Jeffrey Wright Recalls ‘The Batman’ Set Shutting Down Due to COVID: ‘I Got the Hell Out’

Jeffrey Wright remembers the moment last year when the UK production of “The Batman” shut down. The 55-year-old actor was a few months into playing police commissioner Jim Gordon for director Matt Reeves’ reboot of the DC Comics character when suddenly, in between takes, one of the actors coughed.

“Every head in the room swiveled toward that,” Wright said during an interview from a picnic table at the Telluride Film Festival, where he was promoting his role in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which screened earlier in the weekend. “And I was spraying that whole room, so if I had it that particular day, everybody would’ve had it. We shut down the next day.”

Production on “The Batman” proved to be a constant rollercoaster for everyone involved, as the temporary delay last March turned into a six-month halt; three days after it resumed in September, an actor tested positive. (Most reports indicated that star Robert Pattinson was the one who got sick, though neither Warner Bros. or Pattinson’s representatives ever confirmed it.)

Wright said that he felt an immediate panic during the initial shoot and reached out to producer Dylan Wright with his concerns. “I was having conversations with him where I was like, ‘Hey, man, what exactly are we going to be doing here going forward?’” Wright said. “At that time, there were no travel restrictions from the UK, but the numbers were rising. I called my agent and said, ‘We have to get out of here. We may be isolated here. There’s no way in hell we’re going to be shooting. It’s about to go down.’”

Despite the hiccup with the positive test last fall, Wright said he was impressed by the new set of safety measures when the shoot got back into full swing two weeks later. “We went back to testing three times a week, then it became three times a week and N95 masks required at all times except when we were filming,” he said. “There were breaks and ventilation requirements and separate spaces for hair and makeup. We took it very seriously and were respectful. We got it done safely.”

Needless to say, the pandemic has left Wright feeling rather hopeless about the state of the world. “I wish this pandemic straight to hell,” he said. “It’s been dispiriting. It’s really rattled my faith in human potential. I see us repeating the same mistakes we made centuries before. It seems we’re super-hesitant to learning as a collective body. I think we’ve evolved since we’ve mastered brutality. We’re a weird species.”

As an antidote, Wright is throwing himself into his work. As productions continue to reaccelerate, the actor best known these days as Bernard Lowe has been spending much of his time on set for Season 3 of “Westworld.” At the moment, he’s filling the show’s current break from production by focusing on other projects. Wright showed up in Telluride to promote “The French Dispatch,” which Searchlight brought to the intimate Colorado festival as a surprise sneak following its July premiere in Cannes. From Telluride, he travels to Europe to spend a few weeks on the set of Anderson’s next untitled project before returning to “Westworld.”

Wright said that his output accelerated in the aftermath of his 2014 divorce from Carmen Ejogo, with whom he has two children. “For personal reasons I had to rebuild some things post-divorce,” he said. “There are expectations that you have to fulfill according to the law. You have obligations, you have responsibilities that have been mandated by the state.”

The eclectic nature of Wright’s work doesn’t negate his selectivity. In “The French Dispatch,” he plays an amalgam of three treasured literary figures — James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and food writer A.J. Liebling. “It was really a wonderful collaboration,” Wright said, though he noted that Anderson’s “exacting” approach sometimes yielded a challenging experience on set. “He’s relentless and exacting,” Wright said. “At times, we’d do a scene and he’d say, ‘Take 29,’ and we’d look at each other like, ‘Really?’” Wright laughed. “He may have flashes of Kubrickian impulses here and there, but it’s all for the love of the thing.”

Despite the differences in scale, Wright said he detected a lot of similarities between Anderson and “The Batman” director Reeves. “While one film is perhaps perceived as having more of an arthouse vibe and the other is anything but, there are similarities that exist between them. Both very specific and very clear in their visions,” he said. “They are demanding in the best way. Same shit, different set.”

Wright said he responded to Reeves’ ability to inject real-world events into the superhero genre. “I saw the themes around corruption and class tensions and all of the things that he wanted to bring from the outside into this world so it had some relevance,” he said. “It’s bringing fiction into non-fiction in a way that’s balanced and really cool.” He described the script as presenting a Gotham “unlike Gothams we’d seen before. It was a Gotham we could touch. The way the Batmobile was described, I understood the aesthetic we were going for was something really palpable. If you squint your eyes in some backstreet of New York, you could see it appear.”

Wright was mum on details about the next Anderson project (“Give me your email and I’ll send you the script,” he joked) as well “The Batman” itself. “Everything has become super-secret,” he said. “On ‘The Batman,’ we had like five layers of encryption to figure out what we were filming the next day.”

In addition to “The French Dispatch,” “The Batman,” and “Westworld,” Wright also surfaces in the latest James Bond entry “No Time to Die,” which releases October 8. For now, though, it’s the 2022 release of “The Batman” that he’s anticipating as an antidote to the challenges of the past year and a half. “We can have faith in the Batman when we can’t have faith necessarily in each other,” he said. “In the history of human events, it seems that it’s always the end of the world. But I think perhaps that’s because we predicated it. We have met the enemy and it is us.”

The gravelly-voiced actor tends to project a bleak outlook on the world through his Twitter feed as well as in conversation. “Here in America we couldn’t even band together to stop a pathogen,” he said. “If you can’t band together against a non-human foreign body that is out to kill people, it is absolutely hopeless that we can band together against anything. I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but it’s not going to happen.”

Despite his current packed schedule, Wright said that the pandemic had led him to consider slowing down in the near future. “I’m beginning to understand that work isn’t everything,” he said. “I’m looking forward to pumping the breaks a little bit and focusing on other aspects of life that I think would be healthy for me. … Work can be a distraction from my anxieties, which is helpful for me and therapeutic — but at the same time, I want to ground myself for a little bit.”

Searchlight releases “The French Dispatch” on October 22, 2021.

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