Interview: Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jovan Adepo

 

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For his third film as a director, Denzel Washington will be finally bringing the work of playwright August Wilson to the silver screen with the film adaptation of Fences. The film is about a Pittsburgh sanitation worker (Washington) in the 1950s who is struggling to thrive in an era where racial tensions were at an all-time high. Washington is not a stranger to the material as he starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, along with will Violas Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby. Those respective actors reprise their roles in Washington’s film adaptation except for Jovan Adepo, a relative newcomer who plays Washington’s conflicted son in the film. I had the opportunity to speak with Henderson and Adepo about the transition from the stage to the screen and their experiences shooting the film in the hometown of August Wilson: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Stephen, as an actor, what are the differences between performing the play on Broadway and shooting it as a motion picture?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: It would have to be the freedom to be as intimate as it requires. It’s wonderful to be free from that constraint to serve the back row. In the theater, it’s wonderful and that’s why you take classes and use voice projection in order to reach the back row so you don’t cheat the seats in the back, but that is an obligation as an actor on the stage. You are freed from that obligation to allow yourself to be intimate, to talk and to hear the other person. It’s a great freedom that it gives you. There is also a challenge to it because you have to bring truth to the role. It had to be absolutely truthful. It’s not about being theatrical or dramatic. It’s about being truthful, the freedom to be intimate and then the challenge to be truthful.

Speaking of challenges, what do you think were the challenges of playing the same roles on film and on stage?

Henderson: One of the marvelous things is to have the six years between the time we did it on the stage and the time we did it in Pittsburgh. That made it, not easier, but fresh. Denzel made sure we got rid of all of the old habits of performing the play on stage; we excoriated them in the two weeks of rehearsals. It was really effortless in terms of the connection to the stage thing, but the wonderful thing that was a residue was that August wrote the screenplay and August wrote the play. It was like meeting an old friend to have those lines to say again, those wonderful lines by this great writer. It was like running into an old friend and that old friend happen to be you.

When you were filming on the sets while wearing the costumes? How did it help more in the performances?

Jovan Adepo: I think Stephen will agree with me that it was a huge benefit to get the opportunity to film in Pittsburgh and be on the hill and be in the neighborhood that August Wilson speaks about and refer to in the story. The costumes and having the entire town transformed into the 1950s was amazing. As a newcomer to the industry, it was beneficial to me to really fall into this different time and different setting and really be able to go in and have fun and enjoy myself.

Henderson: To be in Pittsburgh was a great boom to the whole process. To have those clothes and the automobiles takes you back. Actually, there was a moment that was not on film of the cast getting in the funeral cars. When I got into this funeral car, I looked at the back seat and realized this is the first funeral car that I ever rode in, a Chrysler Imperial, for my great grandmother’s funeral. I was born in 1949 so in 1953 or 1954, I got in this car. It was that exact car and that exact model. At the time, when I was small, it felt like the biggest car in the world. Even as I sat in there, the sizable man that I am and somewhat older, it still felt that way. It still felt like I was that kid in the back seat of that car. I was grateful for that experience of getting in that car, even though we didn’t shoot that scene.

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Having worked on both television shows and films, how did it feel when Denzel chose to shot this particular film in sequence?

Henderson: That was a great, great plus. I have done more stage work then film work. I am very glad for the films that I have been a part of, but with Fences, to have done it as a play, to have rehearse it in sequence before filming and then to shoot it primarily in sequence, it was so wonderful because every time you came to the set, you had the immediate memory of the moment before. It wasn’t this problem of trying to somehow conjure up what had just happened because you have just lived with what just happened. You had the past that you were living right there in the present for you. That was Denzel’s idea. I don’t mean anything against any of the directors I have worked with, but as a director, Denzel was as prepared as any of them. He was also as mission-oriented on this movie as much as Steven Spielberg was while working with him on “Lincoln” or Aaron Sorkin on “The Newsroom.” It’s the kind of thing where you can see that they are really committed to the material and that they are expressing themselves as filmmakers.

With everyone in the cast are reprising their roles from the play and as a person coming into the fray, what were initial emotions as the “newcomer” on the set?

Adepo: The main thing that I was thinking was that I better not screw up (laughs). I knew it was an incredibly major opportunity. I knew who was going to be involved and who on the cast was going to return for the project. All of the actors are incredibly talented and veterans in the game and I wanted to use this opportunity more then anything to learn from everyone, specifically from Denzel and Viola and Mr. Henderson here. My main goal was to come in as prepared as I possibly could, but once I got there, to just listen. That’s one thing my parents raise me to do: to listen to people who are more experienced than you. While they were feeling their way into the script and getting comfortable to be familiar with the content again, I just sat and watch their process, which was completely valuable to me because I enjoy watching other actor’s work, especially actors that I respect. This entire journey was a treat to me.

How did you break the news to your family that you got the role?

Adepo: They knew what was going on as far the audition, the callbacks and the entire process that was going on. I spoke to my parents the day before I auditioned for Denzel and my father stressed to me that no matter what the outcome was, enjoy that moment that you have with one of your heroes in the audition room because for those 20-30 minutes that you’re in that office, that is your job and that is your character so own it. A couple weeks later, I was on my way to another audition and I was crossing the street and I stopped in the middle in the street to answer a call. My agent called to tell me that I got the part. Instead of continuing to cross the street, I immediately called my dad. I didn’t care because this is the phone call I have been waiting for. There are many actors who have been in the business for a long time. Sometimes they have wait a little longer to get that call or sometimes that call never comes. I definitely wanted to be appreciative of it and understand that it was a blessing.

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Fences opens in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.

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