The Black Panther star believes there’s a higher power looking out for her. But her success is of her own making.
On a rainy morning in May, Letitia Wright is sitting at the Odeon restaurant in downtown New York sipping whipped cream–topped hot chocolate and talking about Jesus. Narrow and wiry in sneakers and denim, her longer-in-the-front coif reminiscent of a ’90s skater dude (and, yes, she does actually skate), the 24-year-old actress could easily pass for 18. Wright—who is best known for her star-making turn as Princess Shuri in the Marvel movie cum cultural phenomenon Black Panther—radiates an almost preternatural serenity.
“Worrying will kill you, man,” she says, with a slow shake of her head. “It will…Eat. You. Up. But in the Bible, Jesus is basically like, ‘Chill out, guys.’ If you gracefully trust that everything is going to be okay, you start to feel lighter. You’ve just got to let go and let God.”
Wright started going to church only three years ago. “I’m still considered a baby Christian,” she says. “I have to learn my Word.” But she’s always been a seeker, with a strong inner voice that commands attention. “For as long as I can remember, I knew something about my life was meant to be meaningful, that I’ve got something to do here,” she says. “I don’t know how I knew, but I was sure I’d make an impact.”
In Guyana, where she was born and spent her early childhood surrounded by cousins, aunts, grannies, and a great granny, Hollywood wasn’t even on her radar. Wright’s mother was an accountant and teacher. Her father worked in agriculture and security. “Art, music, acting, there is not an industry there,” Wright says. It was a cozy life, but she wanted more, so when her family decided to move to the U.K., she was thrilled. “I was only 8 years old, but I felt like, This is my chance!”
Wright wasted no time settling into Tottenham, diligently studying the working-class Londonese of her classmates (­muh-vah, bruh-vah) in an effort to fit in. “I would practice at home, to feel more accepted,” she says, “and that’s probably where the acting started.” At 12, she found acceptance on a new level: Asked to play Rosa Parks in her school’s Black ­History Month performance, she brought down the house with her spot-on imitation of an Alabama drawl. The play was so well received that the students were asked to restage it at a local community theater. Wright was hooked.
Wright likes to talk about destiny and God’s plan for her life, but it’s clear that she’s been a very active participant in her own success. As a teen, she spent hours reenacting scenes from her favorite films, recording one character’s lines on her laptop and then playing them back and doing the other part. She took videos of these living room performances and analyzed the tapes, repeating the exercise until it was perfect. ­Initially, her family wasn’t exactly thrilled with her hobby. “One time, I recorded myself doing a monologue over the only video of my cousin’s wedding,” she says. “I got into a lot of trouble, man. I so clearly remember my Auntie Ann shouting, ‘Letitia! Get in here! You recorded yourself doing nonsense over the wedding!’ I felt so bad. That was the moment I was like, ‘This acting thing has to come to life, because one day my aunt and I have to laugh about this.’ And finally, just this last year—thank you, Jesus—we did.”
Balenciaga sweater.
At 15, Wright decided she needed an agent, but with no connections, no head shots, and no money to pay for a photographer, she literally had to take matters into her own hands. She shot a selfie in the bathroom mirror, compiled a list of London’s top names, and delivered the photos, in person, all over town. “I mean, postage is expensive in the U.K.,” she deadpans. “Especially for, like, a child.” When that plan didn’t work, she tried e-mailing casting directors. “I kept nagging one in ­particular until the receptionist got sick of me and was finally like, ‘Okay, just come in.’ I did the reading and got signed on the spot. My mom was like, ‘Wow, this really is a thing!’ ”
With her family on board, Wright started studying evenings and weekends at Identity School of Acting, which was established in London in 2003 by the actor turned agent Femi Oguns to promote minority talent. Impressed by what he saw in class, Oguns asked her to join his agency, and, almost immediately, she booked a job on Holby City, the long-running BBC hospital melodrama. By 18, she had done three television shows, including a recurring role on Top Boy, often described as the U.K.’s answer to The Wire.
But even as she was racking up credits and gaining recognition, Wright wasn’t experiencing the bliss she’d assumed would come with success. “I was depressed and full of anxiety,” she says. “I think it was that pressure to be accepted, to be somebody. When you’re looking outside of yourself for happiness and validation, a mean comment on social media can wreck you. I was okay when I was on set, hiding behind my work, but when I wasn’t acting I was full of fear and doubt, trying to fill this void inside of me any way I could: drinking, smoking. It was bad.”
