Fences: Viola Davis–Frontrunner, Supporting Actress Oscar–Part 2

Fences is the first play of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle to be made into a feature film. There’s been anticipation of this film for nearly 30 years, since the play won the Pulitzer Prize.

Paramount is releasing Fences, which is produced an directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars. on Christmas Day.

Viola Davis has chosen to be placed in the Supporting Actress Oscar category, even though she had won the Tony Award for female lead in the 2010 revival of the play.

Interview with Viola Davis (Part 2)

Scene where Cory (the son) says he isn’t going to Troy’s funeral?

VD: That final speech for me between Cory and Rose was very difficult. To be honest, I don’t think I got it when we did Fences on the stage. One of the reasons is I think it’s way more intimate a moment than the stage could allow. But I have to say that Rose’s speech right there was more difficult than the famous speech of, “I’m standing right here with you, Troy,” and the reason is because it’s not a soliloquy. It’s like Denzel said, “You’re doing this for him. It’s not for you.”  That’s number one. Number two, it’s all the things that are not being said: “I’m about to bury the man that I’ve been with for the last 30 years. By that point I still have love for him. I still am angry.” What makes the speech very, very, very difficult is that I’m forgiving all of those things that are silently working through the narrative but that are not being spoken. That speech makes me think of a quote from Jack Kornfield, a famous psychotherapist who was trained as a Buddhist monk. It goes something like “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a different past.”

Rose’s understanding in that scene is that, “I can’t explain to you why your father did what he did to you. I can’t explain why he was so abusive. I can’t. Only God can explain that. But this is what I can say, ‘I messed up, too.’ And I can say, ‘He did the best he could. That’s what he gave you, the best he could.’” And then that’s it.

Film’s last moment, when the heavens open to receive Troy’s spirit?

VD: I love August’s attitude about religion precisely because it’s complicated. African- Americans as a whole have a very specific relationship with God because we didn’t have anything else. We had to have a place, a sanctuary to feel like our lives were worth anything, for a level of comfort, to release. The church played a very specific part in our lives.  One of the things that I love is what August does with religion. In a lot of the black movies I see, there’s always a church scene, and there’s always a soundtrack that comes with the church scene. But there’s never doubt. What I love about Fences is that you see a scene of Rose in church, but you also see Troy’s anger at God. He’s angry at what God has taken away from him. “I’m waiting for you, God. Come and get me. You wanna do this to me? You wanna take something away from me. I can’t even breathe anymore. You took away my livelihood, something that I was great at, something that gave me identity. Now you’re taking away this woman who gave me a great deal of joy and comfort. You wanna take that…” It’s challenging. It ebbs and flows. It goes to the point of maybe hatred, anger and pain. With Rose, it’s comfort. I love that emotional and spiritual journey, and I think that it probably mirrors August’s journey, in terms of his relationship with God.

What I got from the final scene on Fences is what I felt when my dad passed. One of the things that brought my dad great comfort by the time his life ended was to have people praying over him. Because he saw his mortality. He got the right hand of God, which is what they say about the tragic hero. You’re gonna meet your maker. So what I loved about that final moment is that Troy found a place. He had a seat at the table of importance. He had a sense that his life mattered. His life wasn’t perfect, but it mattered. And his brother Gabriel being the messenger—blowing the trumpet to open up heaven—just elevated it to a transcendent moment.

How did your father remind you of Troy?

