BWW Interview: FENCES Star Russell Hornsby Discuss the Joys & Responsibilities of Performing August Wilson's Works
Since 2011, Russell Hornsby's career has taken him to Portland, OR as Detective Hank Griffin on NBC's supernatural drama, GRIMM. However, 2016 brought him back to his roots. Though he has had considerable success on screens large and small, the actor has always found a home in the works of August Wilson, first Off-Broadway, then on Broadway, and now in tonight's Best Picture nominee, FENCES.
Hornsby won a Drama Desk Award as part of the original Off-Broadway cast of JITNEY in 2000, and earned a Lortel nomination in 2007 for playing the title role in KING HEDLEY II. But, it was his Broadway debut in 2010's revival of FENCES that set him on his path to the Academy Awards.
"It's been a beautiful whirlwind, but it's been effortless, honestly it's been effortless," he recently told BroadwayWorld, "The reason why I say that is because I love August Wilson, and I'm not saying this to try to suck up or anything like that. The man raised me, his material raised me, and that's without exaggeration. And, so I feel like I am informing the world, the community about who this man is, and bringing more and more people into the world and into the work of August Wilson. It's a joy to me. I get joy in doing that."
Tonight at the 89th Annual Oscars in Hollywood, the big screen adaptation of FENCES is nominated for Best Picture, stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are both nominated for their performances, and Wilson, who died in 2005, is nominated for adapting his play for the screen. The majority of the film's cast originally appeared together in the 2010, Kenny Leon-directed revival.
"It's hard to... wow," he said struggling to find the words to describe the honor of working with this group of people. "I'm going to use a cliche, but 'Many are called, but few are chosen,' and we were chosen, and that does mean a lot. It means everything. Basically what it says to me is that almost the spirit of August entrusted me, Denzel, us the cast, to keep his legacy. And for that, I am forever grateful, but humbled, because he does mean so much to me."
Returning to the role of Lyons, Troy Maxson's oldest son, so long after the Broadway run ended, required Hornsby to reexamine the character, having gained six years of new experiences and insights.
"My appreciation for August Wilson has not changed, but my understanding of Lyons did," he said. "I didn't fully get him when I did it on Broadway. I mean, I committed myself to it then, but I think my life hadn't evolved to a place where I could really understand who he was and what he needed, and where he was coming from.
"I often say this to people, with August, you have to bring your whole self to the work. You have to bring both your joy and your pain to it, but in order to do that, you have to know what that is."
In the six years that transpired between Closing Night on Broadway in July 2010 and the beginning of filming in spring on 2016, Hornsby became a father, and found a new insight into what Lyons most wanted from his distant father, and, in turn, was able to find the "minutia and the grace notes of the character."
"I don't think I fully knew who I was and what that was as it pertained to Lyons and portraying him," Hornsby said. "So six years later when I went back to do the film, having been married longer, having had a child, I now understood who Lyons was, and who Russell was portraying Lyons.
"I dealt with my longing as a son for my father. I dealt with that, and I brought that to the work. That was through some personal moments that you repress, that you don't know that you're repressing, and then, years later, because I am now a father, I understand what the love is. Then I realized what I didn't get (on Broadway). So then, 'Oh my gosh, the connection is so coldblooded, it's right there. He just wants the love and acknowledgement from his father, my gosh!'
"But I don't think that the character is sophisticated enough to articulate that that's what he wants. All he can say is, 'Hey Pop, come see me play.' And he knows he's disappointed by his father not wanting to see him, but he doesn't know to say, 'Hey Pop, if you would just love me, man, that would be great.' But I knew that Russell had gone through that, and I thought, 'This is August Wilson, so I've got to bring that to it. I can't run from that truth.'"
For the big screen adaptation, Washington served as star, producer, and director as part of his plan to produce all 10 of Wilson's American Century Cycle plays for the screen. Each of Wilson's plays examines a different decade of African American life in the 20th Century; FENCES is set in 1957, and he will next bring MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM to HBO, which is set in 1927.
With his long history with, and strong affection for, Wilson and his works, Hornsby said that what makes the playwright's works so important is that the specificity and authenticity of his stories and dialogue opens them up to far wider audiences.
"Like the other greats, like Miller, O'Neill, Williams, Albee, he's telling his truth well," Hornsby said of Wilson. "He gets to the universal through the specifics. So he's telling his truth well, and people have no choice but to gravitate towards that, and they also gravitate towards authenticity, whether it be cultural or otherwise. When you read or you see CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, when you watch DEATH OF A SALESMAN, A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, you're looking at cultural specificity. And so you can appreciate that, and through that cultural specificity, I can glean something off of that.
"So, when people go into the world of August Wilson in the Pittsburgh Hill District from the aughts to the 90s, they're peering into black, cultural specificity. And I think the audience walked away (from the film) going, 'I did not know that. That is remarkable. That is beautiful. That is painful, but I get it. I can identify with it. I understand it, therefore I now appreciate it.'"
With Washington bringing all 10 of Wilson's plays to the wider audiences, Hornsby believes that preserving the works is important not only for the theatrical community, but for the African American community as well.
"I think as black people, as African Americans, I think there is sometimes a need, or an idea, or a longing to assimilate, to acculturate far too much, and lose aspects of your history, of yourself, of your culture," he said. "I think that we need people like August to remind us that we come from the blues. We come from pain, we come from suffering, but out of that, we created a joy. We didn't forget about the blues, we didn't forget about the pain."
Hornsby said that while broadening one's horizons is important, communities, especially minority ones, must be vigilante not to forget the struggles that led them to where they are today.
"It's okay to learn the King's English, it's okay to have a love for different types of literature, it's okay to love classical music, that's fine," Hornsby said, "but don't do it at the expense of your roots, your history. If I hold it in high regard and high esteem, and it's done in a way that is beautiful and lovely, that is expressive, then you will too, Matt. If I take time to care and craft a lovely film, or present a wonderful production on stage, (and) I'm telling my story, then you'll appreciate it too."
There is no doubt that Washington and company have crafted a beautiful, heartbreaking, and lovely film, and that it has been appreciated by critics and audiences around the world. With a reported production budget of $24 million, the film has grossed over $58 million in box office receipts to date, and coming into Oscar Sunday, FENCES has been nominated for 93 awards worldwide, winning 28, including individual honors for Washington, Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Wilson, but Hornsby insists that this is about more than just trophies.
"This is one of those moments that I can say, in all truthfulness, winning or losing doesn't mean a thing to me," Hornsby said. "Honestly, the award and the reward was doing it, and because now, that's there for a long time. The work is the reward, it really is. That's no longer a cliche to me. I've heard people say that in the past, and I was like, 'Man, what are you talking about?' But it's true, because it's so difficult to work in this business. Just to work, forget an award, just to work."
Another FRINGE benefit of the success of FENCES is that Hornsby is getting even more opportunities to discuss the life and works of August Wilson.
"When we do Q&As, I'm talking about August Wilson," he said. "Interviews, I get a chance to talk about August Wilson and FENCES, and his other work, and what the material means to me, and what it means to me today versus what it meant yesterday. And, how it has impacted families, communities, and how important that is. So that brings me joy."
The 89th Academy Awards telecast will air live coast-to-coast on Sunday, February 26, 2017 (8:30 p.m.ET/5:30 p.m.PT) on ABC. Be sure to visit BWW for live coverage of the 2017 Academy Awards, with a theatrical slant.
Banner Image: Russell Hornsby and Viola Davis. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures