Based on the August Wilson stage play by the same name, Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a Pittsburgh sanitation worker who had aspirations of being a baseball player in his younger days but was denied because he was black. Now a husband and a father, he struggles with the daily decisions he has to make in order to provide for his family. Shakefire sat down with Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Jovan Adepo, who make up nearly half the cast of this intimate film. They discuss their characters, the proces of adapting the play for film, and working with Washington.
Shakefire (SF): Why do you think this play has held up so well over time?
Stephen McKinley Henderson (SMH): Why it’s held up so well? Because it was built like a pyramid; it was built to last. He really did craft it and structure it on such fundamentally human things. I always used to say, he said in a Paris review, “I sit down in the same chair that Sophocles sat in and Ibsen sat it.” All the great playwrights that come from their culture perspective. Chekhov in Russia. He’s speaking to the whole world about the human condition from this particular culture perspective. So it does hold up. And for Americans, one of the things that makes it really one of his most accessible and beloved plays is because of baseball. It’s cause it’s that sport. Then the other thing – just to show how important a playwright works – it’s this garbage thing. In 59, 58, 57 and when you think about where did Martin go when he went back? He said, “I gotta go back down and take care of those garbage markers.” So August is laced with meaning for Americans. It’s in there so subtly and so wonderfully that you’ll keep learning from it. As you grow, you keep learning from it. Like all great works, when you’re a young person you see Hamlet one way, and when you’re an older person you see it a different way. It’s something to keep looking at. Classics are classics because they always have something to teach us, and not because they’re old but because they’re now.
SF: What have you learned?
SMH: The precious, precious value of family and extended family. The everlasting nature of bonds between people. And the strength that’s gained from telling the truth, to free yourself to tell the truth. There are a lot of principles there that only because you’ve been in that darkness can you see that light. There’s no place that you can go that’s so far away that it can’t reach you, that that truth can’t reach you and bring you back from wherever. I mean, I’m still learning from it. I’m going to always learn from it because it depends on what I need, the sustenance that I need. And I’m talking about all the plays out of August, but this one particularly I think about family and the value of family and extended family and friendship.
Mykelti Williamson (MW): And for me one of the things that I’ve taken, and I’ve taken many things from and learned from August Wilson, is the strength of women. Women can be stronger than man any day of the week. And if you read August Wilson and pay attention to what the man put on the page you’ll know that that’s absolutely true.
SF: And what about you Jovan?
Jovan Adepo (JA): It’s the same. It’s just the elements of family and the freedom you can give yourself with forgiveness and accepting the events of your life and the people around you.
SF: The film itself plays out like a play in that it’s very intimate with a small cast and really only a few locations. What was it like on set for you all?
SMH: It was a lovefest. Russell Hornsby, who played Lyons, he has a phrase he embraces. Every now and then he’ll launch it on us and that is, “What was it like? Love on a biscuit.” It was love. It was one of the best bands you ever get to play.
SF: Jovan, you are a newcomer to the world of film. How were you able to hold your own opposite such heavy hitters? What did you channel for inspiration?
JA: For inspiration, just start from the material. I think August Wilson lays a foundation. Everything is in his work. All you have to do is trust it and abide by it. As far as holding my own, to steal one of my Uncle T’s sentiments is just trough prayer and support from the cast. They were a family before I came, and once I arrived they welcomed me with open arms and each and every one of them were in my corner and made sure that I felt comfortable in my own skin. They made me feel like I was enough because I was definitely intimidated being around these artists because of their talent and because of their experience. They made sure that I was comfortable in the fact that I was supposed to be there.
SF: Stephen and Mykelti, you both have played your roles before on stage. How did you prepare for adapting your performances for film as opposed to stage?
MW: We always carry with us truth. That’s the foundation from which you launch. That is your foundation. But with film you can be more intimate. You don’t have to project to include the people on the back row. You can be more intimate and be conversational and truthful. That was basically the adjustment. I mean we learned more things about the characters in an intimate environment, and after having walked away and coming back together again, bringing the band back together again as Stephen says, we learned and brought new things with us. A new arsenal. But that’s it. Truth. Intimacy.
SF: What’s it like working with Denzel as a director?
SMH: Wonderful. Couldn’t be in better hands. He knows the craft, he’s made films, but he also really, really respects them and loves actors. There’s a Zen to it. He says as much as he needs to and when he doesn’t need to say anything he doesn’t. He trusts us so we trust him. That’s all there is to say.
SF: What was it like working with him as an actor? Was there any separation between director Denzel and actor Denzel?
MW: No, we use the term seamless. Stephen just coined it; he knew when to say something and when not too because he’s one of the best that there ever has been.
SF: Did you find yourself drawing from any similarities between you and your characters?
JA: I think so. Definitely speaking for myself and Cory, I had a similar relationship with my father, it just absolutely wasn’t as severe and aggressive as Cory and Troy. Every young man wants to prove himself and wants to find his own path to success and purpose. I think just wanting to go about that but also making my father proud and respecting his wishes is something that I can absolutely relate to.
MW: For me, if I could borrow from another character, there’s a couple things I learned and I would like to borrow from. One, Russell Hornsby has a swag like nobody else’s. If I could just emulate for one day that brother’s swag I’d be a happy dude. The other one is Mr. Bono, his character as a friend. Watching him and his work has helped me elevate my friendship and value my friends at a much higher level.
SMH: A young man asked us, “What would you say to your 20-year-old self? What advice would you give?” What I really able to use was just how foolish I was when I was young. If I was to give myself some advice, because I have lost love because of weakness on my own part. And so that’s the thing I bring in talking to him. You have to be so vulnerable and truthful with yourself to do this work. To be quite honest, the love that I lost is why I try to warn him as best I can because it’s lost because it’s most precious and it’s most precious because it can be lost.
SF: What would you say the film does differently than the play?
MW: I would say with a play you can sit and watch and the audience controls the focus. They can look and miss something because maybe they’re watching their friend or their son or their daughter in a play so they miss an important plot turn or something or some behavior. With film, Denzel was able to put the focus where it needs to be. The filmmaker is in total control of the focus so it lowers your possibilities of missing the point. That’s what I would say is the most profound difference.