American Fiction writer-director Cord Jefferson wanted to make absolutely sure he’d be asleep when the Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday morning. “I think that I might have had a heart attack if I was watching it live — it would have been too intense an experience for me,” he says when reached by phone following the noms, after receiving the news that he had been recognized for best picture (he also produced the film) and best adapted screenplay. American Fiction, Jefferson’s first feature film, also scored nominations for best actor (Jeffrey Wright) and best supporting actor (Sterling K. Brown).
“I’m a nervous person with a lot of anxiety,” says Jefferson. “So, I stayed up as late as possible, until 2:30 in the morning, and I took half a Xanax, and felt like, ‘OK, you got to try to sleep, you can’t be up pacing and freaking out.’” He felt fortunate that, no matter what happened, he had his usual 10 a.m. appointment with his therapist.
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Jefferson woke up at 7 a.m., shortly after Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid announced the Oscar nominees, to discover that he had 228 missed messages. “I felt like, ‘OK, something good happened or something really horrible.’ And I saw pretty quickly that there were congratulations from a lot of people. I’ve just been slowly reaching out to Jeffrey and Sterling and other people to talk. But this is incredible. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
The fact that the film’s stars were nominated made Jefferson’s morning all the more surreal: “Jeffrey, to me, is a national treasure and international treasure. He’s one of our greatest living actors, and I would say it’s about time. And I’m so, so, so proud of Sterling. It’s always nice to find success, but it’s a million times sweeter to find success with a bunch of people that you love, and I love everybody who worked on this movie.”
American Fiction revolves around the character of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright), a novelist who, frustrated by the book world’s pigeonholing of Black authors, decides to write a parody of the stereotypical “Black” story he thinks publishers want — only to see it become a runaway best-seller.
Jefferson believes the success of his own, more nuanced work — and the Academy’s recognition of it — suggests that Hollywood is ready for a wider variety of Black stories.
“I always hope that this industry will make changes because it’s morally right to do,” he says. “I think that it’s morally right to invite people in who haven’t had the opportunity to tell their story before. But even if it’s not moved by moral principles, what this industry does pay attention to is success, and so I would hope that the success of this movie does make people less risk-averse when it comes to telling different kinds of stories. If we can help get other kinds of stories greenlit then that is the hugest success we could have.”
Jefferson, who has written for such acclaimed shows as Watchmen, The Good Place and Master of None, turned to screenwriting after a career in journalism. Reminded that he is living the fantasy of many a journalist, Jefferson laughs. “I still consider myself a journalist. I will always be a journalist, and if any journalist ever wants to talk to me about making the transition, I’m always open to discussing it, because I think that journalists make really, really great film and TV writers.”
Having been on the awards circuit for several weeks (and won a Critics Choice award for best adapted screenplay), Jefferson says he has been awed by the talented people he’s mingling with — particularly one of them. “The guy who always throws me for a loop is Willem Dafoe,” who stars in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which scored 11 nominations (though none for Dafoe). “I’ve loved Willem Dafoe for so long and seeing him out there has always been a real treat.”
Asked who he plans to take to the Oscars ceremony, on Sunday, March 10, at the Dolby Theatre, Jefferson says, “My girlfriend and my father. My dad’s gonna be 82 this year, and I really would love the opportunity to take him to the Oscars. I’m gonna try to gun for two tickets.”
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