Letitia Wright wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC shirt, turtleneck, and pants; her own shoes. Beauty: Urban Decay Naked Skin Weightless Ultra Definition Liquid Makeup in Color 11.0, Brow Tamer in Dark, Sin Afterglow Palette, Hi-Fi Shine Lip Gloss in Midnight Cowgirl.
Around the same time, some of her friends started going to church. Before long, she was dedicating herself to religion with the same fervor she’d once brought to acting—and walking away from roles to spend more time with God.
“When I first became a Christian, I said, ‘I’m never acting again. I’m done,’ ” says Wright, who worried both that she’d fall back into her people-pleasing ways and that swearing, drinking, or portraying an unsavory character onscreen would be sinful. (Nudity, she says, was never something she was comfortable with, even before church came into the picture.) After about six months, however, she reconsidered. “God was speaking to me and said, ‘This is your talent, it’s what you’re meant to do,’ ” she says.
When Wright recommitted herself to acting, she basically said no to almost everything. “For me, anything I attach myself to needs to have a purpose. And if it feels like a red light in any way, I don’t do it.” According to Wright’s close friend and Black Panther costar Daniel Kaluuya, this counterintuitive approach is both refreshing and wise. “Watching her make decisions has taught me so much about life and being a human being,” he says of Wright, whom he first met when she was 16 and stood waiting for him outside Sucker Punch, a London play in which he costarred, to compliment his work. “She knows what she’s about, and she knows her worth. That’s rare. Especially when you’re coming out of the gate, society says you should do pretty much anything to get where you want to be. Letitia’s like, ‘Actually, how about no? How about I do what I think is right for me?’ ”
Prada puffer dress and sheer dress (underneath). Beauty note: Choose your outerwear wisely. IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Foundation Full Coverage Moisturizer has a hydrating formula for smooth, radiant skin.
Both emotionally and professionally, Wright’s game plan seems to be working. In 2016, she scored the role of Renie, a 17-year-old passing as a robot, on the AMC series Humans, and booked smallish parts in two big films: Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg–directed sci-fi thriller, and The ­Commuter, with Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga. And then, of course, came the role that’s transformed her into arguably the year’s biggest breakout star.
In the canon of sci-fi archetypes, Shuri—the sprightly, badass, tech-genius sister of T’Challa, aka Black Panther—is less sexy Princess Leia than all-knowing ­Obi-Wan Kenobi in tribal beads and braids. An outspoken force for good with a tendency to drop the same sort of Confucius-style pearls of wisdom that dominate Wright’s social media feed, the character seems in many ways tailor-made for her. One of Shuri’s most memorable ­pronouncements—“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved”—might as well be the tagline for Wright’s ­ever-striving existence.
Wright says she knew almost from the start that the project was ideal for her. “When I went to Atlanta for my screen test, I just felt really peaceful,” she says. “It was that inner voice telling me, ‘Yes. You can do this.’ ” And that turned out to be an understatement. Her performance has won her nothing short of raves, both from critics—Reggie Ugwu of The New York Times wrote that she “arguably steals the movie”—and from her castmates, many of whom she grew up idolizing. “As an actress, Letitia is just so full of joy and enthusiasm and passion that it’s contagious,” says Angela Bassett, who plays Shuri’s mother in the film. Kaluuya goes one further. “When I saw her onscreen, I just thought, Flippin’ ’ell, can she act! She’s actually the heart and soul of that film.”
Fendi sweater.
Three months after the movie’s release, Wright, understandably, still sounds as if she doesn’t know quite what hit her. “I knew Black Panther was going to be impactful, but I didn’t anticipate it would take off in such a maaajor way,” she says after a woman walks into the restaurant, takes one look at her, and exclaims, from clear across the room, “Oh, my God!” (Wright smiles at her, bows her head, brings her palms together, and mouths, “Bless.”) “I am so beyond happy and grateful, but it’s also overwhelming. I need to take some time off to reflect.”
And that’s just what she plans to do next. After wrapping Black Panther, she went right into filming a seriously creepy episode of the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror, in which she gets to show off her American accent, and then briefly revisited the role of Shuri for Avengers: Infinity War. A Black Panther sequel is rumored to be in the works, but in the meantime she’s heading back to London, to settle in to her first “grown-up” apartment—“That’s the really important thing Panther has done for me: I’ve been able to move out of my mum’s!”—watch a ton of Netflix (she has yet to see her episode of Black Mirror), and, most important of all, do as Jesus says in the Bible, according to Letitia Wright, and just chill out.
