As she picks up the phone to NME, Letitia Wright is having a rare day off. The Guyana-born, London-based actor is currently in Atlanta filming a top-secret project. She doesn’t confirm what it is, but Wakanda Forever, the sequel to her 2018 Hollywood breakthrough and Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, has been shooting in ATL all summer.
The film will explore the world of Black Panther beyond T’Challa, the King of Wakanda himself played by the late Chadwick Boseman, while Black Panther’s director Ryan Coogler and the remaining core cast will return. Anything beyond that is shrouded in secrecy, and Wright isn’t in the business of sharing secrets about Wakanda Forever, or indeed the multitude of projects currently filling up her IMDb page.
“The only thing I can tell you is that in 2022 you’re gonna see a lot of me,” she says happily. “You will probably get annoyed with me because I’m in everything, but, alas, I do this for the craft and because I love you guys.”
“I do this for the craft”
At 27 years old, Letitia Wright has enjoyed the kind of career that many could only hope for. She delivered strong early performances in homegrown TV shows like Top Boy and Black Mirror, for which she earned an Emmy nomination, and the public voted her the winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2019. As her tech-loving Marvel princess Shuri, she has appeared in, alongside Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, which grossed $6billion at the box office combined.
It might be a surprise, then, to see Wright in her latest project, the minimalist small screen anthology series I Am... The Channel 4 show, created by BAFTA-winner Dominic Savage, is made up of three standalone episodes, each a study of modern womanhood made in collaboration with its starring actor (Lesley Manville and Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones headline the other two chapters).
In her I Am… instalment, Wright plays Danielle, a respected independent London photographer whose carefully built barriers come crumbling down when she falls for a model (played by CJ Beckford). Wright worked closely with Savage on Danielle’s journey, and was driven by a desire to tell a love story for her generation.
“I wanted to explore love and 21st century couples as a young person who has a life and a career,” she tells NME. “We usually see this in older generations, but the way that young people are portrayed isn’t always totally correct.”
This pared back passion project comes at the end of a whirlwind year for Wright. Last September she launched 316 Productions, a production company that aims to create new roles for marginalised actors, before she then received glowing reviews in November for her role in Mangrove, the opening film from Steve McQueen’s milestone Small Axe anthology. Her performance as British Black Panther leader, biochemist and teacher Altheia Jones-LeCointe – who was tried and acquitted in the historic case of the Mangrove Nine – earned her a nomination at this year’s BAFTA TV Awards.
Yet the past year has also come with its challenges for Wright, not least the unexpected tragic passing of her Black Panther co-star Boseman from colon cancer in August 2020. In her deeply personal tribute published by Vogue, Wright referred to the late star as her “big brother” and “a king among men”.
The following December, Wright deactivated her Twitter and Instagram accounts after an anti-vaxx video that she shared, as well as a series of defensive follow-up comments, received widespread backlash. She hasn’t returned to either platform since.
Both Boseman and the backlash are firmly off the table during our interview, but their lasting impact is felt in a guardedness that comes across in Wright’s voice as we begin our conversation, as if she’s anticipating that we’ll swerve into painful territory at any moment. As she continues to talk about I Am…, however, Wright becomes more animated. In the context of such a chaotic year, it’s no wonder that working on a project that has allowed her to showcase her creative agency while feeling totally in control has meant so much to her.
“Usually, you’re not really included in a collaborative space in terms of the writing,” she says of her former projects. “Sometimes it’s tricky to give your opinion without being disrespectful to the writer or director.”
“‘I Am Danielle’ was an important story to tell”
Wright, it turned out, had a lot that she wanted to say with this story. Through initial conversations with Savage they fine-tuned the themes that would appear in Danielle’s chapter, which, as well as being a modern love story, includes a gut-churning plot development involving consent.
Wright drew on past and present conversations that she’s had with women over the years to help tailor this strand of the story, while checking in with trauma specialists to ensure that their experiences were honoured. It was a humbling process for the actor.
“Speaking with these women was enough for me to know that this was an important story to tell,” says Wright. Additionally, she hopes that the episode will help to drive the conversation around consent forward for men as well as women.
“I want to use this episode as a form of education for people to show the consequences of not doing things the right way. Hopefully it will help people to be brave enough to speak up and take responsibility.”
The approach to performing in this episode presented further new creative challenges for the actor. For one, there was no script to work with: instead, Savage would set up the situation and the small cast had to listen and react to each other in the moment while being filmed. This stripped-back method of performing felt special to Wright.
