Like many of us, David Bowie was one of American Fiction actor Jeffrey Wright’s all-time heroes. But unlike most of us, Wright not only got meet the late rock legend, he also had the opportunity to act alongside him in the 1996 biopic Basquiat, in which he played neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside Bowie as pop art figurehead Andy Warhol.
On The Kelly Clarkson Show on Friday (Jan. 19), Wright recalled meeting Bowie on the film in reaction to a picture Clarkson put on the big screen from a photo shoot the actor did with the “Space Oddity” singer to promote the biopic about the talented street-artist-turned-international-phenom.
“He meant the world to me,” Wright said of Bowie, who died of liver cancer in 2016 at 69. “There were periods of my life where his music was the soundtrack.” Wright describe the intense prep he did for the film — directed by artist Julian Schnabel — in which the actor painted for six months in Schnabel’s studio in the presence of dozens of original Basquiat paintings to get into character.
One day while working on a canvas, Wright said the door opened and Bowie — who also dabbled in painting, as well as quite a bit of big screen acting — walked in unexpectedly. “He kneels down next to me and he says, ‘do you mind if I watch?’,” Wright said Bowie asked. “And I said, ‘well, I think I’m gonna have to get used to it, yeah.’”
Wright recalled that they had a laugh and for the remainder of the shoot Bowie was “so generous and so smart and funny… and he couldn’t have been cooler to me.” In fact, one day he was in the hair and makeup trailer with Gary Oldman — who played a fictional composite character modeled on Schnabel — and Bowie walked in with a most incredible query. “‘Do you want to hear some music?’” the singer asked them.
“And we’re like, ‘huh?!’,” Wright remembers responding in gleeful shock. “And we’re like, ‘yeah David Bowie we’ll tolerate your music, yeah sure! Put in your little disc.’” What Bowie cued up were tracks from his then-unreleased new album, the arty concept song cycle Outside, which included some songs that ended up in the film.
“And we’re listening to it and we’re like, ‘Whoa!’ and David’s sitting there air-guitaring to his own music… and it was like, you know, the cool guy at school who found some obscure record somewhere and brought it in,” Wright recalled thinking. “Except the cool guy was David Bowie!”
American Fiction — about a struggling Black novelist horrified by the smash success of a racially charged book he wrote as as joke — is in theaters now.
Watch Wright talk about Bowie below.