The western is one of our oldest and most revered genres, but it’s also become one of the most stale. Hollywood has only just begun to push for more diverse stories in the Old West, stories that reflect the reality of the era. Surrounded is the latest to bring a fresh perspective to the genre, and it does so by tapping into the experiences of women of color that actually existed.
Black Panther’s Letitia Wright stars as Mo Washington, a freedwoman and former buffalo soldier on a quest to carve her own slice of paradise out of an unforgiving wasteland. Mo must disguise herself as a man to cross the frontier and lay claim to a gold mine — but her encounters with outlaws, bounty hunters and natives will only further complicate her venture.
Acting in a film like Surrounded — one shot on location in brutal desert climates — would be enough of a challenge on its own. But it also marks Wright’s first turn as a producer, a role she continued in projects like The Silent Twins and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. So much of Wright’s time on Surrounded, from stunt training to her discussions with the writers and directors, helped her approach her future roles in a completely new way.
“Surrounded really equipped me to know what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I wanted to improve for myself with the experience of bringing projects to the forefront as a producer,” Wright told Inverse. With this film, Wright began to champion roles for characters of color in underrepresented genres — and it’s a mission she wants to continue in future projects.
Wright sat down with Inverse to discuss the real-life inspiration behind Surrounded, her dual role as producer and actor, and her future in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I’d love to know what drew you to the project. What your first thoughts were when you were reading the script?
I love characters who challenge me, and I love characters who go through situations that they have to overcome tests of human strength and ability — especially for a Black woman and in a time such as this project is set in and not seeing something like that before. Those are the type of projects that I’m attracted to, and this kind of fit right into that.
For a while, the closest thing we had to a Black female-led western was Harriet with Cynthia Erivo. I’m really struck by the role that faith plays in both of these films. Was that a theme that you wanted to double down on here, or was that already sort of a feature in the script?
I think it was in one of the earlier drafts of the script, and by the time I became attached [director Anthony Mandler] was reconsidering it. And I was just like, “No, what you were doing in the original version of this, it makes a lot of sense why — especially for this young woman in this situation — would hold so dearly onto faith. That’s really all she has.” She doesn’t have any allies out here. Just this Bible and prayer and just hoping that she can get to the other side of her journey safely and not come into any harm is a big test of faith. I think it just naturally came together like that.
Talk to me about prepping for the role. Your character was inspired by real figures, so did you have to do a lot of research to get into Mo’s headspace?
The first place I went to was the fascinating story of Cathay Williams. How this Black woman just found an opportunity to hide away in the Civil War in the men’s troop that were fighting at the time … but also survive by herself because it was just like, “Which way were you going to go? Where are you going to go in this path where most likely something is going to happen to you, and Black women are not protected as we should be? Are you going to try and figure out a way to hide, but also gain the protection that you may not have had just by existing as yourself?” Which is sad, but that was the reality as well.
The intersection between race and gender is so crucial to this story, and it’s something that comes out so vividly in your character’s relationships with each person that she meets. How did you build those relationships with Jamie Bell and Michael K. Williams?
Firstly, what was on the paper, and also just layering that with truth, really. Just really challenging the writers and challenging the director to be like, “This situation, would she actually say this?” Maybe there’s a version of the script that she would speak up for herself way too soon. It’s like, as a Black woman, no. She won’t be doing that. She would be calculated and thinking and plotting so that she can get to the next step. It was all a team effort of really thinking about the layers and the ways in which we can be real for the story.
You’re taking on another role in this film as a producer. How has that responsibility changed the way you view a production?
Surrounded was actually my first time going on set with a producer’s credit and seeing what that felt like to be in a room where not only am I viewed as an actor, but also as a producer. I would have to advocate for not only myself, but for other situations that needed to be advocated for and to be a part of that conversation. And also the script, as well.
As a producer, you can really get into it and hope that your viewpoints are taken more seriously as well. They are taken seriously as an actor, but more so as a producer because you’re trying to figure out the whole arc of the story, not just your part. So that was a great experience that I took into Silent Twins, [and] I was even more of a producer on that from start to finish. So that experience of Surrounded really equipped me to know what I liked about it, what I didn’t like about it, and what I wanted to improve for myself with the experience of bringing projects to the forefront as a producer.