Six years ago, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of August Wilson's Fences. Now they also star in the play's film adaptation, which Washington has directed.
Fences tells the story of Troy and Rose Maxson, a married couple living in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy, a sanitation worker, is having an affair, and over the course of the play Rose begins to realize what she gave up by staying with her husband.
Fences is part of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays that explore the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1987, and now both Washington and Davis have received Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the film. The actors spoke to NPR's Michel Martin about what Wilson's work means to them and how they approached their characters.
On Rose Maxson
Viola Davis: I loved Rose's journey. I always say I think her journey — it's a complete journey. I mean, you see her at first and she seems to be in the background. She's making her marriage work — it is working, as far as she's concerned. And then it gets turned on its head and you see her pain. ... I love it as an actor, that just complete journey of womanhood. ...
I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman. ... You see age has affected her, but you still see the smile; you see a little bit of the lipstick; you see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman, so by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma ... and I could have only gotten to that level if I would have had something to lose.
On Troy Maxson
Denzel Washington: One of the first things I wrote down on the script as I was starting to do rehearsals for the play six years ago — it just hit me, I wrote, "From hell to hallelujah." And early in the play he's always saying, "Aw, hell." Aw, hell this. Aw, hell that. Aw, hell this. And by the end of the play he's screaming hallelujah. So the arc of the character for me was a spiritual arc. If God was sitting there watching, he's saying, "OK, that's as far as he's going to be able to go."
And there's a take where Rose, I forgot the line exactly — God's the one you've got to answer to. And I just kind of put my hand over my ears like I don't want to hear it. He thinks he can control death and the devil, and he finds out in the worst way that he can't.
On why Fences is the most well-known of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays
Davis: I think that this play is probably the most accessible. I think that when people come to see this they will relate to it in a way that it's [not just] an African-American experience — it's a story about a family and it's a story about a flawed man who is at the center of this family who doesn't understand the extent to which he is destroying it. And I think that that really is at the heart of who we are as people and what we are as family.
On what Wilson's work means to Davis
Davis: To me August honors those men that people just never even talk about; men in history that were invisible. Men like my dad, who was a groom on the race track and born in 1936, had a fifth-grade education. And his only dreams were us, his kids. And he honors him in these plays, and I love that.
On getting to meet Wilson before he died
Washington: I spent one day with him in 2005 and flew up to Seattle. He wanted to meet and we were talking about [the Pittsburgh Cycle play] Gem of the Ocean. But it was just a great day I got to spend with him and ask him questions about how he worked. It had nothing to do with Fences — just ask him his process and just spent the day with him. I had no idea it was the first and the last time I was going to see him, but it was just a lovely, lovely day.
On Washington's mission to make each of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays into movie
Washington: I made a nine-picture deal with HBO. ... I was doing A Raisin in the Sun two years ago, 2014. Constanza [Romero], August's widow, came to the show and after the show we were small talking — and we had already been working on Fences — and she says, "The estate is asking would you shepherd his other nine films?" I couldn't believe it, and I said yes.
On Fences being one of several big 2016 releases by and about people of color, and whether it's just a trend
Davis: I think what has happened is people ... [are] just taking what they feel like they deserve, like any artist would. I think that's what's changed. Now people are saying, "This is what I have to give to the artistic community and I'm going to give it. I'm not going to wait for Hollywood. I'm just going to do it and I'm going to do it because I deserve to be here." I think that's what's changed. ... I think this is not a trend. I think we're here. ...
Washington: If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. What an opportunity we have now, because August Wilson has left us about a thousand pages of his brilliant work, and we have 10 opportunities — the first one now being Fences — to make sure it's not a trend. ... I have enough work for the next 10 years, even if it's just as a producer, but also there are hundreds of actors — African-American and white actors — in his plays that now will have an opportunity to not just work but to interpret a genius' work — one of the five greatest playwrights in American history's work. So I honor that.
ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
It's Christmas Day, which is a big day for movies. And a new one out today has a family at its core, who both cling together and are driven apart by their needs and wants. The film is "Fences." It's adapted from the play by August Wilson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1987. The film has already been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and is generating some Oscar buzz.
