Letitia Wright is in full, animated flow, hopping nimbly from fangirling over Sophie Okonedo at last month’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards to her thoughts on the complicated relationship between colonialism and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa. But her eyes — well, her eyes keep distractedly finding their way back to something on her phone screen. I assure her that if she has been sent an urgent message or email she should go ahead and tend to it. ‘Oh, no,’ she says, her impish, finely drawn features flashing a smile. ‘These are my notes.’ She laughs. ‘I’m ready, and I don’t want to mess anything up.’
At first glance this may seem like evidence of nervousness or uncertainty. A sign that, despite a year that has seen her appear in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, earn an Emmy nomination for Black Mirror, star in Drake’s ‘Nice For What’ video and, of course, steal almost every scene as the royal techno-wizz Shuri in Marvel’s game-changing £1 billion juggernaut, Black Panther, she is still acclimatising to the demands of her sudden global fame. But, no. After an enjoyable hour in this Tottenham-raised 25-year-old’s company, I understand that it is, instead, proof of her diligence and vibranium-plated self-possession.
‘Shuri has a mind of her own and does her own thing, and that’s me as well,’ she explains, bundled up in a fluffy navy blue fleece, baseball jacket and black cap bearing the words, ‘Let your light shine’. ‘I’m not going to let anybody mould me, even though many people have attempted to. I’ve always just said “no” to anything that doesn’t fit with my spirit.’ Something that plainly did fit her spirit is the project we are here to discuss, amid the lunchtime burble at an airy, industrial Bankside restaurant on a rainy Monday. This week, Wright swaps Marvel’s fictional Wakanda for Waterloo with a starring role in the Young Vic’s staging of The Convert, her Black Panther castmate Danai Gurira’s forceful, complex look at late 19th-century religious conversion in the politically volatile atmosphere of what is now Zimbabwe. Wright plays Jekesai, a spirited young woman who escapes forced marriage before being taken in by Chilford, an ambitious Catholic priest played by Paapa Essiedu. Despite the rigours of her rehearsal schedule (‘Plays are intense,’ she laughs. ‘It’s no joke’) it is a challenge she is relishing.
‘When I read it, it [seemed to be] asking what Christianity or Catholicism would look like if it hadn’t been forced upon a society and a culture,’ says Wright, who is Christian herself. ‘That question flows throughout the whole play and made me look at myself, too.’ Ola Ince, The Convert’s director, tells me Wright has been ‘a ball of energy’ in rehearsals, adding: ‘Her name [Jekesai] means “to illuminate” and that’s exactly what Letitia does.’
Wright was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1993 but moved to London as a seven-year-old with her teacher mother, Michelle (she also has two younger half-siblings). She sees personal parallels in the way Jekesai has to assume a new, Westernised persona at the prompting of Chilford. ‘I remember starting primary school here and realising that if I spoke with my [Guyanese] accent I would get laughed at,’ she remembers, between delicate bites of her chicken wings and fries. ‘So I’d go home and change the way I spoke; make it more British and acceptable. In the play you can definitely see that in my character. She gets changed and in that change something is stripped away.’
Wright’s knack for mimicry was soon translated to the stage and, after years of amateur theatre, an uncanny turn as Rosa Parks in a school performance and an entrepreneurial email blitz to various casting agents, she eventually found her way to Identity, former actor Femi Oguns’ drama school and megastar incubator. By 18 she was appearing in Holby City and Top Boy but it was at Identity that, alongside bound-for-success classmates such as John Boyega, Malachi Kirby and Damson Idris, she honed her craft and fantasised about Hollywood while also hanging out in Dalston McDonald’s.
‘We would all just come together there after drama school to vibe and share our dreams,’ she explains. ‘Then John [who was catapulted to global fame with the Star Wars franchise in 2015] took the bat, hit the ball really high and so we all had to be like, “Oh, snap, you can actually be a superstar.” He inspired me and everyone else by showing that we didn’t have to aim low.’ Wright and Boyega’s separate journeys into the professional stratosphere are about to collide in the form of Hold Back the Stars, an adaptation of Katie Khan’s best-seller about two lovers floating through space with a dwindling oxygen supply. In her own life, Wright is currently single (‘I’m good, just living my adult life and paying bills’) but is she nervous about romantic scenes with Boyega? ‘No, because John is a good friend of mine,’ she says. ‘More than anything I’m just really happy to see this kind of story being told. It’s two people in love facing an obstacle. [They could have cast] anyone but it ended up being us.’
It’s an upcoming project that, along with a role in Donald Glover’s mysterious, Rihanna-assisted film Guava Island, points to a bright, busy future for Wright. (Leaving little time to hang out at her north London home or — her favourite thing — watch gigs at Koko in Camden.) Because as well as Shuri’s expected return in next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4, there’s also the rising din of the Black Panther Oscar buzz. A Best Picture nomination for Ryan Coogler’s film would be held up as a sign of the representational strides that have been made since #OscarsSoWhite. But as our plates are cleared and our time comes to an end, Wright is keen to stress the work that still needs to be done when it comes to ethnic diversity in Hollywood.
‘I think we’ll know that things are better when we stop asking questions about it,’ she says authoritatively, the digital cue cards on her phone long consigned to her pocket. ‘The people I’m around — Michael B Jordan, John Boyega, Danai Gurira, Chadwick Boseman — are making movies, producing, writing, coming up with solutions. I think everybody putting these ideas into the world is helping. And it’s inspiring me to create my own stories, too. So when we don’t have to ask the question, we’ll know we’ve arrived.’
‘The Convert’ runs until 26 January at the Young Vic (youngvic.org)
Photographs by Charlotte Hadden
Styled by Robyn Kotze
Arts & entertainment director Dipal Acharya
Hair by Stefan Bertin at Frank Agency using Shea Moisture
Make-up by Rebekah Lidstone at Stella Creative Artists using Bare Minerals
Photographer’s assistant: James Proctor
Fashion assistant: Jessica Skeete-Cross