VD: My father reminded me of Troy because he was a very flawed man. Troy came from that same generation as my father did. My father was born in 1936. So all he knew was that discipline was being beaten. And his father, like Troy’s father, beat him probably because he was just one generation removed from slavery. That’s what he saw. The whipping, the beating. They don’t quite know how to negotiate the role of the father.  And they had to endure the lost dreams, the lost opportunities. I mean, 1936, you just think to yourself, it’s not like the education was there. The choices of what job, what career weren’t there. So you had a very limited, if not bleak future as a black man growing up in South Carolina, where my father did. And my dad was illiterate until he was 15 and never really knew how to read and write very well. And he had drinking issues. Had all of that. But he had a way of seeing the world that was very specific and unique, and you couldn’t argue with him. There was no arguing with him. What he said to do, you did. So in that way, he was very much like Troy.
It has been said that August’s writing is realistic but totally metaphysical at the same time. In that respect, the playwright Tony Kushner, among others, has said that Wilson is closer to Eugene O’Neill than to any other playwright. Absolutely. I mean, Herald Loomis’s speech at the end of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. When Martha comes and it’s a wife that he lost touch with and she is deeply Christian. And he is like, “You’re talking to me about the Holy Ghost. You know you’ve been baptized by the blood of Jesus. Where did it ever get you? Where did it ever get me?” It’s so sacrilegious, you almost want to clutch your heart. It’s like you’re waiting for the rafters to come down and for Loomis to just kind of burn up on the stage.
Until you realize that that’s the journey that Loomis has going through to find meaning. He’s been a slave. Then, even after emancipation, he’s captured and put back into virtual slavery again. He’s like, “I’ve gone through my whole life of being in prison. To working in a chain gang, of feeling like nothing. That’s what the white man reduced me to—a nigger. And God didn’t come for me, I didn’t see God in all of that. I don’t see Him. I’m not seeing Him.” And then, amid all of Martha’s preaching to him, that’s when he does the African ritual. And that’s one of the things I love about August: his boldness.

Obligation in doing this film?

VD: My sense of obligation is huge. Even if this film had been done 30 years ago, the sense of obligation would be very, very huge. You know, Peter O’Toole went to the Oscars 10 times as a nominee and never won an Oscar and a lot of people see that  as a tragedy. The way I like to see it is he had 10 great narratives that brought him to the Oscars. And that’s what’s been missing for actors of color. The great narratives on the page. There was a lack of imagination when writers put pen to paper. Until finally, with writers like August, they began to write for us.

For me, as Viola, I feel like I’m a very complicated human being. I don’t try to be, but I am an amalgamation of memory, of inconsistencies, of hypocrisy, of joy, of pain, of humor, of womanhood, of sexuality. But somehow when it’s put on the page, what happens is there is a filter, a huge filter. And by the time you see us as African Americans on screen or stage, a lot of times we are presented as an image or a social message for something larger. We’re didactic.
I understand that if there’s no message behind what we’re doing, then it feels like it’s irrelevant to what we are doing. We can’t just be human beings just moving through our lives with our pathology. It’s not that August doesn’t make statements. He certainly makes a statement in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He certainly makes a statement in King Hedley II. He certainly makes a statement in Gem of the Ocean. But he does it through the studying of human pathology, of how we relate to each other, of how we relate to ourselves. And there is a huge sense of obligation in creating that and doing that and remaining true to the integrity with which he wrote.

A film adaptation of a play, if it’s done right, often becomes the permanent version of that play. It lasts longer and is seen by more people than any theatrical production. With Fences, do you feel a special sense of responsibility to set down something definitive about this work? You can’t go into any performance with that kind of weight on your shoulders. You cannot predict what audiences are gonna take from it. You just can’t. If you do, then you’re gonna screw it up. The only thing that you can do is to have a spirit of excellence walking into any work. You don’t want to walk into anything half-assed. You want to walk into it with the full and complete understanding of the human being that you’re portraying. That’s what you want to do.

But I do feel a sense of responsibility in my performance as a black woman. You know, years ago, I saw a production of Fences with a great actress playing Rose. But when Rose came on in this production, she was just mad from the very beginning. Just mad. She played the whole part the way Rose does that famous monologue. She was that way from the beginning.

Now, you used that word “smoldering” to describe my performance. And I think that that speech is probably smoldering deep down in Rose. That speech is smoldering in any person who has been married for more than a minute. If you have been through a marriage, you have been through moments where you’ve had to agree to disagree. Where you’ve made huge amounts of sacrifices. What I really wanted to portray is a marriage that’s working. And it’s not perfect, but if those burdens [of Troy’s infidelity and his confrontation with Cory] had never happened, they would still be together and it would be working. That’s what I wanted to show. So that when the loss happens, you feel the loss. I felt like, if you play you’re angry from the very beginning and throwing down the vegetables and being pissed off at Troy, then the breakdown of the marriage still happens, but you’ve never seen the train leave the station. There’s no sense of loss. There’s no sense of the fall, which is the true indicator of a tragedy. People have to have a great fall and a tragedy. That was the only thing I felt strongly about.

