black panther star letitia wright is britain's newest hollywood breakout
She gave up acting to find God, but Letitia Wright is back on the big screen, shining bright and doing Britain proud. We meet the rising star for i-D's Acting Up Issue.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Acting Up Issue, no. 349, Fall 2017.
First making her name in Drake's favourite Channel 4 drama Top Boy, Guyanese-British actor Letitia Wright has already been compared to a young Leo DiCaprio (by the director who discovered him no less). Currently working with Spielberg, and starring in Black Panther, the latest blockbuster from Marvel, the 23-year-old – who quit acting for a time to find God – is one of Britain's fastest rising stars.
Tell us about Shuri, your character in Marvel's forthcoming superhero film, Black Panther?
Shuri is T'Challa's – Black Panther's – little sister, and she's a Princess of Wakanda. She's into technology, she's into graffiti, she's into art and music and she's pretty much the brains of the country at 18 years old! It was so refreshing to play that character – someone super smart, who's a teenager, but also fun as well.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you read Stan Lee's comic classic?
I didn't look through the comic books when I first came into it because I wanted to just be instinctual about it, and I didn't want it to overwhelm me that I was pretty much playing a superhero. I just wanted to be chilled about it, so I stayed with the script, I learnt the Xhosa accent, which is a South African tribe, Mandela's tribe. I took influence from them and their culture, and I studied technology, watching documentaries on YouTube.
What's the craziest technology you found?
Oh man! You know the TV show Humans? It's actually becoming a reality. They're going to make robots that look like humans, to do what we don't want to do, like wash dishes and stuff. And then they're going to freak out, they're going to come alive and get us. Stuff like that was bugging me out.
Black Panther has an incredible cast. Who were you most excited to work with?
I was excited to work with everyone, especially Ryan [Coogler, the director] but the person who had the most impact on me was Angela Bassett. She plays my mum, and gave me advice every day. She's funny. She would tell me stuff about the industry, to remain humble, to remember why I'm acting, the purpose of it.
You gave up acting at one point to focus on religion, is that right?
I gave it up because I was going through a lot. I really felt myself drowning, I was putting so much pressure on myself to succeed. I didn't love God, I loved acting. I worshipped it. If I didn't get an audition right, if I didn't get a job, I would lock myself in a room. Something wasn't right, and I went on this journey to find happiness in something other than acting. I wanted a relationship with God, and I took that seriously, and I stopped acting. I called my agent to tell everyone I quit, and I told God, 'I'm fine, I'm just going to worship you, read my bible, I'm happy here'. I found happiness.
How did you come back to acting?
I was praying one day, and I was like, 'God, I'm so happy, I don't want to do acting any more, it's not for me,' and I just heard this voice like, 'This is the talent I have given to you, don't waste it. You can still do acting, but you can do it with me. You can do it in a way that makes you happy, because you're not worshipping acting anymore.' I called my agent, and the first job I booked was Humans, after that The Commuter with Liam Neeson, then Ready Player One with Steven Spielberg, then Black Panther with Ryan Coogler, so God totally proved to me that he wanted me to do acting again.
You've spoken before about the need for more positive roles for black actors – does Black Panther deliver that?
I do feel like this film will definitely be part of the shift, because there are a lot of programmes that are shifting things – Queen Sugar, Insecure. The only thing I really had, growing up, was Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee. I just kept seeing stereotypes all the time and I didn't really want to do that. I just wanted to play a rounded character; Shuri is a positive girl but she also has sides to her that are cheeky, she talks back sometimes – that's a character, that's a human. Hopefully we will see more Shuris on screen.
What other roles would you love to take on?
Rosa Parks! I know that Angela [Bassett] did it, but I'd like to play a younger Rosa Parks. There's a bunch: Bessie Coleman, she was the first African-American pilot; Cathay Williams [a former slave who posed as a man to enlist in the US army, becoming the first African American woman to do so]. These women, and also people who went to space – you know what I'm saying, women that look like me – I wanna play people like that.
How did it feel to be described as the next Leonardo DiCaprio?
I was like, man, this is pressure! Michael Caton-Jones worked with Leo on This Boy's Life at that young age, and he worked with me on Urban Hymn, so just the vibe of how Leo was on set, Michael got that from me. Wanting to work hard, being dedicated, and just wanting to commit to the art, the craft of acting, so I guess that's where that comment comes from. Not that I'm going to be Leo. I'm gonna be Letitia Wright!
Photography Clare Shilland
Styling Bojana Kozarevic
Hair Hiroshi Matsushita using Oribe Hair Care. Make-up Siobhan Furlong using Sisley Skin Care and Cosmetics. Photography assistance Liam Hart. Styling assistance Louis Prier Tisdall.