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Mykelti Williamson on Fences, Being Directed by Denzel, and What the Movie You Know Him From Says About You

One could argue that the most ambitious film of 2016 isn’t a retro musical set in L.A., or an intimate coming-of-age piece about a young black man, but Denzel Washington’s Fences. It’s a painstakingly faithful and purely theatrical reinvention of August Wilson’s 1983 play about a garbage collector named Troy (Washington) whose patriarchal bravado strains his relationship with his wife (Viola Davis) and son (Jovan Adepo) in 1950s Pittsburgh. The film, which opens Christmas Day, features a number of actors who also appeared in the play’s 2010 Broadway revival, including Washington, Davis and Mykelti Williamson, who plays Troy’s mentally disabled brother Gabriel. Before the film’s release, Vulture chatted with Williamson about translating his theater work to film, how Washington ranks among the directors with whom he’s worked over the course of his 40-year career, how Forrest Gump affects the way fans interact with him, and exactly why he counts himself as “blessed.”

Fences premiered to an adoring audience a few weeks ago in L.A. Was that the first time you’d seen the finished film?
No, we’d seen it before and it was better that way because it was less overwhelming. I felt like we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish and that feeling was reciprocated. It was an act of love on every level.

You reprise your stage role as Gabriel, who is Troy’s brother and a mentally disabled war veteran. How much of what we see on film was influenced by Denzel’s direction versus what you’d already created for the theater?
For all of the adults who had done the Broadway show with Denzel, he did not need to shape our characters. That’s one of the reasons he brought us back: It was all too much work to do in such a tiny window of time to not have surrounded himself with the most prepared warriors, the people who had been to battle with him before.

What were the biggest differences for you in performing the play on stage versus on film? How did it feel to be able to inhabit a bigger physical space in which to work? I spoke to your co-star Jovan Adepo who said he felt more freedom to move around in the film than he had on stage.
None of the characters inhabit the space the exact same way. Some make full use of it, some are just paralyzed and hardly move at all. But overall, there was much less technique onscreen but a lot more humanity.

What is it like to be directed by Denzel?
I’ve worked with amazing directors. There are some I absolutely love — Michael Mann, Antoine Fuqua, Rodrigo Garcia. But I can say that Denzel Washington actually broke the mold. He created a new category of director for me. This was the first time I’ve gone to work emotionally and intellectually available and Denzel only touched what was necessary. He’s the most confident, the most creative of anybody I have ever worked with, and that’s the God’s honest truth. And I looked at him daily in awe.

You’ve been acting since you were kid. What first inspired you to pursue it?
When I was little, my parents and my grandmother always told me, “No matter who you are, where you are, if you are hiding behind a rock and you do something right or you do something wrong, somebody sees you. God sees you.” So I grew up believing you can’t get away with anything! I used to watch reruns of Leave It to Beaver and I was so literal that I thought because we could see Beaver and his family, that other families could “see” me. That’s the way I walked the earth; whoever was watching, I wanted them to see that I was a good boy and would help people. I would do my homework when I was supposed to. I would clean up my room. Later, I learned the difference between television and real life and went into a depression. Fortunately, my family knew that something was wrong, something was off, and as karma would have it, there was an opening in a church play. My mom took me to the lady’s house who was directing and she let me read the script. Before I left, I had all my lines memorized. I went to one rehearsal, knocked that show out the following day, got a standing ovation, and my life changed. It was like the heavens opened up like, just like at the end of Fences. I was just about to turn eight because I moved to California after that. I was fortunate to have a mom who recognized the gift in me.

You’ve played quite literally hundreds of characters in TV and film, but likely your most iconic role was that of Forrest Gump’s shrimp-loving friend Bubba Blue. How much does that character still resonate with you and fans?
People still really love that film. [Laughs] The experience that [director] Bob Zemeckis created for fans was just astounding. I’ve done so many different projects — like 300 movies and TV shows — so when people see me and they feel like they know me. If someone tells me how much they’ve seen Con Air, I know that they’ve probably been to prison or a family member has been to prison. If they talk about Heat, you know with [Al] Pacino, I know that they’re either a cop or they have a family member who is a cop. Or, with Waiting to Exhale, they’ve probably been hurt by a boyfriend or a husband. What they mention tells me a lot about who they are! And that’s a privilege for me, and a huge responsibility. 

One my favorite roles of yours was as Southern butcher and crime boss Ellstin Limehouse on Justified. Did Graham Yost custom-create the character for you? I know you’ve been friends for years.
Yes, that character was born in the heart of Graham Yost with me in mind. Graham is a dear friend; we know each other inside and out. I remember he called and told me he was working on something for me. He thought I was going to get a kick out of it. And boy, he had no idea how big of a kick! He’s another person who is amazing and gifted and trusts his friends; he does what Denzel did. He trusts and then he gets out of the way. 

I’m sure aspiring performers approach you often for advice. What do you tell them?
The first thing is: You will never be able to do this by yourself. The second thing is: If you don’t love acting like you love air, you should be doing something else. The third thing is: You always become what you think about all the time. The reason some people are successful in business is because that’s all think about that. The difference between “actors” and “celebrities” is that actors think about their characters all the time and celebrities think about fame. But I know that I’m a very blessed man. How many people can say they’ve actually walked this earth, married their dream girl, and had the dream children that they’ve always wanted? 

Mykelti Williamson on His Role in Fences