There wasn't much father-son bonding on screen for Denzel Washington and Jovan Adepo. Off camera was another story.

Movies

For Its Ensemble, Building Fences is a Chance to Expand the Play’s Reach

In his film debut, Jovan Adepo is the only newcomer in an adaptation of the 2010 Broadway revival whose cast includes Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Jovan Adepo wasn’t part of the distinguished cast that won a handful of Tony Awards for a Broadway revival of August Wilson’s acclaimed play Fences in 2010.

However, the actor was very familiar with the play and had even workshopped some scenes involving his teenage character, Cory, in an acting class. So when the role came open for a film adaptation, Adepo (TV’s “The Leftovers”) jumped at the opportunity, even if it meant being the only newcomer in the cast and making his film debut alongside industry icons such as Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

“It was like being the new kid in class. Everybody else has all these inside jokes and special handshakes, and you’re sitting in the corner, hoping they like you,” Adepo said during a recent stop in Dallas. “They have all had such a strong connection with August, much deeper than my own. But they were warm and everybody was happy.”

After he earned the role through an audition, rehearsals with his fellow cast members made Adepo feel like a part of the ensemble before the cameras even rolled.

“I was able to follow their lead,” he said. “We were very much a family on and off set. During those rehearsals, we developed that feeling of fellowship. Naturally, it was there on camera because it was there in spirit and in reality.”

The story provides a glimpse into the volatile dynamics of a working-class family during the 1950s. Troy (Washington) is a sanitation worker who spends much of his spare time drinking with his neighbor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and reminiscing about his bygone days as a baseball star.

Although he adores his wife, Rose (Davis) — whose common sense keeps Troy’s stubbornness in check — he holds some hostility toward the country’s racial inequalities and toward members of his own family, including his two sons — from different relationships — and his mentally challenged brother (Mykelti Williamson).

One of those sons is Cory (Adepo), a strong-willed and rebellious teenage athlete who fails to gain Troy’s approval, regardless of his effort.

Adepo credits Davis for helping him shape his character off camera by creating scenarios outside of the script. In addition, the easygoing demeanor of Washington — who also directed the film — helped to alleviate any possible intimidation.

“Denzel is completely interested in knowing about you as a person — getting to know you and joking around with you, and just spending time with you,” Adepo said. “It’s easy for someone of that stature to remain in solitude, but Denzel did the exact opposite. We experienced Pittsburgh together.”

Adepo, 28, said he hopes the film will pay tribute to the legacy of Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005. Production took place in the playwright’s beloved hometown of Pittsburgh, in a blue-collar neighborhood instead of on sound stages and in studios. In fact, prior to shooting, Washington knocked on the doors of many neighbors to introduce himself and gain their ceremonial permission to film there.

“Pittsburgh was very much its own character in this film,” Adepo said. “It was definitely an advantage to be able to be there.”

The lasting impact of the material (it was first produced on Broadway in 1987, with James Earl Jones in the lead role) proves its universal appeal, Adepo said. He’s hopeful the film adaptation will help Fences find a new audience for Wilson’s work.

“He’s not writing a story that’s exclusive to the black experience. He’s just creating a setting that’s exclusive to that time with these people within black culture,” Adepo said. “He’s speaking from a language that he understands and relates to, and he’s hoping with that specificity, that it’s able to reach a wide variety of people. And I think he does that.”

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