Black Panther: Wakanda Forever star, Letitia Wright, puts down her vibranium suit and picks up a revolver in her first Western film, Surrounded.
In Surrounded, directed by Anthony Mandler (Monster), Wright plays Moses “Mo” Washington, a freedwoman and former Buffalo Soldier who is coming off fighting in the Civil War and wants to lay claim on a gold mine, something that she and her community earned for years of toil.
To do that, she has to travel west, which is still dangerous for a “freed” Black person, especially a woman, so she pretends to be a man. She learns that quickly when the stagecoach she is traveling in, ironically on the back because her skin color doesn’t allow her to ride inside, is held up by Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) and his gang of outlaws.
Mo and a few other survivors manage to survive the initial stick-up, and she is tasked with watching Walsh while they head off to bring back the cavalry.
A battle of wills will blur the lines between captor and captive as they try to survive the harsh western climate of dangers.
Ahead of the film’s release, Cassius Life spoke with Wright, Bell, and Mandler on a range of topics related to the film.
The Concept of Freedom
Immediately when the film begins, you will find yourself asking the question, what does it indeed mean to be free? Mo served her country and is a freedwoman, but she isn’t treated like a free person. We also see how Native Americans are still at the bottom of the list regarding fair treatment by Caucasians in the film.
Sticking with the idea of freedom, we asked Wright, Bell, and Mandler if there was a moment in their lives when they truly felt free.
“Birth. I mean, look, I mean, come on. That’s not a question for me,” Bell begins. “I mean, that is the way it is. I mean, I don’t know how else to really answer it.”
Wright adds, “That’s a pretty complex question. I think for me, personally, it is just like in the choices that I tried to make in my career. And again, it is hard, but just my NOs are a freedom to me. If I say no to something, it’s like I’m giving myself an extended arm of freedom, like you can do it this way instead of the way they told you you should do it. I think that will be the closest thing I can get to that.”
If I say no to something, it’s like I’m giving myself an extended arm of freedom…
“Well, look, we all have a different association with freedom and trauma and words like ‘surrounded.’ There’s probably a triple entendre in this film when it relates to the definition of surrounded, ” Mandler begins.
“I think when my daughter was born, I think that’s a moment when you shed everything, and you’re completely in lockstep. And I think both my kids’ births– and they were both done at home with my wife and I. I think that when I think about the most free moment, it’s that moment there.”
Up To The Challenge For Making A Western
Surrounded will also be the first Western film for both actors, who were up for the challenge of making a movie in the genre.
“Yeah, for me it was super different. I had never done something like that before, but I loved the challenge of it. I like playing different characters and getting into their heads a bit, getting into their worlds as well. So it was cool. I really enjoyed it,” Wright, who also serves as a producer on the film, tells Cassius Life.
“I mean, the locations just offered us this amazing immersion. I mean, we were just really out there, and so much of a Western is the elements and the landscapes and everything,” Bell begins. “So we were so fortunate to have those places, and I’m chained up the entire time. I’m literally physically trapped most of the time. So playing with that and always having that tension on the chain and all that stuff, we were always messing around and playing with that. But yeah, I always felt like we were coming up with stuff as much as we could throughout. We were always investigating and pushing and probing and questioning always, which is always great.”
…the locations just offered us this amazing immersion…
Anthony Mandler Was Always A Fan of Western Movies
For Anthony Mandler, Westerns were always his jam.
“Yeah, I mean I wrote my thesis in film school on the Western, so I’ve always held close the tropes and love of the tropes, and it’s this relationship of the vastness of the old West with the duality of characters as they meet oftentimes in a dual,” he begins. “And the definition of good versus evil, right versus wrong, the men in black, the men in white, those faces as they come together, and the simplicity of people’s actions and what happens when you act a certain way.”
“Now, when you flash that forward with this film, obviously you take the base of those tropes, and you add all the layers of race and gender and all of those dualities of the setup of this movie. I love the complexity of it and the simplicity of it and the way those two things matched in this vast landscape.”
Remembering Michael K. Williams
Besides being the first Western film for the trio, Surrounded also serves as the final on-screen appearance for the late Michael K. Williams.
During our interview, Wright, Bell, and Mandler reflected on their time with the legendary actor while filming Surrounded, with each of them having nothing but glowing praise for him.
“Yeah, really dope, man. Really cool, amazing guy. Honored to have shared the screen with him alongside Jamie, honored to share those special moments with him, man. A really great artist,” Wright said.
…when you’re seeing him, it makes you check your own bullsh*t…
“He is a phenomenal talent. There’s just no question. He is just 100% dripping with authenticity and truth and I said it earlier, but it sounds hackneyed, but when you’re seeing him, it makes you check your own bullsh*t, the kind of tricks that you’re trying to do as an actor. Because I feel like he’s coming at it without those things, so it elevates your game, and it’s such a terrible loss.”
It was more personal for Anthony Mandler because he and Williams were close friends. That was evident with a photo of The Wire star in the background.
“From 1999. Michael was a friend of mine for over 20 years, and someone I really loved as a human being, and this was the culmination of many years of trying to work together,” Mandler begins. “Actually, almost on Monster, but it didn’t work out, timing-wise. So it was my honor to direct the movie as an actor, and it was my honor to have his last film.
“Watching him step into this role, which really is the opposite of who he was as a human being. I mean, every great role he played was actually not who he was as a person. He was completely the opposite of Chalky White (Boardwalk Empire) and Omar (The Wire), and even this character.”
He was a beautiful, kind, gentle human being who just knew how to play tough guys really well.
Mandler continues, “He was a beautiful, kind, gentle human being who just knew how to play tough guys really well. But in this role, I think the duality and the manipulation of using trust and using race in the time to get Mo Washington to do what he wants her to do and really giving no sign that he would actually turn on her the way he does, especially in that time when she’s now trusting this outlaw who you’d never think she trusts and they share this interesting crossroads of their life. I think that X factor of him coming in created a lot of fireworks. You feel it in that sequence.”
Surrounded is available on demand right now.
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