Talking Fences: 12 Questions With Jovan Adepo
|Photos courtesy of A.M.P.A.S./Royalty Images/Paramount Pictures|
He plays Denzel Washington's son in "Fences," the award winning play written by August Wilson, which releases on Blu-ray this month. Best known for the role of Michael Murphy in the HBO television series "The Leftovers," Adepo, a British born actor of Nigerian and African American descent, has appeared in the independent features "The Youth and Bruise" and also had a guest role on the hit series "NCIS: Los Angeles." A member of the Robey Theater Company in Los Angeles, he recently appeared in "The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel" and talks to Samantha Ofole-Prince about "Fences."
Fences is your studio feature film debut and it's based on August Wilson's stage play. Were you familiar with Wilson's work prior to auditioning for the role of Cory?
I was very familiar with his American Century Cycle plays, because we had workshops of some of them at the Robey Theater Company. I'd also been familiar with them through class, and scene study.
You play Cory Maxson in this screen adaptation of the stage play. Can you tell us a little about Cory?
In the film, he is a young man who is getting ready to graduate high school. He's a strong student and an incredible athlete, and he's on the verge of earning a scholarship to play football in college. And he's just chomping at the bit to really prove himself as a strong member of society.
James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington starred in the stage play of Fences. James in 1983 and Denzel in 2010. Have you seen both versions of the stage play?
Yes. They have a lot of clips of the 2010 version on YouTube, and also I'd seen the James Earl Jones performance in its entirety from the library as well.
Coming into a play that had such a powerful history—Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prize—did you feel any trepidations?
It was incredibly nerve-racking, just because I knew that the entire cast was more or less a family already because they had done a long run on stage. And I was like, I'm gonna have to make sure I'm studying, and paying attention during rehearsals, and really pushing myself to make sure that I can just get right into that family, and do my best to keep up with the rest of the cast.
This a drama set in the 1950s, which deals with familial strife. How do you feel it compares or contrasts to familial life in present day?
We're talking about a family, and members of the family who are just all trying to deal with the things that families go through in America. There's not too much that has changed as far as how we relate to one another as a mother and son or a father and son and the whole family unit. I don't think it's a huge change, a drastic change, from the '50s to now.
Do you feel there's a connection between the works of August Wilson and our political climate right now?
I think so. August has always been someone that's going to talk about the events that were current in the time period of each of his plays. And his words are very relatable as time goes on. So if we're looking at what we're going through today, there are hints of it in the history August wrote about, for sure.
Fences was shot in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is also where the play is set. What was that like?
It's cool to be able to film on site, on location and to be able to be in the actual neighborhood where the story takes place. We were fortunate enough to be able to have the entire city just transformed into this 1950s era Hill District, which was so awesome. When you're shooting in L.A., a lot of the people here have that film etiquette where they know if they see like the lights that are blinking, they're like, "Okay, we should be quiet, they're working here." But we're in Pittsburgh, and we're in the middle of a scene, and somebody's walking by in their neighborhood, and they see Denzel Washington, and they're like, "Denzel! Denzel!" Like in the middle of the take. And Denzel just starts laughing. That happened plenty of times and it never got old to me.
The film is in part the story of a father and a son, the roles played by Denzel Washington as Troy and you as Cory. What's universal in their relationship?
Fences is about wanting to come into your own as an adult, and as a young man. And it's about doing something that your family and, more importantly, your father, is going to be proud of. Cory has a dad who, in his own right, was a legendary athlete, a great baseball player. With football, Cory wanted to do something that could not exactly rival that, but stand next to that. And I think it was a struggle for him trying to figure out what Troy's intentions were as far as raising him. That's something that we can all relate to because we all have those bouts with fathers and sons. I know I had mine with my dad. There's that moment when you think that you're old enough to say something back to your father. And it's like you're kind of hesitant, because, as my dad used to say, "Are you ready to take on the title? Are you ready to be the man of the family?" One day, but the day is not today.
These are the sorts of issues that all families experience, aren't they?
Any family that goes to see this film, or is familiar with this story, can relate to the trials that this family goes through. Everything that a family goes through just trying to learn to live with one another as we're always growing and evolving. I think that's something that every American can understand and relate to. I think that they are going to see that, more or less, many of our families are all the same, and we're all going through the same things. We may be colored a little bit differently, but the root of Fences is the battle between just love, pure love for one another, and dealing with conflict, and miscommunication, and just trying to make it all hold together.
Viola Davis plays your mother Rose. What was it like working with the Viola who just won the Oscar for the role?
She is a gem. She is so fun to work with, and, just as Denzel is, she's completely about the work. She's not concerned about how her hair is looking, and how her outfit is. She's Rose, she's completely the character. And she was so open, even in rehearsals, to answer any little question that I may have had between our scenes—where our relationship was, what we were feeling during that day in the story, things like that. Any actor question that I could've ever come up with, she was always, "Let's sit down and talk about it. That's why we're here." If I needed a little bit of direction, she or Denzel would just kind of hint at something so you know they want you to figure it out as an actor. It was kind of breathtaking to see Denzel and Viola be comfortable in themselves, and know that they know the character completely and they know the intentions and everything like that and to see them handle it like pros.
Not only does Denzel play your father in the film, but he also doubled as director. What was it like onset?
It was a master class, because he's one of my heroes as far as this craft and a career that I always admired coming up. There would be plenty of days, even when I wasn't working, when I would come on set and watch him. What really got him through each day, in my opinion, was just pacing. Knowing what he wanted to accomplish by the end of that day, and trusting that he's prepared enough. Even if it seemed like the weather was going to drown us out while we were trying to get the scene, he would keep his head, pause for a minute, and he would just go, "Okay, we're all right, do it again. Let's—let's get through it." And we would get through it. He led the set with that tone, and it benefited us all.
August Wilson passed away in 2005, long before the film was made. What are the pros and cons of not having August there?
The only down side, if there is one, is that sometimes it's helpful to have the writer there if there's ever something in a scene that you're missing. No matter how intricate it is, no matter how minute it is, the writer could sometimes explain why your character is doing this or that. I would've loved to have had the honor to speak to August, and to really get to pick his brain about where he saw Cory going. I would've loved to know what he thought happened to Cory after the story ends. Still, we made up for August's absence because so many people who had worked with August before or knew August were there. Denzel, Viola as they had all done different plays of his. So they were really familiar with the essence of August, and what his words and tone are in each of the plays. So whatever advantage would have been there with August there, we made up for by having these veterans of his work.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Fences" arrives on Blu-ray combo pack March 14th.