Interview: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis & Stephen Henderson on Returning to ‘Fences’ (Opens Wide Christmas Day)
Photo Credit: Fences
Film , Interviews

Interview: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis & Stephen Henderson on Returning to ‘Fences’ (Opens Wide Christmas Day)

Viola Davis, Denzel Washington / Fences

Returning to their roles six years after the Tony Award-winning revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” stunned Broadway; Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen Henderson are at long last presenting the sixth play in Wilson “Pittsburg Cycle” to film audiences.

The play, which was written in 1983 and first debuted on Broadway in 1987 is one of Wilson’s most beloved and well-known from his Twentieth Century Pittsburg Cycle. Set in the 1950’s, “Fences” follows 53-year old sanitation worker Troy Maxson and his family, who are struggling to thrive in the racially tense era. Recently, at a screening for the film in New York City that I attended, Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington who is directing and starring in the film, Academy Award Nominee Viola Davis, and Tony Award Nominee Stephen Henderson, sat down for a post-screening Q&A. They discussed their return to “Fences,” adapting it for film, and what August Wilson’s work means for us today.

Denzel, getting “Fences” to the big screen has been a very long process for you. What did you see in the play that made you realize it would make a great film? I understand that August Wilson wrote the screenplay.

Denzel Washington: In 2009, Scott Rudin sent me August’s original screenplay and asked me what I wanted to do with it. He wanted to know if I wanted to act in it, direct it or produce it. I said, “Well, let me read it first.” (Laughing) So, I read it, and I realized I hadn’t read the play, so I read the play. I had seen the play in the ‘80s, so I thought I was too young to be Troy or too old to be Cory. I was thinking about when I saw it in the ‘80s. And then, when I read the play and it said, “Troy, 53-years old” and I was 55 at the time, I said, “Oh, I better hurry up.” So, it was as simple as that. I called Scott Rudin, and I told him I wanted to do the play, so that’s how the ball got rolling. I never said, “I’ll do the play, and the next year I’ll do the film, I just wanted to do the play.”

When you talk about adapting a play into a film, there is a lot of discussion about opening up the world. For all of you, because you were all in the play, let’s talk about recontextualizing some of the scenes because we are able to move away from the yard in the film.

DW: Well, let me just say before they speak, I never thought about opening it up, I don’t even know what that means, I just thought about where else would it make sense for this scene to take place. I thought, “Why can’t Rose walk in the kitchen?” So we used the front yard, the backyard, the kitchen, we used the front room; we used the porch, we used the front street and upstairs and other places, the back of the [garbage truck], the sanitation yard, the insane asylum, the bar, and that worked well.

Stephen Henderson: It all fit, it really did. Pittsburg fit. Spiritually speaking we knew that we were on streets that August had walked and that he had mused on back when he was just writing. Because he wrote, he wrote before anybody was doing it. So to be in touch with that and to have his family there, it was really rich. The community we were in, they so welcomed us.

Viola Davis: They were so protective of the work.

DW: We had a guy, a gentlemen by the name of Mr. Greenleaf who lived behind the house we were shooting in, and he was like a part of the movie. (Laughing) He would come downstairs, and he couldn’t hear well to say, “Ya’ll want some coffee?”

How did you calibrate this world as a director?

DW: We had depth, and we wanted to take advantage of that cinematically. When you look in one direction where Troy’s chair was, you could see out through the yard across the street, there was an old cork bar advertisement for five cents. We wanted it to feel like this was real life and that it extended blocks and blocks.

Viola, can you talk about working with Denzel both as an actor and then having him as a director?

VD: Well, Denzel just knows the actor. He knows the process, and you don’t often get that. Sometimes people come in as a director, and they just want the result, and they barely want that to tell you the truth. Sometimes directors barely talk to the actors; they are so focused on the cinematic elements of the movie, getting the shot and getting the lighting right or getting the CGI effects right and all of that, and they just trust that you are just going to do what you do. Obviously, [“Fences”] is not a piece you can do that with. It is a character-driven piece in every sense of the word, and Denzel knows the actor. He gave us two weeks of rehearsal. He is a truth teller, and he is a truth seer. So he knows when something is not going in the right direction, and he will call you on it. But, he knows the word to use to unlock whatever is blocking you. So I think he’s fabulous and he’s a teacher.

DW: Keep going girl!