The original staging starred James Earl Jones and Mary Alice as Troy and Rose Maxson, the couple at the heart of the story. It was revived on Broadway in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Both won Tony Awards for their performances. Now, after six years, they are starring in the film adaptation under the direction of none other than Denzel Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy) When I first met this woman, I got out that place, say, hitch up my pony, saddle up my mare, there's a woman out there for me somewhere. I looked here, looked there, saw Rose, and I latched onto her. I latched onto her, and I told her - now I'm going to tell you the truth - I latched onto her and told her, baby, I don't want to marry. I just want to be your man. Rose told me - tell him what you told me, Rose.
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Rose) I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out the way so the marrying kind could find me.
WASHINGTON: (As Troy) That what she told me. You in my way. You're blocking the view. Move out the way so I can find me a husband. I thought it over two or three days. Come back...
DAVIS: (As Rose) Wasn't no two or three days nothing - you was back the same night.
AUBREY: The two actors are both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances in the movie. And our own Michel Martin spoke with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis ahead of the film's release.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: You got the team back together. Viola Davis, let me start with you. What was it about this play that grips you? And what do you think it is that grips other people since it's probably, of the 10 plays that August Wilson wrote about the African-American experience, the one that people probably know the best.
DAVIS: I think that this play's probably the most accessible. I think that when people come to see this, they will relate to it in a way that it's just not an African-American experience. It's a story about a family. And it's a story about a flawed man who is at the center of this family, who doesn't understand the extent to which he's destroying it. And I think that that really is at the heart of who we are as people and what we are as family.
I loved Rose's journey. I always say I think her journey - it's a complete journey. I mean, you see her at first, and she seems to be in the background. She's making her marriage work. It is working as far as she's concerned. And then it gets turned on its head, and you see her pain. You see her processing that and then coming to a place of forgiveness. I love it as an actor - that just complete journey of womanhood.
MARTIN: Denzel Washington, pick up the thread there. You play Troy Maxson. He is working as a sanitation worker. It's in 1950s Pittsburgh. Would you tell us a little bit more about him?
WASHINGTON: One of the first things I wrote down on this script as I was starting to do rehearsals for the play six years ago - it just hit me - I wrote, from hell to hallelujah. And early in the play, he's always saying - aw, hell - aw, hell this, aw, hell that, aw, hell this. And by the end of the play, he's screaming hallelujah.
So the arc of the character, for me, was a spiritual arc. If God was sitting there watching, he'd say, OK, that's as far as he's going to be able to go. And there's a take where Rose - I forgot the line exactly - talking - well, God's the one you've got an answer to. And I just kind of put my hands over my ears like I don't want to hear it. He thinks he can control death and the devil. And he finds out in the worst way that he can't.
MARTIN: And what about - have you changed your understanding of this character over the years since you played him last? Has anything about your sense of him changed over the years?
WASHINGTON: I guess. I think it was good to be away from it for five years or so, but I couldn't identify it. I wouldn't say, oh, it's that now. I mean, like any great play - like Shakespeare - any great play - Eugene O'Neill's plays - you find things, it's like - oh, that's what that meant. Four years later, you go - oh, that's what that was.
MARTIN: One of the keys to Troy is that he's bitter. I mean, he was a Negro League baseball star. He never made it into the majors. And a lot of people have talked about the way you capture his sense of confinement. And I was wondering, Mr. Washington, if it was hard to get back to that sense of feeling trapped. I mean, after all, look, you've won two Academy Awards for heaven's sakes, three Golden Globes, a Tony. I mean, was it hard for you to get back to that feeling of there's nowhere to go?
WASHINGTON: No. No. Because it's acting. And we're dealing with the text, not the people who are watching us shoot. It's like I tell people - you don't have to kill somebody to play a murderer. You have to read the script and interpret the character. In the brilliance of August Wilson, all the clues are there. So you invest in the clues that he gives you, and you interpret the role.
