Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Actor Stephen Henderson discusses taking August Wilson from stage to screen in ‘Fences’ |

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Actor Stephen Henderson discusses taking August Wilson from stage to screen in ‘Fences’

Denzel Washington and Stephen Henderson in "Fences."
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Fences’ at Academy Screenings

When: Thursday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m.

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

Six years after playing Bono in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play “Fences,” Stephen Henderson reprises the role in a new film adaptation.

Director Denzel Washington got most of the cast back together for the film, in which he also stars as the embittered former Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson in 1950s Pittsburgh, and Viola Davis reprises her role as his long-suffering wife.

Through the Broadway run and an intense film shoot in Pittsburgh, Henderson said in a recent phone interview that he and the cast plumbed the depths of Wilson’s dense and lyrical dialogue.

“When a poet writes a play, there are layers upon layers upon layers and onion skin upon onion skin,” said Henderson, who has been nominated along with the “Fences” ensemble for a Screen Actors Guild Award. “The more familiar you are with it, the more likely you are to make an unanticipated discovery, which is always rich.”

Henderson, 67, has made a career of interpreting August Wilson. The actor has done eight out of the 10 works in Wilson’s decade-by-decade cycle chronicling the black experience in the U.S. Wilson himself, who died in 2005, was involved in three of those stage productions and adapted the screenplay for “Fences,” which plays today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings.

The continuing vitality and relevance of Wilson’s work, Henderson said, is a testament to the playwright’s immortal talent and nuanced understanding of history.

“A writer that writes a play for each decade of the 20th century wants to bring your attention to history and heritage and legacy,” Henderson said. “And the very fact of that legacy itself strengthens and fortifies you.”

Washington’s film reverently recreates the stage play — keeping it mostly confined to the backyard, where the grandiloquent Troy brags and rages against the rigged system that’s kept him down. His monstrous side emerges throughout the film, turning his wife and family against him.

Bono is the only character who Troy allows to challenge and stand up to him. By the time the action of “Fences” begins, when they’re working side by side as garbage men, they’ve known each other for decades — they’ve served in prison together, built productive lives together, stayed tight through Troy’s baseball career and rocky personal life. When Troy appears to be betraying his wife, Rose, it’s only Bono who can try to set him straight. It’s he who tells Troy: “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” This makes for a juicy supporting role for Henderson.

“There’s a time when your mentor needs to be mentored and you’re the only one who can — there’s nobody else who can get in,” he explained.

Washington did rehearsals with the cast for 21/2 weeks on location in Pittsburgh before bringing in any cameras. Henderson credited this process, Washington’s trust in his actors and his sensitive direction for capturing the powerhouse performances in the film.

“It’s a real zen thing,” Henderson said. “He’s such a wonderful actor that he knows when to help and when to get out of the way. … If you have a question and say, ‘I’m a little confused here,’ he’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll help you any way I can but I know that you’ll find it.’ It’s that kind of trust. As good as he is as an actor, he was probably harder on himself than he was on any of us.”

Washington would allow his cast as many takes as they needed to perfect a scene or a monologue — they went for more than 20 times in some cases.

“It was a beautiful, wonderful experience working with him,” Henderson said.

Audiences may get to see Henderson reprising more of his August Wilson roles soon. HBO recently announced that Washington will produce nine more adaptations from the Pittsburgh cycle for television.

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