VD: (Laughing) When Denzel first called me on the phone after we’d just done a reading of the film. He said, “Oh Viola it was so good, wasn’t it?! I’m gonna tell Russell [Hornsby] to lose a little bit of weight and…” I was just sitting there thinking, why is he calling me? And I told him, “Denzel don’t you tell me to lose weight!” He said, “I’m not telling you to lose weight! I can’t believe you would say that.” He was rustling with something and when he came back it was with a word about loving myself and the body that I’m in because I was still going on and on about the weight thing. I just liked that, because what people don’t understand is that so much of what blocks us as actors is so personal. So it just great. Lloyd Richards is another director who was like that, who was a teacher. When a director can give you a word that allows you to feel less tense about yourself, to make you feel like you indeed are good enough before you even get to the work, you can’t ask for anything more than that.

Since all three of you worked together on the stage play, what was it like bringing in the new cast members for the film?

SH: It was very very easy to open up to them. Both of the new people were so respectful of the work and glad to be there. Nothing was taken for granted, coming into the film.

DW: Just so you know the new people are Jovan [Adepo] who played Cory and the little girl.

SH: Saniyyah [Sidney] and Jovan, they both came, and they were so respectful towards the work. Once of the things Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and I did is we took Jovan out to Greenwood where August is buried. I’d been there a few times, and we took him out to his headstone, and I remembered this tree, and that’s all I remembered. I saw a tree and it was a wrong tree, but Jovan saw this other tree and ran up, and he got there first. For me, it was really a sign. There was so much about this whole experience that proved that the people who were brought to it, were brought to it by forces. I mean they were brought to it by Denzel, but Denzel is such an instinctive kind of person. He’s an instinctive artist and instinctive in terms of his feelings about people. So, it was very easy and Saniyyah, well forget about it. She’s an old soul; she’s been here before.

Speaking about Saniyyah, what was it like finding her in the casting process because she is such a crucial character?

DW: She just had “it.” I didn’t want to audition the kids so much; I just wanted to talk to them because I like seeing how they are because their mothers usually mess them up with practice. So, I’d rather talk to them and see how they respond. I just throw things at them and see how they can hit the ball back, and she was good. I even asked her why she wanted to be an actor and she said, “I’m serious about this. These other little kids they want to play, and I don’t have time for that.” She was very serious about her work and her craft, and she wanted to be good, and she wanted to work on it. So I said, “Ok.” It was as simple as that. She was just right. She just has it.

“Fences” is a character driven film for sure, but it is also gorgeous. Can you talk about your approach to blocking the film?

DW: It was just an organic process you know. I worked with Sidney Lumet years ago, and we had a long rehearsal process, and he would tape out the entire set on the stage, so I stole that from him. We rehearsed for two weeks, and we taped out the whole house in the front, and the rooms, and we stood it up like a play. We tried to get off book and gave people small props.

SH: But also, the wonderful thing that you did man, was bringing those young people in; the understudies. It helped us all; they were there to help you with your lines and it was very clear that it was about legacy and it was wonderful to see how much it meant to them.

DW: What we did was we got young students from Carnegie Mellon, the acting and theater students, and we had them as our understudies. I told them, “You have to be off book and be ready. If Viola has to leave you have to jump in.“ I had the kid who understudied me so I could stand back and think about shots so he had to learn the blocking and everything. I’d come in early sometimes, and they ‘d be in there rehearsing and working on their stuff. I didn’t want them to feel like, “Oh these are people who can’t be touched.” We’re all working actors; we’re all trying to get better.

One of the things that I think is incredibly powerful is the way that you edited the film. What was it like in the editing room?

DW: It’s tricky with monologues, and I never like to use that word. Like I told the actors, you are talking to somebody; there is no such thing as a monologue. You are talking to somebody even if it’s just to yourself, convince yourself if that’s what you’re trying to do. So, you have to find the right places to cut, especially when it came to Bono because, in the first 46 minutes of the movie, there is no music cue because Troy never stops talking. So, yes first pass it’s easy to just stay on Troy but when do you cut to another person? He’s talking and talking, and Rose says, “Troy lyin.” It’s just one line, so do you just cut for that line? You start to find a rhythm and usually if it makes me laugh or comment in the editing room then I knew that’s what’s going to happen in the audience. That first reaction is usually the right reaction.

