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[This interview contains spoilers for The Batman and No Time to Die.]
Five months ago, Jeffrey Wright said goodbye to James Bond. Today, he’s saying hello to the Batman. Wright stars as Lieutenant James Gordon in Matt Reeves’ neo-noir crime drama, The Batman, and he’s now the seventh actor to play the GCPD cop in live action. With Reeves determined to celebrate Batman (Robert Pattinson) as the “World’s Greatest Detective,” Wright’s Gordon got to partner up with the Caped Crusader in a way that his counterparts seldom did. To prepare for the role, Wright opted not to analyze previous on-screen iterations of the character in order to find uncharted territory. Instead, he chose to look at Gotham City’s analogue, New York City, for real-life inspiration.
“Of course, Gotham is fashioned after New York City, so I looked at the current mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, who is a former cop I admired,” Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He first came to my attention back in the ’90s during these major police brutality cases in the city. So I used him as a touchstone. And now, the current police commissioner of the NYPD is a Black woman named Keechant Sewell. So I looked for real-life references to justify my place in this role, but I largely relied on the comics for the underlying psychology and emotional journey that the character undergoes and for the relationship with the Batman.”
Now that No Time to Die is in his rear-view mirror, Wright is able to open up about the conclusion of his run as James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) trusted friend, Felix Leiter.
“Well, Daniel and I had a nice run, and if he’s going to go out, we, in a sense, should go out together,” Wright says. “So I liked the way that we rounded it out, and what it did was celebrate the bond — for lack of a better word — between the two characters, in a way that was appropriate. So I thought if you’ve got to go out, it was a good way to go out.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Wright also discusses Gordon’s naïveté as he learns the truth about Gotham City’s leaders. Then he explains what he’d like to see from Gordon in a potential sequel or spinoff series.
Congratulations on another feather in your cap.
Thank you. Lately, it’s a feathery boa of a cap. (Laughs.)
So after such a difficult production, do The Batman‘s strong reviews mean a little bit more than they usually do?
Well, I tend to appreciate good reviews. The alternative is much less desirable. So it’s better than the film not being appreciated, and that holds true with any film or project. What’s more satisfying is to get it onto screens for the fans. There’s a sense with this franchise that the true owners of these stories and these characters are not us. It’s not those of us who take part in the making of these films. It’s not even Matt Reeves, who so brilliantly crafted this script and realized it through his direction. But rather, this belongs to the fans. I’ve never experienced the level of passion and intensity for a franchise as I have with this, and I’ve been in some big ones. So it really stands on its own in that regard.
So I heard Rob [Pattinson] say that he was discouraged from watching previous Batman movies but that he did so anyway because he wanted to find some potential “gaps” that the other Batmen didn’t explore in their performances. Did you also revisit past Gordons in order to find those gaps that could differentiate your version?
I didn’t, really. I relied more on the comics because in the first panel of DC No. 27, May 1939, is Bruce Wayne and Gordon, so there’s a long arc for Gordon from then until today. There’s so much to reference there and so much to pull out. I also looked at some real-life references as well. Of course, Gotham is fashioned after New York City, so I looked at the current mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, who is a former cop I admired. He first came to my attention back in the ’90s during these major police brutality cases in the city. So I used him as a touchstone. And now, the current police commissioner of the NYPD is a Black woman named Keechant Sewell. So I looked for real-life references to justify my place in this role, but I largely relied on the comics for the underlying psychology and emotional journey that the character undergoes and for the relationship with the Batman. So I didn’t see all of the films, but I watched a couple of them late in the process when we were in London. I was so immersed in Gotham that I wanted to take in a little bit more. It was during the third quarantine that I experienced over there, so I dipped into some of the older films just out of curiosity. (Laughs.) That was January of 2021. But when you take on something that’s been visited so many times before, the intent is not to repeat the steps that have come before. Obviously, there’s momentum that can be carried forward based on what’s come before, and you want to push past it because each of those films and each of those performances represented the time in which they were made. So we very much wanted to make a Batman film for today. But that said, it does take into consideration what came before, of course, because we’re not doing this in a vacuum.
I noticed he wears a wedding ring, so how much do you know about your Jim Gordon beyond the confines of this movie? Does he have a daughter named Barbara?
Well, for the most part, he is Jim Gordon as we know him to be from the past, but we didn’t dive too terribly deep into the specifics of his backstory. Matt has some ideas. I have some ideas. Perhaps, we’ll get to explore a bit of that going forward. There were some things in this script that alluded to some of the more personal aspects of his life, but some of them may or may not have made it into the film for various reasons. (Laughs.) So those questions remain to be asked and answered.
