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Knowing Your Family, Warts And All: Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jovan Adepo on “Fences”

What Denzel Washington has proven in his three directorial efforts is that he is not only one of our greatest living actors, he is an immensely gifted actor’s director. His debut feature, 2002’s “Antwone Fisher,” crafted a star-making showcase for its leading man, Derek Luke, while introducing many audiences to an actress who had too often been relegated to the background—Viola Davis. 2007’s rousing “The Great Debaters” had an entire ensemble of excellent, fresh-faced talent led by Nate Parker, who bore a striking resemblance to a young Washington. Now with “Fences,” an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 play that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, Washington and Davis reprise their roles that won each of them Tony Awards during the show’s 2010 revival. He plays Troy, a father in Pittsburgh whose hardened worldview clashes with those of his sons, including teenage Cory (riveting newcomer Jovan Adepo), while his lack of fidelity tests the devotion of his loving wife, Rose (Davis). Stephen McKinley Henderson, who also was in the 2010 revival, lends invaluable support as Troy’s longtime pal, Bono.

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A couple days before they and their fellow cast members earned Screen Actors Guild award nominations for Best Ensemble, Henderson and Adepo spoke with RogerEbert.com about Washington’s approach to direction, immersing themselves in the period and acting opposite giants like Davis and (in Henderson’s case) Daniel Day-Lewis.

To what degree was the play transformed on its journey from stage to screen?

Stephen McKinley Henderson (SH): Not very much at all. August wrote the screenplay as well as the play and Denzel was very faithful to the dialogue. August’s script is so visual. The imagery that he created as a poet/playwright was so strong, and in Denzel’s hands, it was taken to another level. What you see in the film is what he crafted from all the takes, and he culled it together while working with the editor [Hughes Winborne]. I’m just thrilled and I think August would be thrilled about what he was able to do. It’s quite an achievement.

The only thing that was really altered were some of the locations where the dialogue took place, such as the bar where Denzel and I meet. On Fridays, our characters always drink together out of one gin bottle that we share. Then in the film, we have a scene in a bar where there’s all the booze we’d ever want, and we choose not to drink. As for the dialogue itself, the only line that was added to the script was when Denzel says, “The commissioner will see you now.” We also had the joy of adding Pittsburgh to the mix. It was incredible how the city opened their arms to us and became a character in the film by allowing us access to all these places. Aside from those things, the transition was seamless. We were so connected from doing the show together, and since it had been six years between the stage production and the film, it was like getting the band back together. We had some hits in the past, so we tuned up the instruments, brought in a new hotshot, and were on the road again.

How do you gauge a performance differently on stage versus on film? I know many actors in Chicago who perform in intimate venues where their approach to performance is similar to acting in close-up.

Jovan Adepo (JA): My stage experience has mainly consisted of doing original plays in Los Angeles, and like you said, the rooms are much smaller. I hadn’t had the pleasure of needing to hit the back row, so to speak. For me, it’s all about coming from an honest place. That’s the only thing that I could think of as far as what to keep constant in terms of doing stage acting and television or film.

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SH: Yeah, truth is the core. In the theater, the audience is sort of the barometer, whereas on film, the other actor’s eyes are your barometer, your check-in place. I had the great pleasure of working in the theater here in Chicago. Back in the day, there was a venue called the Wisdom Bridge Theater, and it was a small space where the truth level was life-sized. I also worked at the old Goodman Theatre across the bridge, which was a much larger space. 

Was there an attempt to replicate the stage experience by using long takes and multiple cameras?

SH: The great thing that we did was we shot primarily in sequence, so that’s the only carry-over from the stage. Otherwise, nothing was set up to replicate our experience onstage. We couldn’t remember much of what we did six years ago, and the things remaining from it that were habitual had to be removed. Denzel gave us a rehearsal period to get that out of us, whatever instinctive or residual behavior that was left from the theatre. Then we were able to take the action into the backyard—an actual backyard. 

