Interview with Denzel Washington & the Cast of Broadway's "Fences"

“Fences” stars two-time Academy Award® winner Denzel Washington as he returns to Broadway, alongside Academy Award nominee and Tony winner Viola Davis, in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. This strictly limited 13-week engagement begins April 14th at the Cort Theatre. Both a monumental drama and an intimate family portrait, “Fences” tells the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a man torn between the glory of his past and the uncertainty of his future. Emboldened by pride and embittered by sacrifice, Troy is determined to make life better for future generations, even as he struggles to embrace the dreams of his own son.

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Movie Mikes recently had the opportunity to attend a press junket in NYC for the upcoming Broadway show “Fences” based on the August Wilson play. I got a chance to interview Denzel Washington and the cast. This show has one of the most amazing cast and it was a pleasure interviewing each member.

**UPDATE** JUNE 13TH, 2010: congratulates Denzel Washington for winning the Tony for Best Actor and Viola Davis for winning Best Actress.

**UPDATE** MAY 6TH, 2010: congratulates Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson and the cast and crew of Broadway’s “Fences,” which received a record-tying 10 Tony Nominations (non-Musical) this week, including Best Revival of a Play. The 10 nods also set a record for most nominations earned by a revival. was among the first web sites to feature interviews with the cast of this production and we hope all of the shows’ nominees “break a leg” on June 13th.

Photos courtesy of Ryon Horne/The Horne Brothers

Denzel Washington

Q: This is your third return to Broadway, what makes you come back?
A: Cause, I love it, I love it! I love the theater, it is how and where I started, at Lincoln Center and Fordham. This is a great play, this is a masterpiece, Pulitzer and every other award winning play. I am the right age, it is the right time, I am in the right city and it is just all good!

Q: You mentioned that theater is your top priority right now, then directing, then movies? Tell me why that is?
A: Because I started out in the theater, it is what I wanted to do. I didn’t think about Hollywood. It was a different time. It wasn’t like you do theater so you can become a movie star. Now young people don’t even do theater, they just think they want to be movie stars. The way I was raised as an actor was in the theater. So I thought one day I will be on Broadway and do plays, that was the goal, not to go to Hollywood. It was a different time in the 70’s, the movies I liked were kinda New York-based movies “Taxi Driver”, “Mean Streets”, DeNiro or anyone with an “o” on the end of their name. Pacino, DeNiro, or Dustin Hoffman…Hoffmano (laughs). So that’s how I started I didn’t have childhood dreams of being an actor, didn’t think about it at all. I wanted to be a football player, in retrospect, my father was a minister and my mother owned a beauty shop. There was theater going on all around me I just didn’t know it. I worked in a barbershop from the age of 11. The barbershop was filled with Troy Maxon’s (Denzel’s character in “Fences”). Somebody would bring up death “Oh I know Death, Death ain’t nothing, I know the Devil I talked to him, I wrestled with him” that is what I say in the play. “Oh yeah I wrestled with Death, Death ain’t nothing to me but a fast ball on the outside of the corner of the plate, that’s all Death is to me” Anything you say, World Series “Oh I was gonna be in it, I hurt my foot, you know i would have been there” “When did you hurt your foot?” “Well well when I was twelve but I was about to make it, I know I was gonna be with the Yankees and have gone to the World Series” That is the kind of storytelling and fun and brilliant way August structured the play with a lot of fun and stories that let you in and when he got you, it turns and heads somewhere else.

Q: What are the challenges in August Wilson in general and in this play in particular for you as an actor?
A: One of the challenges are familiarity, sometimes they say it is easier to learn piano if you’ve never played. If you taught yourself and go play and try to learn, it is a little more difficult. There is a lot of the language that is very familiar, the rhythm of it is familiar but his sentence structure and his line structure is specific. If you think you know the line, somebody says something about Jackie Robinson, he says “I know 100 guys that play baseball better than Jackie Robinson, Hell I know some teams that Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make, what you talking about Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson was nobody”. The line says “What you talking about Jackie Robinson?”, that is what it says, so you’re think your familiar with it, until the girl says you keep leaving out “what you talking about” or the lines are inverted, where he places the words are specific to the play he wrote. As an African American or as this particular African American (referring to Troy Maxon), I feel like I am familiar with it, but you have to relearn, like Shakespeare let’s say, it is foreign to me, the language. So I learned it specifically.

Viola Davis, Oscar nominated for “Doubt”

Q: What was it like working on “Doubt”, did you find the character challenging?
A: Yeah, it was very challenging, the character for me was very complicated in “Doubt”, even though I think she is on screen 10 minutes. I think she goes on a journey that is not linear. It is not an everyday decision that she has to make and it requires me to do some heavy duty character psychological investigative work. So it was very difficult.

Q: After being nominated for an Academy Award for the movie “Doubt”, why Broadway and why now?
A: I am a stage actor. I did regional theater and then Broadway, why not? I am an actor I go where the good work leads me. I am an African American actress over the age of 40, so I really go where the good work leads me because I am first and foremost an actor. When I can not create and do that, that is when I start to feel dead. I do not endorse Revlon or domestics, I do not get my jollies looking at myself in magazines, I get off being an actor. So it made sense.

Q: You play Rose Maxon in “Fences”, she is a very strong and loving woman, how do you prepare for such a role?
A: I would hope I channel my own energy (laughs). I am preparing for it by looking at the women in my family who grew up with lack of choices and had the all the potential in the world to have a gratifying life but couldn’t. Women who were in dysfunctional marriages who wanted more in life. I know Rose, so that’s part of it, the other part is just trusting the play it’s all in the script and that’s the work that you do. The script becomes the bible.