Gordon and Batman have a strong partnership as they work the Riddler case. Did you and Rob get together to build some rapport in advance? Or did you keep each other at arm’s length since Batman still treats Gordon this way despite their partnership?
No, but I suppose that’s one way to go about it. We got together and talked through various elements. We asked a lot of questions, we answered some and we rehearsed. It’s an act, after all. (Laughs.) So you don’t have to alienate your collaborator in order to make an unfamiliar relationship all the more authentic. Some people may choose that route, but for me, I think it’s ridiculous. Within our film, there’s a good deal of intimacy between the two of them and a good deal of growing trust. So what was more important to me and to Rob was that we meet each other on the stage, on the set, as the characters do on the page, which is really in partnership. The collaboration is the best part of what we do. If I can, I try not to fuck with that too much. So we got to know each other, and then we went about our work. Rob is a wonderfully generous actor, and we had a common understanding of how we would slot into Matt’s extremely comprehensive, detailed vision. So we just went about it. We went about it together, and we laid it down.
Gordon is rather loyal to Batman. He stuck his neck out for him at various moments, including the police station melee, where he helped Batman escape. Did Batman save Gordon’s life in their first year together which would explain why Gordon keeps risking his career to defend a vigilante?
Well, I think it comes out of a sense of desperation, more so than anything, and utility. It’s early on, but whatever the public perception might be of the Batman, Gordon sees him as useful. And the thing that kept returning to me about Gordon is that he is not an institutionalist. He’s working on behalf of ideals and the citizens of Gotham, so he’ll do whatever it takes within the bounds to succeed at that, and he is beginning to understand that the Batman may be aligned with him. We obviously don’t allude to the specifics of that prior, but I really think it’s born of this emerging trust and this emerging realization that the city is falling apart around them and that they’re both isolated within that in a way that draws them toward one another. And it seems that Gordon becomes a type of surrogate father to the Batman, while Alfred represents that to Bruce Wayne. Batman, as he’s emerging as this figure, is still bouncing off the rails a bit, so Gordon provides a kind of moral guidance for him that is void everywhere else for him. So it becomes a somewhat paternal relationship from Gordon’s perspective as well.
I was really compelled by all of these things in the script, and going back to your point about gaps in the previous versions, I recognized that the previous films hadn’t really explored their relationship in that way. But that partnership is particularly in some of the later iterations of the comics, such as the Frank Miller stuff and Long Halloween, which Matt referenced. So that’s explored in those places, and it’s seeded in the comic reality of this series. So from what I’m perceiving, the fans are really excited about the idea of celebrating Batman as the world’s greatest detective. And Gordon, as Matt shaped him, is a lieutenant currently, and that was clever because it activates him in a way that puts him very much in the middle of things. So that was exciting for me, and it gave me some stuff to chew on.
From the earliest teaser, The Batman‘s aesthetic and tone were compared to David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac, and the movie itself certainly has more of those influences. Did Matt ever urge you to revisit these titles?
I’d seen those films, obviously, but again, I don’t find value in going back and watching the films that are referenced too much. I’m sure Matt has specific references for himself, and there may even be shots that are referenced. But for me, it’s more about referencing tone and more about referencing the landscape. I’m not trying to recreate someone else’s performance. That really doesn’t seem to be the point, but cumulatively, of course, we’re borrowing from all of the performances that have touched us over time. But I really try to avoid going back and saying, “Let’s replicate that,” unless it’s a subtle wink to the franchise. But our film doesn’t do a lot of winking. Some of the previous films kind of wink at the comics in a way that I don’t think Matt was interested in. He really viewed this through the lens of a deeply passionate fan with an encyclopedic interest and knowledge of the world of Gotham. So he used it as an opportunity, in some ways, to co-opt the genre and infuse our film with the type of relevance that you would find in other films that he referenced from the American cinematic golden age of the ’70s. Like All the President’s Men and other [Alan J.] Pakula films, and Sidney Lumet and The French Connection. These films were gritty and urban, and they were also immediately in touch with social and political realities of the day. So that was the type of film that I understood we were trying to make, and that film also happens to be a Batman movie. (Laughs.) So it was an exciting recipe. I would’ve been much less interested in Batman in space or some kind of dalliance with the character and a myriad of other things. Yes, I like that it was a celebration of the comics, but it was a celebration of themes and dynamics within the comics, not a celebration of comics, per se.