Watching “Fences,” I was often reminded of Daniel Petrie’s powerful 1961 screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Do you have a favorite stage-to-film adaptation?

SH: I have seen many films based on plays that I hadn’t seen onstage. One of the adaptations that I saw on film, and later saw onstage, was a play by Robert Bolt called “A Man for All Seasons.” I really, really liked that film and Paul Scofield’s performance in it. In fact, I got a chance to do a film of “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1989. It’s the only time before “Fences” that I was in a play that we later filmed. The production featured Danny Glover and Esther Rolle, and it was broadcast on PBS American Playhouse.

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JA: Mine would probably have to be “A Soldier’s Story,” based on the play by Charles Fuller, which I have yet to see onstage. 

How did you approach portraying the dynamic between Cory and his father, which fuels many of the film’s most riveting scenes?

JA: Denzel had made it apparent that he wanted me to bring my own interpretation of Cory. I was definitely aware of Courtney B. Vance’s performance in the original production, as well as that of Chris Chalk, who performed the role onstage with my cast back in 2010. I had watched and studied them before, but I never made the decision to stay along the same lines of performing as they did, because all I can do is bring my own interpretation to it. My cast mates and Denzel were all supportive of what I had to bring to the character, and it was definitely something that I was able to relate to. All young men can relate to that moment where they have to, or rather, attempt to stand up to their dads with their own ideas of what they want for their own lives.

When you’re younger, you’re trying to understand and make sense of what your parents are trying to instill in you, which is ultimately life experience. I remember being 17 and my dad trying to teach me the importance of responsibility. He’d have me do yard work in the summer and tell me to keep up with my chores. I’d be like, “Why does this matter? I didn’t make my bed this morning, big deal!” [laughs] That’s how you learn the importance of discipline and of sticking to a regiment. All of that comes with life experience, and as an actor, I could definitely understand what Troy was trying to instill in Cory. But I wanted to suspend my understanding of that while playing him because that’s where the fun comes in. You get to remember what it felt like as a kid to have no concept of responsibility.

SH: It’s not until you face your children that you understand what your parents had to face in you. As a child, you look at the situation from one perspective, and then as soon as you get a kid, you say, “Oh my god, what was I like?”, because you start to see that behavior come back at you.

As soon as the film ended, I told a publicist outside the theater that if Viola Davis doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I’m definitely moving to Canada.

SH: [laughs] Thank you for that! I did my first Broadway show with Viola in 2001. I had seen her work in other things, so I was already inoculated to her greatness. Every time I see her work, I’m just like, “Oh my god.” With this film, I had the chance to come back and see it all afresh. She’s just so in the moment and was a joy to work with. I’ll always remember just how funny she is between takes. She can go to such an emotional place of depth and then come out of that and crack you up. To get a chance to work with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and with the great text of August Wilson…it’s about as good as it gets, baby.

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JA: After the big fight scene between Troy and Cory, Cory goes into the military. Viola and I created this entire journey of Cory and Rose’s communication over that period and what happened in their lives since that day. We sat and talked about how long it was since Cory came home to visit, how often he was able to see her and talk to her. We were writing each other pretend letters back and forth, like when Cory was in basic training. She was excited about that process because all of those little things help season a performance. I was amazed by how open she was to a new actor and her willingness to help me along as I was finding what worked for me during preparation for each scene. She’s been a complete blessing to me, and I know all my cast members would agree. Watching her and Denzel start from ground zero and work their way up to the performances that you see onscreen was like participating in a master’s class.

Does Denzel’s greatness as an actor’s director lie in knowing when and when not to give direction?

