Growing up in Guyana, Letitia Wright never imagined a Hollywood career. But after a string of stage and TV roles and early recognition of her talent, her casting in the blockbuster movie Black Panther was the break every actor hopes for, says Caroline Taylor. Published as the cover story in the May/June issue of Caribbean Beat
Despite a cast brimming with award-winning Hollywood legends, there was scarcely a Black Panther review that didn’t effusively single out Guyanese-British actress Letitia Wright — playing the title character’s science whiz little sister, Shuri — as the film’s scene-stealing breakout star.
Born on Halloween in 1993, Wright migrated with her family from Guyana to Tottenham, north London, when she was seven. Unsurprisingly, it was a culture shock — from the climate to the people. “As Guyanese, we are accustomed to saying good morning and good afternoon to everyone . . . close to our neighbours, helping each other out, and trying to be united despite our situation. But when I came to England, everyone avoided you, locked themselves away indoors, and nobody said hello to each other,” she recalls.
The requisite adjustment to her new home also sowed the early seeds of her acting talent. The children at her primary school would laugh at her accent. So, with the steely determination that would come to characterise many other major moments of her life, she resolved to transform how she sounded. That’s not to say that the Guyanese accent is no more. She can still slip back into it at will — not least, she jokes, when her mother is in the room.
But it wasn’t until she saw the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee — starring young black actress Keke Palmer as an eleven-year-old national spelling bee competitor — that the acting bug really took hold. “[Akeelah] looked like me, she was positive, she just wanted to contribute,” Wright says. “I wanted to tell stories like that . . . I wanted to be captured in a weird camera thing that records.”
Convinced this was the path for her, she set about making it happen — despite her family’s resistance. “When I grew up in Guyana, we didn’t have an acting industry,” she explains. “We’re more focused on the academic side of things — being a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher.” But in Britain, there was one shining exception: “We had this amazing show called Desmond’s, about this Guyanese man and his wife — they have a barbershop in Peckham . . . And this is a hit show. I grew up on Desmond’s, and he represented Guyana. He made us proud,” she told Ebony last year.
Inspired, undeterred, and still in her mid-teens, Wright took her first job — selling a magazine door to door — to pay for her headshots, eventually moving on to study at the Identity School of Acting, and signing on with their Identity Agency Group. From there, small film and TV parts began to flow in, as did the recognition. For her role in My Brother the Devil, Screen International named her one of their 2012 UK Stars of Tomorrow. Urban Hymn (2015) helped her catch the attention of Marvel, Steven Spielberg (who cast her in last year’s Ready Player One), and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA), who named her one of their 2015 Breakthrough Brits. That year, Wright also starred in the West End production of Black Panther co-star Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed. In what she calls “a strange triangulation,” when the play was mounted later that year in New York City, the role went to another Black Panther colleague — Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
There was a near-undeniable momentum to her career at this point. But it was very much in doubt for Wright herself. By the age of twenty, Wright’s struggle with depression was becoming insurmountable. At breaking point, and unable to withstand the pressure she was putting on herself, she turned down the chance to work with Nicole Kidman, and was prepared to give it all up for good. “I saw myself in a deep state of depression and I literally wanted to quit acting,” Wright said when accepting an award in February. “The only thing that pulled me out of it was God, my belief, my faith, and my family — and an email from BAFTA asking me to become part of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brits. And I was like, let me try again.”
She’s become one of the growing number of stars to openly share their struggles with depression, frequently taking the opportunity to encourage others. “For me, I just speak on it, because maybe there’s that kid that’s seventeen, locked up in their room like I was, and thinking that they can’t make a contribution to the world, and having these negative thoughts — and seeing me talk about it and saying that I actually flipped it and flipped my mindset,” she told Access Hollywood. “Now I’m in a positive space, and they can get there too.”
What followed in 2018, after she had turned that corner, was a torrent of accolades for her work in both Black Mirror and Black Panther — nominations for Primetime Emmy, Saturn, Teen Choice, BET, MTV, EDA Female Focus, and Black Reel awards. Fandango crowned her their Highest Box Office Earning Actor of 2018, based on US box office earnings. She also came full circle at the 2019 BAFTAs, winning the prestigious EE Rising Star Award. “I don’t want validation to come about from awards,” she told ET, “but when it does happen, it’s a lovely little nudge that says, ‘Hey, kid, you’re going in the right direction.’”
Despite her meteoric rise and the intensity of the spotlight focused on her, Wright remains grounded. It helps to be able to call on colleagues for advice, including Naomie Harris — a fellow Brit with Caribbean (Jamaican and Trinidadian) parents. “I asked her how she has dealt with fame, and she said to me that how you carry yourself is how people will treat you . . . If you remain humble and just treat everybody with love, then people will relate to you more, and you won’t have that whole ‘Oh my god, I’m a celebrity’ thing.”
Wright also takes pride in the enthusiastic response of people back home in Guyana, even if it is a bit overwhelming at times. “I rep Guyana wherever I go,” she says. “I’m really happy that people are supporting . . . I just hope that it continues to inspire people — it’s an honour to do that for my country.”
So what’s next for this rising star? She currently appears in Marvel’s blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, and she seems a shoo-in for the sequel to Black Panther, which is in development. She’s been cast as the lead in two other projects: the English-language adaptation of the 2017 French comedy Le Brio, co-produced by John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Company, as well as the forthcoming sci-fi love story Hold Back the Stars, alongside fellow Identity School of Acting alum John Boyega. She also features in the musical film Guava Island project alongside Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover and Rihanna.
But she has no plans to sit and wait for films to come to her. Wright is committed to making as many indies as she can, and — taking inspiration from people like Viola Davis and fellow Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan — is resolved to learn more about producing so she can bring to life the diverse stories she wants to see on screen. She also has a list of directors she’d like to work with (she’s already checked off a few) — Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay, and Spielberg again, but on a larger role.
For Wright, all of this is merely part of how she wants her life to unfold. It’s a purpose and motivation she explains with a profound simplicity: “I try to let the light that’s within me shine to others, and hopefully they identify their own light — and they shine too.”