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A whole lot more than a sidekick

Times Staff Writer

THE new, bittersweet comedy by Jim Jarmusch -- “Broken Flowers” -- revolves around Don Johnston, an aging lothario played by Bill Murray, who visits four old girlfriends in an effort to discover which one wrote him a letter announcing that he is the father of a 19-year-old son.

But it’s actor Jeffrey Wright who manages to steal every scene he’s in as Johnston’s neighbor, Winston.

When Don gives him the typed pink letter from the anonymous former flame, it is Winston -- a goodhearted Ethiopian-born father of five who fancies himself an amateur detective -- who examines it with the dedication of a Sherlock Holmes. And it is Winston who arranges all of Don’s travel plans, setting the journey in motion.

It was the latest transformation for Wright, 39, whose most memorable film roles including his Emmy Award-winning turn as three separate characters in HBO’s adaptation of “Angels in America,” a colorful Puerto Rican mobster in “Shaft” and an emotionally shattered Desert Storm vet in “The Manchurian Candidate.” He’s also well known in the New York theater community, winning a Tony Award 11 years ago for “Angels in America” and a nomination for “Top Dog/Underdog.”

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Despite Wright and Murray’s undeniable on-screen chemistry, the two didn’t meet until their wardrobe fitting. Wright admits that meeting a costar just days before production is set to begin can be “slightly awkward,” especially since he is accustomed to weeks of rehearsal whenever he does a play.

“But their friendship and relationship was so clearly drawn on Jim’s part, I was just playing the music he had written, so that was kind of wonderful about the script,” Wright said. “I look at scripts, I suppose, the way a musician does with sheet music. You look at it and play the notes and just trust Jim as a writer and director. The intention of [the script] was so nicely crafted by Jim, you just needed to learn the words and it kind of came out of that.”

Wright said Jarmusch created a warm, stimulating environment in which to work. “There was such a sense of being unencumbered by externals,” he explains. “The environment of the set was entirely under Jim’s control. You hear all of these labels about him being the one true independent filmmaker left and all of these things, but you know, I found it such a joy; it was just comfortable to be with someone who was being true to himself. “

ALTHOUGH Jarmusch wrote “Broken Flowers” for Murray, he always envisioned Wright as Winston.

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“He has such an incredible range,” the director said of Wright. “He can be very, very subtle or he can be explosive, depending on what the character is, and he has an incredible human compassion thing that I read off him on screen.”

What Wright does in “Broken Flowers” is a little tricky, according to Jarmusch.

“We didn’t want the cliche of the sidekick, and I wanted a complicated, interesting guy who is sort of the heart of the story or the catalyst for the story, and he has a kind of double motivation as a character,” he said. “One is wanting to solve this mystery, and the other is to help his neighbor somehow break him out of this static place he is in. So it was sort of complicated to make him a really interesting guy. His world is the antithesis of Don’s world.”

Jarmusch said he always considers working with any actor a collaboration, adding that “obviously these characters come out of my head, but they have to embody them, so Jeffrey certainly lifted it above what I imagined but also came through with what the film really needed from that character....

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“Jeffrey is very, very precise and concentrated and focused, and yet he is also incredibly adjustable and directable, and he understands human nature so easily, so it was not a complicated approach to the character. It was very fluid between us.”

During filming, Wright had a habit of talking on the cellphone before his scenes. At one point, an annoyed Jarmusch confronted him about it. It turns out that Wright was frequently calling the Ethiopian Embassy, peppering workers with far-out (and fictitious) questions in an effort to get his accent correct.

“I would talk to them about my upcoming ‘travel’ plans,” he says, laughing, “and check in to see how the visa situation was. They were lovely.”

Wright said he was attracted to the role of Winston because it is Winston who spurs Don “into accepting or at least exploring or crossing the bridge into his neglected manhood. That’s part of their friendship and part of his interest in the letter.

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“He is a guy who thinks he can solve things and is attracted to mystery writers and the hollowness of his neighbor. He’s trying to solve the mystery of his loneliness.”

A bit of solitude is something that Wright welcomes. Despite the public’s never-ending obsessions with TomKat, Brangelina and Lindsay Lohan, Wright says he’s never aspired to that kind of stardom.

Even though he’s far from being a household name -- he’s rarely recognized on the street -- he shuns the limelight and guards his personal life with the tenacity of Cujo.

This made things a bit awkward at times during a phone interview, especially when Wright quietly apologized for being a bit distracted -- by his 1-week-old daughter. Until that moment, he’d been perfectly pleasant and willing to talk about his career, but when asked the new baby’s name, the actor clammed up.

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“I am not going to tell you that,” he said quickly and decisively but without rancor. Wright will only offer that the latest arrival is his second daughter with actress Carmen Ejogo, to whom he has been married for five years.

For now, he said, he prefers to keep the attention on his work -- not himself.

“I do have characters who are more well known than I am,” Wright says, “which suits me fine.”


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