Most theater lovers would name the great playwrights of late-20th-century America in alphabetical order: Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson.
While the others inspired numerous films, Wilson’s defining 10-play chronicle of African-American life — largely written during the years he lived in St. Paul, from 1978 to 1990 — earned him acclaim and two Pulitzer Prizes. What it did not gain him was attention from Hollywood. Not until now.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who won side-by-side 2010 Tony awards for their Broadway revival of “Fences,” Wilson’s portrait of a family in crisis, reprise their roles in a much-anticipated film adaptation that opens nationwide Sunday.
For Washington, who also directed the film, “Fences” is just the beginning of his plan to bring the other nine Wilson plays to the screen. In a phone interview last week from San Francisco, he said he will executive-produce the collection for HBO.
Washington, who won Oscars for “Training Day” and “Glory,” is an odds-on favorite to compete again for his role as Troy Maxson, a 1950s Negro Leagues baseball veteran turned sanitation worker whose bitterness and poor judgment tear his family apart.
Q: When did you fall in love with this role and decide that this was a film that you personally had to make?
A: I discovered the play in the late ’80s, when James Earl Jones, Mary Alice and Courtney Vance did it on Broadway. About seven years ago, producer Scott Rudin sent me August Wilson’s screenplay for “Fences” and asked me whether I wanted to direct it, act in it, produce it, whatever. I read it and realized I hadn’t read the play. It said “Troy Maxson, age 53,” and I was 55. I was thinking I was too young to play Troy because of my memories of James Earl Jones. Then I realized, whoa, I’d better hurry up.
So we did the play to great success, Tony Awards and everything. After that [three-month run] in 2010, it was another two- to three-year process of me deciding to do the film. When I did it onstage, I can’t honestly say I even decided to direct it. I just knew it was a great part in a play I loved. Then the question was, can this be filmed? And there was other work. Life happens. It took a couple years before I circled back around to start working on the screenplay.
Q: What made this become your passion project?
A: Because it’s one of the best plays written by an American. It was an honor to be asked. I think it took that whole process of acting in it, realizing what it is. The mastery of his work. It probably scared me, I don’t know. It just took some time to get my mind around it.
But when I started to work on the screenplay, I realized what I didn’t know. I did Troy — now I’ve got to do everybody. Especially the part of the play where he’s gone. I never saw that part onstage, because I was in the dressing room icing my knees or something. So to work on that part was some of the most rewarding for me in making the film because I could just concentrate on the other actors. I didn’t have to worry about me acting, as well.
Q: When you do a landmark part like this and repeat it time after time, does it become your favorite role?
A: My favorite role’s always my next one. That’s what I love about acting. The process. Discovering the character. It’s like asking someone “What’s your favorite puzzle?” The one I haven’t done yet.
Q: You reunited the Broadway cast for this movie. How does the performing style change from stage to film?
A: I told them, “Don’t worry about it.” I remember Viola [who plays Troy’s benign, long-suffering wife Rose] was a little, not nervous, but saying, “Should I bring it down?” One thing I told them all was, “Let’s infuse this with as much love as we can.” In other words, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s not think we know anything and see what we find out. We know we love each other and let’s start with that and see what the [Maxsons’] 18 years of living together did to us.
Q: So even with that earlier work together, the film was a fresh experience for you?
A: Oh, yes. Because I’m running around acting, directing, producing and doing everything else. And we’re putting it in sections. You’re taking one scene and working on it for a day or two or five. And it was a very careful process of deciding where those scenes should be. Now we’re at the sanitation yard. Now we’re on the back of the truck. You see us signing out and heading home from work. You see the street we live on. Then we go to the back yard, where the whole play happens. Then we go to the kitchen. The front room inside the house. Then out the door. The monologue he does about death now takes place in a bedroom. So there’s some problem solving and location solving.
I wanted it to be true to August Wilson. I could have tricked it up with a lot of different shots. I’ve worked with a lot of great directors, I know how to do that. I chose not to do that. I told everyone, “August first. Performance second. Style third.”
August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights. He’s open to interpretation. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, someone else does another version. I don’t know how many “Hamlets” they’ve done, how many “Romeo and Juliets.” And they’re all different. Like “Death of a Salesman.” Not “Streetcar,” there’s only one “Streetcar.” I guess they left that one alone. I’d leave that alone, too.
Q: You’ve set up an agreement with HBO to produce nine more Wilson plays. How did that come about?
A: The estate of August Wilson came to me and said, “We’d like you to take charge of these other nine plays.” Because Scott Rudin and Paramount had the rights to “Fences” from back in the ’80s. So I made a nine-picture deal with HBO. I may direct one or two of them. But I’m not directing or acting in all nine. I’m executive-producing them.
