There’s no denying that Kerry Washington, as reluctant yet valiant Anita Hill, is the star of HBO’s “Confirmation.” Yet the film’s toughest role may belong to Wendell Pierce (beloved Bunk from “The Wire”) as Clarence Thomas.
That’s because of key creative choices made by writer Susannah Grant and director Rick Famuyiwa. Viewers don’t ever see what actually happened between Hill and Thomas when the two worked together. Instead, the story tracks the Senate hearings that ensued after Hill accused Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexually harassment.
Pierce previously worked with Famuyiwa on the film “Brown Sugar,” and as he told IndieWire, “When Kerry Washington calls you, you say yes.” But nonetheless, taking on the role was “daunting.”
“It’s always a challenge when you’re playing someone who is a real-life person and still alive,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to meet the justice before starting filming, so I really wanted to make sure that I was a student of human behavior and study him as a man.”
In researching Thomas, Pierce was surprised to discover how much the two of them had in common, including their family backgrounds and growing up in the South. He even gained new insight into some of Thomas’s more conservative stances, such as his opposition to gun control laws. “His fervent support of the Second Amendment is a reminder that gun control laws came about post-Civil War in the South, to keep black people from getting guns. So his fervent support of everybody’s right to have a gun is because he wanted to make sure that black folks had access to that same right,” Pierce said. “That opened my eyes to his opinions.”
By focusing almost entirely on the actual proceedings of the infamous 1991 hearing, Pierce plays Thomas largely on the defensive, without any opportunity to show whether he’s playing a true villain or a misunderstood figure. In fact, Washington and Pierce never share a scene together in the film — but that, it turned out, was something Pierce was more than happy about. Below, he reveals how the production schedule helped him slip into the character’s shoes, and why he felt like he still acted with Washington.
The most striking thing about “Confirmation” is that you and Kerry have no scenes together.
Yeah, no scenes. But this was the great thing — it felt like I worked with her. The way filming was scheduled, her testimony was shot just as I was beginning my work. I got to see her testify as they shot all of those days. And I made sure that she didn’t know I was there watching. No other cast members knew I was there watching — I stood in a different part of the studio and watched her. To see her do her work, it just fueled me. It was what I needed to see before I testified, because it was what the Justice saw back then. So it was a real acting exercise to watch her.
I asked Rick to not call me onto the set until he rolled camera, so I watched her testify as Clarence Thomas watching Anita Hill testify, making the accusations against me. Then the first time I walked on set, the first time I met any of the actors, any of the camera people, any of the crew was when Rick said, “Okay we’re ready to go. We’re set. Wendell…” and I walked into a room of 300 people, with a Senate panel ready to question me. I sat down, they said “roll camera,” then I said, “this is a travesty.” It fueled me! So it really felt like playing a scene with her. To watch her testify and then finish her work and then I walked onto the stage to do my work. It was a great acting exercise.
I think it also speaks to the way the actual proceedings happened, where you never saw them in the same room.
And we have to remember that they had a personal relationship for years at the office. They exchanged phone calls. To watch someone in that forum say those things about you, it fueled me. Acting, for me, is creating a world so strong that it induces the behavior. To watch Kerry as Anita Hill give her testimony, it was the thing that induced my behavior to walk into that scene and to then refute it. It served me. Even though we didn’t have scenes together, we had scenes together. I was able to play off of her work.
If there had been a suggestion of creating a scene for the two of you, what would your reaction have been?
It would have been difficult. That would have concerned me, because we knew the scene didn’t happen. Especially when it comes to historical or political events, you start to tread in dangerous waters. I don’t think it would have even been suggested because HBO is so good at making sure that they vet their projects, that they try to get a place of authenticity, that even those scenes that have to be imagined or dramatized come from a place of authenticity. So I don’t think that the scene would have ever been considered and I’m glad that is not something that they tried to put into the film.
How has this experience affected your belief about what happened originally? If you could travel back in time to 1991 and tell yourself then what you know now, what would it be?
The epiphany for me was not how little I had in common with the Justice but how much I had in common with the Justice. If I knew that then, I wouldn’t have been as judgmental right off the bat.
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