‘Fences’ Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson on Working With Denzel Washington

Stephen McKinley Henderson
Terence Patrick for Variety

Stephen McKinley Henderson stars with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences,” which opens Christmas Day. He and most of the principals — including Washington, who directed the film — starred in a 2010 Broadway revival of the August Wilson play, one of a 10-part cycle covering each decade of the 20th century. Henderson has performed in all but two.

Was the switch to film for “Fences,” with Denzel directing, a big adjustment?

When we got with Denzel, it was clear we were in the hands of a master. The trust factor was there immediately. He has a huge generosity of heart. Denzel has had a legendary career, which let him be the person to bring August to a larger audience. With this film, he’ll be exposing more people to August’s work.

I had the great fortune to work with John Houseman at Juilliard. He said when Laurence Olivier wanted to film Shakespeare plays during the war years, some purists said “You shouldn’t film them. People might stop performing them onstage.” As soon as Olivier did the films, it was clear that those were ridiculous concerns and these plays were in the hands of the right person. Olivier was never trying to say “This is definitive, this is how it’s done.”

Are August Wilson’s rhythms difficult?

Denzel said that August writes music: You have to follow the thought groups and the breath groups. Do the thought groups, but don’t play the punctuation … you can’t do that. I studied with Lloyd Richards, the great director, and he would often say, “Get rid of a few of those periods. Then you’ll find the music — then it will flow.” Also, because August wrote lengthy [plays], you can find audiences saying, “This is a long evening.” You have to make sure you’re moving the language along. Let the life in the language drive you onward. If that happens, the audience doesn’t realize how much time has passed. It’s the same play, but it’s a different experience.

Did August Wilson talk about themes or politics in his plays?

No, he didn’t talk about it  in that way — it was never an academic or clinical discussion of the decade. He talked in terms of the lives of the characters, their relationships, and the love between the people.

What advice do you give students?

I always say that when you’re working on a scene, don’t get it right, get it true. Don’t listen to some outside interpretation — do the scene as it makes sense to you and the other actor. Also, I tell them, “The career you seek may elude you, but you can always get better at your craft. You must pursue getting better at that.”

What you didn’t know about Stephen McKinley Henderson

BIRTHPLACE: Kansas City, Mo. FILM DEBUT: “Marie” (1985) DEGREES: BFA North Carolina School of the Arts; MA, Purdue SIDE JOB: He’s the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair at Fordham University. He also teaches at Juilliard, which he attended starting in 1968. RECENT AWARDS: 2015 Obie for “Between Riverside and Crazy”