Mykelti Williamson looks forward to a life of service, now that ‘Fences’ has made life perfect
Actors are often late for interviews, usually because they’re at other interviews. Mykelti (pronounced Michael-T) Williamson had a much more pressing reason. The 110 Freeway was closed while he was on it, because someone was threatening to jump off an overpass. Williamson was delayed in part because he offered to help the police talk the man down. (They ultimately refused his offer; the man was taken into custody shortly thereafter.) As Williamson entered a Beverly Hills hotel lobby, the larger-than-life story matched his intensity and his 6-foot-2-inch frame. He doesn’t seem inclined to do things by halves.
Williamson, 59, has been acting for 50 years, and is probably most known for his beloved portrayal of Pvt. “Bubba” Blue in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” He played the role of Gabriel in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Gabriel is the damaged, innocent brother of Washington’s tragic hero Troy, holding onto a trumpet with as much fervor as the angel Gabriel of Bible lore. The cast reunited for the film adaptation, directed by Washington and due out on Christmas Day.
You’re saying you might leave acting?
Aren’t you starting a new show?
I’m helping a friend. I’ll still help friends. I’m about putting friends together. I’ve done over 300 movies and TV shows. March 4th, I’ll turn 60. I’m turning the page. If someone said to me, ‘You’re great,’ people appreciate me this year, then I’ll stay a little longer, maybe two more years or something. But I’m ready to do something else. I’m ready to help people. The guy on the freeway. That’s what I want to do. I want to help people.
Are you prepared to talk about those plans now?
Then let’s talk about how you created Gabriel, this angelic, innocent character.
It was a great privilege because he was military, so the bar was really high. Those are the real heroes. He’s military, he’s a war hero, but he has a traumatic brain injury - TBI. And I prayed about it. How do you represent somebody who’s TBI? There are so many variables, there’s different levels of injury and effect. So I had to pick something to make him coherent enough to be effective, and I got that from the Holy Spirit. I got that spiritually. I didn’t come up with that. I just obeyed. I obeyed August Wilson’s words, and I obeyed the spiritual direction I had, and I obeyed and followed Denzel Washington. And that’s why this movie looks like it looks: Denzel.
Did it feel like old home week, coming back to shoot it together?
We never left each other. After that Broadway experience, we’ve been tight, we’ve been family. This has been D’s journey to make this happen.
How did he direct you?
Denzel trusted us, and allowed us to use our gifts. We don’t need directing, we just need you to put the camera over there. And he knows that, because he’s the best that there is.
August Wilson [who died in 2005] made it known that he wanted a black director for the film. How important was that for the film?
It was vital. That’s why this is the highest-level project. We don’t have to be a white man’s version of a black man. We get to be truthful. Black actors, Latino, Asian, women, they will tell you they try to offer a solution, and the men that are out here holding it down, stifle the creativity. Your story is amazing, but you try to tell that to some director who doesn’t care, the world never gets it. That’s why you want to work with amazing women like Jodie Foster, Angela Bassett, Regina King, because they will make the story pop. They are so protective of your truth. That’s all this was. That’s why I say I can stop now, because this was perfection.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.