'O.G.' Star Jeffrey Wright on Filming Inside a Prison: "Shook Me to My Core"

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For HBO's cinema verité film, the actor worked with real-life inmates to present an empathetic story of those in incarceration: "We have to come away from this as audience members viewing them as men."

Jeffrey Wright is using his art to tackle trauma and systemic injustice. As inmate Louis on the HBO cinema verité prison film O.G. and a producer on the veteran-centric documentary short We Are Not Done Yet, the acclaimed actor sheds a light on individuals often overlooked by society and finds the humanity behind the politics driving the American prison and military systems. Wright, 53, spoke with THR about shooting O.G., which was filmed almost entirely at Indiana's Pendleton Correctional Facility.

O.G. presents an empathetic portrait of inmates and prison life. What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

In some ways, "empathetic" is a tricky word relative to a story like this. Certainly, that's at the core of what we have to do when we take on stories like this. But more so, the audience should leave with the idea of humanizing. Louis and the characters that we visit within this film have done some real harm. They've committed some pretty heinous crimes. So the idea that we empathize with them as audience members is maybe in some ways problematic, but we have to humanize them and we have to come away from this as audience members viewing them as men — men who were once boys, boys who made mistakes and boys who were pushed, in some ways by the conditions that they found themselves in, toward a life of incarceration.

What's one experience that stuck with you from speaking with inmates?

A conversation with a guy on the inside there kind of shook me to my core. He was described to me as a separatist. He said he was a government separatist, not a race separatist, but he was that, too. He was a Vietnam vet who was in for violent crime, and I was talking to him from outside his prison cell, on the other side of the bars, and he said, "You have to pay attention to the plight of the poor whites, too." I had to check my privilege and hear him. Yes, our story is told from the perspective of a black man, but it's a story about incarceration in a general sense, too. Just like how Papillon isn't a story about whites in prison, it's a story about prison.

What was it like working with Theothus Carter? He wasn't just a co-star, he's an actual inmate at Pendleton.

He was so open to this opportunity and eager to do well and to do something constructive and creative in a way that had literally never been asked of him before in his life. He said on more than one occasion, "Maybe if I'd had an opportunity like this earlier in my life, I wouldn't have ended up here." He is a guy of incredible charisma, curiosity, and he's got a quick mind. All of that he had only applied to the wrong doors that led to pathways toward self-destruction. It was a difficult thing for him, too, because he realized that at the end of the day, he was not going to be — as we all were — leaving this production and going on with our lives. At the end of the day, he was going to return to his cell.

I very much enjoyed working with him and helping him shape his performance, and just collaborating together in a way that I think did two things: proved that he might have done, and could do, better, but also showcased the waste that his life represents, not only for himself but for the many young men like him who have so much more to bring, but for whatever reason — because of their own limitations and also because of the limitations of our society — they were not able to bring to bear in a constructive way.

Your director, Madeleine Sackler, has a background in documentary filmmaking. Was that something that played a role in the decision to film with actual inmates in Pendleton prison?

This was a purely guerilla operation. Our DP, Wolfgang Held, was shooting in this verité style that allowed a lot of freedom in the performances to just be in the space, and let the confines of those prison walls frame the performances. At times he had a handheld camera hunched on his shoulder and he’s sitting, literally, on the toilet seat in the cell jammed up against the wall, framing everything that I could give him. It was a style that owed itself to a documentary sensibility and it served us well. Also there were times when we were shooting in the gym with the guys and it was only me and the cast, maybe 35 of us in the space with Wolfgang, and another camera operator [Thorsten Thielow], and everyone else was inside a room outside the space. So we would just roll the scenes on a loop and improvise a bit, and play, and we would do that for maybe 10 or 15 minute takes, and just let the life of the story happen. It was really gratifying, too, to help orchestrate all that, and orchestrate these men who, like Theothus, were really involved with this process. They’ve spent a lot of time watching movies, as you can imagine, and so they were really keen to understand the process behind the scenes and dive into this thing that was at times, yes, seemed to be a documentary and then at times was something else. There was a definite attempt to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

You recently produced a documentary, We Are Not Done Yet, which also focuses on people who are often overlooked in our society. What made you want to tell the story of these veterans?

Over time I became more aware of the fact that I enjoy the luxury of not being touched by these wars that we've been involved in for almost 20 years now, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with that. What I learned too is that it's a huge mistake for us to conflate the politics of these wars with the people who serve in them, as we did generations ago during Vietnam. I started to look for opportunities to get involved. I thought that when I got involved with working with this group of vets that I was late in the game, and that the wars were subsiding to some extent and that the casualties, from an American perspective, were not as numerous as they had been earlier on. But I was dead wrong. Casualties are even greater now than they were when these wars were most intense. We're still losing 20 vets per day from suicide. I realized that there was still a lot of work that could be done.

Do you think participating in art, whether it be acting as the inmates did, or poetry as the vets did, can help combat trauma?

That's part of what artists attempt to do, to shape the experiences of their lives, whether it's joyful or painful, into something beautiful and something manageable for them and something resonant and relative for the audience. There's a power in being able to control that past in a way that validates the life that I think is useful and healthy and, in many ways, therapeutic.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.