Stephen McKinley Henderson just can’t quit. After his appearances in everything from Tower Heist to The Newsroom to opposite Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway, the 63-year-old actor shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Kenny Leon, director of that Tony-award winning production of Fences, called Henderson “the most underrated actor in America.”

Besides his roles across TV, film, and stage, Henderson teaches acting at the University of Buffalo. A consummate theater geek with a deep love for the works of August Wilson, Henderson is also one of the warmest and friendliest people in the business. I had the pleasure of speaking to Henderson about his thoughts on August Wilson, the art of theater, and why Spike Lee’s assumptions about him were right:

Matt Lurie: You’re known as a veteran performer of August Wilson’s plays. How has your approach to his work changed over the years?

Stephen Henderson: Well, you know, I was very fortunate in my early training. I grew up in Kansas City, and I went to a really outstanding high school, Charles Sumner, one of the only all-black high schools in that area—I actually just returned from my 45th reunion the other day.

We had teachers there who had reached their ceiling: math teachers who were engineers, writing teachers with novels in their desk drawers that they couldn’t do anything with. We had one chemistry teacher who had graduated from MIT. All of them, in twenty years, would have had careers that weren’t available to them at the time.

And in theater we had some extraordinary people. We did all sorts of plays. In ‘66, I did Death of a Salesman. We did other plays—I was in The Most Happy Fella—[laughs] you know, even if you weren’t into musical theater, that’s what you did in high school.

After that, I went to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri: a historically black institution with a great theater tradition. My theater teacher Dr. Pauley was up on the Stanislaski approach, so we did a lot of modern theater.

We had teachers there who had reached their ceiling: math teachers who were engineers, writing teachers with novels in their desk drawers that they couldn’t do anything with. We had one chemistry teacher who had graduated from MIT. All of them, in twenty years, would have had careers that weren’t available to them at the time.

Then I attended the first year of the Juilliard program in 1968. That was different. I was not acculturated—I had never been in a school with whites. I mean, white people went to Lincoln University during the day, and we had a few white friends, but my community up to that point was pretty much African-American.

Anyway, by the time I finished my theater education, most of the plays I had done were modern, but I had studied poetry—my high school English teacher, Ms. Bloodworth, who taught us, you know, Shakespeare, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and so on—and I had primarily done classics at Juilliard. So I was really quite prepared for a poet-playwright like August.

I was 44 when we met, and I worked with him for eight years. We did Jitney for six years throughout the U.S. and Great Britain. My first Broadway show was King Hedley II, and we did the Broadway revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I had done Fences and Seven Guitars in regional theater with the great director Israel Hicks. And I was part of the Kennedy Center, readings of all ten of the plays, which Kenny Leon put on. I’ve done all the plays [in the Century Cycle] except the first and last—Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. He wrote those two at the end.

August’s work is not kitchen-sink realism—it’s rooted in reality, but has exalted language that requires style. I tend to talk about it in a musical way—he was so influenced by the blues and jazz. The blues is at its base, but there’s a also a part of jazz—Basie, Ellington, Holliday—from the urban environment. He’s a poet-playwright, like Shakespeare, or Tennessee Williams.

I can’t really go in and give a clinical approach to what I do. Once you dissect it—you don’t have a frog. If you dissect the frog, you don’t end up with a frog. You got something that doesn’t hop and doesn’t croak.

In his book The Rediscovery of Style, the great teacher Michel Saint-Denis wrote that “We don’t just bring life to the stage, we bring the truth of life to the stage.” That requires poetry, that requires style, to bring that down to an essence.

That’s been my journey as an actor. I’ve understood the parts: precision and passion, the earthy-rootedness and the elevated style. When I was traveling around for six years with August for Jitney, I feel as if I evolved into that poetic style: the proper balance of precision and passion. So It’s a blend now—I’ve grown from mostly acting with the Stanislaski base, to tempering that with the poetry.

But, you know, I can’t really go in and give a clinical approach to what I do. Once you dissect it—you don’t have a frog. If you dissect the frog, you don’t end up with a frog. You got something that doesn’t hop and doesn’t croak.

ML: Your performances in the plays on Broadway, especially Jitney, have been hailed as iconic portrayals of Wilson’s characters. Which roles haven’t you had the chance to play that you’d love to tackle next?

You know, if there’s a role in there for me, I really want the director to make that choice. If the director has a vision, that’s their call. My cup runneth over as far as Wilson’s plays go. I’d love to do something in [Radio Golf or Gem of the Ocean], but I have no particular urge. I feel blessed to have worked with August in the room.

I love to make a contribution. I was trained to be part of the ensemble—to serve the play. In a play, I want to be in the role I can be most effective. In Fences, I had the chance to be [Jim] Bono—and that cast, that group of people… I can’t imagine doing another role. And all those plays: I was Turnbo in Jitney; and at Rutgers I had a chance to play Doaker [Charles] in The Piano Lesson, which I played again when we recorded it at the BBC. I could see myself going back and doing one those roles again, but you know, I just like being in plays.

People say, “What do you like best?” Acting in TV, movies, on stage, whatever. What I like best is being employed. Having a job. [Laughs.]

But theater is really what it comes down to for me. The craft began on the stage. The art of acting began on the stage. That’s always going to be special.

Stephen McKinley Henderson will be in town, as part of the the August Wilson Red Door Festival, on November 1st to offer master classes to local actors, and November 2nd for a live presentation at Portland Playhouse. For more information, visit our events page.

Check back next week for part 2 of our interview.

In the meantime, watch Stephen on HBO’s The Newsroom: