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Political roles attract 'Syriana' actor Wright

Jeffrey Wright at age 40 is an actor's actor -- and a director's actor, too. He nearly steals the three-part story line of ''Syriana" as a buttoned-up, prematurely aged lawyer.

But in conversation, Wright emphasizes how moviemaker Stephen Gaghan contrasts the actor's portrait of a man working the system to George Clooney's hung-out-to-dry CIA agent and Matt Damon's mournful financial analyst, who becomes the economic brain for a progressive Arab prince while in grief over the death of a son.

''All are processed by the [social-political] machine," says Wright. ''And at the end they all come to their own conclusions." Wright's character is a victor, Clooney's is a victim, and Damon's is a man caught in between.

Wright has scored vividly before in diverse roles. They include an early star turn in the film named after the attention-getting graffiti artist ''Basquiat" (1996), the wild Dominican drug kingpin he played in ''Shaft" (2000), a flamboyant male nurse in ''Angels in America" (both onstage and in the 2003 HBO presentation) and a haunted vet in the remake of ''The Manchurian Candidate" (2004).

But in ''Syriana," Wright gives his most lived-in performance as a lawyer commanded to find what's crooked about a Big Oil merger -- as long as it's nothing crooked enough to end the deal.

Wright knows his ''Syriana" character inside out.

''I grew up in D.C., surrounded by lawyers," he says, laughing, ''including my mother. My father died when I was 1, but believe me, my mother was enough."

She put him on an educational track that included prep school and a political science major at Amherst College. But on the first day of a drama class in his junior year, ''I knew that acting was something I would be doing for some time."

He says he doesn't know whether becoming an actor was a conscious rebellion, ''but it was certainly subconscious. I never truly assimilated into the role that was intended for me by my education -- not the way my character Bennett assimilates in 'Syriana.' The route I was on was not leading to the cinema. But I had creative impulses that I needed to express. What I try to do now -- why 'The Manchurian Candidate' was attractive to me, why 'Angels in America' was attractive to me -- is fuse the political and the creative and play whatever music comes out of that."

Wright took the part of Bennett because he was impressed ''with the way that Gaghan composed the character -- I thought there were many layers and subtly drawn racial colors and elements to him." When the head of his law firm (Christopher Plummer) dangles the plum oil-merger assignment in front of him, ''in some ways he makes a bargain with the devil. Bennett knows that historically folks like himself were denied access to the corridors of power or to the white-shoe men's clubs. And in Bennett's mind, you're not going to tear the system down -- it's not going to go away. The only way to subvert it is from within. And by subvert I think he means, as a black man, to be the power rather than what's under the foot of the power."

To gain that force, Bennett is willing to give up any member of his firm, any ingredient of the deal, ''anyone," in short, ''but himself. He's in a fairly amoral and soulless, self-serving, materialistic world. And he plays his part."

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