NEW YORK POST | February 15, 2019 | Robert Rorke
Jeffrey Wright (right) and real-life inmate Theotus Carter on the Indiana Pendleton Correctional Facility set of "OG."
Jeffrey Wright is going to jail.
The “Westworld” star grabbed an opportunity to educate himself about prison life when he signed on for the Saturday night film “OG.” (The title is slang for Original Gangster.)
In contrast to Showtime’s series “Escape at Dannemora,” which filmed in the prison yard of the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York — and then built a cellblock set in Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens — the two-hour “OG” was shot entirely at the Indiana Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison.
“Our set designer was the state of Indiana,” says Wright, 53.
In “OG,” Wright plays Louis, a felon serving the final weeks of his sentence. After staring outside the prison walls for 24 years, he can taste his freedom. All systems are go until a new inmate named Beecher (Theothus Carter) enters the system and Louis takes him under his wing. With a prison gang trying to recruit Beecher to help them smuggle weapons inside the walls, Louis — himself once the head of a gang — must walk a fine line.
Along the way, he has a harrowing supervised “restorative justice” meeting with the sister (Stephanie Berry) of the man he killed before he was incarcerated.
During the five-week shooting schedule of 13-hour days, Wright lived, ate and showered with the prisoners, who auditioned for their parts at an open casting call (Carter among them). He spent his evenings at a nearby hotel.
Prison officials signed off on the project, and Wright, who made several visits to Pendleton on his hiatus from “Westworld” — before production began in 2016 — knew he had to win the inmates’ trust. “It was a chance to break the routine of their daily lives. They viewed it as a chance to do something creative,” he says. “One guy told me, ‘I have a 7-year-old daughter on the outside and I want her to know I’m more than this.’ They viewed me as an unorthodox and unlikely partner in a project that was positive toward them.”
In the film, Louis works in the prison’s auto body shop and Wright blends seamlessly. “I had an uncle who was a body and fender guy,” he says. “I knew my way around a can of Bonder.” But what about the food? “Awful,” Wright says. “It’s baseline edible, full of salt and sugar. It seemed to me that the dessert course they serve is insulin.”
Once the novelty and nobility of the project wore off, the realities of the experience descended upon the Brooklyn-based actor. “The thing that’s most palpable is that the criminals serving long sentences have an undeniable sense of their own trauma,” he says. “Men who, as children, had been hurt in ways that led them to hurt others.”
He found refuge in his own temporary cell. “I can understand how a person could get used to it and adapt to his confines,” he says. Wright closed the gate behind him, read books and watched the 2016 political conventions. “I never once took for granted that I had the freedom to walk outside the gate every day,” he says.
On the last day of shooting, the possibility arose of returning to Pendelton for some additional coverage. Wright shut it down. The cast, which includes William Fichtner (“Mom”) and Mare Winningham, worked a 16-hour day. “I said, ‘We’re getting everything tonight. I’m not coming back to revisit this place … It’s a heavy load in there.’ ”
With a new Wes Anderson film and the third season of “Westworld” in the wings, Wright has a full docket, but he says he often thinks about the men behind bars at Pendleton.
“Time has stopped for them,” he says. “They are still there.”