It is one of the hottest days of the year when I speak with Letitia Wright. It’s also uncomfortably sticky, and while the rest of the U.K. can be found flouting social distancing at recently opened pubs, the 26-year-old actor is hanging out in her north London flat, which is also her office, making the most of the dry air to get her washing done. Her webcam is down when we speak, but when she does talk, in her soft, comforting tone—first about our shared Guyanese heritage, but later about, well, everything—it feels like I’m sitting at the table with an old friend.
Wright’s starring role in Black Panther, Marvel’s runaway box-office hit, quickly made her an icon for Black girls everywhere to look up to. While, for some, a rapid ascent into the stratosphere of celebrity can be catastrophic, she is quite possibly one of the most wholesome people I’ve ever met—her commitment to faith, family, and friends is evident throughout our conversation.
Lockdown has been a busy time for Wright, largely because she’s used the time to set up her own production company, 316 Productions. “It’s an opportunity to create the roles that I didn’t see for Black women and men, or Asian people,” she says.
Her first project with 316 is a short film called Things I Never Told My Father, which, she says, is intended to explore the dynamics of grief. “I saw my friend deal with the loss of his uncle, who was basically his father,” she says. “The way he dealt with it was like, ‘Damn, you’re really trying your best to grit your teeth and get through this, but you’re hurting.’ I want to make films where the subject matter is really important, and the project gives Black actors—your brothers and sisters—something to work with, a character who’s a full human being.”
She tells me that she’s turned down roles in massive Hollywood productions because they didn’t feel quite right; being deliberate with every role is important to her. Wright is a rarity in that sense: Not every actor is able to maintain a steady sense of integrity when they make it big in Hollywood. But, for her, it’s paid off—taking her from small-screen appearances on British TV (including a particularly hard-hitting season finale of Black Mirror) straight into the heart of Hollywood.
At the end of last year, Wright filmed Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. It was a marked shift from a summer spent filming Steve McQueen’s upcoming BBC drama anthology Small Axe, which is comprised of five films following London’s Caribbean community from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Wright moved from Guyana to the U.K. at age seven, and Caribbean culture has played a major role in her life and identity. “The struggles my mum had in this country… People really don’t know what we’ve been through,” she says.
Wright stars as activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Mangrove, one of the films within Small Axe. In preparation for the role, she met with Jones-LeCointe, an instrumental leader in the fight for Black liberation in the 1960s. She was one of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protesters who were arrested in 1970 for conspiracy to incite a riot at Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant. They were ultimately cleared of the charge, and the case is widely held to be the first time a judge officially acknowledged racism within the Metropolitan Police.
The timing of Mangrove feels particularly important. “Preparing for it, doing it, giving all that you can to it—and then you get to 2020, and you’re like, ‘Hold up a minute, this is happening again.’ People aren’t going out to protest because they want to. It’s aggravation after aggravation, and standing up for justice.”
Wright attributes much of her success to her connection with God. As her acting career took off in her late teens, she put herself under intense mental strain: “I remember analyzing every single thing. If I went on a red carpet, I’d analyze the picture. If I did an interview, I’d analyze the video. If I spent time with friends, after I left, I’d think to myself, ‘Why did I laugh like that? Why did I show teeth?’” She says when she joined the church at age 22, she was finally able to see the bigger picture. “I started to realize that, you know, it’s not about me, it’s not about how much people can validate me. I started to see the power of God and not the power of man.”
Like many others, Wright has also used her time in quarantine to contemplate her life and look inward. A fan of Guyana’s slow-paced culture, she has even considered relocating there. “It’s perfect, because if I need to go to the U.S., it’s quick. It’s not as complicated as it seems,” she tells me, sounding like she’s close to making up her mind on a move. “It’s so funny—last night, some stuff popped up on YouTube about African Americans relocating to Africa and how happy they were. I was like, ‘This is actually the way to be. Why are we fighting [racists in the U.S.]? Why are we shouting at them to give us space when we can go to our motherland and have space there?’”
Shortly after we speak, Wright takes to social media again, but this time as part of the collective mourning for Chadwick Boseman. A few days earlier, her Black Panther costar, who was secretly battling colon cancer, tragically passed away at the age of 43. Wright, whose character Shuri is sister to Boseman’s T’Challa, penned a beautiful five-minute poem, a tribute to her friend sure to make you weep, in which she says: “I wish I got to say goodbye. I messaged you a couple of times, but I thought you were just busy. I didn’t know you were dealing with so much.” She continues: “It is also written that all things are made new, there is light in the darkness.” It echoes a line she left me with as we said goodbye on that baking-hot day.
“I’m happy to be a light in the world. That’s my spirit,” she says. “I can’t be anything else. And if I am, then something’s wrong.”
Styled by Jenny Kennedy; Hair by Stefan Bertin at The Wall Group; Makeup by Rebekah Lidstone at Frank Agency; Manicure by Simone Cummings at Jaq Management; Set design by Emma Winter.