On a rainy morning in May, Letitia Wright is sitting at the Odeon restaurant in downtown New York sipping whipped cream–topped hot chocolate and talking about Jesus. Narrow and wiry in sneakers and denim, her longer-in-the-front coif reminiscent of a ’90s skater dude (and, yes, she does actually skate), the 24-year-old actress could easily pass for 18. Wright—who is best known for her star-making turn as Princess Shuri in the Marvel movie cum cultural phenomenon Black Panther—radiates an almost preternatural serenity.
“Worrying will kill you, man,” she says, with a slow shake of her head. “It will...Eat. You. Up. But in the Bible, Jesus is basically like, ‘Chill out, guys.’ If you gracefully trust that everything is going to be okay, you start to feel lighter. You’ve just got to let go and let God.”
Wright started going to church only three years ago. “I’m still considered a baby Christian,” she says. “I have to learn my Word.” But she’s always been a seeker, with a strong inner voice that commands attention. “For as long as I can remember, I knew something about my life was meant to be meaningful, that I’ve got something to do here,” she says. “I don’t know how I knew, but I was sure I’d make an impact.”
In Guyana, where she was born and spent her early childhood surrounded by cousins, aunts, grannies, and a great granny, Hollywood wasn’t even on her radar. Wright’s mother was an accountant and teacher. Her father worked in agriculture and security. “Art, music, acting, there is not an industry there,” Wright says. It was a cozy life, but she wanted more, so when her family decided to move to the U.K., she was thrilled. “I was only 8 years old, but I felt like, This is my chance!”
Wright wasted no time settling into Tottenham, diligently studying the working-class Londonese of her classmates (muh-vah, bruh-vah) in an effort to fit in. “I would practice at home, to feel more accepted,” she says, “and that’s probably where the acting started.” At 12, she found acceptance on a new level: Asked to play Rosa Parks in her school’s Black History Month performance, she brought down the house with her spot-on imitation of an Alabama drawl. The play was so well received that the students were asked to restage it at a local community theater. Wright was hooked.
Wright likes to talk about destiny and God’s plan for her life, but it’s clear that she’s been a very active participant in her own success. As a teen, she spent hours reenacting scenes from her favorite films, recording one character’s lines on her laptop and then playing them back and doing the other part. She took videos of these living room performances and analyzed the tapes, repeating the exercise until it was perfect. Initially, her family wasn’t exactly thrilled with her hobby. “One time, I recorded myself doing a monologue over the only video of my cousin’s wedding,” she says. “I got into a lot of trouble, man. I so clearly remember my Auntie Ann shouting, ‘Letitia! Get in here! You recorded yourself doing nonsense over the wedding!’ I felt so bad. That was the moment I was like, ‘This acting thing has to come to life, because one day my aunt and I have to laugh about this.’ And finally, just this last year—thank you, Jesus—we did.”
At 15, Wright decided she needed an agent, but with no connections, no head shots, and no money to pay for a photographer, she literally had to take matters into her own hands. She shot a selfie in the bathroom mirror, compiled a list of London’s top names, and delivered the photos, in person, all over town. “I mean, postage is expensive in the U.K.,” she deadpans. “Especially for, like, a child.” When that plan didn’t work, she tried e-mailing casting directors. “I kept nagging one in particular until the receptionist got sick of me and was finally like, ‘Okay, just come in.’ I did the reading and got signed on the spot. My mom was like, ‘Wow, this really is a thing!’ ”
With her family on board, Wright started studying evenings and weekends at Identity School of Acting, which was established in London in 2003 by the actor turned agent Femi Oguns to promote minority talent. Impressed by what he saw in class, Oguns asked her to join his agency, and, almost immediately, she booked a job on Holby City, the long-running BBC hospital melodrama. By 18, she had done three television shows, including a recurring role on Top Boy, often described as the U.K.’s answer to The Wire.
But even as she was racking up credits and gaining recognition, Wright wasn’t experiencing the bliss she’d assumed would come with success. “I was depressed and full of anxiety,” she says. “I think it was that pressure to be accepted, to be somebody. When you’re looking outside of yourself for happiness and validation, a mean comment on social media can wreck you. I was okay when I was on set, hiding behind my work, but when I wasn’t acting I was full of fear and doubt, trying to fill this void inside of me any way I could: drinking, smoking. It was bad.”
