Denzel Washington Talks ‘Fences’

Actor/Director to Accept SBIFF’s Maltin Modern Master Award on February 2

Denzel Washington
Paul Wellman

On a crisp morning in early January, an audience gathered at the Riviera Theatre, abuzz with anticipation: For the next three or so hours, members of the Santa Barbara Film Society were to be treated to a screening of Denzel Washington’s cinematic adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Fences, followed by a Q&A with members of the cast, including Washington.

The event was a precursor to the upcoming Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where Washington is being honored with the Maltin Modern Master Award for his career-long contribution to American film. Fences, which was released nationwide in December 2016, has garnered Washington numerous accolades for both his acting and directing, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, and was named one of the top 10 films of 2016 by the American Film Institute.

An icon of the silver screen, Washington has made a name for himself playing mesmerizing, often complicated and intense characters that include Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, Malcom X, Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, and now Troy Maxson, the flawed patriarch in Fences. It is a role Washington inhabits completely, bringing to life a man who is bitter and content, charming and belittling, loving and selfish, settled and restless. He first portrayed Troy in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences, which ran from April 26-July 11, 2010, at New York City’s Cort Theatre, and, as with the original 1987 staging of the play, which starred James Earl Jones as Troy, won myriad Tony awards.

For the film, Washington reunited with his Broadway cast including Viola Davis (Rose, Troy’s wife), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bono, Troy’s friend and confidant), Russell Hornsby (Lyons, Troy’s son from a previous marriage), and Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel, Troy’s brother who has brain damage incurred from a war injury). Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney joined the film’s cast as Troy’s son Cory and daughter, Raynell, respectively.

While Washington’s contribution to the film is major, as one of the main stars and the director, it’s clear Fences is an ensemble story. As such, it was enlightening to have members of the cast join Washington for the Q&A after the film-society screening. In attendance were McKinley Henderson, Adepo, Sidney, and Williamson, as well as the film’s producer Todd Black and, of course, Washington. (Davis and Hornsby were unable to appear). The following is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted by SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, which took place at the Riviera.

Roger Durling: This film is set in a very specific time. It’s 1957 until 1965. How, as a producer, did you feel it would speak to today’s audience?

Todd Black: Well, I think it will speak to audiences at any time. I think the story and the characters and their issues are applicable to any time in anyone’s life. That’s also the brilliance of August: He wrote [things that were] so relatable in all of our lives. … [A]nd I don’t think the time mattered. …

Durling: Mr. Washington, you [create] an alchemy with this very minimal, faithful adaptation, but at the same time you make a film. Talk to us about that approach, the fact that you were navigating theater in film.

Denzel Washington: I didn’t look at it that way. [Wilson] wrote what he wrote, [and] then we say this is for the theater, you know? We are in a theater [now]. So what he had to say, he had to say. It works when people are just standing and reading it off the page. It works, obviously, as a play; the film is just a testament to his brilliance.

Durling: I did see it onstage. [There] you guys were playing to a live audience, you were playing big, and here film is a different medium …

Washington: What do you call it, Stephen? Playing to the …?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: The life level of truth.

Washington: The life level …

Stephen McKinley Henderson: You know you always start with the life level of truth. You may have to raise the octave to the space that you’re in, but you never begin anywhere except right there, in that life level of truth. And working on this in Pittsburgh, we were able to really start there and stay there, we didn’t have to raise it to the octaves of the voice getting to the back of the room … It’s something you release, you know … Time is the context, but it’s not the content. The context is the ’30s or the ’40s or the ’20s, but the content is human. And that’s the same thing about the saying “Life level of truth”: that the space and the venue may change, but the truth doesn’t change. The naked truth is better than a lie in a tuxedo [Audience laughs and applauds.]

Washington: I’m stealing that. [Laughs.]

Durling: The character of Gabriel, I adore … because talk about a classical writer that is harkening back to the Fool in King Lear and back to Cassandra in Aeschylus’s [Agamemnon]. Can you talk about embodying the character of Gabriel?

Mykelti Williamson: Again, it goes back to the brilliance of August Wilson. Humanity is timeless. My approach to a character is this: Everybody is people. They are human beings. Everybody is somebody’s child. So for me, I was recently offended at someone who in the press called [Gabriel] the “noble idiot.” I took great offense to that, and so did some people on Twitter. Because he’s not an idiot. He’s a hero who was injured in the military defending his country. That’s not an idiot by any stretch of the imagination. So my approach was fully respectful because everybody is somebody’s child. And this is the writings of August Wilson under the leadership of Denzel Washington, and everybody is playing at the highest level. So we all brought A-game. The approach was respect, because everybody in this room who is a filmmaker, you are passionate about what you do, so there’s no difference in approaching the art as an actor.

Durling: [Saniyya,] you and [Jovan] were not in the [stage version]. What was it like for you to come and join this? Was there catch-up to do?

Saniyya Sidney: First of all, we are like a big family. So it was not hard to catch up to anything. We were all connecting with each other.

