Denzel Washington and Viola Davis walked the red carpet at the premiere of Fences at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in Manhattan last week. Washington, who directed and stars in the film, was asked what it meant to him to bring August Wilson’s masterpiece to the big screen.
“It means it’s an opportunity for millions of people to see it now instead of thousands,” said Washington, whose sentence was completed by co-star Viola Davis, “And understanding that it’s a universal story,” she said. “It’s about the human condition.”
The movie, which reunites the ensemble from the 2010 Broadway stage production of Fences, earned Denzel and Davis Tony Awards and is already receiving many awards nominations for both stars.
The cast also features the original Broadway cast, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby. Newcomers to the production are Jovan Adepo and the adorable 10-year-old Saniyya Sidney.
Asked what he hoped the perception of August Wilson’s work would be now that the movie is out, Washington replied, “It’s going to be what it was in the play. We’ve been screening it, and it’s like, ‘There they go again! People talking back and giving their opinion and hurts and crying and laughing,” he said. “He’s a genius! He is a genius! It was a privilege and an honor and a responsibility to bring his work (to the screen).”
Washington told reporters he would be producing nine more August Wilson plays, the canon of work known as “The American Century Cycle” for HBO. “I’m producing, although not acting in them … that I know of,” he grinned. First up is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” set in the 1920’s.
As to what gave him the courage to give such a raw performance on screen, he chanted before walking on the carpet, “August Wilson! August Wilson!”
More highlights from the Fences red carpet:
Saniyya Sidney: “When I first met Viola I was speechless,” said the actress, who at 10 has already appeared in “Roots,” “Hidden Figures” and “American Horror Story.” On being directed by Denzel Washington, she noted, “He told us to seek the truth. Then he said acting is not acting. You only make it fake if you say it’s fake. And he also said, ‘God put you here for a reason.’” Asked if she wanted acting to be her life’s work, she replied, “I hope to do this until I’m dead.”
August Wilson’s wife, Constanza Romero Wilson: “Denzel understands the rhythm and the musicality of the language so well,” she said, adding that the director/star called her to discuss adapting the Pulitzer-Prize winning play for the big screen. “He said, ‘I’ve been reflecting on my work and my choices and I think I want to do the movie ‘Fences.’ I want that to be my next project, and I want to do August proud.’ He wanted my blessing, and knowing how well he did the role on Broadway, I thought, ‘This is going to be phenomenal Of course I’m going to give my blessing.’ And all throughout the process, he’s been calling me and he’s been catching me up on things that have been going on. The fist time this movie played for an audience in Los Angeles, that same night, he called me at 11 at night, because he was so ecstatic. The whole audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation.”
Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is an old hand at August Wilson, appearing in eight of the playwright’s ten plays, said of the transfer from the stage to the screen: “It’s more intimate. You’re released from the obligation to reach the back row. You’re released from the obligation to make that the last seat on the left or the right and if both have a view. It frees you to allow that life level of truth between you and the other actor’s eyes to guide you along with a wonderful text. And because you’re working with Denzel Washington as a director, you have this ultimate trust. You can really let go and say, ‘I’m just going to make my contribution here. I’m not worried about what it looks like, what it sounds like, I just want to make sure I’m in this moment with the other actor, because he’s going to film it, he’s going to shape it the way he wants to tell the story.”
Russell Hornsby: “You have to come to August with a depth of truth and a depth of feeling. You have to bring your joy and your pain to it. You have to bring all that you are. That’s how I approach the work. And so I have to reach back into my life and undercover some of those painful places and bring them along with me in order to exorcise them. In order to find a sense of healing for the character but also for Russell, I think. It’s cathartic. I think if you’re willing to give a piece of yourself, leave a little blood on the stage, it resonates with the audience.”
“Fences” opened wide on Christmas Day. I hope audiences give themselves the treat of discovering the music of the words of August Wilson, America’s own Shakespeare.