I was born in Oakland, California. Since I was a kid, I have been acting in plays. The only musical I’ve ever done is Hamilton. Even the early versions were really great, but I’ve made a lot of stuff I think is great and nobody cared, so the success of Hamilton was definitely a surprise.
You won the Tony for best actor in a featured role in a musical. You wore a Comme des Garçons Homme Plus suit to accept it.
That whole night was out of body. For a month, I had been campaigning for something I didn’t know I wanted. And I loved that suit. I’ve gotten to wear a lot of Comme des Garçons’ art pieces, and they’re pretty wonderful.
Had you already been cast in Black-ish?
Yes. The Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris, pitched me the idea of playing Rainbow’s brother. Rainbow is liberal, freethinking, a doctor, and a mom. I told him, when I watched the show, I’ve always been Team Rainbow! I’m from the Bay Area. I really get that hippie shit for real.
What movie makes you cry?
Wonder made me cry. Yeah, I was in the movie! Sitting there, in the premiere of my first film, and I’m weeping. That wasn’t a good look.
What was your first pet’s name?
Kasha. He was a sheltie. When I was born, my parents had six German shepherds and one sheltie. They all had Hebrew names: Shlomo, L’Chaim, Mezuzah, Delilah, etc. So, Kasha.
And what street did you grow up on?
Forty-Fourth Street.
So your porn name is Kasha 44?
Not bad. It’s good for futuristic Internet porn.
Diggs wears a Bottega Veneta suit, shirt, and tie.
13 Reasons Why was the first thing I’d ever done. Living in Perth, Australia, I didn’t have a big social media presence. Then the show aired, and overnight it blew up. I spoke to Selena Gomez, a producer of 13 Reasons Why, and she said, “The message of the show is really important.” So I went through a wave of being like, “Social media is really cool.” But when I read what some people were saying on it, I took a step back. I’ve not stopped posting, but I am careful about my output into the universe. What is your favorite karaoke song? I don’t do karaoke much because I end up screaming. But on my birthday, they just baited me with Gaga the whole night. “Yoü and I” killed me. I love an anthem: something that will rally the troops.
Langford wears a Valentino cape and blouse.
I’m named Aubrey after a song from the group Bread in the ’70s. My mom was really young and she just liked the song. I looked it up in a baby book: My name means “ruler of the elves,” so I’m a queen elf. I was always interested in being an actress. The week I left the East Coast for Los Angeles, I was cast in two films and in Parks and Recreation. My whole life changed overnight. In all those projects, I was the dream girl of all the nerds, so when I read the script for Legion, I thought I was going to play the female lead. But they offered me the part of Lenny Busker, which was originally written as a middle-aged man. Lenny becomes the psychic mutant villain of the show. I was interested in showing I can do unexpected things.
Is it fun to have superpowers?
Yes! I can kill people just like snapping my fingers! That’s a good feeling: minimal movement for maximum destructive effect.
Plaza wears a Paco Rabanne dress.
I always watched a lot of TV. As a kid, I’d gorge on Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. When I was 12, I was offered a part on One Life to Live and turned it down. I was nervous about developing bad acting habits as a child. Even at 13, when I did the pilot for My So-Called Life, I knew it was unusually excellent material. It’s so rare to be on an immediate and exact parallel with the character you’re playing. It was a relief to blast all of my teenage grievances out into the world. When Homeland came around, I was scared. My character, Carrie Mathison, is very troubled. To play somebody wrestling with a bipolar condition in very high-stakes circumstances seemed rather fatiguing. But, ultimately, it was too good to ignore. It’s that classic thing: If it scares you, you don’t really have a choice.
Growing up, did you have any TV crushes?
Yes. I had a crush on the kid from the show Mr. Belvedere. And Ricky Schroder. And the Coreys: Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. There was a hotline, something like 1-900-Corey. I was in a crummy mood one day after school and I kept calling it. A month later, my dad got the bill. He was like, “Claire, did you call this weird hotline number?”
You were in Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio. At that time, he was everyone’s biggest crush.
Yes. That was problematic. I couldn’t really have a crush on the guy I was professionally having a crush on! Quite a few gay men have talked to me about the fact that when they were kids watching Romeo + Juliet, they were confused about who they wanted to kiss. It was all about Leo! And I completely understand.