Durling: Jovan, you have a powerful scene at the end of the movie with Viola, who has a long monologue. What I find so remarkable about that scene is that is feels like a conversation. Can you tell us about shooting that scene and your approach to it?

Jovan Adepo: My approach was just following the lead of the talented cast I got to work with. There was definitely a moment of catching up for me when I got the job. When we got to Pittsburgh and started rehearsal I definitely wanted to make sure I was keeping up with the rest of this great crew. As far as the scene, Viola set the tone, just having a conversation, just going through it with one another, just making sure that your emotions and everything that you’re feeling about how the relationship has grown or has not grown through the years and just make sure you do your best to express that. A note that Mr. Washington gave to me was, “Just make sure your mother understands where you are coming from. Because you could have called her over the phone … if you were just going to tell her you weren’t going to go to the funeral. But this is your moment, you came all the way home from wherever you’re living at this time to say it and say it in a particular way, so make sure you do your best to express what you’re feeling so that she understands you, whether you’re right or wrong, make sure she understands you.” So that’s what I tried my best to do in that monologue.

Black: Denzel smartly … had about a two-and-a-half-week rehearsal period in Pittsburgh. We got a rehearsal space in a church, and he taped off the dimensions of every room — the backyard, the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the bedroom — and had a really cool two-week, every-day rehearsal period with [the cast]. So I think by two weeks into it, Saniyya and Jovan definitely felt a comfort level that otherwise they wouldn’t have felt if it wasn’t for that process. You could see it when they would come back to the production office at the end of the day, a little bit more confidence in their faces.

Williamson: Early on, we tested Jovan. We were going to go to the gravesite of August Wilson and pay our respects. So we reached out to him to see if he would just go with us; we didn’t tell him where we were going. He said, “Where are we going?” and we said, “You’re going with us.” “Where?” “With us.” [Audience laughs.] And he surrendered immediately. He gave in and went with us, and that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. He’s such a sensitive, intelligent young actor; it’s no wonder he’s so amazing in this movie. [Audience applause.]

Durling: Nine of August Wilson’s play take place in the Hill in Pittsburgh. Tell us about shooting in Pittsburgh and being there in the Hill.

McKinley Henderson: We were in a place in the Hill called Sugar Top — that just tells you something right there. [Audience laughs.] And they welcomed us. But you’ve got to understand what it must be like if you’re living in your neighborhood and then one day Denzel Washington knocks on your door and says, “Oh, by the way, we are going to be in your neighborhood for a while, hope you don’t mind. And we are going to be honoring this great writer that came from here.” And so, you know, he was welcomed. I’ve got to tell this one story. [Denzel] would go to these houses, and then he would say, so we’ll be here, and so pray for me that I do right by August Wilson. And one lady said to him, “Oh, baby, I’ve been praying for you for 35 years.” [Audience roars with laughter.] You can take it from there if you want to …

Washington: No, go ahead

McKinley Henderson: She said, “We knew that you were going to need some prayer because you were out there for all those years in Hollywood. … She said that she was in a circle that would get together and [pray for Denzel]. So she said, “It’s no surprise that you came walking up in my neighborhood.” She was just wondering what took him so long.

Black: Because we were in the neighborhood for two-plus months, getting the house ready and all the other houses on the street ready, people would come by with coffee cakes. We had a neighbor …

Washington: We had Mr. Greenleaf.

Black: We had Mr. Greenleaf; tell the story …

Washingto: Well, Mr. Greenleaf …

Sidney: I’ll tell it …

Washington: You want to tell the story? Well, go ahead… You’ve got a Mr. Greenleaf story?

Sidney: Mr. Greenleaf is one of the neighbors in the back of the house, and didn’t he have, like, a cough? …

Washington: Well he couldn’t hear very well …

Sidney: Yeah, he couldn’t hear very well …

Washington: Want me to take over? [Laughter.] But he was just a lovely man and, in fact, his grandfather, or something, owned Greenleaf field, where the Pitchfork Crawfords, which was the black baseball team that Troy would have played for, played. …And he couldn’t hear very well and always wanted to make coffee and always checked in with me: “You all go ahead and make the movie. Go on; make the movie.” Just really lovely people that informed us that really helped us make the film.

Black: He would come out every day while we were shooting [and we’d say], “We are shooting now.” “Oh, sorry. I was just bringing you coffee.” All the neighbors were so welcoming: wherever we went, not just in that neighborhood. They loved having a film crew in Pittsburgh, and they loved that August Wilson, one of their own, was getting his movie made, and they loved having Denzel and the rest of the cast there. The Hill is just a really special neighborhood. If you have not gone to Pittsburgh, I highly encourage you.

<b>from left:</b> Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Saniyya Sidney, Mykelti Williamson, Todd Black, Denzel Washington, and Roger Durling
Paul Wellman

Durling: The film has a lot going on. How did you work with the rhythm, where you cut away …

Washington: It’s music, you know? There’s a rhythm to it; there’s a music to it. [I was] constantly talking with Hughes Winborne, the editor, and finding the rhythm. Not staying on the beat all the time editorially, but understanding that there is a rhythm. There’s a line [in the play], Lyons says, “I told you Bonnie working.” [Troy] says, “Well, what that mean to me, Bonnie working? I don’t care if she’s working. Go ask her for 10 dollars if she working. Talk about Bonnie working. Why ain’t you working?” So there’s an actual rhythm to [the lines, and you have to — you don’t have to — but you’ll want to follow the music.