Around the same time, some of her friends started going to church. Before long, she was dedicating herself to religion with the same fervor she’d once brought to acting—and walking away from roles to spend more time with God.
“When I first became a Christian, I said, ‘I’m never acting again. I’m done,’ ” says Wright, who worried both that she’d fall back into her people-pleasing ways and that swearing, drinking, or portraying an unsavory character onscreen would be sinful. (Nudity, she says, was never something she was comfortable with, even before church came into the picture.) After about six months, however, she reconsidered. “God was speaking to me and said, ‘This is your talent, it’s what you’re meant to do,’ ” she says.
When Wright recommitted herself to acting, she basically said no to almost everything. “For me, anything I attach myself to needs to have a purpose. And if it feels like a red light in any way, I don’t do it.” According to Wright’s close friend and Black Panther costar Daniel Kaluuya, this counterintuitive approach is both refreshing and wise. “Watching her make decisions has taught me so much about life and being a human being,” he says of Wright, whom he first met when she was 16 and stood waiting for him outside Sucker Punch, a London play in which he costarred, to compliment his work. “She knows what she’s about, and she knows her worth. That’s rare. Especially when you’re coming out of the gate, society says you should do pretty much anything to get where you want to be. Letitia’s like, ‘Actually, how about no? How about I do what I think is right for me?’ ”
Both emotionally and professionally, Wright’s game plan seems to be working. In 2016, she scored the role of Renie, a 17-year-old passing as a robot, on the AMC series Humans, and booked smallish parts in two big films: Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg–directed sci-fi thriller, and The Commuter, with Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga. And then, of course, came the role that’s transformed her into arguably the year’s biggest breakout star.
In the canon of sci-fi archetypes, Shuri—the sprightly, badass, tech-genius sister of T’Challa, aka Black Panther—is less sexy Princess Leia than all-knowing Obi-Wan Kenobi in tribal beads and braids. An outspoken force for good with a tendency to drop the same sort of Confucius-style pearls of wisdom that dominate Wright’s social media feed, the character seems in many ways tailor-made for her. One of Shuri’s most memorable pronouncements—“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved”—might as well be the tagline for Wright’s ever-striving existence.
Wright says she knew almost from the start that the project was ideal for her. “When I went to Atlanta for my screen test, I just felt really peaceful,” she says. “It was that inner voice telling me, ‘Yes. You can do this.’ ” And that turned out to be an understatement. Her performance has won her nothing short of raves, both from critics—Reggie Ugwu of The New York Times wrote that she “arguably steals the movie”—and from her castmates, many of whom she grew up idolizing. “As an actress, Letitia is just so full of joy and enthusiasm and passion that it’s contagious,” says Angela Bassett, who plays Shuri’s mother in the film. Kaluuya goes one further. “When I saw her onscreen, I just thought, Flippin’ ’ell, can she act! She’s actually the heart and soul of that film.”
Three months after the movie’s release, Wright, understandably, still sounds as if she doesn’t know quite what hit her. “I knew Black Panther was going to be impactful, but I didn’t anticipate it would take off in such a maaajor way,” she says after a woman walks into the restaurant, takes one look at her, and exclaims, from clear across the room, “Oh, my God!” (Wright smiles at her, bows her head, brings her palms together, and mouths, “Bless.”) “I am so beyond happy and grateful, but it’s also overwhelming. I need to take some time off to reflect.”
And that’s just what she plans to do next. After wrapping Black Panther, she went right into filming a seriously creepy episode of the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror, in which she gets to show off her American accent, and then briefly revisited the role of Shuri for Avengers: Infinity War. A Black Panther sequel is rumored to be in the works, but in the meantime she’s heading back to London, to settle in to her first “grown-up” apartment—“That’s the really important thing Panther has done for me: I’ve been able to move out of my mum’s!”—watch a ton of Netflix (she has yet to see her episode of Black Mirror), and, most important of all, do as Jesus says in the Bible, according to Letitia Wright, and just chill out.