latest role has confirmed that much.

It’s daytime in Atlanta, where the 27-year-old Guyana-born Brit is calling from. She has her short hair pulled back in braids and looks scarcely older than the teenage hospital patient she portrayed in Holby City a decade ago, jump-starting a career that has since spawned an Emmy-winning performance in Black Mirror, a memorable turn in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe TV series and a beloved role in Marvel’s first Oscar-nominated film, Black Panther. Rumour has it that Wright is in America right now filming its follow-up, but her lips are tightly sealed on that front.

Back to love, however, which is what her latest TV drama is all about. I Am Danielle – airing on Channel 4 tonight – is part of Dominic Savage’s critically lauded female-led anthology series, now on its second season. Wright’s episode is about a young woman looking for commitment, monogamy, stability, the whole shebang, and encountering a dark secret about her new partner. It’s more understated than Wright’s previous work, which tends to lean towards vibrancy and action-movie intensity. I Am Danielle is much more still; it’s quieter.

“It started as a conversation,” begins Wright, recalling how she got involved in the project. She and director Savage met up every two weeks and talked about life. “He has a beautiful way of getting through the layers of who you are as a person. He found a vulnerability within myself on the topic of love and he wanted to tap into that.” Wright liked the way the project was collaborative, rather than something just handed to her, in the way of, “‘Hey, go and act this and pretend that you know all about this world and this character’,” she says. Instead, she and Savage built up layers with every conversation, until they had a script.

As such, it seems that Danielle is much closer to Wright’s true nature: preternaturally calm and with an enviable ease that is often mistaken for shyness. She has no eagerness to please or impress, only an earnest desire to cut through the noise to what really matters. “The role felt like home,” agrees Wright. “I connect to her heart, her way of working hard, chasing a career, and trying to figure out her life in a way that is beautiful and works for her. She doesn’t want nonsense and I feel we share that.”

‘I Am Danielle’ is a close collaboration between Dominic Savage and Wright, who stars in her most raw role yet

Danielle feels like Wright’s rawest role yet, and it’s no wonder why. “Just before we started filming, my brother Chadwick [Boseman] had passed so what you’re seeing on screen is really someone who is truly broken,” says Wright. “My heart is broken and just trying to deal with so many things.” Her Black Panther co-star died in August last year; shooting on I Am Danielle began in September, though Boseman’s performance in the Marvel superhero movie spurred her on. “I had to step away from rehearsals due to the news,” she says. “Coming back though, it really fuelled me because I realised I had seen someone really pour out when they had every reason to hide away from the world and I thought, ‘I’m gonna use my craft like that.’”

Wright was born in Georgetown, Guyana, before she moved to London aged seven. Her mum was a teacher but it’s her dad who Wright credits with some of her life’s most important education. “He would provide me with books about ancient Egypt, about scientists – scientists who were also black. He allowed me to understand that the heritage of our people didn’t begin on a ship like history books say.”

Moving to London was a “shock to the system”, she says. “But I learnt how to adapt and, in a way, it foreshadowed my desire to act. I would try to mimic the British accent, the way the other kids walk and talk.”

Guyana, Wright points out, doesn’t have the same acting industry as London. “My mum always tells me how grateful she is that I was able to have my dreams come true in the UK so that I can inspire others back home to chase their dreams.”

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From there, she went to the Identity School of Acting in Brixton. “I knew at a very early age that I needed training. I couldn’t afford the Rada, the Lamda, the Central School [of Speech and Drama] route so I just Googled close-by acting classes and Identity came up.” Over a decade later and she’s still with the school’s agency. It was also there that she met her “brother” John Boyega, whom she says proved to their class the breadth of what’s possible. “You can only dream as far as the examples that you can see and the examples that we were seeing were TV spots at home, mostly stereotypical parts,” she says. “So, to have Boyega come in and say he was aiming for an international feature film, that really inspired us to dream bigger. Before that I hadn’t been brave enough to think that was possible.”

But a whole lot of faith has helped. Wright is at her most animated talking about her relationship with God. “The world is so fickle and there’s not much that you can really put your hope in to make you feel whole,” she says. In her early twenties, as the actor found her star rising and the idiosyncrasies of fame shaking the ground beneath her feet, Wright sought stability and found it in religion. “Even now I’m going through a new transformative stage of my life with understanding who I am, but with God you can really just get through these situations. It’s been beautiful to have my faith in Jesus, which is worth more than anything.”