I heard that Matt did a lot of takes. What particular scene of yours did you shoot over and over again?
Oh god. (Laughs.) There was a scene that we shot after my third quarantine, which was 10 days of isolation in my hotel room, without leaving. The hotel had 300 rooms, but there were only three of us staying there at the time. So I was a little disoriented when I came out of that last quarantine. (Laughs.) But there was a scene that we shot on my first day out that took me a while to get to where Matt wanted to go. But he is extremely exacting in the best way. His script is mathematically tight in terms of the narrative architecture, and he had a very specific vision for how he wanted to capture that on film. He had very specific camera angles and lighting, so there wasn’t a lot of coverage. He had it edited in his head, and he was editing it as we went along. But he was exacting. He really wanted to get precisely what he thought would best serve the interests of the story. So we did it until we got it. (Laughs.) And Matt is not just demanding or detailed out of some type of odd impulse. He has layers of justification for what he asks of you, and you only have to talk it through to understand why it’s important for any given moment or any given scene. So I find that environment to be really satisfying. What I desire in working with a director is clarity and information — volumes of information if necessary — and Matt has all of that available. The most frustrating thing is to work in an environment where things can’t be explained with clarity, and there’s an assumption that we’ll all just take a leap of faith. It’s a big enough leap of faith to do this stuff anyway, but within the collaboration, there has to be justification and clarity. And Matt has file cabinets full of all that. (Laughs.) So I really enjoyed working with him quite a lot. And at the same time, there’s a wonderful openness to collaboration and input within the framework of the Gotham City we were building together.
There’s a moment where Gordon thinks he’s next up on the Riddler’s kill list, but Batman refutes him by saying that the Riddler is only targeting the corrupt. Was that the first time Gordon realized that he was the exception among his peers?
Well, there is a streak of naïveté within Gordon, and it’s interesting because he’s an experienced, seasoned cop on the street. But at the same time, there’s a lack of awareness of certain elements of the underbelly that he may be better suited to be cognizant of, but perhaps because he is so much on the outside of that, he, to some extent, has blind spots that prevent him from knowing the full depths of things. So in our film, it seems that Gordon is in the midst of discovering elements about the city, elements about the police department and elements about himself. So that could very well be. That was something of our intent with that moment, yeah.
As far as the future, there are reports of spinoff series involving the GCPD, Penguin and Arkham Asylum. Do you anticipate being a factor in these series to some degree?
Well, there’s been talk, but my focus has been on getting this film out. So we’ve got a few more hours until it is out, and then we can begin to think in more detail about what comes next.
In all likelihood, Gordon is on a path to become commissioner, but if you had your druthers, is there something else you’d like to explore internally?
One of the things that I’d like to explore going forward is Gordon behind closed doors. I’m curious about this public face, which is righteous and forthright, while attempting to do the right thing within a city that was once great but is decaying in real time. So I am very curious about what the toll is on a person like that when he closes the door behind him and sits in his home. So we’ll see where we go with it. Ideally, people will embrace this film, and we’ll have an opportunity to revisit.
I spoke to Billy Magnussen during No Time to Die, and I tried to get him to open up about his character killing your fan-favorite character, Felix. But he seemed more interested in the Jamaican waves and rum the two of you shared.
Now that you’re a bit removed from it, how do you feel about Felix’s goodbye and the sense of humor he showed during his final moments?
Well, Daniel and I had a nice run, and if he’s going to go out, we, in a sense, should go out together. So I liked the way that we rounded it out, and what it did was celebrate the bond — for lack of a better word — between the two characters, in a way that was appropriate. Ultimately, Bond and Felix, who obviously appears far less, do not represent institutions. Jim Gordon doesn’t either to an extent, but rather, they represent individuals who are working for the greater good. They represent things larger than the institution. They represent these ideals and that brotherhood that we hear spoken about by so many who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. So I thought if you’ve got to go out, it was a good way to go out.
I have to say that I had more fun filming that sequence than I’ve ever had on a movie set. The craftsmanship that went into the rig that we worked in — and this six-million gallon tank at Pinewood — was just extraordinary. Chris Corbould engineered this rig that sank and rotated, so the capsizing was all very controlled with oxygen tanks placed in various spots inside the thing. But it was so much fun for me, because, as Billy described, I love going in the water when I’m not working. So to spend an entire week on that set and in the water was great fun, despite the story that we were telling in that sequence.
The Batman is now playing exclusively in movie theaters.
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