Q: Is your plan to bring out one a year?
A: I’d like to. Because it would be nice every fall, or maybe every other fall, you know? And we’ll have to time it. There are so many wonderful African-American actors on television. We’ll time it to shoot them when they’re on their hiatuses. Is that a word? Hiati.
Q: What does it feel like to have your hands on an artistic legacy like that? Other than the pride of being the person who gets to do it, do you feel a sense of responsibility?
A: It’s a big responsibility. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. And it’s my life’s work right now. It’s my 10 years’ life’s work right now. I mean, it’s one of the finest things that’s happened to me in my career to be asked to be the steward for one of our national treasures.
Q: Are there enough stories coming specifically from the African-American experience?
A: Well, you know, that’s on us. We’ve got to write ’em. I’m sure and I hope that young people will be inspired by this and write their stories. I haven’t seen “Moonlight” yet, but the young man Barry Jenkins, he’s telling a story. [The film, adapted by Jenkins from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, follows two decades in the life of a confused black male struggling for identity in an impoverished part of Miami.] If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. You’ve got to write a story. No one’s stopping you from telling it. Now, when you get to the big leagues, it’s got to be good. Just because you wrote it and you like it doesn’t mean the world will. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
Q: How do you interpret the fences Troy is building around his back yard in this story?
A: What do they represent? Well, there’s a literal reference that Bono [a loyal friend of Troy’s] says. “Some people build fences to keep people in.” It’s the walls between relationships. People try to hold others back because maybe they were held back. It’s complicated, the father-son relationships, the wife trying to keep the home together, maybe he wants to keep others in. There’s so many ways to interpret it that I don’t want to suggest that I know what the definitive way is. It’s a metaphor and it is in some ways literal. What people get from this depends on what they bring to it.
Q: There’s another metaphor I’d like to ask you about. Troy picks up his old baseball bat in the back yard and repeatedly swings at a ball tethered to the branch of a tree. What is he trying to knock away?
A: He can’t hit anything. He’s swinging in the dark.
Q: How did it feel to reunite with your 2010 Broadway co-stars?
A: Great. I loved it. It was like a reunion. And we’re on tour now [to publicize the film]. The common denominator with Viola and Stephen [McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Bono] and Mykelti [Williamson as Troy’s damaged, innocent brother Gabriel] and Russell [Hornsby as his estranged son Lyons] is that they love August. They’re powerful, powerful actors. And there’s so much music in August Wilson that you’d better have a tight band. It’s hard for a new member to catch up, because we were well-oiled, the five of us. So I give young Jovan [Adepo, playing Troy’s younger son Cory] a lot of credit for catching up. I wanted to go with the band that had the success we had on Broadway.
Q: And yet you had to bring in Saniyya Sidney, an absolute beginner, to play the character of a little girl.
A: She’s a scene stealer! I’d give her a note [to tweak her performance] and she’d say, “OK.” She’s about the work. When I auditioned all these little girls, I asked her “Why do you want this?” She said, “I like this and I want to be good at what I do. These other kids are out there playing, and I don’t want to play. I want to work!” I was like, “My goodness.” And she was that matter of fact and bright and talented. It just got in there. I added one suggestion. In the screenplay when they’re singing a song at the end, all I wrote was “Struggling” for Cory. He’s trying to cope and we see him cry and break down as he’s struggling. He took that and ran with it, it got to the emotional place he was getting to. I told Saniyya, “Take care of your big brother. He’s hurting a little bit and he may not be able to make it but you help him.” And she said, “OK.” And she was so sweet I said, “Give him a hug on the way out.” She got it, the way she relates to this family she hardly understands, all these adults.
Q: When you make a movie like this, you release it at the end of the year, during awards season. But why did you choose Christmas Day to open it nationwide?
A: It’s all about family. This will be an interesting Christmas Day at some houses. It’s not all rah-rah happy, but it is about the love and the joy and the pain.
Q: There’s a troubled relationship between Troy and his up-and-coming son, whom he’s jealous of. Was that ever an issue in your family, with all your success?
A: If there was ever an issue in my family I don’t know about it. My mother, especially early on in my career, she said, “Don’t worry. I know how to tell them no. Leave it to me. I’ll cut ’em off at the knees.” She was like my manager. So I never sensed that. I’ve had a charmed life. I have no complaints. I’m just so happy to be where I am now, and being able to serve August Wilson. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I’m good. If somebody has problems with that, well, they need to go see “Fences.”