I had a chance this week to participate in a roundtable discussion with Jovan Adepo, the young actor who plays Denzel Washington's son, Cory, in the new movie adaptation of the long running Broadway play, FENCES.
The first thing you notice about the young actor is his humility and his down to earth dedication to the craft of acting. He was sincerely excited to be working with one of his acting heroes, Denzel Washington. He also showed me how he earned his childhood nickname, "Bam Bam". It's because of his friendly gesture of giving people a couple of friendly "love taps" on the shoulder when he greets them.
Along with several other local journalist, we talked to Jovan Adepo about his role in FENCES.
My first question to him was, did he feel pressure in his role to do the movie version justice?
Adepo: I put a lot of, perhaps, unnecessary pressure on myself, but I'm a perfectionist at heart so I just wanted to do the best that I could and contribute in any way that you could contribute.
I asked him to talk a little bit about working with Denzel Washington, who directed the movie.
Adepo: It was amazing! In my limited experience in TV, I've been able to work with different directors for each episode and this being my first feature film he was everything that I could have hoped for him to be and more. He was incredibly generous in his advice and incredibly patient with me, understanding that I was nervous. I mean you could see it. It was all over my face and he would disarm me by giving me the confidence that I needed to do the job and feeling comfortable making the choices as an actor and being comfortable with those choices.
In the movie Cory goes from age 17 to age 25. He talked about how Viola Davis helped with that process for the film.
Adepo: Viola was a huge help to that because her and I had known each other anyway cause I had known her before this film. I'm friends with her older sister so we already had a connection and I felt comfortable talking to her like in a motherly thing. I'd text her in the middle of the night with questions and SHE had questions for me. She wanted to know how long was Cory gone (in the film he leaves to join the Marines) when he left at that significant point in the film? How often did he come to visit? Did he send me letters often? Had you gotten into any relationships? Is there a woman in your life? Did you lose any friends in battle? You know things like that. We were creating that. Even though we know that no one who saw the film would ever see that part. But that's things that you do to help feed your performance because it has to be there...that's something I wanted to do in the film to help portray Cory.
The movie was shot on location in Pittsburgh. I asked him what it was like when Denzel Washington and the cast of the movie showed up in the Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh where August Wilson wrote the original play?
Adepo: They loved having him there. He was like a distant cousin to all of them and they didn't want him to leave. And Denzel was there well before the rest of the cast got there laying the ground work...he went door to door going to peoples houses and letting them know, "hey we're here; we're going to be doing this film and we're going to honor August Wilson" and people couldn't be more delighted...they were more than thrilled to have Denzel be at the heart of this and come to make things happen. They were really excited about it.
I found Jovan Adepo to be way more mature than his years. He revealed his passion for his craft when he was asked about what he learned from working with the more experienced, legendary actors in the movie?
Adepo: Be patient and not to be afraid to make instinct choices. I think one of the quotes I heard, working outside this film...Al Pacino said it, "You can only be as good as the risks that you are willing to take." I mean being predictable and making weak choices...it doesn't benefit the people watching...it doesn't benefit your character in the role. My castmates definitely had the same sentiment in the film. Takes risks, enjoy the journey and don't plan the end result. There are conventional ways to show certain emotions but sometimes the most interesting emotions are the ones that you wouldn't expect to see.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the main characters in FENCES so many days Jovan Adepo didn't have any scenes to shoot but he explained why he showed up on the set everyday.
Adepo: Nobody asked me to, but how often do you get to sit in and watch Denzel and Viola work? That's an actors class that they would charge millions for. That's not something that I think you'll ever see happen. You know sit in on a workshop like that. So, I'd get up early in the morning...and most of us were staying in the same suites and when it was time for everyone to leave to work, and work's at 6am, I'd have to get up and be in the truck and be ready with them or else I wasn't going to be able to get to go. So I made sure I was right there ready. Sometime I brought a notebook and other times I just sat there and watched them. It was interesting watching them all prepare and approach the material.
Next, I jokingly asked Adepo if he fantasized about how the awards and the huge box office for this movie were going to change his life. After a long pause he remained serious and wasn't biting on my light hearted half joke, half question.
Adepo: I'm not going to say I've ignored it. Approaching it and coming into this career, to be able to have a career in the arts, I've always wanted to get a chance to work with great artists. I've imagined or I could say I had a list of people that I'd like to work with and who I want to be exposed to and get to a chance to meet. Over the last two or three years I've had the opportunity to be able to do that. There's some people who come out and they want to be an actor and it takes them years to get that call and for some people that call never comes. It's just the nature of the industry that we're in. So I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to be able to have worked with one of my heroes already as an actor, a co-star and a director...and Viola too. That's two people off my list that I've been able to work with already. And the only thing I can say it's done...it's made me hungrier, you know, it's motivated me to make me want to do more and to do my best to continue to look for great roles and great projects with strong narratives to play. As far as the awards, you know we're not blind to it, we can't close our ears to it. People are going to talk and reference it but to get to do material like August Wilson and to be the first film of many films to introduce him to he world; it's awesome!
When I watched the movie FENCES I couldn't help but notice the long bursts of dialogue by the characters. It did have the feel of a stage play, but basically FENCES is driven by the characters and the spoken word; rather than by explosions and special effects, which is so prevalent in today's blockbuster movies.
Adepo: Many people see the grand performances as being "stagelike" but I personally know uncles, and my dad and my grandfather, who can be like that. Men who talk that big and tell stories and act like that in life. Cause that wasn't Denzel acting like Troy and trying to be "stagelike" on screen; that's how Troy was. You know he's moving around (claps hands), he's moving his feet, clapping his hands, jumping up and down. My dad acts just like that! ...that's just a representation of the culture of black America in the 1950's. We don't get this level of this material that often. People have commented on it before and it's just that they are not used to movies that don't have scenes that cut away every ten or two seconds. You know, why cut away from where the drama is happening? It's happening right here. What are we cutting away to a bird for when it's me and my wife are having a discussion, you know, about what is going on in our relationship. We have those scenes that go on really long and people aren't used to that. ...but it's life. So why turn away from things that are going on right in front of you? I think the one thing Denzel wanted to do was get people out of the habit of needing to have an explosion over here or a whistle over here. That's why he starts off the film in complete darkness. He wants you to listen and then once you are listening to the words and you are getting caught up into the story...then he opens the camera. Then you can pay attention to the moving pictures. There is a motion picture so you know it's going to be there, but he wants you to listen first and he wants you to understand that the words are important, not what's going on on screen, with cut aways and all that. That cheapens the material. So if we had more of that then perhaps people would be used to it people would be more open minded to it. Who knows? In a couple of years, maybe?
Jovan Adepo is a very serious and talented young actor and I left this round table discussion feeling like I had just attended a workshop on acting, rather than a Q&A session with a young, up and coming actor. He is outstanding in his role as Cory in FENCES and I urge you to see the movie when it comes out on Christmas Day.
If you'd like to hear the entire, unedited round table discussion; click on this link:
Link to interview