Fences: Denzel Washington–Producer, Director, Star–Part 1

Playwright August Wilson, wo won the 1987 Pulitzer and the Tony Awards for Fences, passed away in 2005.  He had completed all the plays in his American Century Cycle, but he did not live to see his screenplay of Fences brought to fruition.

Interview with Denzel Washington:

Awareness of the work of August Wilson?

I saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, the year it came out, and I remember all the great performances. But Charles Dutton, in particular, just blew me away in the role of Levee. I never heard of this guy and then I did research about him and found out he’d been in prison and started acting there and gone to Yale Drama School and all of that. When I saw that play, I didn’t know who August Wilson was. I didn’t know he was going to write all these other great plays, but somehow his voice was a familiar voice to me. I just remember that night in the theatre and just being amazed and moved.
Original Broadway production of Fences?

DW: I related more to Cory (played by Courtney Vance) because I was closer in age to Cory. And I remember how fragile Mary Alice [as Rose] looked compared to James Earl Jones. I’d seen James do Othello with Christopher Plummer on Broadway. And I’d seen him do Oedipus the King up at St. John the Divine. In fact, I went backstage. He didn’t know me, but I guess he sensed I was a young actor, so he let me hang around. He was meeting people, and I’m walking around looking at his makeup, and he had all of his rings from the play. I started putting them on, and you know James is a big man, so the rings were like bracelets. I just remember how big he was and that voice, that power.
What about his performance as Troy? It was James Earl Jones, so you know I’m going to see it. My career started in the theater. I was one of those Lincoln Center Theatre snobs. We weren’t thinking about movies. I was going to be James Earl Jones one day, hopefully, and make $650 a week and do Othello. And, in fact, my first two roles were the Emperor Jones [by Eugene O’Neill] and Othello. So I was thinking about James and Paul Robeson. That was at least the benchmark to shoot for.
Your own father and Troy?

DW: My father wasn’t a tough kind of a guy. He was really a gentle man. He was a very spiritual man, a minister. But, like Troy, he was concerned about practical things for his son. I remember him saying things to me like, “Get a good trade.” He worked for the Water Department in the City of New York. He worked upstate on the reservoirs. He’d get water samples. He talked about how he could get me in the Water Department and I could move up and be a supervisor in 30 years. And my mother’s like, “No, he’s going to college.”

Becoming an actor?

I don’t remember what my father thought when I started, but I do remember going to visit him in Virginia after I had started to get work. It was embarrassing, because we went to a supermarket or something and he’s telling people there, “You know who this is?” Nobody knew who I was. But I am Denzel Washington, Jr., so he, Denzel Washington, Sr., was bragging about his son.   I’m glad for both of us that happened. I remember I was on my way to New York in April ’91, to meet with Spike Lee to work on Malcolm X and my brother was at the airport. And he says, “Come, sit down.” I said, “I don’t need to sit down. Who died?” And it was my father who was on his way to death. And I just remember that connection.

Troy and the life of his family?

Fences is a story about broken dreams and where does that energy go. It’s about what happens to a dream deferred, as Langston Hughes put it. What happens when you were good enough and you didn’t make it? Where does that energy go when you’re not able to express your talent? Troy could’ve been a Willie Stargell, a great slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but change came too late for Troy.  And being fueled with his bitterness, he wants the best for his son, but he could only see so far. Rose is saying, “Hey, Cory can get a chance to go to college with a football scholarship.” And all Troy could see was Cory getting a trade. He doesn’t understand the possibilities. He doesn’t see the future. Like Rose says to him, “The world is changing and you can’t even see it.” Troy’s just stuck in time, ill-equipped to handle a changing world and frustrated about missed opportunity.

Getting to know August Wilson himself?

DW: I didn’t get to know him too well. I spent a lovely day with him, sometime in the early 2000s. I flew up to Seattle, where he was living then. It rained all day and he just smoked cigarette after cigarette. And he was writing. He was writing Gem of the Ocean [his next-to-last play] and my agent suggested I go up there. So I went up there to see him and we just talked all day. And he talked about how he writes plays, and he locks the doors and shuts the windows and basically writes what the characters tell him to write. So I guess he was telling me, “Look, I’m not just writing something for you, I got to write what I’m compelled to write.” Which was fine with me. And I just remember that day. It was just a lovely day.

Extra sense of obligation in making the film?