Mykelti Williamson, best known for playing Bubba in “Forrest Gump”

Q: This is your Broadway debut, how do you feel?
A: It is on a completely different level but I was trained on it back in the day. The last play I did was probably six years ago with Samuel L. Jackson. It played in Los Angeles and was very well received. I am fortunate enough to be working with my man Denzel now. I am used to seeing him at church on Sundays, when we are in town in LA and we talk briefly before the crowd sniffs us out. It has been good to catch up and work together because we do a lot of soul searching, especially in theater you have the time to do that. I love New York, there is no other city on the Earth like New York City, so I am excited. So I am making my Broadway debut in August Wilson’s “Fences” with my man DENZEL (shouting).

Q: What is your method for trying to get into a role? What are the challenges here that are you going to face with this role?

A: Well for me, it’s the pursuit of truth. It always has to be honest and truthful and it has to be a decision that I would not make personally. For me I am a character actor. I am happier to play someone way outside who has nothing to do with Mykelti Williams. That is when I do my best work and that is when I am most focused and concentrated. That is what I am able to do working with Kenny Leons (director of “Fences”), you can completely go there. There is a few times we got lost in the moment last week in rehearsals. We finally got to the end of the play when we ran it top to bottom and it was wonderful. So wonderful that Kenny couldn’t figure out which notes to give and he was like, “I don’t know what to tell you guys, ok let’s break up, we’ll see you tomorrow”. Everyone was so effective, everyone was on it. I consider this cast The A-Team, everybody even the babies when they show up, they have a show to do. They come to PLAY (speaking excitedly), they are not jiving. It amazing!!

Chris Chalk, Broadway debut

Q: You play the role of Corey Maxon, how do you feel about taking over the role originally played by Courtney Vance?
A: It’s awesome, Courtney has been doing alright, he is pretty awesome. I didn’t get to see his performance but I know his work, so I know it is amazing. You look at the role and it is a great role. It’s got everything you want in a role. Then getting to be Mr. Washington’s son in the role is pretty awesome as well. I am kinda like his son, I am looking up to him saying, “Hey pop, how do I do that again?” I was a little nervous every day but really excited. The role is fantastic and I hope to do it justice.

Q: This is Broadway your debut, what has it been like to prepare?
A: It has been very exciting, not only cause it’s my Broadway debut, but it’s the cast and it’s because of the play and the time period we are doing it in. Everything about it is setup perfectly in order to bless the world with the wisdom of this play. Because of the cast, a bunch of people are gonna see it and that is exciting to share this text and this family with the world, it’s really very exciting.

Russell Hornsby, best known from TV’s “Liberty Heights” & “In Treatment”

Q: What was your best moment on the set of your TV show “Lincoln Heights”?
A: There isn’t a singular moment. The moment I will always remember is working with the young people, Mishon Ratliff and Rhyon Brown, who played my son and daughter respectively. Being able to share moments of insight with them and being able to help them grow as actors and more importantly human beings.

Q: What are the challenges of August Wilson in general?
A: We can often lose sight of the fact that these are really people. A lot of times as actors you can get lost in the words and it is so cool just to speak his language and forget to tell the truth. You can’t live a lie in life and tell the truth on stage. You have to identify with these characters and find it in yourself who you are.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, stage veteran

Q: You starred in the TV movie, “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1989, does it compare to Kenny Leon’s recent adaptation?
A: Well I can’t compare it first of all, it is a fingerprint. As they say every writer says that every play they write or book they write is like a child. Every production is like that. I wouldn’t even begin to compare productions or plays. When I did the production of “A Raisin in the Sun”, I worked with Esther Rolle and Danny Glover. You can’t compare being in it and watching another version. You just can’t compare.

Q: Do you have a favorite production that you worked on?
A: It’s usually the very next one (laughs), the joy of this show that I am doing right now. I am so in the midst of it, I got to tell you, such joy. I did my first Broadway show with Viola Davis in “King Hedley II”. It was my first Broadway show and the fact that I am doing another show and she is in it, are you kidding!? The production that would have made my whole life different if I was not apart of would be August Wilson’s “Jitney”. That show was the greatest joy and I can say that is one thing I am happy I did.

Kenny Leon, Director

Q: You made your play, “A Raisin the Sun” into a TV film, would you consider making “Fences” into a movie?
A: Absolutely if they asked. I think “Fences” would be an incredible film and before August passed away, he finished another draft of the screenplay. That is one of the things that was important to him. I had the opportunity to work with him on his last two Broadway plays and I know he would have liked to see that happen.

Q: What is your dream project to direct?
A: I have many projects I would want to do, cause I am a storyteller. I had never done an opera until a couple of years ago. Toni Morrison asked me her to do her opera, “Margaret Garner”, so that was great. I am getting the opportunity to direct a Broadway play in the fall about Martin Luther King and I am looking forward to that. I want to stay in this moment and hope that a door opens that will allow me to do great storytelling, it is important. I do not like to do frivolous things. I have always wanted to do a major production of “The Rose Tattoo” by Tennessee Williams. I like stories like that. Who wouldn’t love to do a movie about “Fences”? I would love to make all 10 of August’s play into films, especially “Gem on the Ocean”. I would love to do “Gem on the Ocean”. As an artist, I would love to continue to do all of it. I want to do stage, I want to do television, I want to do film. This past year, I did “Private Practice” and “Ghost Whisperer” with Jennifer Love Hewitt, but I want to do more of that because it has its own challenges. I would probably do a nice beautiful love story musical right about now. I want to do it all.

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