Angie Thomas’ young adult novel The Hate U Give spent over 70 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and George Tillman Jr.’s masterful adaptation to film of the Carter family deserves some recognition come awards’ season. The Hate U Give is now in wide release, and TJ Wright, who plays Sekani Carter, the younger brother of the protagonist, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), brings warmth to a film about the impact of police brutality on a community that’s heavy with heart-break and justified rage.
Ten-year-old Wright has slight features and a broad, ready smile that he shares with his character. In most scenes, he basks in the affection, warmth, and fierce protection of his family. It is a testament to how tirelessly his parents, in the midst of a neighborhood rife with hate, anger, and danger has worked to preserve his innate goodness and innocence. Wright plays Sekani as almost cherubic through much of The Hate U Give and the actor evinces a keen sense of familiarity with, and protectiveness of the character from the audience.
Even at his tender age, Sekani returns his family’s fierce love in kind; especially his love for his Dad. Ironically, it is exactly what ultimately leads him to the brink of a decision near the end of the film that is as terrifying for the viewing audience as it is for the characters on screen. In an effort to protect a family member, he not only tearfully brandishes a gun, but puts himself in the line of fire. It’s a scene that leaves the viewer breathless.
Wright has been preparing for this moment since he was a toddler, when he first started performing. The Miami-based actor is also a talented swimmer, dancer and self-taught artist, excelling in a myriad of mediums including drawing, photography and multidimensional paintings. Wright has written numerous short stories and scripts — including a short film he directed when he was only eight. He also just booked a supporting role on the upcoming Netflix series Raising Dion, a show that Michael B. Jordan is also working on as an executive producer.
For Wright, his status as an only child has been helpful for his many pursuits. “It’s really good for me,” he told Shadow and Act, with youthful enthusiasm. “If I wasn’t, I don’t think I’d be able to do acting. So it’s great — it works for me. Nobody is asking, ‘Who’s the favorite?’”
Wanting to cast his own film while taking an acting class, he decided to write and direct his own film; one that takes on issues of class. Titled Separate Friends, he described it as a story about two people. “One is not wealthy and (is) less fortunate, and the other is older and more fortunate,” Wright explained. “The girl decided she didn’t want to be friends anymore, because he didn’t have as many things as she had.”
It’s an experience Wright said he plans on repeating. “I really like directing and being at a high point, so it was fun. I definitely want to do more directing and writing,” he told Shadow and Act.
Though he was very focused on his role in The Hate U Give, Wright also managed to get a few tips on directing after watching Tillman operate on set. Tillman was hands-off much of the time, allowing the actors to follow their own instincts and use their own skills to bring the story to life on screen.
“Most of my scenes were with the family,” Wright explained. “So George never had to say anything. Some of it was improv, and he didn’t think it needed to be modified. He wanted it to be real and from the heart. He would just keep filming, and we didn’t know.”
Wright said he first auditioned for The Hate U Give in Miami, right before he was about to head out of town for his summer vacation, and he got the callback while rushing to catch a flight. The cast’s first meeting took place at an arcade, with director Tillman setting a convivial tone for the actors from the start.
“I was, like, starstruck,” Wright recalled. “Everybody was just so nice — they were the nicest cast I’d ever worked with. Then, for the filming process, it was great; since we were all like family, it made things easier.”
Russell Hornsby (Fences, Seven Seconds), who plays Starr and Sekani’s father Maverick Carter, truly stepped up to the plate to assist Wright with one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film — a scene that completely hinges on Wright’s performance.
“He really trained me for that,” Wright said. “He got me ready emotionally. He didn’t so much get mad at me, but talked to me in a way that I could bring up all that anger and emotion I needed.”
Like others who have worked with Stenberg, Wright described the talented actress as warm, helpful and down to earth. “Me and Amandla are like brother and sister at this point,” he said. “Not in the annoying, ‘yelling-at-each-other’ way, though. Amandla is definitely the type of person who will help you. She’s never cocky or acts like she’s too good for anybody. She’s definitely one of my favorite people to work with.”
For his first big film, Wright has also been enjoying the whole process of getting the word out about it. “I like going to all the red carpet events and all the publicity, because I love seeing the cast,” he said. “But also, it’s so much fun to hear people calling my name. And I’m like, ‘How do you know my name?’ It’s just great knowing that people care about me.”
As busy as Wright is with all his pursuits, he still finds the time to do other things he is passionate about; things that have nothing to do with the film industry, and everything to do with being a regular kid.
“I like making slime,” he admitted. “I know every kid does. Some people just see me as this actor kid, but at the end of the day, you’ll just see me watching slime videos, or in my room watching Disney XD or drawing. I’m not just a professional kid.”