Letitia Wright on her role in ‘Small Axe’, Black history and supportive friendships

Letitia Wright wears cardigan Loewe, shirt and jeans Bottega Veneta and shoes Dries Van Noten. Photographed by Ekua King for PORTER, NET-A-PORTER.COM. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via net-a-porter.com. (Credit: Ekua King/Porter/NET-A-PORTER.com)

Letitia Wright was born in Guyana and moved to London with her family at the age of seven. In a career that started out with a guest part on the UK hospital drama series Holby City, she’s played British, African-American and, of course, Wakandan, but her upcoming role starring in Small Axe– the anthology of five films by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, about Black Britons in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s – as the British Black Panther Party leader, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, was her first time playing a character in a setting more similar to her own.

Fresh from the first cast-only screening of  Small Axe, Wright talks to PORTER“I’m still trying to process it. It’s special.” Wright connected with the film on a different level: “I immediately got it, y’know? Hearing the lingo that you’re so used to hearing in your own household, how we dress, how we interact… That was beautiful to see.”

Her affinity for the role is still abundantly clear: “I’m so used to seeing other people’s cultures. Now it’s their turn to be educated.” 

It was playing the legendary Alabama bus boycotter, Rosa Parks, in her school play that first set Wright on the path to an acting career and, like many Britons, she knew more about the history of anti-racism in America than at home: “That’s one of the reasons why I feel it’s so important that we do Small Axe – because so many young people, especially young Black people, are walking around without the knowledge of what’s happened prior, and of the people who were taking a stand.”

Learning about all this for the first time in adulthood hit hard: “I think the New Cross Fire [the 1981 suspected arson attack that killed 13 young Black people in south-east London] for me was… I went to bed after reading about that and I felt tormented.”

She brought these feelings up during an emotional meeting with the real Jones-LeCointe, now a research scientist in her seventies: “We just cried and held each other’s hands – and I promised her that I’d leave a mark with who she was as a person as best as I can.”

Despite this heaviness, the Small Axe set was all “good vibes”, providing a cherished opportunity to “just enjoy our culture, being unapologetic about it.”

Regarding reprising her most famous role in Black Panther following the loss of her dear friend and co-star, Chadwick Boseman, Wright shared: “We’re just still mourning Chad, so it’s not something I even want to think about. The thought of doing it without him is kinda strange. We’re just grieving at the moment, so it’s trying to find the light in the midst of it.”

Letitia Wright wears blazer Junju Watanabe, top Agolde and trousers Wright Le Chapelain. Photographed by Ekua King for PORTER, NET-A-PORTER.COM. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via net-a-porter.com. (Credit: Ekua King/Porter/NET-A-PORTER.com)

Wright has the loving support of many good industry friends. John Boyega wants to know why she’s not dating: “I was like, ‘John man, it’s a waste of my time! Like date for what? Do you date?’ He replied, ‘Tish, man, of course, I date! I need to scout my wife!’”

Moonlight star Naomie Harris wants her to start planning a family: “she was just like, ‘Sis, I’m gonna tell you now, do not just work, work, work…”

Meanwhile, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler is on her case to launch a rap career: “he texted me a couple of months ago, ‘Tish, man, the streets need that mixtape’”

One day on set, Steve McQueen pulled her aside to offer some guidance of his own: “He said, ‘Tish, man, you’re an artist! This stuff that you’re doing now, that’s it. Don’t get lost in Hollywood!’”

Wright’s sweetly innocent quality makes this urge to guide her understandable, but it’s also obvious that McQueen needn’t have feared. That other aspect of Wright’s powerful screen presence – the calm integrity in her eyes – is also authentic: “It’s something that my father instilled in me… I’ve given up millions for my integrity.”

Not many 17-year-olds, for instance, would have quit a role in Netflix show Top Boy after the first hit season: “I love it and respect what they’ve created, but I got consumed with the desire to show Black girls in a different light. I didn’t want to just be one thing and, at the time, the example of Shuri, or Nish [Wright’s Black Mirror character], or Altheia Jones-LeCointe wasn’t afforded to us… I’m so grateful to everybody on that show, but I was on a different journey.”

