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Baseball, booze and betrayal encapsulate Troy Maxson, the starring role in Fences that won Denzel Washington a Tony Award in 2010 and earned him his eighth Oscar nomination in the film adaptation, which he also directed. Penned by August Wilson in 1983, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play sees a middle-aged black man in 1950s Pittsburgh struggling to accept the reality of his circumstances, and the decisions made by his family.
Hours after the Screen Actors Guild Awards — where he was surprised to win lead actor — Washington spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the appeal of his unlikable character and why he isn’t bringing his mother to the Oscars this time around.
How would you describe Troy and the Maxson family?
Troy is looking for God in all the wrong places. And his most important tools to do so are his bat and his booze. His bat is sort of like his heaven, and baseball is his God. And the bottle, he thought he could defeat death and the devil when he drank. I think the devil got the last word. The thing is, these are just people, regular folks — warts and all — who are doing the best they can. That’s the brilliance of August Wilson.
Though you played this role on Broadway in 2010, what did you learn about him while making the movie?
In order for the betrayal or disappointment to really work, we have to believe that these people really love each other. That really didn’t come to me until I was directing, because I’m looking at everything as opposed to just my character. We bring Rose to his job and he rejects her — that’s not in the play, and I knew it was going to make the audience dislike him even more. I was a bit nervous to tip the scales that much against Troy, but I knew going in that, well, people like me, so maybe that imbalance will be balanced.
How are you similar to Troy?
I don’t have his trauma, like of how his father took his own girlfriend when he was a little kid. My father was a gentleman. Now, my father wasn’t highly educated, he worked for the water department and he did talk to me about getting into a good trade. That was as far as he could see: get a high school education, get a good job and you’ll make supervisor one day. But my mother could see further, so all three of us, my brother and sister and I, graduated from college.
After winning at the SAG Awards, how are you feeling about the Oscars?
[The SAG win] was such a shock! I go from “I didn’t win anything” to “I’m the frontrunner” or whatever. You just don’t know. I’ve basically done all I can do, and now I’m just seeing what happens.
Who are you looking forward to meeting at the Oscars?
At the SAG Awards, I ran into Ryan Gosling, Casey Affleck and Mahershala Ali, and I photobombed John Lithgow’s interview — is that a videobomb? It would have been nice to talk with Dustin Hoffman though.
Is it bittersweet to be recognized amid the current news landscape?
No. What’s going on in the world is more important than whether I win an Oscar. We’re living in interesting times and I think we, as Americans, need to unite and to hold all of our elected officials’ feet to the fire as it relates to working together. We need to demand that they work together through our vote, that they work together to come up with solutions. But in light of the events all around the world — what just happened in Quebec, what’s happening everywhere — making movies is great, and I hope we continue to have the freedom to express and to shape opinions, or whatever it is we do as actors. But I don’t get the two mixed up. It’s the world we live in, and we better open our eyes.
A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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