As actors what was it like doing that type of coverage on a play that you are used to just doing top to bottom?

SH: The thing is, Denzel really took care of everybody else first. So when you’re getting that kind of generosity, because he really wants to make sure everyone else was taken care of, so I never felt neglected. I was just always so glad to be there and glad to be off-camera for the other person so that the best work could be done. He was there as the character; he was there as the director.

VD: But, it was hard, that confrontation scene, that was a hard one. I felt like it was relentless, I never felt like I could just drop the ball when the coverage was on him or anything else. So for me, that was a hard scene to do twenty-something times, which (laughing), I counted. That was difficult, but once I did it, I felt like I could do anything.

SH: More than any film that I’ve ever been involved with, we shot the film pretty much in sequence. That was incredible; it was such a boom to the work to do it that way.

DW: I try to encourage actors to work harder off screen because that’s where you find things. But, that’s also where people tend to relax when they’re off camera. That’s when they should be working the hardest. That’s where you can find things and modulate your performance and give the other actors something fresh to respond to. We’ve probably all worked with actors who when it’s suddenly your close up, they get sleepy. I don’t like that. It’s selfish acting, and I won’t tolerate it.

Denzel as a producer did you fight for that in-sequence shooting?

DW: I didn’t have to fight. (Laughing) They were gonna do what I said or not.

Can each of you talk a bit about what August Wilson’s work can teach us today about our time?

SH: Classics are things that can always speak to us. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s today or ten years from now, it’s the timeless nature of the great work that makes it. So, the whole relationship thing which is really crucial, the notion of a father that feels a responsibility to the children that he brings into this world. And, the relationship between men and women and long-term real depth friendships, those things are timeless. So August will always be able to speak to us, just the way Sophocles speaks to us and Shakespeare; the way all the greats speak to us over century. What I so love about it is that he uses our culture to inform the world. Everybody that I’ve ever seen that comes back after an August Wilson play; all of these people say, that’s like my family, that’s my so in so. It just makes you feel great that there is something to offer to the world about being human from our cultural context.

VD: I sort of feel like that’s the most revolutionary thing we can do with our narrative for me as Black people is to show that we are just like you. August elevates in us is the average man in a way that is heroic and real and human. What you do is you sit with our pathology, you invest in our humanity. We’re not walking around like walking symbols like we mean something larger. We’re just moving throughout our lives and that’s the power of the piece. That’s revolutionary.

Denzel, how did you construct your performance of Troy? Is it modeled after anyone in particular, a combination of people?

DW: I remember my mother and father arguing about light bulbs because my father thought he could save money by putting 25-watt bulbs instead of 60-watt bulbs and my mother was trying to explain to him that her children needed to learn to read so that they could go to college. He couldn’t see that. So, he couldn’t put that together. I remember my father telling me that just like Troy, he could get me in with the water department where he worked in New York. He talked about how he could get me on the job, and if I stayed 25 years, I could probably work my way up to be a supervisor and how it was a good union and all of the benefits and that I was going to make $20,000 in 50 years or whatever it was. He couldn’t see that far. He could see as far as he could see and my mother wanted us to go to college so it was a very real part of my life.

Viola, I would love to know how you approach Rose’s measure of grace and long-suffering.