The Londoner would like to return to Guyana one day: “It’s gonna be a ‘thing’ to go home. I have to really make a plan, because I want to visit everyone, and everybody’s so supportive of me and my career, as a Guyanese woman.”

In Wright’s other upcoming release, Death On The Nile, she plays put-upon daughter Rosalie Otterbourne in Kenneth Branagh’s second big-screen Agatha Christie adaptation, with an all-star cast that also includes Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer. 

Letitia Wright wears shell coat Totême, trench coat Kassl Editions, shorts Nili Lotan, belt Isabel Marant and shoes Dries Van Noten. Photographed by Ekua King for PORTER, NET-A-PORTER.COM. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via net-a-porter.com. (Credit: Ekua King/Porter/NET-A-PORTER.com)

Interview Highlights

Letitia Wright on Small Axe: “I’m still trying to process it. It’s special.”

Letitia Wright on connecting with Small Axe on a different level: “I immediately got it, y’know? Hearing the lingo that you’re so used to hearing in your own household, how we dress, how we interact… That was beautiful to see.”

Letitia Wright on her affinity for her role in Small Axe: “I’m so used to seeing other people’s cultures. Now it’s their turn to be educated.”

Letitia Wright on how, like many Britons, she knew more about the history of anti-racism in America than at home: “That’s one of the reasons why I feel it’s so important that we do Small Axe – because so many young people, especially young Black people, are walking around without the knowledge of what’s happened prior, and of the people who were taking a stand.”

Letitia Wright on learning about London’s 1981 New Cross Fire for the first time in adulthood: “I think the New Cross Fire [the 1981 suspected arson attack that killed 13 young Black people in south-east London] for me was… I went to bed after reading about that and I felt tormented.”

Letitia Wright on bringing these feelings up during an emotional meeting with the real Jones-LeCointe, now a research scientist in her seventies: We just cried and held each other’s hands – and I promised her that I’d leave a mark with who she was as a person as best as I can.”

Letitia Wright on the how the set of Small Axe was all “good vibes”, providing a cherished opportunity to “just enjoy our culture, being unapologetic about it.”

Letitia Wright on reprising her most famous role in Black Panther, following the loss of her dear friend and co-star, Chadwick Boseman: “We’re just still mourning Chad, so it’s not something I even want to think about. The thought of doing it without him is kinda strange. We’re just grieving at the moment, so it’s trying to find the light in the midst of it.”

Letitia Wright on friend John Boyega, who wants to know why she’s not dating: “I was like, ‘John man, it’s a waste of my time! Like date for what? Do you date?’ He replied, ‘Tish, man, of course, I date! I need to scout my wife!’”

Letitia Wright on Moonlight star Naomie Harris, who wants her to start planning a family: “She was just like, ‘Sis, I’m gonna tell you now, do not just work, work, work…”

Letitia Wright on Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who is on her case to launch a rap career: “He texted me a couple of months ago, ‘Tish, man, the streets need that mixtape’”

Letitia Wright on the advice Steve McQueen offered: “He said, ‘Tish, man, you’re an artist! This stuff that you’re doing now, that’s it. Don’t get lost in Hollywood!’”

Letitia Wright on her integrity: “It’s something that my father instilled in me… I’ve given up millions for my integrity.”

Letitia Wright on why she quit a role in Netflix show Top Boy after the first hit season: “I love it and respect what they’ve created, but I got consumed with the desire to show Black girls in a different light. I didn’t want to just be one thing and, at the time, the example of Shuri, or Nish [Wright’s Black Mirror character], or Altheia Jones-LeCointe wasn’t afforded to us… I’m so grateful to everybody on that show, but I was on a different journey.”

To see the full interview, head to PORTER or download the NET-A-PORTER app for iPhone, iPad and Android.

See also: Tessa Thompson on ‘Sylvie’s Love’, Oprah and being an agent of change

In this Story: #culture / entertainment