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Inside Man: ‘O.G.’ Star Jeffrey Wright on Life Behind Bars

The ‘Westworld’ actor talks about shooting his new HBO film inside a maximum-security prison — with inmates as co-stars

Jeffrey Wright and Theotus Carter in HBO's 'O.G.'

HBO

Nineteen years ago, Jeffrey Wright performed in a trying environment. It was raining a small ocean in Manhattan as he stood atop the outdoor stage of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, delivering Marc Antony’s stirring “Friends, Romans, countrymen” monologue in Julius Caesar. It was clear the play would soon end, and it was the final Shakespeare in the Park production of the summer. But no one moved as Wright punctured sheets of rain with his fire until Caesar had been fully eulogized. It was extraordinary, even for an extraordinary actor.

In O.G., premiering Saturday night on HBO, Wright works his magic in an even more harrowing setting: the maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana. Wright portrays Louis, a longtime prisoner whose impending release hits a snag when he decides to help out a new arrival, Beecher (Theothus Carter). Director Madeleine Sackler (The Lottery) shot the film entirely inside the prison — and cast many of its inmates, including Carter, as Wright’s co-stars. (In the documentary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It, which debuts on HBO on February 25th, those cast members shine a light on how they ended up in prison.)

Wright gives a bravura performance, caked in the grit and brutal realism for which his characters are known. But after the five-week shoot was done, he got to walk back out through the prison gates. His co-stars did not.

“Some of the guys we worked with are serving life sentences, or the equivalent of life sentences, so it is a challenge for them to find hope,” Wright says. “This project was a window of escape for them, a brief experience with hope that they could be better than the conditions they find themselves in. But at the same time, a tension exists for them as a result. Because once filming is done, then what? That routine on the inside goes on.”                                                                                     

What did you think when this project came across your desk?
I was intrigued before I’d even read the script about the opportunity to go in and educate myself on the realities of incarceration and the conditions on the inside and the experiences of men who found themselves there. I viewed it in some ways as a social experiment.

You knew off the top that you’d be working with incarcerated men. What were you told about how that was going to work?
I was told very little, but we took time over the course of the year before filming to visit the prison on multiple occasions. I made four trips out there for a couple of days each trip to understand the space a bit, to exchange with the guys who were eligible to be a part of the film, to research, to listen to them, to hear why they wanted to be a part of this — and also to use those conversations to reshape the narrative.

How did talking with them change the story?
We would do readings of scenes with the men to gauge whether they thought the story and the characters were authentic. We also reshaped something fundamental about Louis’ character: Initially he was illiterate.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the prison experience that I had been aware of was the way in which certain men’s intellectual curiosity crystallizes. Malcolm X is the archetypal example of that. But I thought it much more interesting, and much more realistic, too, if [Louis] was a guy who was finding the life of the mind while he was inside, because I think it speaks to the conditions prior to getting there, in which those muscles are not exercised.

That was what I was most struck by in the conversations that I had with the men. It was the universality to their stories. Almost to a man, they came from at least one parent who was drug-addicted or absent — and the neglect that followed shaped them. By the time they were five years old, many of them had been abandoned. By the time they were 10 years old, almost to a man, they were out hustling on the street.

Were there points in during scenes when those co-stars said, “Hey, y’all gotta stop, this would never happen”?
We had 100 expert consultants on set at any given moment [laughs], and they would freely share their thoughts or their critiques, both negative and positive. But mostly, they were positive because they had informed the process of making this thing and had a sense of ownership of it.

What feedback did you personally get from them?
I remember the first day, the first scene that we filmed: [I’m] walking out of the gym and across the yard and leaning on the wall, this scene that happens early in the film, before meeting Beecher, Theothus’ character. In the background, there are a couple dozen of the men doing their thing as extras. We finish that first set-up and one of the guys came over to me and he said, “You got it.” And I was like, “Oh, OK — I might be able to pull this off,” you know?

They were fully, fully engaged in this thing because it obviously was a detour from the mundanity of their lives, and because they thirst for something creative and constructive. They’re also, many of them, film addicts. So they were intrigued by the process of making film.

A lot of times in prison films, the characters are virtuous, kind, thoughtful — like Red in Shawshank Redemption. Never dirty or gang-affiliated. Louis is literate and intellectually curious but he’s also been involved in serious crimes. Did the complexity of the character attract you?
Yeah, I mean, the film is not [here] to romanticize the incarcerated man, or even the men who worked with us on this film, at all. But it does try to humanize them. To see them through a lens that reveals the fullness of who they are. The fullness of their mistakes, the fullness of their attempts to overcome those mistakes, and the further mistakes that they made.

