Jeffrey Wright hadn’t read any of “The Hunger Games” books before being cast as tech wizard Beetee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” He had a good excuse: He was busy acting on stage, screen and TV with works from “Boardwalk Empire” to “Casino Royale.”
His literary shortcomings changed when he landed the role, which continues in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” .
“I’m not entirely a fool,” Wright says with a slight laugh. “I have now read all of the books. They have provided a wonderful comprehension of the character because there are so many more details in the books.
“I think it was essential to read the books. Plus, it’s also a great read, an important read because it doesn’t pull punches on social and political issues.”
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He came to that conclusion when he first started talking to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. At that time, Wright believes he and Hoffman might have been the only two people on the planet who hadn’t seen “The Hunger Games.”
As he got caught up, Wright became fascinated by Beetee, a former Hunger Games champion who became the communications expert for the Capital. The role got even more interesting for Wright with “Mockingjay — Part 1” because of the changes that come in Beetee’s life.
This time, Beetee’s charged with helping the rebellion break through the same defenses he helped put in place. Wright loves that the character must deal with the wonderful puzzle of going from opponent to ally.
And, that change comes with a lot of emotions.
“It didn’t surprise me that this film has so many deep emotional moments. This is the messy phase in the storytelling process. Previously, in the worlds of Panem and the Hunger Games, everyone understood the rules and the danger. In the second film, that’s all blown up and the rebellion begins,” Wright says. “Now what we are shown are the consequences and dirty work. We knew this film would be intense.”
The Washington, D.C., native didn’t anticipate the intensity of attention from the fans of the books and film series. Wright jokes that he didn’t have a large base of young fans for his work in “Angels in America.” That’s changed.
Wright had just returned from the world premiere of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” in London. The massive reaction he got from the fans was even bigger than when he was there for the debut in the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.”
Wright calls the fans of the books and film “special” because of their deep passion for Katniss Everdeen and her heroic story.
“Having the opportunity to feed into their aspirations through these movies really is a great joy. We don’t make these movies from a cynical approach toward these stories. We have the opportunity to aim big because of the budget, while also giving the fans nutritious and thoughtful material. That’s rare,” Wright says.
Another aspect of the books and films he hadn’t considered hit him during the London screening. Beetee, who uses a wheelchair, becomes a major force in the rebellion.
When he was walking the red carpet in London, Wright saw a lot of fans in wheelchairs. He realized that his work was giving them something extra.
Wright didn’t play Beetee as having a disability. He just wanted to reflect how much he loves to tinker with technology to how being in the Hunger Games twice affected him both physically and psychologically.
The hardest part about making the movies was continuing on after the death of Hoffman. The pair had been longtime friends from their days on the New York theater scenes. They got to spend a lot of time together during the filming of “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay.”
“He was such a ferocious artist, and curious and probing and uncompromising in his desire to craft as rounded and complex a character as possible,” Wright says. “I was very much inspired by him.”