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Denzel Washington Interview: The Director Reveals How He Opened Up ‘Fences’

Denzel Washington talks about the cinematic challenges of adapting August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

Alex J. Berliner / ABImages

Ever since I first met Denzel Washington on the set of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” I’ve felt comfortable with him. Maybe it’s because he and my mother grew up in the same working-class New York suburb, Mount Vernon. Fact is, I grew up in the film industry with Washington, along with Mel Gibson, Debra Winger, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, and John Travolta; we’re all close to the same age.

I know the way he swings his tall body into that loping, cocky walk. And it’s fun to watch him, in the green room at the Writers Guild, enthusiastically wave his hands around when he talks about directing. He’s in a good mood: His August Wilson film adaptation of “Fences” has been enthusiastically received, by critics, audiences and — perhaps most crucially for its Oscar chances — actors, landing the coveted SAG Ensemble nomination.

In his third directorial outing (“The Debaters,” “Antwone Fisher”), Washington skirts the hazards of “opening up” a play by chasing honest emotions. A two-time acting Oscar winner, Washington knocks ’50s Pittsburgh drama “Fences” out of the park, both as director and disgruntled former baseball player Troy Maxson. He directs himself in this intimate drama, along with his fellow Tony-winner Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife Rose, and stage vet Mykelti Williamson as her husband’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel.

Davis made the call to change her status to supporting, partly to take the pressure off her busy schedule. She’s already won the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards, and has BAFTA and SAG in her sights.

READ MORE: Denzel Washington Stuns with ‘Fences’: How He Dodged Broadway’s Stagey Curse

“Fences”

Since his breakout in 1984’s “A Soldier’s Story,” Washington has built his movie-star status over the decades. He’s doing better than most Hollywood stars in this department, keeping global audiences coming to popcorn fare such as “The Magnificent Seven,” “Equalizer,” “Unstoppable,” “Two Guns” and “Safe House,” while adding occasional nourishment from films like “Flight,” “Inside Man,” “Remember the Titans” and “Hurricane.” He’s been nominated six times, winning for “Glory” and “Training Day.”

He’s fun to talk to, because he’s buoyant and engaged; he listens and responds. But he’s also grounded. He stays close to his wife and family, lives a normal life as much as he can, and returns to the theater for sustenance. At the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, as his ear was cocked for the closing credits, we were eventually joined by “Fences” stage vet Stephen McKinley Henderson, who reprises the role of best-friend Bono in the film.

Anne Thompson: It struck me that there’s a drive in you not to just settle for what’s comfortable — to do something more.

Denzel Washington: Well, Scott Rudin, seven years ago, sent me August’s screenplay. I read it and I realized, “Oh, I’ve never read the play.” I’d seen James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance and Mary Alice [in the original production], but I was closer to Courtney’s age when I saw it. When I read the play and saw, “Troy Maxson, 53,” I thought, “Oh, I better hurry.” I’m thinking of the young me watching Jones, and I realized, “I better hurry if I want to do this play.”  Reading it again — for the first time, not even “again” — made me really want to do it. So I called Scott and said, “Let’s do the play.” He said, “You want to do the play?” I said, “Let’s do the play.” So we did the revival and won the Tony. The play was over — that was 2010.

“Fences”

But then I went on to do other things; I wasn’t planning on doing it right away. To make a long story long: I really didn’t touch it between 2010 and 2013. I had to make a little money because, with a play, you lose money. For whatever reason, I wasn’t ready. Around 2013, going into 2014 — even when I went back, again, to do “Raisin in the Sun” — I got to the place where I just was ready.

When I read the screenplay, I was like, “This is more of a two-hander.” I found out it had been fashioned for Eddie Murphy and James Earl Jones, so I didn’t even know about the other directors, and Scott had already come to me. Nobody said, “Oh, they’ve got to have a black director.” I didn’t know the history of it. So, by late 2013, I think I was ready.

At the first screening in Westwood, you said to Viola, “Remember the love.” And you said, “Go big.”

