This story first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
We can get this out of the way to begin with: Yes, Denzel Washington gives a volcanic performance as Troy Maxson, the leading character in his adaptation of August Wilson’s searing family drama “Fences,” and he is every inch a Best Actor contender.
And yes, Viola Davis matches him each step of the way as his long-suffering wife, with enough spectacular work to surely punch her own ticket to the Dolby Theatre, and probably onto the stage.
But now let’s move beyond the power couple at the heart of that production, because the brilliant acting in “Fences” doesn’t stop with Washington and Davis.
Russell Hornsby, for example, shines as Troy’s eldest son, Lyons, a struggling musician who only finds his way back to dad’s house when it’s payday and he needs to borrow a few bucks. But as solid as Hornsby is, the nature of his role means he’s overshadowed by three other actors, all of whom have moments strong enough to almost fill the Best Supporting Actor category on their own.
Here are those three “Fences” stars with standout moments in the film:
Role: Gabriel Maxson, Troy’s younger brother, a veteran suffering from the effects of a traumatic brain injury.
His story: Williamson has spent decades doing TV and film work, but until now his highest profile role came as “Bubba” Blue, a fellow Vietnam soldier to Tom Hanks’ title character in the Oscar-winning 1994 film “Forrest Gump.”
“Fences” is his biggest and boldest role since then. “I’ve been very fortunate to work on some really exceptional films, but this outclasses anything I’ve done in my life,” Williamson said. “I could walk away right now and be done.”
Big scene: The actor tears your heart out almost every time he appears on screen, culminating in a brief scene at the end of the movie where he pulls out a battered trumpet and plays a broken but triumphant fanfare.
“My character’s No. 1 mission is to get his brother Troy into heaven,” he said. “Troy is as flawed as they come, which is a stress point for Gabriel. And that’s a negotiation between Gabriel and the keeper of the pearly gates, St. Peter, with the trumpet as the tool that’s used in that negotiation. That scene gave me a lot of things, and one of them was chills.”
On his famous leading man and director: “If you like Denzel Washington as an actor, you’re gonna love Denzel as a director. For me, watching him direct, I learned things. I’ve been in the DGA for more than 20 years, and there’s no one in our guild with Mr. Washington’s skill set.
“And if you want to know what he does that makes him stand out so much — well, I don’t want to be the first one to tell the world what he does, in case he’s planning to write a book or something.”
STEPHEN McKINLEY HENDERSON
Role: Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend and fellow garbage collector.
His story: Much beloved by other actors, particularly in the theatrical community, Henderson was a member of August Wilson’s stock company for years, performing in eight of the playwright’s 10 plays — including playing Bono in the 2010 “Fences” revival starring Washington, for which he received a Tony nomination.
“I just love how August has elevated my culture’s vernacular to a poetic form,” said Henderson. “It sounds quite natural, pedestrian even, but there’s brilliance in his selection of words, and I hear the voices of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Big scene: As delicious as Bono’s near-constant back-porch wisecracking with Troy is, the scene that packs the biggest punch is when he calls out Troy for cheating on his wife. “It’s a scene where you can really feel that there are decades of friendship there,” Henderson said of the exchange, which swings from tough talk to jokes.
“It’s only right that Bono should remind Troy that he’s going afield from his own principles and standards, but then there’s relief — the point got made and we got through that, so when Troy changes the subject, Bono welcomes the levity.”
On whether the right way to play August Wilson changes from stage to screen: “I always say you don’t want to get it right, you want to get it true. And there’s not a major leap from stage to screen: It really is the truth between you and the other character. That truth is the same, but on screen you can let go of the extra responsibility to project it beyond the person you’re talking to, so you can really communicate with that person.”
Role: Cory Maxson, Troy’s youngest son.
His story: Adepo, who was born in Oxfordshire, England, but raised in Tennessee, was the only one of the central characters who didn’t appear in the Broadway revival.
“We rehearsed from 9 to 5, every day for three weeks in this church in downtown Pittsburgh,” Adepo said. “Their rapport was evident after the first five minutes, and they all just clicked. I don’t think anybody ever said it, but I really think that rehearsal was mostly for me to catch up, until they could say, ‘OK, Youngblood, you got it.'”
Big scene: Cory’s confrontations with his father lead to fireworks throughout the film, but a quiet scene sitting on the steps and singing a song with young actress Saniyya Sidney, playing Cory’s half-sister, is one of the most devastating exchanges in the wrenching final moments of the film.
“She’s a 10-year-old and I’m a grown man, but she teased me throughout rehearsals,” he said of Sidney. “She’d say, ‘You don’t know the song yet? I knew it after the first audition!’ And I knew it when we were filming that scene, but there were moments when I forgot and she had to help me with the lyrics.”
On meeting Washington at his audition: “I was freaking out when I first went in. It was the first time I had heard his voice outside of TV or the movies, and when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Denzel Washington, and he’s on the other side of that door.’ I had to step outside to catch my breath, but when I came back I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be scared. I’m going to show him that I deserve this part. He’s a star, but I’m gonna be a star one day, too.’
“And then I walked in, and as soon as I saw him I was like, ‘Ooh, Denzel!’ But he completely disarmed any anxiety or fear, and made me understand that this moment was mine.”
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