MARTIN: Viola Davis, people are already talking about how you do so much with a glance and a gesture. You are that necessary sort of counterweight to Troy's eloquence.
WASHINGTON: Now, don't clean it up.
MARTIN: Grandiloquence - can you call it that (laughter)?
WASHINGTON: To his blustery, egotistical...
WASHINGTON: Say what you really want to say. Don't try to clean it up now. Come on, I know bad acting when I hear it.
MARTIN: Loudness - and - so we can't show you doing that, so we are going to play a clip from you. And this captures some of what it is that people are talking about with your performance. And this is where she's confronting Troy about a betrayal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")
WASHINGTON: (As Troy) It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years.
DAVIS: (As Rose) Well, I've been standing with you. I've been right here with you, Troy. I've had a life, too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot as you. Don't you think I ever wanted other things? Don't you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?
MARTIN: So, Viola Davis, talk a little bit more about that. You started telling us a little bit more about how you found your way into Rose. Were there different things that struck you when you came back to this character?
DAVIS: Well, there's one thing that struck me. I came back as a mother. I am the mother of a 6-year-old now, so that's changed my entire perspective. But also, I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman that, when you first meet her, the marriage is working. And she's not the woman that you see in that speech. Maybe that's somewhere in there, in the mix. But what else is also in there is the joy; is the focus on purpose, which is keeping this family together; the love that she has for her husband and her son and how much she protects it.
And maybe in her grayness - and her hips are wider than they were, probably, 20-something years ago, you see age has affected her. But you still see the smile. You see a little bit of the lipstick. You see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman. So by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma because what's in the speech - that speech is four pages long, though what it says is that there is a level of trauma that's happened.
And I could have only gotten to that level if I would have had something to lose. So it was more important for me to explore the love, the commitment to family - all of those things - to get to that point. Otherwise, if I would have been that woman from the beginning, that speech in that moment would not be as powerful.
MARTIN: Denzel Washington, could you talk about what it was like moving from the play to the screen? I mean, serving as both the star and the director, is there something you could do with the film that you couldn't do on stage that is particularly important to you?
WASHINGTON: Well, one of the first things was to do exactly what Viola just said - to remind all the actors about the love, to say to them - let's start from love first. Whether they knew that or not, I wanted us to know that as a team so that everything in Rose's - everything that Viola just told you pays off. Any great playwright - actually, everything is there. Listening to what Viola just said, I was sitting there thinking - because it's all in there. Now, she laid it out, and she found it. But it's actually all in there. When she was talking about the four-page monologue, I was like, I wonder if August thought that way, too.
DAVIS: Well, that's the beauty of what he wrote because I think that we all have facets to our character that's either contributing to or destroying our lives. And most of the time, we are not aware of it. We're just going through our lives. And we're just doing whatever we do. That's why it's so great at the end when Rose says, I wanted a house I could sing in, but what I've realized is I gave up little pieces of my life to fit into his. She now wakes up to it. That's always interesting to me - to finally wake up in your life and to see that on the screen, to see that on the stage is reflective of life.
WASHINGTON: So did she have any sense of that early if she's a hundred percent sure of that at the end - or when she says it? Did she have - where was she, you know what I mean?
DAVIS: Absolutely. I think there's always threads of it. You can't put your finger on it. Maybe you're not ready to admit it to yourself. And then through a series of incidents, like the trauma that happens within the narrative, it catapults you. And it's like, wow, that's what it was all these years. That's the thing that's been kind of keeping me up a little bit at night. But I thought it was nothing.
That's how I see it.
MARTIN: It's interesting. The two of you just fall right back into it. Was it that easy to fall back in together after not having worked together for years?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, the key word you just said was together. So once we got back together, we sit around and talk. We read the play together, and these kind of things start to happen - and some said, some unsaid.
WASHINGTON: Viola didn't say all of those things to me then. I'm hearing them now. I wish I had known.
