Washington reprises his Tony-winning role in Wilson’s acclaimed play turned movie “Fences,” which opens Christmas Day.
On a rainy day in Seattle, more than a decade ago, Denzel Washington met August Wilson for the first and only time.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle (a series of plays documenting the African-American experience across the 20th century) lived in Seattle for the last 15 years of his life before his death from liver cancer in October 2005. Word reached Washington that Wilson, who was working on the play “Gem of the Ocean,” was potentially interested in casting him. “I flew up there, spent the day with him,” said Washington; he wasn’t certain of the date, but it must have been around 2003.
The two men sat on the porch of Wilson’s Capitol Hill home (“It poured rain”) and Wilson talked about his process: about how he would close up the doors in his house and “Write what the characters tell him.” That’s a paraphrase, said Washington, remembering the day — but the gist was that “He listened to them. [The actor] Stephen Henderson, who’s in our film, said [Wilson] was one of the best listeners he ever knew.”
Denzel Washington, ‘Fences’
Opens Sunday, Dec. 25, at several theaters. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
That film is “Fences,” the first screen adaptation of a Wilson play. (It opens Dec. 25 in Seattle.) Directed by and starring Washington, this story of an African-American family in 1950s working-class Pittsburgh has had a long road to the screen. It was first produced as a play in 1987, in an acclaimed Broadway production starring James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. A young Washington was in the audience for one of those performances: “I remember this fragile woman up there with this big guy, and this amazing play. Nothing I had seen before — that language, you know?”
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Around that time Wilson wrote a screenplay version of the play, in hopes of seeing it as a film, and Eddie Murphy came on board as a producer. But the project, after years of development in the late ’80s and early ’90s, eventually fizzled out. Then, around 2009, producer Scott Rudin called up Washington with a proposal — he had acquired the rights to Wilson’s screenplay.
“He said, ‘What do you want to do with it? Act? Direct?’ I said, let me read it.” Reading the play for the first time, Washington realized that he was now the right age to play Troy Maxson, the 53-year-old garbageman embittered by dreams of the ballplayer he could have been. “I called Scott up and said, ‘I want to do the play.’ ”
That led to the hot-ticket 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” starring Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson — all of whom would later reprise their roles in the film. Washington and Davis, as Troy’s wearily tolerant wife, Rose, won Tony Awards for their performances.
For the film, Washington said that very few changes were made to Wilson’s screenplay — “You don’t rewrite Shakespeare.” A few locations were switched out of the Maxsons’ backyard, where the action of the play takes place.
Though most of the actors were utterly familiar with the material, Washington insisted on a two-week rehearsal period before the cameras rolled — both to catch up the new members of the cast (two actors playing the Maxsons’ younger children) and “So we could get back to square one. I didn’t want to come there off the fumes of what we did in 2010 … Because we had all that success, you’ve got to find a way to start fresh.”
All of the actors, Washington said, move easily in their careers between stage and film/television, so calibrating the performances for the intimacy of a camera wasn’t a problem. “I encouraged them not to worry about it,” he said.
He also, in rehearsal, made a point of moving around all four sides of the scene, “So the actors would, if they had any habits of the theater left, get out of the habit of thinking they had to say something to the audience.” The whole transformation was, he said, “pretty seamless — they’re pros.”
“Fences” marks the beginning of a long screen relationship between Washington and Wilson’s plays; one that began years ago on that rainy day. “The Wilson estate came to me, and said the family would like to put these plays in your hands,” Washington said. “Fences” is the first, and Washington has made a deal with HBO for the remaining nine films in the Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he’ll be executive producer. The first screenplay, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is ready, though there’s no timeline yet for its production.
Will Washington direct or act in any of the upcoming HBO productions? “I don’t know,” he said, with a chuckle. “One at a time. I said, let’s get one right first.”