Stephen McKinley Henderson was more than ready to step into Denzel Washington’s big screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences,” out Christmas Day. The actor had already co-starred with Washington in a revival back in 2002. Henderson plays Jim, the best friend of Washington’s character, Troy, a garbageman with broken dreams in 1957 Pittsburgh.
Henderson’s co-star Jovan Adepo, however, was not. Taking on the role of Cory, Troy’s athletic son with lofty goals of his own, was huge. The England-born actor, known best for his role in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” considers “Fences” his lucky break — it’s his first feature film and is already getting Oscar buzz.
Adepo and Henderson were in Miami for a recent press tour to discuss the film.
How familiar were you with the play “Fences” before signing on?
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Adepo: I was very familiar with August Wilson’s work through study but I did not have the good fortune to perform it on stage so this was definitely a big deal for me.
Henderson: I knew exactly what I was in for. I was ready to put in the time and the work and everything that came with it.
What was it like to actually shoot in Pittsburgh where the original play was set?
Henderson: It was wonderful to see the Hill District, where August walked, where he went to school, grew up and got inspired. He still has family members there whom I had met before so we reunited. People there embraced us. They were lucky enough to have Denzel knock on their door one day and say, ‘I just want you to know I am making a film on your block.’ They were waiting and ready for us.
Adepo: The people of Pittsburgh welcomed us in every way. There was nothing like it to come to the set every morning and see this crowd of people supporting you doing what you love to do. It was like a huge family.
How was it being directed by Denzel and co-starring with him? Also what was it like acting alongside Viola Davis, who plays his on-screen wife?
Henderson: Ah, you know... you get the feeling you’re working with the best. You know you are. It humbles you. It doesn’t make you full of yourself or anything. You can’t [brag]. You want to bring your best game. Everyone fortifies each other.
Adepo: I definitely felt spoiled, this being my first feature film and getting to work with these amazing people and the rest of the talented cast. In my eyes, Viola and Denzel are the supreme; they have perfected the craft of acting and are absolutely brilliant. Watching them work and how they approach their craft day in and day out was a lesson I’ll never forget.
There were some very gut-wrenching scenes. How did you channel that emotion and not take it home with you?
Henderson: You just have to put your trust in the material and trust the leadership of Denzel, who was a fantastic director. The thing is you’re in the hands of a great playwright. August gave you the absolute perfect words to say. I too have experienced loss in my life. Your heart doesn’t work until it gets broken once. I was talking in the movie like I was talking to myself when I messed up. As an actor that’s your job, and it can be tough, but it’s a great one to have.
Adepo: Again, it was a blessing for me to have the ability to have this access to such greatness so early in my career. That doesn’t happen for many people. Denzel was the guide, he set the tone, and I followed him. Yes, there was some harsh dialogue, but I had the utmost faith in what he was doing. It was all about being a professional. The important thing is to do the scene and to speak to the audience and hopefully teach a lesson.