When Denzel Washington decided to bring August Wilson’s “Fences” to the screen—directing the film as well as taking the lead role of Troy Maxson—he reassembled most of the cast that had shared the stage with him in the much-praised 2010 Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon: Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Stephen McKinley Henderson as his pal Bobo, Russell Hornsby as his older son Lyons, and Mykelti Williamson as his brother Gabriel. But a newcomer assumed the part of Troy’s younger son Cory, played in New York by Chris Chalk. Jovan Adepo, a member of L.A.’s Robey Theatre Company who has appeared in some independent films as well as the television series “NCIS: Los Angeles” and HBO’s “The Leftovers,” is making his studio feature debut in the role.
In a recent Dallas interview, Adepo discussed how he fit into the established ensemble, which itself was rethinking their roles anew. “The first couple weeks of rehearsal, they all expressed that it was very much like it was for them in 2010,” he recalled. “And they actually had to make note of it, to joke about it, in order to let it go, because this was very little from the play in the sense that August Wilson wrote the play and the screenplay, but we’re not trying to play to an audience right in front of us. We had the luxury of actually being able to be intimate, to have the conversation. That’s something they enjoyed doing. That’s all I knew, because I had only done television. I had done plays before, but nothing on Broadway, so I hadn’t had to play to the eight-hundred people in the back. I had maybe a forty-seater, and that’s easy to project to. Being able to sit in and watch them find new things, find things different from what they explored in the play, was awesome. I think it benefited me.”
Adepo had gone through a long audition process before winning the role. “I know there are a lot of people who wanted this part,” he said, “and I remember that at the first couple of auditions, the line was very long. You do the audition, you put your all into it, and you let it go. It’s almost like you want to let go of the hope of getting it after the first audition, but when you get a callback you have to get excited about it again. That line is shorter, but the stakes are higher, and you get more invested in it, and it’s scary, but it’s what we love to do. And when I got the call that it was time for me to meet Denzel, it was completely terrifying, because it was a very short list. I was freaking out having to compose myself. I was lucky that whatever I did in that room, he felt was what he needed for this film. I’m indebted to him for that—he gave me an opportunity he could have given to anybody, and I’m really grateful for it.”
The young actor was, of course, familiar with Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of African-American plays, but he admitted, “The only one I had seen live was ‘Joe Turner,’ but I had read all of the plays, except for ‘Jitney’—Russell was giving me a hard time about that, because he’d performed in that. Sorry, Russell, for the record! And I had workshopped sections before in acting classes. So I was very familiar with the material. I had workshopped Cory, and specifically the scene at the end between him and Rose. So when it came time to revisit it, for the opportunity to audition, I was very excited about it, because when you’re workshopping it in class, it’s a scene study, but this was for the real deal—it’s a job interview, so you have to really get into it.”
In playing Cory, Adepo plugged into what he called “his experience as a young man trying to come into his own, trying desperately to find his own way in a huge world and make an imprint, and do so without completely letting down his parents.” But he gave a good deal of credit to Washington’s direction. “He’s amazing,” Adepo remarked. “In my limited experience working in television, I’ve been able to work with a lot of directors for each episode. This being my first feature film, he was everything that I could have hoped for him to be, and more—incredibly generous in his advice, incredibly patient with me, understanding that I was nervous. He could see it, it was all over my face, and he was very disarming, giving me the confidence that I needed to do to job and feel comfortable making choices as an actor and feel confident in those choices.”
Adepo also credited Davis with helping him flesh out the character. “There’s life experience to be had for characters outside of the script,” he said, “so it’s your responsibility as an actor to delve into that, to explore that. And Viola was a huge help in that, because she and I are really close—I’d known her before this film, because I know her older sister. So we already had a connection, and I felt comfortable talking to her. When I texted her in the middle of the night and ask her questions, she’d ask questions—she wanted to know how long was Cory gone when he left, how often do you come to visit me, do you send me letters often, is there a woman in your life, have you lost any friends in battle? We were creating that, even though we knew that nobody who’d see the film would ever see that part of his life. Those are things that you create and use to season your performance. Cory was seventeen when he left, and comes back at twenty-five. He’s not going to stay the same, he’s not going to speak the same, he’s more mature.”
