Sons and Fathers: A Talk with Jovan Adepo of FENCES and THE LEFTOVERS

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

While Denzel Washington and Viola Davis brought Oscar acclaim to Fences, the supporting performances did not go unnoticed by those looking for the next generation of rising storytellers. Jovan Adepo played Washington’s son, Cory, in the film — a young man struggling to reconcile his relationship with his difficult father. Adepo has also gained notoriety for his portrayal of a son, Michael Murphy, with a very different relationship to his father on The Leftovers, which premiers for their third and final season in a few weeks on HBO.

Adepo sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about the stories around these two very different sons.

John Bucher: Can you speak about the difference between who Cory is in Fences and who Michael is in the The Leftovers?

Jovan Adepo: It was interesting getting to play both of those characters, because I was filming the final season of The Leftovers and Fences around the same time, so I was having to switch between characters often, but it was an interesting ordeal, because they’re both similar in a lot of ways, but they’re also very different, and I tried to make their personalities very different. I didn’t want people watching Cory to be like, “Oh that’s clearly Michael Murphy.” I did my best. They’re both genuinely good young men, and they want to do well, and they want to succeed. They want to make their parents proud. I think at the surface level, Michael is far more involved in the religious aspects of life, and I think Cory is so desperately trying to become his own man and develop his own ideal of what a man is.

Jovan as Cory in Fences.

John Bucher: Cory’s relationship with his father, Troy, is tough. Michael’s relationship with his father, John, while there’s separation there, there’s more connection. Why is that?

Jovan Adepo: I think the biggest thing is that there’s better communication between Michael and John. There’s still some aspect of Michael trying to express his passions and his ideals of what maturity and growth is to him. I think John has his own idea, but they still communicate. I think people who watch The Leftovers never feel that John and Michael don’t love each other.

Troy loved Cory as well. It’s just that he loved him the way that he knew how to love. But they really didn’t have much meaningful connection. The biggest conversation that they have, that has any weight, is about baseball. Because it’s something that interests Troy, and I think Cory knew that and desperately wanted to have that connection with his father. So, what better way to do that when he’s shutting down all your other conversations? “The Pirates won again today” opens him up. That was his way of doing it, so I think it’s interesting to compare the two relationships. I never really stopped to think about that, but I appreciate you bringing it up.

John Bucher: Cory obviously wants desperately to have his father’s approval, on some level. What lessons has he taken from Troy (because it’s very clear he is his own man)?

Jovan Adepo: I think the realization at the end would be to understand that you have to do the best with what you’re given in life, and Troy tries to hint to him early on in the film about that, by taking the crooked with the straight. Sometimes in life you don’t always get what you want. The dream is often deferred. Troy had everything lined up for him to be one of the greatest baseball players that ever played the game, but it just wasn’t in his cards. Call it fate, call it just bad luck or what have you, but one thing that he did do was he persevered. He came from prison and recharged his life, found love, and what did he say? He said, “I found you, and Cory, and a house, and I was safe.” He found something, so I think, at the end of the film, that Cory finds closure about his relationship with Troy, and that he is able to move on in life as a responsible citizen.

Jovan as Michael in The Leftovers

John Bucher: When you get the script for a character like Cory, what is your process of taking those words on that page and beginning to embody this young man? How do you begin to understand the psychology behind him, and then bring him to life?

Jovan Adepo: Well, I think actors are very fortunate when they get a chance to approach August Wilson’s material, because he does a great job of creating that world, and creating those personalities for you, and he’s so specific that if you just follow that help line that he’s giving you and try your best to make it truthful to you, the rest does itself. It’s up to you to make it more interesting as far as informing yourself about what the character does, and what he lives outside of the script. That’s on you. But the beauty and the poetry and the rhythm is already in the material.

I feel like I had to do more work building Michael Murphy than building Cory, and that’s not to take away from Fences or anything. That’s just a testament to August Wilson’s brilliance, because I don’t know if I would’ve been able to come up with something as interesting as what August already laid out for me.

John Bucher: As you’ve mentioned, Michael Murphy in The Leftovers is a very spiritual guy.

Jovan Adepo: Absolutely.

John Bucher: Denzel and Viola (Davis) are both very outspoken spiritual people. There’s spiritual themes running through Fences. Without trying to get into any sort of dogma or even a specific religion, what do you see as sort of the spiritual through-line of Fences? Is there something that connects to you on a spiritual level?

Jovan Adepo: For sure. I think the most significant one to me is just having faith that family and that love and trust is what will get you through any problem that you have in life. Like we said before, Troy went through hell. I think one of the most interesting things that I heard Denzel say in an interview was when we first got the script for Fences, and he really was trying to figure out his take on Troy. He wrote on the cover of it, “from hell to hallelujah.”

That could be said of a lot of elements from Troy’s journey as a whole, or just Denzel’s understanding of what Troy is going through mentally. [Denzel] started as a jailbird, coming out on his own, trying to live life and raise a family with no money. Cheating on his wife, and having a son that doesn’t listen… But at the end, when tragedy strikes, you kind of still get the feeling that there’s peace to be had. So “from hell to hallelujah” is something that really stuck with me, and that’s something that I hope people are able to grasp when they see this film.

Fences is available on video and on-demand. The third and final season of The Leftovers premiers on HBO on April 16, 2017.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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