Durling: But, I mean, the [editing] choices … when to cut away, let’s say, from Viola’s moment at the end of her long speech to Jovan for a reaction. How …

Washington: You use the best. Whatever the best part of it is. Obviously with monologues, keeping the other person alive, if they’re doing the listening, [is important]. But also not being afraid to just stay with her, you know? There’s one take with Viola, and I just stay with her, push in and pull out. These are champagne problems, “Which great actor am I going to cut to?” [Audience laughs.]

Black: I’ll say to his credit, he is a director that works from emotion, and I think that served this movie …

Washinton: … Even when it was too much. Even if it was too much. It’s not just, “Oh, follow emotion, emotion, emotion …”

Black: Right, and I think it’s an amazing cut of the movie actually when you watch it because I don’t think you ever feel like you’re not where you want to be when you are watching it. And that to me is a testament to his directing, because a lot of directors, they would feel the need to “Oh, no, no, no; let’s cut some place else, and let’s keep this going, and let’s do that,” and [Denzel] trusted the material and trusted himself and his actors. Every director cuts a film differently, and I just think [Denzel] was the right director for this.

Durling: In speaking of choices and rhythm—the music—it feels to me like almost 45 minutes into the piece …

Washington: 46 [Audience laughs.] 46:15.

Forty-six minutes into the film, and we don’t hear music. And then also, we would think the cliché would be to hear jazz music, but you don’t …

Washington: Troy doesn’t shut up for 45 minutes. Troy is the music. He speaks to Bono just so he can get a grunt in …. Troy is the music.

Durling: And the fact that the music is not what we’d expect. Like another cliché would be for us to be listening to jazz …

Washington: Why?

Durling: Well, because, I don’t know, in the 1950s [jazz] is what we’d hear …

Washington: Who? The universal stems from the specific. Who are you talking about? I’m not attacking you, but I’m serious.

Durling: Well, I’m nervous …

Washington: You say we, but we who? We in Santa Barbara? We in Pittsburgh?

Durling: I said the term cliché because we expect that movies set in the 1950s that [jazz] would be playing, but we don’t hear the music that we actually expect to hear [in this film].

Washington: We who?

Black: That was Marcelo [Zarvos], our composer, and Denzel’s choice. I remember when we first met with Marcelo, who I think is incredibly talented, Denzel said, “I think I feel piano, I think I feel a piano, an instrument that kind of leads us,” and Marcelo got that. … I do think he did an incredible job because it would have been easier [to go with jazz]. You’re right. At that time period, a lot of [music] was jazz in the ’50s, and the film didn’t call for that.

Washinton: August Wilson is jazz. August Wilson is classical. I’m leading with him. He didn’t need any help. I didn’t need for people to think, “Oh, this is when we’re supposed to be sad …” It’s all in the music of words … [Audience applause.]

Durling: We have to get going soon, so thank you for being here, all of you. It’s a pleasure …

Washington: The audience doesn’t get to ask questions?

Durling: Would you like them to?

Washington: Two or three. Who wants to ask a question? Yes, stand up, young lady. You like that young part, right? [Laughs.]

Audience question: In one of the opening scenes when you are on the back of a garbage truck and it stops on the street and there’s a building called Rosebud. Is that an [homage] to Orson Wells?

Washington: Yes, it was. No, I didn’t even know. [Laughs.] I had no idea. You know that’s a good question for the production designers…. I cut that movie; I’ve never seen it.

Audience question: What role did [playwright/director] Tony Kushner play in the movie?

Washinton: We talked a lot about where scenes could take place. There was writing that went on that I took out. Tony was totally unselfish in supporting me and just us just talking about where things might be …. In the play, the whole play takes place in the backyard.

Audience Question: Which play will you tackle next?

Washington: We are working on Ma Rainey right now.

Durling: Will you be acting and directing it?

Washinton: Neither one.

Audience question: In the shots where you are directing yourself, did you do it in the scene or did you need to switch back to a director’s head set and watch a playback?

Washington: I’m used to it. [I told] Warren Beatty when I directed my first film, Antwone Fisher, that I didn’t want to be in it. He said, “No, be in it.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because that’s a way in that you’re used to as an actor. I said, “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” So I start to play all the parts in preparation for a film. I play all the parts, so I’m used to being in it, and in this case, we had the luxury of having done 114 performances and won all the Tony awards and everything, so we knew we had something good. And [I’ll do] four takes on myself and keep it moving. Making sure I get everybody. Especially with Viola … it is a psychologically and physically draining role. So in her big scene, I made sure we get her performance.


Denzel Washington will receive the Maltin Modern Master Award on Thursday, February 2, 8 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). For more information, see


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