Right. Which I said to everybody. The love fest. Yeah. She was a little nervous about the size of her acting. I said, “Trust me. Trust me. Trust me. I got you.” I said, “If we were here, talking, this is how we’d be.” Now, if there’s somebody 44 rows back, we would have to “theater” it up a little bit, but it’s not theater, and all of those actors — Mykelti, going back to “Forrest Gump;” Viola, going back to “Antwone Fisher” — know how to act on camera. What I knew was, we have to make sure we don’t start where we finished. We’ve got to go back and infuse as much love, or there’s nothing to lose.

"Fences"

“Fences”

Did someone drive you hard as a young man?

There’s something in everyone’s life. My father was a great reader. He was a gentleman; he’s nothing like Troy. Wasn’t interested in athletics, necessarily, but he could go as far as he could go. He said to me, “You get your high school diploma, I can get you to work up at the water department in New York. In 30 years, you can become a supervisor.”

My mother was like, “No, these boys are going to college.” Same story. People ask me, “What do you want people to get from this film?” I said, “It depends.” Some people are Cory. At the last screening, there was a guy. I just happened to sit in at the end, and a guy was choking up. I said, “Are you okay?” First, he couldn’t believe it was me; he was the paying audience. I said, “Somebody up there?” He said, “None of that.”

A lot of men are relating to that.

We’re doing a Q & A, and he said, “I didn’t know August Wilson was Polish!”

You discovered Viola Davis in “Antwone Fisher.”

No, I didn’t.

She hadn’t really done a movie before “Antwone Fisher.” Wasn’t that her breakout role?

But she’d done a huge amount of theater. She has done two or three of August’s plays already, and she’s a great actress. Her screen test for “Antwone Fisher”…

And you discovered Derek Luke, an amazing actor.

Well, here’s the thing in casting: I only need one person. There’s only one Antwone; there’s only one Antwone’s mom. In “The Great Debaters,” those were the kids. They were the right people for the role, pure and simple — just like after the success we had in New York, I knew that I was going to option Viola. But also Stephen [McKinley Henderson]. Also Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby. Because this is complicated material, and they knew it; we all had it. We knew we had to find a new Cory, and a new young girl, but I wasn’t going to turn my back on them. More importantly, they’re good — very good — and there’s no real difference, in my mind — or, at least, I know the way — between stage acting and film acting.

If you know the way, I’m curious, because part of what you did was hire this extraordinary cinematographer. You opened up it in a good way.

Well, it is a play! [Laughs]  It was organic. I could’ve done all kinds of tricks. I could’ve been on me [for] her whole speech. Bells and whistles. I was here to serve August Wilson first — before anybody else. That’s the deal. I like it. August Wilson wrote a masterpiece. It works on the stage and it works on film. I was determined; I had decided. I was going to film what he wrote. There are a lot of different versions of it, and I had to work through this and that, and boil it back down to what he wrote.

The question became, “Where else can we do this? Because it’s only the backyard.” We can go to the kitchen. We can go upstairs. We can go to the front of the house. And the garbage truck and insane asylum, and all the places we went. Shakespeare is Shakespeare. American Shakespeare is American Shakespeare; that’s what August is. It’s open to interpretation, but this was first.

So, in 20 years, if somebody wants to make the musical, great. If you want to do it through the point-of-view of his ear, great. If you want to not even watch it and just hear it — whatever you want to do. If you want to go in through his ear and come out his mouth and shoot up his leg… I know all the bells and whistles and tricks. I wasn’t interested in, “Ooh, look what Denzel did.” I was not interested in that. I was here to serve August Wilson and to serve these actors, and that’s what I did. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. I like it.

The gate swings closed in that scene, when he says, “Troy.” The gate swings closed. I didn’t do anything; it did that on its own. I said, “Well, August came in. Right at the end, he came in with us.” I added the squeak. [Laughs] So it was an organic process. I’ve made a lot of movies. If everything is “too much” — too loud, too busy — there’s a lot of richness, and the clues are there. The story, he wrote it; it’s there.

For example: in that six-month sequence — which was a cinematic opportunity; the same chairs and places where they had fun, now it’s dead and cold — I shot a piece of me in a bar drinking with the girl who was supposed to be Alberta. Women didn’t like it. I showed it to a few, they didn’t like it. Then one person said: “Oh, I didn’t know that was Alberta. I thought that was another woman.” I cut it because he says, “You know me, I wasn’t out there looking for nothing. This woman just seemed to stuck onto me.” So I said, “If I leave that in there, this is a story about a liar,” and he’s not a liar. He said, “I wasn’t out there looking for nothing.”