Before we started shooting, I heard from a couple people, “You know, there are a lot of good guys in there.” And I thought to myself, “Man, this is a maximum-security prison, people are serving life sentences and longer, sentenced for violent, heinous crimes. What do you mean there are some good guys in here?” And when I got in there, I found there are some good guys in there.

That’s not to forgive them for what they did, but there are some guys that were generally trying to reprocess themselves, who are open about the mistakes that they made and some of the forces that led them to those mistakes, including themselves. It’s not the first-level reading of the statistics that we get mostly from our daily diet of these stories. It’s much more nuanced and layered, and I hope we reflected that.

Does participating in a project like this help to rehabilitate them in some way?
I do think that there’s value in coming together with them through this unlikely partnership and creating something constructive, particularly for those who will get out. They see [what] is possible. As Theothus said to me on many occasions, “I never had an opportunity to do something like this when I was on the outside.” But he had incredible talents to bring to bear. And those talents — his charisma and powers of persuasion and leadership and ambition and his mind — had all been used in ways that were destructive to himself, to those around him, and led him to incarceration.

Those skills were there; they were just malformed into tools for his own undoing. That was the big realization in my head: For many of these guys, they became incarcerated at age five. Because by the time they were five years old, the story was almost written for them.

In some ways, [laughs], having done Westworld, I reflected on the idea of, as we described them, “hosts” living inside loops in which they are being programmed to behave in certain ways and towards certain outcomes. Likewise, when you look at the issue of incarceration, there’s social and institutional and political and economic programming that goes into shaping one of these men, and goes into leading him on the loop that arrives at incarceration.

What ideas did you come into this project with regarding criminal justice? And then, what did you come out with? Of what notions were you disabused?
I think American society has a very easy relationship with the idea that incarceration is an outcome of poverty. We look at that as a given. And when I was inside, I began to question why that was, because, again, the predominant common denominator among all of those men was that they came from low-income neighborhoods or families that lacked resources.

And if we start thinking about how to decouple incarceration from conditions of poverty, then I think we can begin to get at some of the root causes — absence of economic opportunity, absence of educational opportunities from a very young age, absence of a culture of legitimate success, and all these things that we collectively tend to think can’t be addressed but can be with the right acknowledgement and the right attention.

The one thing that really was clear was that these creative impulses, these intellectual impulses and all of these things that the men were bringing to bear on this [movie], they need to be fired right out of the gate. And if I could wave a magic wand and legislate any one thing to effect that, it would be universal early childhood education, period.

One of the topics that comes up in the film is restorative justice and, more indirectly, the lack of job training and preparation for a life outside. It really drives home the fear of not just institutionalization but of getting out.
There’s an absence of skill sets that have been developed. An absence of material resources, too, once a person gets out, to be able to rebuild a life. But also it’s the atrophy of psychological and social muscle and skills. [In prison people are] programmed not to think for themselves too much, not to make choices for themselves too much. They’ve been isolated in a way that’s not conducive to reintegrating into society, and all of these things have atrophied within them to the point where they have enormous anxiety about what happens when they do step outside of that wall — to the point where they try, in some ways, to sabotage themselves so that they don’t have to get out.

There’s so much conditioning of these men while they’re inside to be worse at citizenship when they come out. Which just boggles the mind. I had a conversation with one of the younger kids that I met in there, he’s probably early-twenties. He described to me that he felt freer inside the facility. I couldn’t quite understand that. He literally said that: “I feel freer in here.” I said, “How can that be?” And he said, “I’m an institution, baby. I’ve been institutionalized since I was 12 years old. And when I go outside” — and he’d been out — “there’s just too much going on. Too many variables, too many choices.” To the point where it overwhelms him and imprisons him. The freedom of choice is now a cell for him. Being on the inside is home. It just spun my head around.

You spend the most time in the film with your co-star, Theothus Carter. What did you learn about him?
Theothus is a… Theothus is a complicated guy. He lives an existential crisis on some level. He recognizes that he has the ability to be so much more. He realizes that there’s a part of him that’s responsible for creating those conditions. He realizes, too, that there are other external forces that are responsible — but it’s a difficult realization for him to reconcile.

So the film was an opportunity for him to, at least for a while, be a more idealized version of himself. He’s a charismatic, ambitious, curious, smart, young man. And he wants that to be known. But at the same time the experience only reminds him of what his limitations are.

He’s representative, sadly, of a lot of guys, who are inside. He’s a cautionary tale, ’cause he could have done so much more, you know? I think he shows that through his work here. I’m really proud of what he did. People say, “You’ve worked with [Al] Pacino, you’ve worked with Anthony Hopkins! Intense?” And I say, “Oh, no, I’ve worked with Theothus Carter. He’s on a different floor of the intensity building.” [Laughs.]

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