WASHINGTON: But - it's just fascinating doing these interviews now and talking about the film and to hear what Viola is saying now about their approach because when we're working on the play, we're all off in our corners working on our approach. As the filmmaker, yes, I have to look out for everybody. But I don't have to know everybody's approach. And I know, as an actor, I don't like sharing everything with the director. And it's fine if they don't with me. But it's fascinating now, after the fact, to hear what their approaches were.
MARTIN: Mr. Washington, did you get a chance to visit with August Wilson before he passed away in 2005?
WASHINGTON: I spent one day with him in 2005. I flew up to Seattle. He wanted to meet, and we were talking about "Gem Of The Ocean." But it was just a great day I got to spend with him and ask him questions about how he worked - had nothing to do with "Fences" - just ask him his process and just spend the day with him. I had no idea it was the first and the last time I was going to see him. But it was just a lovely, lovely day.
MARTIN: Did you have a sense of whether he would have wanted his films to have become - I mean, it was very important to...
WASHINGTON: Now, we didn't talk films at all.
MARTIN: Yeah? Because I remember hearing him talk about how important it was for him to be in the theater. But he was very busy writing his plays. I've read that you were hoping that all of his 10, the 10-year cycle of films, the 10 films that he wrote about the African-American experience, each covering a decade - it is your hope that all of them will be made into films?
WASHINGTON: No, it's not a hope. I made a nine-picture deal with HBO.
MARTIN: Boy, that is, like, a project of a lifetime.
WASHINGTON: I was doing "Raisin In The Sun" two years ago, 2014. Constanza, August's widow, came to the show. And after the show, we're small-talking - and we had already been working on "Fences." And she says, the estate is asking - would you shepherd his other nine films? I couldn't believe it, and I said yes.
MARTIN: Well, Viola Davis, what's next for you? And congratulations on all of the things that we haven't even had a chance to talk about - your Emmy for - first African-American women to win a dramatic lead. At the end of this incredible year, you know, for you, can you just describe what this project means to you?
DAVIS: I think it probably means to me what it means to everyone in the cast, what it would have meant to all August - is it's a tremendous feat to expose this great writer to the world. August honors those men that people just never even talk about, men in history that were invisible men like my dad who was a groom on a race track and born in 1936, had a fifth-grade education. And his only dreams were us, his kids. And he honors him in these plays, and I love that. And I'm doing my TV show, doing a Steve McQueen movie after this, "Widows," and taking a much needed vacation.
MARTIN: Congratulations on that for sure.
MARTIN: Lastly, this film is one of several big releases this year by and about people of color, you know, "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures," "Birth Of A Nation." Viola Davis, you had some very powerful words to say about that when you won your primetime Emmy. Do you feel that this is an inflection point where somebody else isn't going to have to give that speech, or not?
DAVIS: No, I don't think anyone is going to give any speech because I think what has happened is people who are out there say, they're just taking what they feel like they deserve, like any artist would. I think that's what's changed. Now people are saying, this is what I have to give to the artistic community, and I'm going to give it. I'm not going to wait for Hollywood. I'm just going to do it. And I'm going to do it because I deserve to be here. I think that's what's changed. So I don't think it's time for any speeches. I think this is not a trend. I think we're here.
MARTIN: Denzel Washington, final thought from you?
WASHINGTON: If it ain't on a page, it ain't on a stage. What an opportunity we have now because August Wilson has left us about a thousand pages of his brilliant work. And we have 10 opportunities - the first one now being "Fences" - to make sure it's not a trend. You know, it's important for us to tell our stories. August Wilson told our stories, so I have enough work (laughter) for the next 10 years, even if it's just as a producer.
But also, there are hundreds of actors, African-American and white actors, in his plays that now will have an opportunity to not just work but to interpret a genius's work, one of the five greatest playwrights in American history's work. So I honor that. I respect that. I understand the responsibility of that, and I can't wait.
MARTIN: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis - thank you so much for joining us, and happy holidays to you both.
WASHINGTON: You're very welcome
DAVIS: Thank you.
AUBREY: And that was Michel Martin speaking with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis about their new film "Fences," which is out in theaters today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")
THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Silent night... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.