Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic came up frequently during my conversations with Wright, mostly in the form of a line he repeated, both out loud and under his breath: “Never get out of the boat.” The line comes in a scene where Willard and Chef, on their journey upriver, head into the jungle in search of mangoes. They’re nearly mauled by a tiger, and hustle back to the boat, where Chef loses it. Never get out of the boat! Never get out of the boat! I got to remember: Never get out of the boat!
For Wright, “never get out of the boat” has become something like a mantra. One night over dinner, I ask him to explain the phrase’s appeal.
“It’s an all-around, equal-opportunity metaphor,” he says. “I don’t know if I always abide by it, but it’s a good one.” The boat, he explains, “is like, that’s home, man. And that’s also a home away from the madding crowd, and the madness. And it’s also in proximity to your people.” Outside of the boat are things like distraction, unhappiness, fame. Surfing, paradoxically, is one of those things that makes Wright feel like he’s in the boat—grounded, rooted, where he’s supposed to be.
In recent years, as he won bigger and more prominent roles, and packed his two kids off to college, the demands of both life and work began closing in on all sides, and the appeal of not leaving the boat has only grown. “In the last several years, just out of necessity, [I’ve been] moving pretty fast,” he explains. “Not living in the limelight so much, but just living a very logistically complicated life of going from one job to another, or one continent to another. Then trying to manage things at home. So, yeah, I’m liking the idea now of simplifying again.”
Nothing threatens to rock the boat, I suggest, quite like an Oscar race. Wright responds by zooming out. “I think I’ve always been wary of the potential trappings of what I do,” he says. “From the beginning, it’s informed the choices that I’ve made. I’ve tried to ground myself in something beyond the superficial aspects of this business, because I don’t believe in them. I don’t have faith in them. This work…it’s done right if you’re breathing at the center of it, and if you can find a balance and find something that keeps you connected to the things that are less shiny.”
Before dinner, I’d pulled the original scene up, and was reminded that Chef isn’t the only one who delivers Wright’s favorite saying. There is, it turns out, one scenario in which it’s acceptable to get out of the boat. In voice-over, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard repeats it—with his own addition. “Never get out of the boat,” Willard intones. Wright finishes the line for me.
“Absolutely goddamn right,” he says. “Unless you’re going all the way.”
Sam Schube is the director of GQ Sports.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of GQ with the title “Jeffrey Wright’s New Wave”
Photographs by Gregory Harris
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Hee Soo Kwon using La Mer
Set design by Heath Mattioli for Frank Reps
Produced by Patrick Mapel at Camp Productions
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