Not for me. I had enough already. I didn’t need more motivation.
Where did the motivation come from? It came from the material. And it came from August. I was just trying to serve August the best I could. I felt a responsibility to not screw it up. When in doubt, go to the source, you know? If there are 25,000 words in the screenplay, 24,900 of them are August Wilson’s. I may have added a line or an ad-lib here or there, but it’s August’s words.
On the one hand, for people in theater and literature, August Wilson is unquestionably among the greatest playwrights in world history. And yet, a lot of people will have this film as their introduction to Wilson’s entire body of work.

What do you hope they’ll take away from it?

DW: When people ask me what I expect people to take away, I always say that it depends on what they bring to it. I know they’ll be entertained and enlightened. I know that they’ll see great performances, some great actors up there on screen. And they’ll hear a voice that they haven’t heard before, yet is familiar. The rhythm, the music of it.

Playing Troy on stage and on screen?

DW: I couldn’t imagine trying to do this film, having not done it on stage first to figure out who Troy is. There was no time to be trying to figure that out when we’re shooting a movie. So, number one, I had time to know the character. And I knew that we did a production that worked, that we got the response from the audience and the accolades and all that kind of stuff. I knew it worked. I don’t know if that’s more pressure. It’s like, “Don’t screw it up now.” But all I knew is that I just had to get the camera in front of the actors and let them do what they’d been doing all along.
Using things from the stage production?

When I steal, I steal from the best. I mean, the shape of the film was fundamentally the shape that we had found or at least the characters that we had found doing the play with director Kenny Leon. Now we could take it inside the Maxsons’ house. It’s not all in the backyard, the way it was on stage. We go to different places. But other than obviously Jovan Adepo [as Cory] and Saniyya Sidney [as Raynell], the little girl, nobody else had to catch up.
What makes the cast click?

Unselfishness. There’s no magic. With the Broadway revival, we had 100-plus opportunities to practice with a sold-out audience every night. So you could find out what works, what doesn’t work. Sometimes we had matinees with 1,200 high school kids who were talking back, and once I remember having to stop. I just stopped in the middle of the play and just stood there and looked at the audience. And they giggled and then they started shushing each other and then they got quiet. And I was like, okay, and I picked up. So we had to deal with everything.

Challenges of doing the same roles in live theater and on film?

I told the actors, “Don’t worry about that. Don’t change.” There’s no such thing as movie acting, in my opinion. Don’t say, “I’ll have to be small.” Well, then that’s what you’ll appear to be, unless it’s right for your character to be small. Just let me as the director worry about that, and we’ll move the camera. When you’re big, we’ll back up if we have to.

Viola Davis as an actor?

The word that just came to my head was “power.” She’s a powerful actor. That’s just the word that comes to my mind, power.  She must make you want to be at the top of your form. Well, you want to be at the top of your form anyway. And you better be at the top of your form because it’s August Wilson. And after that, as a director, I want everybody to be great, everybody from Saniyya to Viola.

The entire play took place on the back porch and the backyard. In the film, we get to enter the Maxsons’ house and to see how much Rose cares for it. Yeah, poor doesn’t mean dirty. In fact, poor people scrub what they have harder. That house was her castle and she kept a beautiful home, especially with the plastic on the furniture, protecting the good stuff.

Shooting in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where August Wilson grew up and his plays, including Fences, are set.

DW: I didn’t know what the Hill was until I got there and started seeing and meeting the people. I wanted to be in Pittsburgh, no question, on the Hill.  The neighborhood, though, has changed a lot since the 1950s, when most of the film is set. Entire blocks of homes are gone. Businesses have shut down. What were the challenges getting the Hill in 2016 to resemble the Hill in 1957? The area where August lived, the lower Hill, was gone. We went further up and we found some streets that were intact. Just take the bars off the windows and change the cars.

Reaction of people who lived there?

DW: The neighborhood was a part of making the film; the energy, everybody’s love for August. Mr. Greenlee, who lived behind the house we used for Troy and Rose’s house, became a part of the movie. He’d always come out, ask. “Hey, what are you doing?” “We’re shooting Mr. Greenlee.” “All right. Want some coffee?” That’s all he’d ask, do we want coffee. People would make food for us . You even got to know the pit bull that just wanted you to pet him so he could bite you.  So it was a real neighborhood feeling. This is a showcase for Pittsburgh. This is their home and he’s their hero, their playwright, so just to embrace that and to celebrate that.

the rhythm. We had to work on the rhythm. With August Wilson, like Shakespeare, sometimes a paragraph means something. And if there are too many gaps, too many breaths, too much air in between, it could grind to a halt.