With Denzel Washington, Stephen McKinley Henderson Brings Fences to the Big Screen
"When you say it's August Wilson's play," the actor Stephen McKinley Henderson says, "what you mean is it's his fabulous dialogue and his blues iambic."
Henderson, 67, would know. In the late 1980s, Henderson saw his first Wilson work, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, live onstage. Since then, he's performed in eight of Wilson's ten dramas about African-American life in the 20th century, now collectively known as the Pittsburgh Cycle (or more commonly, the Century Cycle). More often than not, Henderson's role is the wise supporting character that serves as the main confidant to the protagonist.
In Fences, Henderson's role is Jim Bono. Bono, as he's called, is a longtime pal of Troy Maxson, the conflicted central character, since their days in prison. Henderson first played Bono opposite Denzel Washington, in a 2010 revival at the Cort Theatre. Henderson received his very first Tony Award nomination after a long and distinguished career onstage.
This winter, Henderson, Washington, and fellow stage costars Viola Davis, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson, are repeating their work in Washington's film adaptation of Fences. Infused with Wilson's trademark brand of both kitchen sink drama and magical realism, it uses a screenplay that the author himself penned before his untimely death, at 60 to liver cancer, in 2005.
Henderson knows his way around an August Wilson script, and he recently shared with TheaterMania the secrets of Fences — and how Wilson's sprit was on set with them.
What was your first indication that a Fences film was being made with most of the 2010 Broadway cast?
Well it started coming in my direction pretty much backstage during the run, when I saw that glint in Denzel's eye. He was saying that he definitely wanted to do it, and he shared with me this thing: He said, "I think I got it, man. It's from Hell to Hallelujah." His character, one of the first things he says is, "Hell," and then he says, "Hallelujah," close to the end. He got something from that metaphor. I could see it in his eyes. I think that was my first sort of hope that I'd still be a part of it if it got to film.
You and Denzel have worked together on several occasions now, and you play best friends here. How did you form that bond?
We used to get together and work on lines early in the morning during the rehearsal period [of the play], and we bonded over learning the lines. And then, what was so wonderful about when we started to do the film, in the interim, I had done A Raisin in the Sun with him and was developing more shared history with him, which is really good for me playing Bono. Again, [during Raisin] he was talking about it. He was saying, "Hey man, be ready in the spring of 2016." He eked out a time in his very busy schedule that he was going to do it, and that was thrilling in my ears, that he was letting me know when he was gonna do it. He had a vision.
Having done Fences onstage, was it difficult to modulate your performance for the screen?
You always start with the life level of truth when you work on any kind of dramatic literature. You have to raise it to the optics of the space. If you're in an off-Broadway space, your life level of truth doesn't have to alter that much; if you're in a very large space, then you are always mindful of the last seat on the left and the last seat on the right and being heard in the back row.
But [on film] you get to release that third eye, that eye that's watching you and making sure you know where you are in relation to the house. You let go of that and that voice monitor to make sure you can be heard to the back row. You release all of that and all you have to do is maintain that life level of truth and the only barometer you have is the eyes of the other actor. It's so freeing. It's the same thing that you use to craft with before; it's just that it's really down to the thing itself. You don't have to perform as much as you have to live it.
As someone who had seen the play, it was thrilling to see how August's level of magical realism translated so beautifully for the screen, and that it was just as moving here as it was live.
It's great when we hear that particular statement, that you are no less moved, in fact as moved. It's a great piece of theater and Denzel did dedicate himself to making sure it was true to August. There's something about allowing that creative spirit to transport us beyond simply kitchen sink. You must have heard the story of the gates, right?
Tell us, for those who haven't.
When Gabriel blows his horn in order to open the gates for Troy, the actual gate on the fence happened to be blown open and then back shut. For anybody that doubts whether there is magical realism, or spiritual realism, or whatever you want to call it, when the wind blew those gates open, the moment that Mykelti's wonderful incantation is occurring, that's a real August Wilson moment. That was knowing that he was with his, that his approval was absolutely solidified there.
Did you see that happen? Were you there?
I wasn't on set because there was another scene that was going to be shot after that, and I was waiting for that. At least two times before I got to set, I heard the story. It had already become oral tradition in the Hill District. When I got there and Denzel started to explain it to me, I said, "Man, I've heard it twice. The citizens already got the story." It's in the scene, on the screen. You can't get much better than that.
As a performer who has such a long history with August Wilson, what does it mean to be part of the first film adaptation of his work?
There are no words for it, but it's life affirming. You leave home and you say you want to be an actor. There are some times when there are struggles. People who love you, who stay with you, it costs them to be attached to you because of this love for dramatic literature. But to have known August, and to have worked with him, and to do it in Pittsburgh— I met him there and I know members of his family, and friends, and extended family, the way Bono is with the Maxsons. To see the streets that are the names of certain characters and see the addresses that he has in his plays. And to suddenly be the oldest member of Actors' Equity at a table, and then the oldest member of SAG on the set, that's just wonderful. I am humbled and proud at the same time.