Danes wears a Proenza Schouler dress.
The shaved head was a big deal. On the one hand, it was cool. When you’re bald, rain feels like a head massage. I’d walk in the rain, and people would look at me like I was crazy. I’d be smiling—so, so happy to have the water hit my naked head. But on the other hand, people stared at me, wondering whether I was sick. Some would even laugh at me, without knowing whether I was or wasn’t sick. It was hurtful, but their attitude taught me something about compassion. In the end, being bald was the best thing I ever did—being different changed my life. I wanted to embrace my baldness and, hopefully, inspire people. And, now, that’s become my message to the world.
Millie Bobby Brown wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC dress; Calvin Klein Jeans turtleneck.
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In the Ryan Murphy world of American Horror Story, I have been Tate Langdon, who was crazy; Kit Walker, who was abducted by aliens, which made him crazy; Frankenkyle, a college fraternity guy who gets in an accident, dies, and is sewn together and brought back to life as a monster; Jimmy Darling, who had lobster hands and was part of the freak show; Mr. March, who was a serial murderer; and, in the latest installment, Kai Anderson, a totally insane, megalomaniacal cult leader. Now, in Pose, I play a yuppie in 1987 New York. I get bit by the wonderful bug of the transgender underworld. Pose is more of a love story, but, at this moment, we still don’t know how it ends. I may still go crazy.
Did you ask Ryan Murphy to finally give you a non-insane part?
I go into each job saying, “I don’t want to play anybody crazy again.” But then Ryan calls and tells me, “You’re playing this Charles Manson–esque person who sucks people into a cult and controls them with ‘pinky power,’ ” and I say, “Okay! Sure!”
Peters wears a Bottega Veneta sweater.
Is it hard to act when you’re naked?
Here’s the trick: You have to look at a sex scene as an opportunity to express things that can be expressed best when people are making love. Or fucking. Or whatever. But, in fact, I’m a sex worker in The Deuce, so I have to pretend to fuck someone I’ve just met. And then another guy. And another. So what’s expressed in those scenes is somebody who’s doing a transaction. Then it’s fine to act naked, because all these other things are going on in your mind.
Did you watch any ’70s porn films to prepare for the role?
Yes, I watched some Lasse Braun movies. He was a very playful Italian porn director. But I haven’t seen Deep Throat. I did read the autobiography of Tina Russell, a pretty famous porn star in the early ’70s, when the mood was “we are all fucking and free and we love it.” I do believe in showing that kind of sexual freedom. On the other hand, she wrote that book when she was in her early 20s and was dead less than a decade later of alcoholism. So, for The Deuce, I’m into that combination of things: They’re both true.
Gyllenhaal wears a Marc Jacobs trenchcoat.
I had been offered a lot of parts where I would play the villain, and that was not interesting to me. When my agent called and told me that The Looming Tower was about 9/11, I immediately said I didn’t want to do it. I assumed they wanted me to play a terrorist. But, in fact, I play a real American FBI agent who was fighting against al Qaeda, against evil. I was like, Whoa. Yeah. Finally!
Where were you when the planes hit the World Trade Center?
I was in Belfort, France, my hometown. I was shopping when the first plane crashed into the first tower. We didn’t know whether it was an attack or an accident. I ran into a huge store, and it had a wall of TVs. And then the second plane crashed in front of my eyes. I thought that it would be World War III. And it has changed the face of the world.
Rahim wears an AMI Alexandre Mattiussi jacket and sweater; his own ring.
When I auditioned for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I wore this yellow shirt that I thought was adorable, but they asked me to change my clothes for my second audition, so I guess it wasn’t as adorable as I thought! The costumes are a huge part of Midge, my character. Her outer appearance is something she takes an enormous amount of pride in. Between the corset, the petticoats, the tights and the beautiful dresses, hair and makeup, I feel completely transformed when I walk out of my trailer. That’s my favorite part about being an actor. It always has been.
Mrs. Maisel does stand-up comedy. Were you nervous about being funny in front of an audience?
Comedy is terrifying. It’s probably the worst thing i could imagine anyone doing to themselves–and also the most exhilarating. But I would absolutely not attempt stand-up as myself. Nope. No. No. No. Never. Even as Midge, I do a lot of power posing in my dressing room to gain confidence.
Brosnahan wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and boots.