Working with Denzel Washington, as director and actor?

VD: Back in the day, they told you that in acting, you imitate life. And Denzel is a great observer of life. He’s got a true indicator of what’s not honest. He knows what to say to unlock what is honest within you. And he’s a great lover of simplicity, in the same way Lloyd Richards was and Israel Hicks was, that any great director has to be.
Denzel was especially instrumental in my really getting that final scene between Rose and Cory. When we were working on it, Denzel was like, “You know, Viola, let’s try something. Just slap him.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Do the scene. When Cory says, ‘I’m not coming to daddy’s funeral,’ slap him. Slap the piss out of him.”  I said, “Okay.” So I slapped him, and then Cory said, “But mommy, I… You know, I…, You know, Daddy was always…” And I’m answering, “I don’t, I don’t wanna hear that. I don’t wanna hear that. I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t wanna hear it.” And all of a sudden, it unlocks something. And then the next thing Denzel said is, “It’s not a monologue. You’re doing this for Cory. Whatever else happens, let it happen, but really, it’s not about you. It’s about him.” And then I got it. And that’s all it takes for an actor to unlock something. A well-positioned phrase can unlock everything for an actor.

American Century Cycle–meaning to artists and to the country 

VD: I think people have a perception of African-Americans and African-American life and what our voices are and the extent of our voices. What this cycle of plays does is exactly what Vera says in Seven Guitars. It’s walking into the lives of the audience and the participants and saying, “I got something to say.” You know? “We existed. We’re here and let me tell you our story. You got a story? Hey, I got a story, too.” The cycle introduces African-American life, history, pathology into the national narrative. That’s what it does.
What does August Wilson’s body of work mean to African-American performing artists? I remember once having a conversation with a friend about what’s more important, forgiveness or permission? And I said it’s permission. And I think that’s it. When you have a goal and a vision as an African-American artist, if you don’t have a physical manifestation of what your dreams and desires are in front of you, then you’re not being given permission. It’s like what Cicely Tyson did for me in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. It made me feel like whatever was in me wasn’t just a fluke. Instead of it being suppressed in my spirit, it’s kind of like what Floyd says in Seven Guitars—it bursts into the air and means something to  someone. That’s what August Wilson’s legacy has done. It’s given other African American artists permission to embrace their voices.

Shooting the film in the Hill District of Pittsburgh?

The Hill District is where August was born and raised and it becomes another character in almost all the plays in the cycle, and definitely in this film. The history of the Hill District, the look of the Hill District, the people, the smells—all of that informs the narrative. I kind of see the Hill District probably the same way Woody Allen sees New York. I see it informing the dreams, the hopes, the tight spaces, the way the houses are shaped, the way the streets are narrow.

When we were shooting there, the people felt very protective of Fences. We had a guy who lived in the house that we shot in and he would come up the stairs to the porch every single day with a cup of coffee and he would say, “How you doing today? Oh, boy, you guys are doing an awfully doing good job.” August never cut off his ties with the Hill.  August has been very faithful to black people. Very dignified and very respectful to us. In a way that not all narratives have been. With other writers, sometimes whatever has been very honest in us has been puffed up to buffoonery. Or has been weighed down by pain and downtrodden-ness. But August gives that experience a joy, a buoyancy, as well as a tragedy. He gives it a complexity that I feel honors it in absolutely the right way.

Music in August Wilson’s Plays?

VD: I know people talk about his musicality all the time. His musicality for me is just how we speak. Listen, I felt from the very beginning, from the very first moment I auditioned for Lloyd Richards for the role of Vera, that August’s words just spilled out of my mouth. It’s familiar because it’s me. It’s my mom. It’s my father. And it was more of a release than it was anything that was studied. There were phrases that will stay with me for the rest of my life. This poetry will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s absolutely been tattooed in my memory of him.