Wright affectionately remembers her ‘brother’ Chadwick Boseman and credits his legacy with helping fuel her performance in ‘I Am Danielle’

With a few notable exceptions, the acting world feels secular from the outside looking in, and I wonder if she has ever felt hesitancy in speaking about her beliefs in public. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Hey, you should stop talking about Jesus.’ But there will always be pressures to keep things private that the world may not agree with. And I’m not trying to force anything on anyone. I’m sharing my truth because I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if it wasn’t for Jesus, I probably wouldn’t have been able to cope,” she says. “And if someone saves you and brings light and love to your life, you want to share that. You don’t want to hide it.”

Even so, there were some beliefs that Wright shared and came under fire for. In December last year, she posted a link to a 69-minute video from the YouTube channel OnTheTable, which questioned the legitimacy of the Covid-19 vaccine. According to Variety, the now-deleted clip also saw Tomi Arayomi, a senior leader with east London church Light London, accuse China of spreading coronavirus, as well as appearing sceptical of climate change and making transphobic comments. Wright shared the video on Twitter along with a prayer hands emoji. The post went viral, with fans and fellow celebrities accusing Wright of being an anti-vaxxer. She responded to the uproar by saying her intention wasn’t to hurt anyone, “only to raise concerns with what the vaccine contains”. Wright left social media shortly after.

I realised that people will say that you said things that you did not say. And that was hard

I ask whether she had predicted that sort of response to the post and what it was like to be in the centre of that Twitter storm. She goes quiet and sits with the question. It’s the first time Wright has spoken about it publicly. “I guess I realised that…” She pauses to consider her words for long enough that I’m certain the call has cut out. “I realised that people will say that you said things that you did not say. And that was hard.”

At the time, Wright responded to the accusations of being anti-vax by arguing that she was merely raising “concerns”. In a separate Twitter post, the actor wrote: “If you don’t conform to popular opinions, but ask questions and think for yourself… you get cancelled.” American writer Roxane Gay’s response to her – “Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean you’re right. And you aren’t cancelled. But damn. Promoting anti-vaccine propaganda and shrouding it in intellectual curiosity is asinine. And dangerous” – picked up traction from many of Wright’s critics.

Wright picked up an Emmy award for her performance in season four of Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’

I ask Wright to elaborate on “cancel culture” and whether she believes it to be detrimental to progress. “I guess each to their own, really,” she replies, her eyes returning to the camera. “I would much rather have a healthy, balanced conversation. I think what coming off [social media] has allowed me to do is have the sort of conversation and education that doesn’t feel like pointing the finger.”

Wright is rapidly approaching her one-year anniversary of being offline. “It’s been brilliant. I’ve been able to go away and educate myself, read books and connect with my family,” she says. “There’s not been this pressure of expectation.” She grins before adding: “Everyone should just step away from social media.”

Wright stars as real-life Black Panther activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen’s BBC anthology series ‘Small Axe’

The brouhaha – and her subsequent dip out of the public eye – appear not to have curbed her trajectory. I Am Danielle is one of the smaller projects on Wright’s current slate. But multi-million tent-pole production or not, her mission remains the same. “I’m trying to be truthful and honest about what I can be a vessel for,” she says. Simply put, Wright asks not what a role can do for her career but what she can do for a role. “If you don’t feel like you’re the right vessel for a particular project then you shouldn’t do it because you’re wasting everybody’s time.”

It’s the only moment in our conversation that even a slight tenor of frustration rises in her voice. In practice, this ethos has meant turning down some potentially colossal opportunities. “A script will come that will require me to do certain things I don’t want to do, but other people will say, ‘If you do this, it’s going to enhance your career,’” she says. I ask whether this – the prospect of turning down big parts – has become easier with experience and an elevated stature, but Wright knew that she wanted to live by standards that she, herself, had set out for her life and for her work from the beginning. “It’s about not moulding to the pressure of what it means to be successful,” she says. “I want to define who I am.”

‘I Am Danielle’ is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm

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