“We’re Making It Music.” An Interview with Fences Stars Jovan Adepo and Stephen Henderson

The actors talk Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, making acting music, and racism.

Jovan Adepo (middle left) and Stephen Henderson (middle right) with their co-stars

Fences may open on Christmas day, but there’s already a Christmas tree in the hotel lobby as I go up to a roundtable interview with Stephen Henderson and Jovan Adepo about their roles in the August Wilson adaptation.

Circling around a former Negro League player’s family in 1950s Pittsburgh, the small-scale drama (whose Broadway revival in 2010 also included most of the film’s cast) is directed by and stars Denzel Washington. Henderson, along with the rest of the cast aside from Adepo, reprised his role from the 2010 stage production while Adepo auditioned through the same casting director that cast him for The Leftovers on HBO.

The film has already generated awards buzz, especially Viola Davis as a stalwart housewife (winning Best Supporting Actress at the Critics’ Choice Awards and multiple critics associations), and its strength is truly in its performances. Sitting down with Adepo, who plays Washington and Davis’s son in his first film role, and Henderson, who plays Washington’s longtime friend, gave insight into the ensemble’s process and the film’s power.

Q: Stephen, you’ve had Fences in your life for a number of years now [reprising your stage role for the movie] – from your perspective what is the story really about, and what the film version in particular about?

Stephen Henderson: It’s so much about family. How you get to know yourself when you accept the flaws in your family. It fortifies you to survive whatever comes your way when you understand yourself and where you came from. It’s a timeless story about the human eternals: mother, father, sister, brother, love, greed, remorse, disappointment, regret ‐ all that stuff. What Sophocles wrote about, what Shakespeare wrote about, what Ibsen wrote about, what Chekhov wrote about. That’s what August wrote about. He just wrote about it from the perspective of the Hill District [a historic African-American collection of neighborhoods in Pittsburgh].

Any playwright that writes a play for each decade of the twentieth century wants you to be mindful of legacy, of history. As I grow in my life, visiting this play and others by Wilson, I get a deeper understanding of myself because at different times at my life, these stories mean different things.

And this, being a filmed version?

SH: To do it on film, where it’ll be seen by more people than have seen the play since it was written, it humbles you. You have to make sure you’re bringing your A-game because this is the version that people are going to return to. And with Denzel and Viola, your main concern is not being the weak link in the chain, you know what I’m saying?

What was it like working with Denzel the actor and Denzel the director, especially when his character is so antagonistic in the film?

Jovan Adepo: He was a teacher the whole time. It’s an acting masterclass with these guys. As far as the director’s hat and the actor’s hat well, it was seamless.

SH: Seamless. I would wonder when the dude slept! They’d bring us in early and he’d have been there for a couple hours, then we’d leave and he’d stay all night. But he had a shorthand with his crew because he’s done a lot of movies. He brought in people from his first movies [Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters] as well as people he‘d worked with over his acting career, so they had a family going. We all knew each other from doing this on Broadway so it was just getting the band back together to work on some of those old tunes.

When you talk about getting the old band back together and adding new members, of course, you both play supporting roles to these big brash performances. Are you trying to harmonize with their melodies? How do you help stoke that fire from the other side of the scene?

SH: First of all, you’ve got the best seat in the house. Nobody could’ve paid for my seat, because I got to stand there and watch it all go down. Because it’s always so fresh, it keeps you fresh. Two of the greatest [actors] that ever did it…it’s an embarrassment of riches. Once you start to play together, vibing off each other in the scene, it’s not just the notes ‐ it’s the music. The script might be the notes playing, but we’re making it music. When you get a response from Denzel’s eyes, or you get a response from Viola, when they’re coming at you saying “yeah, yeah, yeah,” you know it’s ON.

Jovan, this is your first movie role and it’s with two actors that, well I’ll agree with Stephen, are two of the greatest ‐ can you tell me what that quick trajectory was like?

JA: I’d done plays in middle school, done some for the church in high school, but I had no intention of ever being a professional actor. I moved to California in 2011 to be a writer. A family friend told me to take acting classes so I could do commercials and actually make a little money. From there, I ended up meeting Viola through her older sister because she and I went to the same church. She was the one that put me on the right path to studying the right techniques, seeing plays, and reading as many plays as I could get my hands on.

Just being able to be around actors of this caliber, actors just starting out don’t get this opportunity. So I’m learning as much as I can. Whatever happens in the future, well Denzel’s told me, “just keep your head down and keep pushing forward, keeping searching for complex characters to play. If it’s not coming to you in film, get your butt on that stage.”

A couple of times he pulled me aside and told me, “it’s like a game of tennis ‐ when I hit it to you, you hit it right back at me.” You respond. Action and reaction. I kept searching for an end result, kept coming in angry. He’d tell me we knew Corey [his character] was angry, but he doesn’t start angry. It’s a journey. As for the intensity [acting against a father character], that comes from life experience. I think all of the gentlemen here have had some kind of heated disagreement with their fathers before.

Sometimes you just wanna go, “Shut up, dad.” “What?” “Nothing sir,” and then you walk away thinking about it. So it’s that intensified by the story. And Denzel. He’ll mess with you. If I’m sawing, he’ll take the saw and throw it on the ground. Just stuff to piss you off ‐ and that’s a testament to his ability.

Stephen, since you were a teenager during some of the era this movie takes place, how have you seen America change from what’s been captured in this film?

SH: I was a paperboy in junior high school and I remember delivering the paper when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Then I saw a little of that culture, what Malcolm [X] used to talk about, that “The Ballot or the Bullet.” That was a time they were using the bullet. People trying to live up to the Constitution that America’d been hypocritical about. And they didn’t go to the ballot. They took down Martin [Luther King Jr.], they took down Bobby [Kennedy], they took down Malcolm, they took down Fred Hampton right here [in Chicago]. So when this recent thing ‐ where Americans were afraid that it was gonna become old America, America for real, an America that people didn’t want us to go back to ‐ at least they used the ballot.

Just as they’re saying they rigged it, at least it’s just rigging this time. As Condoleezza Rice said, racism is America’s birth defect. It’s not a cold, it’s not the flu, it’s not a little fever. We started out with one of the greatest documents in the world and didn’t do any of it. Did something to the native people ‐ hell, Standing Rock [Sioux Reservation protest] just went down. Even with all that, we still have periods of absolute progress. We had two terms of Barack Obama. Unfortunately we have these people that are afraid and they always try to roll us back, but they can never roll us back as much as we go forward.

Fences is in theaters Christmas Day.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).