In the latest musical biography, Cadillac Records, Jeffrey Wright plays Muddy Waters, the first blues artist discovered by Leonard Chess for his Chess Records label. To play the famous bluesman, Wright had plenty of research materials.
Jeffrey Wright Sings for Cadillac Records
"There's a couple biographies, several documentaries based on those biographies but mainly, there's this library of music," Wright said. "For me, the intriguing way into the character was through the music. There is a specific cultural and historical place that the music comes from and it's also specific to personality. Not a lot of affectation. Folks aren't out there in the middle of the fields in Mississippi under that midday sun putting on airs. It's an expression of their experience and it's coming through relative to community but as I said, also relative to the personality so there really is a lot of information encoded in the music."
You don't need video or film footage when the man himself put his own voice down on vinyl. "He's a musician so just finding the music and finding his voice and listening and not only the way he expresses himself musically through the music, but also through his language and the way he speaks because the music as well, one of the things I really adore about the blues is it's a celebration of the language of the black American south, a language that I grew up with. My grandparents were from southern Virginia and North Carolina so I've always had a deep, deep love for the language and the sounds and the music as expressed through that."
Compared to other historical characters Wright has played, Waters actually offered a tad more flexibility. "I've done a fair amount of nonfictional characters, biographical characters. I think it's because I lack imagination. I'm too literal or something. They each have their individual challenges. There is a standard that you're trying to achieve obviously with a character that's known. There are different pressures. For example, with Basquiat, Basquiat was known in a much smaller circle than he is known now. The Powell piece in W recently was a different impetus. That was an opportunity to use the work to add my two cents' worth to the political discourse at the time. It was an opportunity to be relevant to these extraordinary days that we're just beginning. Each role, whether it's fictional or biographical has its own challenges, its own reasons for doing."