Twenty-nine years ago, things looked very different for Oscar-winning actor-director Denzel Washington. He had just moved to San Francisco from New York with only $800 in his pocket to study acting at the American Conservatory Theater. He was living in a small apartment on Bush Street between Powell and Mason for $151 per month. It had a Murphy bed, a tub in the closet, and a single window with an up-close view of the building next door. He worked at nearby Salmagundi’s, which served 31 soups, oftentimes to the A.C.T. and Curran Theatre actors. That same year a play called Fences premiered there and eventually won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.
“I would take care of all the actors and get their food and watch them all from across the street,” Washington recalled at Fences‘ star-studded red carpet premiere at the Curran Theatre, ahead of the film’s Christmas Day opening. “I said that one day I’d be in this theatre. It took me 29 years, but I’m here.”
It took about the same amount of time to get August Wilson’s play Fences to the silver screen, as the late playwright insisted, when he sold the film rights in 1986 that the movie be directed by an African American, who could understand the cultural nuances of the story about 1950’s sanitation worker Troy Maxson (played by Washington, himself) who squashes his son Corey (Jovan Adepo)’s dreams of making it as an athlete, after his own were, due to the exclusion of African Americans from the big leagues, decades earlier. But finding a black director with enough Hollywood clout to get the project off the ground proved a bigger challenge than Wilson could have conceived.
SF Weekly spoke to Washington and his Fences‘ costars Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump, Con Air) Stephen McKinley Henderson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Lincoln) and Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) about building Fences and the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
What does it mean to you to be at the Curran Theatre where the Fences play premiered in 1987?
Denzel Washington: Surreal. A.C.T. used to be right across the street. There’s a restaurant, Salmagundi’s that used to be right there. I worked there, and I served the actors that were doing the plays here. I said, “One day I’m going to get in there.” It took 39 years, though.
Mykelti Williamson: I love San Francisco. I lived on Townsend off Embarcadero in the ’80s and early ’90s, and I miss it. To be here, where August Wilson first laid this down, it’s a privilege, because James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, Courtney B. Vance — they all walked right in here and knocked it out right on the same stage. I just wish August were here to see it.
Jovan Adepo: To go back to where it all started is pretty amazing. As the new kid on the block, I made sure to do my best to be completely focused and fill in where they needed me. It’s kind of awesome that during that time I got to speak to Courtney B. Vance who originated the role. He had complete faith in me and wanted to give me his support.
Stephen McKinley Henderson: It’s sacred ground, because August Wilson is all about heritage and legacy, and here we are right in the midst of it, where Fences first met an audience.
Stephen, what was it about working on the stage version with Denzel Washington that made you want to reprise your role for the movie?
SMH: I absolutely wanted to, but you never know if you’re going to get to till they call you. It was six years between the time we did it onstage and the time we started filming, and you grow as a person, so you bring more to it. I got to know Denzel better because I did an additional play with him between then and 2016, so I had a shared history that we were able to bring to the friendship that we have in the current film.
We all know what an amazing actor Denzel Washington is. But why was he the perfect director for this project?
MW: Because Denzel Washington is the perfect actor. He is one of the most elevated human beings that you’ll ever meet. He’s trustworthy and only walks in the truth. He’s such a wonderful leader. He knows when to talk to actors and when to leave us alone. That only elevated this process and the final product.
JA: It took somebody of his stature and talent to be able to take it and be at the helm of it and give it the love and attention that it needed. I don’t think it could have been anybody else but Denzel.
Does Fences‘ rocky road to the silver screen speak to the lack of diversity in Hollywood?
MW: Hollywood is trying its best, but remember that Hollywood isn’t a real place. Hollywood is a collective of people. The people have to do better. We have to be more inclusive. You can definitely get along without going along, but still I owe it to you to love you, and you owe it to me to love me back.Fences, as far as Denzel is concerned, is part of that journey of bringing the love back.
SMH: August wanted an African American director because there were things that an African American could bring to it that someone who isn’t couldn’t. But what Denzel says so brilliantly is that Spielberg could have directed Goodfellas and Scorsese, Schindler’s List, but when you get Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, you get something brilliant. It’s not just about being an African American, it’s about being a wonderful director and artist. Art is and has always been culturally specific, and it speaks to everyone from the specific culture that it comes from.
JA: It’s getting better, and there are more opportunities for all minorities to be seen on a wide scale as far as our independent films and obtaining financing for those stories and films. Every walk of life has great stories to tell, and they all deserve an opportunity to share it with the world, so this is a great time to do so.
DW: I think it’s changing. It’s getting better, and there are more opportunities from where I started to where we are today. Like Troy, there’s still a bit of a resistance at the top. But like August Wilson, it proves that it still starts with the words. So I would hope that young people of any color are inspired and determined to get their stories told. Look at this young man, who did Moonlight. He got his story told, and you’ve got to have that determination with that passion to never give up, to fight for it. Because like Troy, it’s easy to just say it’s racism and just blame.
Denzel, you said in a previous interview that discipline and consistency are the two keys to achieving any goal in life. Did your motto hold true for Fences?
DW: Without commitment you’ll never start and without consistency you’ll never finish. Try to be consistent, even-keeled, keep working, keep searching, and don’t settle. Bring the best of yourself to whatever you do. In this case, we’re talking about one of the American masters, one of the five greatest playwrights in American history. There’s a tremendous responsibility, and I’m humbled to be the one that was asked to take care of it. I tried to do my best to do exactly that, to serve and honor his words with these actors who give brilliant performances. So I’m happy.