August was constantly telling me, the play tells me what it wants and doesn’t want. The other reason it didn’t want to see Alberta — which I realized later — was, when you first see the little girl, that’s your first chance to see Alberta, and you go, “Oh, my goodness. That’s what she looks like.”

The tricky things are very delicate changes in the play, in which he’s on his way out the door and she says, “I want to talk to you.” I tweaked to: She came to his job. That’s why we set it up with him leaving the job, so when he comes later and sees her, she’s standing there.

I talked to August at five in the morning, in my dreams, about it. “Am I tilting it too much?” Because now she made a decision to come see him, and he still rejects her like he does — because that’s what he wrote. In the scene in the bar, Bono comes to see him. Everything was at the house. So I had to be delicate and careful about not just, “August, open it up,” because, words first. There have been a hundred versions of Hamlet on stage and two or three or four on film. This was first.

You honored him.

That’s what I’m trying to say! All right, go ahead. [Laughs]

How did you use the rehearsal process to figure out the movie?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: It was six years in the interim, and we went to Pittsburgh and sat down, where the whole thing was all taped-out in a church. We sat down and talked to each other, and, first, he brought us into his home, where we did the reading. That was a major thing. It was like getting the band back together.

Washington: And taking it on the road.

Henderson: Taking it on the road, in Pittsburgh.

Washington: Thirty years ago, I worked with Sidney Lumet [“Power”]. They would get big warehouses and tape out all the sets, and we stood it up like a play. I said, “That’s what I’m going to do,” for a couple of reasons. Because I had to catch up Jovan [Adepo, who plays Cory], because the band was already tight. Jovan had to catch up, and I, to a lesser degree, had to catch up. But also, I wanted us in a tighter space on purpose. What I also did was hire six, seven young kids from Carnegie Mellon to understudy. I said, “You’re not stand-ins. You’re understudies. Get off book, get all the blocking, we’re working it out, and be ready, because I may call you any moment.” Why I did that was so that I could step out with [cinematographer] Charlotte [Bruus Christensen] and start moving around as we worked on shots.

How did you hire her?

Todd Black, my producing partner, found her. Todd brought me “Antwone Fisher.” I asked him to do “Great Debaters,” he developed “Equalizer,” I brought him to “Magnificent Seven” — so he’s become my guy, and he’s a hands-on guy who’s good. He finds things like that. I’d never heard of Charlotte. He said, “You’ve got to look at this movie.” He’s always looking at material. That’s what he does. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” That’s what I looked at.

What made you confident she was the right person?

Well, I loved her shots. I liked what she did, and she’s tough. She has an opinion. I like the fact that she operates, because — she said it to me, and it made perfect sense — I said, “Why do you operate? The only DP operators I’ve worked with, I think, are you and Roger Deakins.” (Not bad at all.) She said, “Because we’re doing this eight-month process, and, on the day, I’ve got to try to communicate that to an operator, who may not understand what we’ve been through together.” Bang. I said, “Okay.”

She was using Steadicam? What?

She likes handheld. I didn’t want much handheld. It’s only in about three or four scenes.

You’re shooting on 35mm.

Yeah, 35 and anamorphic. The first time we go handheld, I believe, is when I try to get Gabe out on the street, and he’s screaming. Then, when I come in the house and I knock over the stuff, then I’m handheld on her (gesturing with his cupped hands), some of it, because I feel like it was just right. It’s sort of inside the head. Now, in the play, I leave and the lights go down; in the film, I leave and we’re with Rose. Not only are we with her, but she doesn’t know her son is looking at him.

You stay away from the bubble, somehow.

It’s about the work. We’re actors. Celebrity is different. We’re actors. People say, “No, you’re a movie star.” I say, “No, I’m a more-popular actor.” I don’t know what that is. I started in the theater; Fordham University. I said, “If I get good enough at this, one day I’ll make $650 a week and I will have made it. I’ll be James Earl Jones and I’ll get to do ‘Othello,’ and this and that.”

Henderson: And that’s a great schedule, because the Sunday is at 3:00, and then you’ve got the evening. That’s Broadway.

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