Jovan Adepo never performed August Wilson before he was cast in “Fences.” It was not, however, the actor’s first dalliance with the playwright. He’d seen “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the playwright’s 1984 work staged in Los Angeles a few years back. But he still had reason to be nervous: Despite playing Michael Murphy on “The Leftovers,” “Fences” was his first motion picture. And it involved acting alongside titans like Denzel Washington, who also directed, and Viola Davis. In the film, Adepo plays Cory, who’s terrorized by his bitter, former ballplayer father (Washington) in 1950s Pittsburgh. Still, the experience, the actor tells us, didn’t wind up being terrifying.
August Wilson is a playwright whose work really changes when you see it live. It’s not the same to just read the text. You have to hear actors speaking the words.
It definitely has to be witness through the eyes. I suppose you can get a sense of it if you’re listening to the audio versions. But it’s supposed to be experienced as an audience member. August Wilson has such a brilliant voice, such a great sense of rhythm to the music of his material.
You have “The Leftovers” on your résumé, but did you still feel at all intimidated coming onto a film with no less than Denzel Washington and Viola Davis?
Incredibly, incredibly, incredibly intimidated and nervous. Denzel is one of my heroes. I spent many years [laughs] trying to mimic his great performances in front of the bathroom mirror — trying to do Rubin from “The Hurricane” or one of his scenes from “Mo’ Better Blues,” and missing the mark totally because I’m not Denzel. Getting to meet him in the flesh and spend time with him day-to-day — just hoping to be the pupil to the master — was something I couldn’t believe I was getting.
And what is he like in person?
He’s so warm. I definitely didn’t realize how big a sense of humor he had — him and Viola, which really gets me. Some of the roles they’ve played are so heavy. You would think in between takes they’d always be locked away in a room, just to prepare. But they kept me in stitches. I’m serious! It’s kind of surprising.
Viola in person is super funny. She is just direct and honest, and there’s something about that that’s funny.
She’s deadpan. There’s no point in jumping around what she’s trying to say. She just says it. Then you’re cracking up laughing, and she’s like, “What? I’m serious!” That’s what makes her funnier.
It’s important to make jokes when you’re making something as serious as “Fences,” I’d assume.
I don’t want to make it sound like we were just goofing off. We would approach August Wilson’s work with respect, because that’s what it deserves. But if you’re filming heavy scenes, it’s hard to go in there and have this downtrodden, dark set, especially if you’re shooting 12 hours a day. So there would be moments when we were serious, but somebody was always going to crack a joke, just to lighten the mood. You had to; it just called for it at times.
I imagine you needed some levity while shooting Cory’s altercating towards the end with Troy.
Oh yeah, Denzel was a lot of fun during that. There were a lot of moving parts in that altercation, a lot of things that could have gone wrong. Luckily Denzel professional who’s done great things with action films. I completely trusted him and felt comfortable submitting my body to what was going to happen. I walked away with slight bruises, but nothing I didn’t sign up for.
If you didn’t get some bruises, it wouldn’t have been the same experience.
You want to take away something. They serve as conversation starters. [Laughs]
I don’t want to simplify “Fences” by saying it’s “relevant” right now, but it’s always important to see something like “Fences” that gives voice to the working class and family dynamics.
I find it really difficult when people have a tough time relating to it, if they do. It’s a specific story, it’s a specific family, it’s a specific city, it’s a specific neighborhood. But it’s a universal theme. There are people in different countries who have an uncle like Gabriel [played by Mykelti Williamson]. There are people who have a father like Troy. It’s timeless. I wouldn’t say it’s relevant, because, yes, that cheapens it. But it is timeless — a story that can be told over the years, because the family dynamics don’t change from different cultures. It’s the specifics that makes us individuals, make us all special and unique.