It was also helpful, Adepo said, that the film was shot in sequence—an unusual practice—and in the location where the story was set. “We shot in the actual neighborhood—the story takes place in the Hill District—Sugar Top is the little area of that neighborhood,” he explained. “The people couldn’t have been more delighted. There were people who had been huge supporters of August Wilson and his work in Pittsburgh, and they were thrilled to have Denzel be the one at the helm. They were really excited about it.”
Adepo enthused about the opportunity the film gave him to watch his co-stars at work, which he said he did “all the time,” even when he wasn’t in a scene: “Nobody asked me to, but how often do you get to sit in and watch Denzel and Viola work every morning? That’s an acting class they would charge millions for, to sit in on a workshop like that. I had get up early in the morning, and when it was time for everybody to leave for work at 6am, I had to get up and be in the truck ready with them, or I wasn’t going to get to go. So I made sure I was there ready, and sometimes I brought a notebook. But a lot of times I just stayed in the tent and just watched Denzel and Viola, and Steven and Mykelti and Russell, because they’re all very talented. It was interesting watching all of them prepare and approach the material.”
And what had he learned from his more experienced colleagues? “To be patient, and not to be afraid to make interesting choices,” he noted. “Al Pacino said, you can only be as good as the risks that you’re willing to take as an actor. My cast mates in this film definitely had a similar sentiment—take risks, enjoy the journey, and don’t play the end result. There are conventional ways to show certain emotions, but sometimes the most interesting ones are the ones you wouldn’t expect to see.
“Making a choice to have a career in the arts, I’ve always wanted to have the chance to work with great artists. And I’ve been really fortunate in the last year and a half to have an opportunity to do that. There are some people who want to be an actor and it takes them years to get that call that they’re waiting for. For some people, the call never comes. So I’m incredibly blessed to have been able to work with one of my heroes already—as an actor, a co-star and a director. It’s made me hungrier, it’s motivated me to want to do more, and to do my best to continue to look for great roles and great projects and strong narratives top play. To get to do material like August Wilson and to be in the first film of many to introduce him to the world is awesome—there have been countless renditions of ‘Fences’ done, but we are the ones putting it out on celluloid, and I’m so honored to be the new cast member to do it.”
Asked about avoiding too reverential an attitude to the play, Adepo noted that Wilson himself had done the screenplay, and added, “ I don’t think there was ever a discussion…that we’ve got to do whatever we can to keep the play’s ‘essence,’ because that’s not what we were trying to do. Many people see the grand performances as being stage-like, but…that’s a representation of the black culture in the 1950s in that neighborhood, and that’s what August knew, and that’s what he wrote. It just so happens that it started on stage and now it’s a film, and more than anything we wanted to come from an honest place and we wanted to be intimate.
“We don’t get this level of material that often…. People are not used to have scenes that don’t cut away every ten seconds. But why cut away from where the drama’s happening right here? We have scenes that go on really long, and people aren’t used to that. People are quick to call things stagey, but it’s life. Why turn away from what’s going on right in front of you? I think the one thing Denzel wanted to do was to get people out of the habit of needing an explosion over here, a whistle over here, somebody looking over this way. That’s why he starts off the film in complete darkness—because he wants to you listen. Then, once you’re listening to the words and getting caught up in the story, then he opens the camera, and you can pay attention to the moving picture. It is a motion picture, but he wants you to listen first, and understand that the words are what’s important, not the cutaways and all that—that cheapens the material.
“It’s an important story, and we can all relate to it,” Adepo emphasized. “It’s specific, because it’s specific to this family and this community and this part of black culture, but the theme is absolutely universal.”