VD: I would like to say something deeper, but for me, I saw a production of “Fences” in Rhode Island and a fabulous actress played Rose, but when she first came on the stage she was mad. You could just see it. She was just mad; she had an attitude when she came out with the peas she was just mad. She was all, “Troy stop!” So by the time you get to the revelation scene, I didn’t think she loved him, so there was no loss. I think that the real tragedy and the real drama or the thing that makes you lean in is to see the love, to see the commitment. To see the fact that Rose is invested in this marriage no matter what. To see that she might be in the background but she’s good because it makes her sing, she could do it she’s sacrificing. I also tried to leave myself alone enough to be surprised by the news. That’s when it had its potency. If I approach everything with joy and hope and love, which is what we all do. Every day we get up we’re hoping that today is going to be the day that’s going to get you over the hump. I tried to do that as much as I could. So then when all the news happens you see what she is made out of. I think at the end of the day she is a strong woman in the truest sense of the word. I think all of that is in the narrative; it’s already there. The hope is there; the playfulness is there; it’s there. I wish I could take credit for it, but it’s there. One of the things I did not try to do was play that monologue. I think a lot of people play the monologue, even the actress that I told you about she played it from the very first beat because it’s really, seriously, a hard moment to play if you aren’t prepared for it. So, a lot of times women come out and say, “Eighteen years, eighteen years I’ve been with this damn bastard. Eighteen years I’ve been sacrificing my dreams and everything.” I sort of feel like we all have that monologue in our head when we’re married. (Laughing) I’m sorry, if you’ve been married for five minutes, you’ve sacrificed something, you’ve looked over at your partner and have gone, “Oh my God this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.” And then the next moment it’s “This is the most beautiful and extraordinary human being, and I’m going to stick with it because I love them more than anyone else.” That monologue to me is the universal thing, especially for women because I feel like that’s the big thing with women. People often forget our emotional contribution to relationships and to marriage and that might be a completely sexist comment but, what I tried not to do is, I tried to just put that monologue as part of my stream of consciousness. But along with all of that it was, “Oh, isn’t he a great storyteller? Oh, it’s that why I married him? Isn’t he handsome? Oh, what am I going to make for dinner today?” I put all of that as a part of her inner everyday monologue so, by the time he tells he that news and all of that I feel that it’s there already. I had to invest in the love and understand that with the love comes the pain. So when he tells me that, the monologue is already there. Does that make sense?

DW: I talked to my mother about it a lot. I asked her what it was like to grow up in New York and Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, and I asked her about a woman leaving her husband. I asked her about how she would feel about that woman, and my mother grew up in the Church Of God In Christ, and she told me that the woman might be isolated because the other women thought she might go and come after their husbands. That’s how they thought then. I asked my mother I said, “You divorced my dad, how did you decide? She said, “I decided twelve years before he knew it.” I was like wow; I’m learning something new every day. So, she couldn’t just jump out there. Not just because of economic reasons but because how she was looked at in society at the time. There were a lot of factors that made you stay I guess.

We never see Alberta. At any given time Denzel was there a temptation to make her visual?

DW: We shot it, and we cut it. We cut it because women didn’t want to see it. It didn’t bother men at all, because I asked, “What do you think?” and they said, “About what?” When I talked to women, it was like, “I don’t like it, don’t rub it in my face.” But then, someone said, “Oh, I didn’t know that was Alberta, I thought that was another woman.” So I thought “Oh no, I have to cut it.” Because he says, “I wasn’t out there looking for nothing, this woman just stuck on to me.” If that’s not true, then it’s a story about a liar and it’s not a story about a liar.”

Viola, with all of the love Rose had for Troy, did you think she had an idea that something was going on?

VD: Yes, I mean there are moments. There’s the moment like after the Gabriel scene where they’re in the kitchen and Troy throws something down and leaves the kitchen, and Rose is left alone sitting at the table. It’s a moment, when yes, Rose is suspecting that but as I always say, there is a lot of things that Rose is thinking in that moment. She’s thinking, “I’m bored.” She’s thinking, “I put all of this flour in this bowl and now I don’t have anybody to cook for.” I really want my acting to be definitive a lot of times, but I must feel like in any given moment there is a lot of things going on with Rose. I kept telling Denzel throughout filming that the house is her joy and her tomb.

DW: In the movie I realized, I had the luxury of getting to see how the other person feels. So in the play, he walks out and then we go to black. In the film, he knocks down the can; he walks out, and we stay with her. Now we get to see her. I not only extend staying with her, but we also see that her son is watching her and she doesn’t know it. So now we get to see how she feels about what just happened, we get to see what her son feels about her without her knowing.

VD: I really wanted to show a marriage that is working. Not perfect, but working. And I felt that there could be some anger. There could be some frustration that he has the tendency to take over the room, but I wanted all of those things to show in the grays of her hair and the fact that her hips are much wider than they probably were when she met him. I wanted it to show in the fact that her hair is not done up all the time. I wanted it to be a part of that every day that wasn’t in your face. Because then for me, that’s overacting. To me, that’s not “being.” I wanted Rose to be many things; I think that’s why August named her Rose; I really do. She’s a rose in her sweetness and her kindness and in everything else, even her anger towards the end.

Thank you all so much for your time.

“Fences” opened in select theaters on December 16, 2016, before opening everywhere this Sunday, Christmas Day.

Watch a trailer for the film below:

Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: or tweet her @midnightrami


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