JA: That’s exactly it! [laughs]

SH: He has a zen way of doing it. He knows when you don’t need to be talked to. He knows when he’s stimulated you just enough—he can see it in your eyes, and he says, “Okay, take that and go with it.” His generosity as an actor helps you as well, and that’s not only in regards to his work as an actor’s director. When he goes away to work with the editor, he knows exactly how to tell that story. Sometimes you don’t need to see the person who’s talking at a particular moment, sometimes you need to see who’s listening. You’re not aware of the editing because it feels so natural. As a viewer, you think, “Of course this is who I need to see right now.” Our cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, did incredible work. Because of the two films he’s already directed, and the many films he’s acted in, Denzel has a crew around him that is comprised of people he’s been working with for years. As a cast, we were a family joining a larger family they had been with Denzel longer than we had in many cases. He’s the kind of leader who engenders a desire in everyone to do their very best.

The release of “Fences” is perfectly timed this year, considering the tense family gatherings occurring over the holidays in this post-election season. What would you say is the relevance of Wilson’s views on family?

SH: The truth is that family will sustain you. Knowing your family, warts and all, is akin to knowing yourself, warts and all. If you know, appreciate and accept yourself, you can make it through any political climate, any particular individual injustice. That sense of self, that sense of belonging, can help you get through any period that we happen to be going through in the country. Family sustains, family fortifies.

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JA: I would agree completely with that, but I also think this film is important even for the younger generation to understand the relationship between themselves and their parents. You may not understand your parents’ interpretation of love and what they think is best for you, but you have to trust it. Like Rose says in the movie, your parents are doing the best they can with what they know and what they got when they were your age.

Before we go, I must ask Stephen about his performance in one of my favorite films, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Your role of William Slade, Lincoln’s aide and valet, could’ve been the subject of his own film. 

SH: Because of Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s diligence in terms of specificity, I started off by looking at my role and saying, “Okay, let me see who this guy was.” Once I began reading about it, I found that I had to keep reading because I kept stumbling upon fascinating aspects about him. I discovered that he had his own business in Washington, he was a caterer, and Lincoln often asked for him to carry letters to people. His children would play with the president’s kids. All of that research makes the work very rich. Working with Daniel Day-Lewis is like working with Denzel Washington or Viola Davis—you’re looking at this authenticity, this genuineness, and there’s no place for you to go but there. In “Lincoln,” you were constantly surrounded by layers and layers of historical reality.

To the point where Day-Lewis would be in character as Lincoln between takes, and Spielberg would refer to the actors by their character names. 

SH: That’s why I was glad to work with Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln because of his character’s generosity and his humanity. I wouldn’t have wanted to work with him when he was making “Gangs of New York,” because if he was Bill the Butcher 24/7…I don’t know, man. [laughs] But working with Lincoln was such a kick. He was just so nice. He’d come up to me and say things like, “How are you, Mr. Slade? How are the kids? We’re having lovely weather today, Mr. Slade.” And he’d be talking about the day’s weather, he wasn’t talking about historical weather. It wasn’t like he got the almanac and looked up what the weather was on that specific day in 1865. 

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Onset, you really were in this austere White House, and it wasn’t opulent. It was during the Civil War, where everything was being used for the troops. There were so many smoke-filled cigars with tobacco. They said cotton was king, but tobacco was right in there with it, because everyone smoked cigars back then. Making “Fences” was a similar experience. You got to go onset and see those cars from the 1950s. You’d walk down the street and see that old garbage truck, wear the hats, hear that music and feel like you were in that time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some really wonderful directors both onstage and on film. Denzel was as prepared and as mission-oriented in shepherding August Wilson to film as Spielberg was in making “Lincoln.” 

JA: Filming in Pittsburgh served as an advantage for me too. You get there on the first day and you already see them starting to build and transform these buildings and bring in the vintage cars. Once we got onset and started filming, it was like a completely different world. Obviously, I wasn’t around in the ’50s, but I got a really nice interpretation of what it was like at that time, even with the way they dressed our house—the pictures they hung up everywhere and all the paraphernalia that was in my room. Those details made it so much easier to just live in that world and suspend my own belief and my own reality. I am so spoiled with this being my first feature film. It was an incredible experience.


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