For as long as I can remember, I knew something about my life was meant to be meaningful, that I’ve got something to do here,” she says. “I don’t know how I knew, but I was sure I’d make an impact.
Letitia Wright wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC shirt, turtleneck, and pants; her own shoes. Beauty: Urban Decay Naked Skin Weightless Ultra Definition Liquid Makeup in Color 11.0, Brow Tamer in Dark, Sin Afterglow Palette, Hi-Fi Shine Lip Gloss in Midnight Cowgirl.
A long time ago, I was in a miniseries called Taken that Steven Spielberg produced for the Sci Fi channel. I hadn’t really done anything else on TV until The Alienist. We shot the show for almost seven months in Budapest, Hungary, which became my home. I sobbed hysterically when I had to leave my life there.
Were you also attached to your character’s corset?
I didn’t get quite as attached to the corset. But one of the most important things about The Alienist was the costumes. I fainted during my first fitting. I had just gotten off the plane and was swollen and jet-lagged. They put the corset on, and I said, “I’m going down!” I had to sit. But I got used to it. My body completely changed. For better or worse, the corset puts you into the character. It affects everything you do: breathing, walking, sitting, standing, and definitely eating.
Do you watch television?
Yes! I’m obsessed with The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Some of the best TV I’ve ever seen was the breakup of Arie and Becca on last season’s Bachelor. That’s what I’m trying to figure out: With reality television, if it’s all set up and fake, then they’ve got the greatest actors in the world.
Fanning wears a Gucci dress, headpiece, and body chain.
Preacher is based on a very dark comic book, with a lot of humor to break up the darkness. I wasn’t a comic book kid, but I know someone who had a brother who wore black leather jackets, had a lot of piercings, and would never come out of his bedroom. We once broke into that boy’s room, and he had Preacher.
When I heard about the script, I looked at the comic again. On one of the covers, I saw this drawing of a head. I saw a demonic, demented, psychotic person staring back at my face, and I thought, That’s sort of me.
Seth Rogen is one of the producers of Preacher. When I went to meet him, he had huge hair and a massive beard. He was in a haze of marijuana smoke. He was trying to explain to me that the show would have people with assholes as faces and other people would sort of have sex with meat. I thought, No—this isn’t for me, thanks. But, obviously, I had inhaled so much of what they were having that I was mesmerized. I signed up straightaway.
Cooper wears a Giorgio Armani shirt.
Before I was an actress, I wanted to be a basketball player. Growing up in Boston, I practiced all the time. I wouldn’t leave the court unless I made 100 free throws and 100 lefty layups. My friend Phoebe and I would hustle men—we would act like we didn’t know how to play, and then we’d play two-on-two with guys and bet money. We would often win.
I went to college in New York, at Barnard, and that’s where I discovered acting. My first job was playing a waitress from Staten Island on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Eventually, I moved to L.A. I was sick of being a broke, struggling auditioner, so I wrote SMILF.
The optics of SMILF are very autobiographical. Like my character on the show, I play basketball, and I, too, have a baby daddy who’s married to a beautiful blonde actress from Australia. But then the show veers off in a million crazy directions.
Your toddler son on the show is so cute.
Those are twin girls playing my son. They’re the most beautiful humans who have ever lived and will ever live.
Won’t it be awkward when you’re in year 20 of the show and your son looks like your daughter?
It’ll be GILF then. Grandmothers! Actually, we may want to say he was really two girls. That would be a great story to tell!
Shaw wears a Michael Kors Collection coat; her own jewelry.
When they sent me Yellowstone, I freaked out because the show’s writer-director, Taylor Sheridan, is my favorite living writer. I went to the store, got a cowboy hat, and gave it my best. I made a tape at home, mostly because I didn’t want to go in and screw it up in front of a casting director. Taylor called me two days later, and I was so nervous, all I could do was giggle.
You grew up in Dayton, Ohio. That is nothing like Darby, Montana, where you film the show.
Well, growing up in Ohio, I hunted and did stuff like that. In Montana, there are hardly any people. Just land. You’ve got to figure out your outdoor activities real quick or you’re going to be in trouble.
Where was your first date?
I met my first girlfriend at church camp. My dad’s a pastor. I went to Christian schools and Christian everything until I moved to New York. My first girlfriend’s dad was also a pastor. We weren’t really allowed to date, but we were a little sneaky. We found a way.
Grimes wears a Simon Miller jacket; Everest Isles shirt; AG T-shirt; his own necklace.
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