“There are pros and cons to being on projects that are ‘lights, camera, action’,” she says. “With this, there was nothing that we could lean on but the truth. Sometimes that gets lost when it becomes about the lights and the make-up and how good you look.”
She recalls one particular scene that took a turn for the unexpected. It takes place in a sunny cafe where, in spite of her reservations about her potential new love interest, Danielle goes to meet him for a coffee to further suss him out.
“CJ said something like: ‘I didn’t ask you to come here. You’re free to leave,’” Wright remembers. So, she left: without warning, she picked up her things and strode right out of the cafe, forcing the unsuspecting film crew to up and leave with her. When she was outside, she went to call an Uber.
“This is no lie,” she laughs. “I was so offended by what he said to me because we were literally embedded in these characters. I was going to go home because it was so deep.”
“As young people exploring love, sometimes we say the wrong things”
The app, however, wouldn’t load, and before Wright could book the car Beckford had run outside to apologise and convince her to stay. “As young people exploring love, sometimes we say the wrong things,” she concludes.
The two-week shoot was intense, with Wright saying with a laugh that she worked “her butt off” without break. In between takes, the actor and devout music fan, who currently has Little Simz and South African worship music currently on heavy rotation, would keep in Danielle’s mindset with a three-act playlist that she composed especially.
The fact that I Am Danielle is set in London is significant to Wright. She grew up in Tottenham in north London after moving over from Georgetown, Guyana when she was seven. At 16, she enrolled at the Identity School of Acting in Brixton alongside fellow Small Axe star John Boyega. She piqued Hollywood’s attention thanks to a breakout role in 2015’s Urban Hymn, in which she played a teenager and talented singer who gets caught up in the 2011 London riots.
Even as her international success continues soar, London keeps finding its way back to Wright. Take her role in Drake’s star-studded 2018 video for ‘Nice For What’, where she’s seen in a cherry-red bomber jacket dancing her way around one of Battersea Power Station’s giant chimneys. Later that year at the European premiere of Black Panther in Hammersmith, those in the audience may have caught a gleeful moment when Wright, waiting in the wings, danced to Big Shaq’s grime anthem ‘Man’s Not Hot’ with her Camden-born co-star Daniel Kaluuya. Both received the biggest cheers from the local crowd when they walked on stage that night.
With I Am Danielle, Wright wanted to show London in a new light. “London is such a beautiful place,” she says. We see people fall in love in New York and Los Angeles, and I am yet to see people falling in love in London. Especially women who look like me.”
“London is such a beautiful place”
The show arrives at what Wright describes as an “important” time for British TV. We talk about projects like Small Axe and I May Destroy You – the creator of which, Michaela Coel, has just joined Wright on the cast of Wakanda Forever – and their ability to push boundaries and connect with people more than ever.
“We are seeing diverse stories on a platform that have been needed for a long time,” she says, adding: “I’d love to see stories from young filmmakers. Their voices are passed on, they’re told that they’re immature, but they’re really intelligent.”
Given how passionately she speaks about her time working behind the camera on I Am Danielle, you have to wonder whether Wright is considering a career in filmmaking herself. She’s written a short film, Things I Never Told My Father, which explores the dynamics of grief and is being made by 316 Productions. A pivot into filmmaking has indeed crossed Wright’s mind.
“It would be wonderful,” she says enthusiastically. “Obviously, it comes with education; I’d have to take time out to learn about the craft. But this experience of collaborating in this way is a step in the right direction.”
Time out seems like a distant prospect to Wright for now. Alongside Wakanda Forever, which is set for release next summer, the actor has a wave of high-profile projects keeping her busy. She’ll appear among a buzzy A-list cast (including Gal Gadot and Annette Bening) for Kenneth Brannagh’s Poirot romp Death On The Nile – although the recent controversy surrounding co-star Armie Hammer has put the film’s fate in limbo. She’s also starring opposite The Crown’s Josh O’Connor in immigrant drama Aisha, and there’s Silent Twins, which is based on a haunting true story about twin sisters who are admitted to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital.
It’s been a year unlike any other for Letitia Wright, but her mission has never been clearer: to invoke change through her work and hold open the door for anyone who hopes to follow in her footsteps. “There are a lot of amazing things to look forward to that could definitely impact the future of our industry,” she says. “And if you get bored of me, just let me know!”
‘I Am Danielle’ airs tonight (August 12) on Channel 4 at 9pm. Stream it now on All4