Belfast Telegraph

Denzel says his Fences role, now a play and a film, reminded him of his mother and father

Ahead of the Oscars ceremony next weekend, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who received the Bafta for Best Supporting Actress, tell Susan Griffin how Tony Award-winning play Fences was finally brought to the big screen

The Baftas were handed out at the weekend, but when the nominations were announced in January there was a notable absence in the Best Actor category.

Denzel Washington, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Fences, and is tipped to walk away with the Oscar, was nowhere to be seen.

"I've never been nominated for a Bafta. You'll have to ask them why, I have no idea," says the youthful-looking 62-year-old casually dressed in dark trousers and a black jumper.

"I have been nominated for eight Oscars and won two (for Glory in 1990 and Training Day in 2002). Ask them when you see them."

His co-star Viola Davis on the other hand walked away with the Bafta for Best Supporting Actress and is considered a shoo-in for the Oscar.

The 51-year-old, dressed in a striking black dress, describes the accolade as "awesome" and has nothing but praise for Washington.

"I trust him. I love him as an actor and my whole thing is if you know how to give out those performances then you can help me get out that kind of performance," she says on acting alongside her director.

"You have the language to be able to do that, and the insight," she adds with the sort of gravitas that leaves you completely enraptured.

"And he knew his character so well because we did 114 performances on stage. I felt like he could move though each role very seamlessly."

Davis, who hails from South Carolina, is referring to the Broadway production in 2010 which earned 10 Tony Award nominations - it won three, for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Revival of a Play.

Washington didn't direct the play and it was never a given he would helm the movie.

"I was asked to. It wasn't like, 'Oh I've got to do this, it's got to be me'," notes the father-of-four.

He recalls how the producer Scott Rudin came to him seven years ago, armed with the screenplay and a request for him to direct and act in the movie.

Washington had seen the play, written by August Wilson, back in the Eighties and, looking for an opportunity to return to the stage, suggested they do the play instead.

"Scott went out and raised the money. We did the play and won Tony Awards, so I already knew it worked as a play. I also found out how brilliant Viola Davis was and Stephen Henderson and the other actors, so then I felt like, 'Okay, can I make a movie out of this?' And that was a four-year process to get to it."

Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh-based sanitation worker in the Fifties who once dreamed of becoming a baseball player. But it was never meant to be.

By the time major leagues were admitting black players, he was considered too old to play professionally. Troy tries to be what he considers a good husband to his wife Rose (Davis)and a positive presence for his two sons, but the idea of what could have been gnaws away at him - and ultimately it leads him to make a choice that has major repercussions for those closest to him.

A man who's known for taking care of himself, ironically one of Washington's favourite scenes is the moment Troy's paunch is visible beneath his vest.

"I like that shot because he can't hit home runs anymore. He's really a tired old man and I was looking for all the sympathy I could get," he laughs.

"But it's real, it's honest. That's who he is. He's not who he thinks he is. He's an old man, or an older man, whose best years are behind him."

The set stays true to its theatrical origin in its minimalism. Instead, the focus is the pitch-perfect performances and beautifully-written script - the dialogue is immense, particularly for Washington.

The actor admits he couldn't have directed the film without having done the play "because he (Troy) doesn't shut up for like 20 minutes or something".

"But there's music to it," he remarks, "like Shakespeare, and once you get the rhythm and know the music, you'll find the emotion and the power and it's in the words."

Rose is a quieter, calmer presence than her husband but there's a moment where she finally loses her cool and everything she has pent up for so many years pours out.

"I did 23 takes on screen and 114 performances on stage and it's a mark of great writing when every time you read it, it just takes you absolutely where you need to go," says Davis.

"There's something about doing a speech where you're speaking the absolute truth, where you're absolutely saying what's in the hearts and minds of any woman who's had a broken relationship that they've invested years into. It's cathartic. It's not depressing. I was exhilarated."

She recalls feeling "excitement beyond belief" on hearing the play was going to become a movie.

"I knew it would be different from anything else.

"Here's a translation of a play to screen, characters you have never seen before and at this point in my life, that was the big thing," explains the mother-of-one.

"I wanted to just do something different and I wanted a character that I could go on a complete journey with. You couldn't necessarily put your finger on her, you can't just say, 'She's strong, she's weak'. And because I've done four of August Wilson's plays and knew August when he was alive, I knew this was a dream of his so to be able to see this dream come to fruition and to say I was a part of it, I felt joy."

One of the story's themes is broken dreams and the effect it can have. You wonder how someone as successful as Washington could relate.

"It's in the play," he says simply. "It's all there. You find things in your own life. I mean looking back at my own father, he wasn't like a Troy but he couldn't read very well and he talked about me getting a trade. My mother wanted us to go to college.

"I remember my mother and father going back and forth about the wattage of bulbs in the house. He thought with a lower watt bulb you could save money and my mother was like, 'No, we need stronger bulbs so they can see, so can they read'. So there was some of Rose in my mother and there was some of Troy in my father."

With the Baftas having come and gone, all eyes are now on Oscar night on Sunday, February 26 when we see whether the Fences team walk away with the golden statuettes.

And also who of the night's winners use their acceptance speech to make a political statement.

"It's America. People have the right to do and say what they want," states Washington. "There's a feeling in the air. I have no idea what people are going to say but I think it's going to be a very interesting night."

Fences is out in cinemas now

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph