Directed by Rick Famuyiwa and written by Susannah Grant, the HBO original movie Confirmation peels back the curtain of Washington politics to explore the explosive Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) in 1991. When Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) accused him of sexual harassment, she brought the country to a standstill, and it forever changed how we perceive and experience workplace equality and gender politics.
At the film’s press day, actor Wendell Pierce spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why he was so fascinated by this project, the absolute challenge of portraying Clarence Thomas, finding out just how much he actually had in common with the man, that he’d like to meet him some day, co-starring with Kerry Washington even though they never really worked together, the attention paid to every little detail, and why he considers himself a journeyman actor.
Collider: You do such tremendous acting work in this, but when the opportunity to play Clarence Thomas was brought to you, what was your reaction?
WENDELL PIERCE: I was actually fascinated about it, right from the start, ‘cause I saw it as an absolute challenge because you can only play the man, you can’t play the title. While he’s very clear about who he is as a justice, and his opinions and his politics, as reflected in his speeches, decisions and briefs, who he is as a man is very much an enigma. You can’t make someone what they don’t put out there. You can’t chance who a person is. You can only glean as much as you can from their behavior and what they’ve said. I looked at it as a challenge because of that. I thought it was very important that the film be made. With this 25th anniversary, there’s a whole generation who probably doesn’t remember this. It’s important that we be ever-vigilant when it comes to issues of race, gender and workplace behavior. We have to be ever-vigilant about it, and that’s the way to make sure that we have these discussions and the debate over what our values are. I wanted to be a part of the challenge of playing the enigma and finding the man, himself.
Did you find that you have more or less in common with Clarence Thomas than you thought you might?
PIERCE: I assumed we had very little in common. The great epiphany for me was learning just how much we have in common. We both had five generations of family from the South, from slavery to farmers, and a family philosophy that puts a great premium on education. “Don’t tell me you can’t do anything” is what was passed on in the legacies of our families and our family values. I found that fascinating. I want to meet the man, as a student of human behavior who tapped into his humanity. It’s no secret that we’re political opposites, but I would be curious to see where that fork in the road is and what made him go down one road in his belief system. I know what made me choose my road, but I would like to be clear about his.
With everything that you read and learned about him, did you gain respect for him that you didn’t have before?
PIERCE: It gave me a new insight. It made me realize that I had come to preconceived notions of who he is and had prejudged him. I know what my opinion is about what happened, but I won’t say. The awareness that we have about it, as a society, is so much more important than what my opinion is about whether it was true or not. The evolution of the EEOC, more women in Congress, the constant vigilance that we watch the workplace with to make sure that women are not harassed, the fact that we’re having discussions about race and gender, and that we expect people to put policies in place that recognize our value system, all came out of these hearings. The evolution of that is so much more important than what my opinion is, but it definitely broadened my consideration of who he is, as a man. I recognize that I had a narrow view of him from my preconceived notions.
If you ever did have the opportunity to meet Clarence Thomas, do you have a list of questions you’d like to ask him?
PIERCE: I have my list of questions, but I know I wouldn’t ask those immediately. I would have to earn the right to ask those. I would hope to get to know him to the point where he would then choose to answer those questions without me even asking them. But actually, I just want to meet him. I put out backdoor communications to try to meet him, and hopefully I still do. I tried to do right by him, by being as authentic and human as possible. I thought his words in the confirmation hearing were a real window into how to play the role. He said, “I deny each of these allegations, but if there was something I said or did to Professor Hill, or any other woman, that they found offensive, I’m sorry.” That made it clear to me that he was on a journey of self-reflection and, at some point, said, “What did I do or say to Professor Hill, or any other woman, that would offend them?” That gave me an entryway because it wasn’t about the politics, but it was really about the personal journey that he was on. That gave me enough to sink my teeth into to play.
We don’t really get to emotionally connect with Clarence Thomas and it’s hard to know how to sympathize with him in this, but at the same time, he is a very well spoken and intelligent man.
PIERCE: With that in mind, you say, “What motivates him, and what can people connect to?,” and we can always connect to people’s humanity. When we see something atrocious, violent and awful that someone perpetrates on other people, we always ask, within that anger, hurt and pain, why? And that question of why really taps into a desire to understand the humanity of it, but the ugly part of humanity and human nature. So, it’s clear that you have to focus on the humanity. When it comes to the things that you can’t know to portray in a role, you focus on those things you can know. I know he loves his son, so that was something that I could key into. I know he’s on a journey of self-reflection, when he apologized in the middle of his confirmation with his fervent denial of all of it. That was very eye-opening for me. So, I focused on those things. I knew he had a great love for family and his son. That’s in his autobiography. He was trying to be the father that he knew this developing young man would need.
What’s it like to have the stories of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill so intertwined, and to have Kerry Washington as your co-star, but never work together since you don’t really share any scenes?
PIERCE: We didn’t share any scenes together, but I feel as though I did. I knew that her testimony was going to be completing as mine began, with the scheduling of the scenes, so I didn’t want to meet Kerry or any of the other cast members yet. I stood on the other part of the stage and watched her film her testimony scenes. So, it was as if the judge was aware of the accusations being made, and I watched her make the accusations, and that really fueled me. As an actor you try to create things so strong that it induces the behavior, and I was able to watch her as if someone was making these accusations against myself. And then, I asked them to set up my testimony with my stand-in, bring everyone in, and then, right before we rolled, I wanted to be introduced. I came in, they rolled camera, I was sworn in, I sat down and I started my defense. It was before I met Greg [Kinnear], or anyone. I felt as though I did the scene with Kerry because I watched her give her testimony for two or three days, and then I walked onto the set and gave my testimony. That helped. All the guys on the panel came to me and said, “Man, that was pretty amazing!” The first time they met me, I was Judge Thomas coming to defend myself, and I gave all of that testimony. So, even though we didn’t have any scenes together, it was as if we had a scene together. That really fueled me, to begin my filming that way and to watch her, as if I was in character. We just have one moment where we cross, when she’s coming in and I’m going out.
Because you were dealing with uncomfortable subject matter, did it make it harder to keep things light on set?
PIERCE: There are long work days, so you’ve gotta have some humor. It’s not humorless. And some of the joy is actually sitting around and discussing the possibilities of what these people were going through. When you do a historical drama like this, you do so much research. Part of our fun on the set was, “Hey, man, did you read this? Let me share this with you.” It was fun doing that. You’ve gotta have fun on a set, or you’ll just go crazy. And we had great dinners. It was an old boys’ club, by the time we were shooting, because all the women had finished shooting. We had a good time, though.
When you’re telling a story like this, there has to be such attention paid to every little detail. What was Rick Famuyiwa like, at the helm of it all?
PIERCE: Rick was great because while you delved into all of the minutiae and details, trying to get it right, and he would too, he would always remind you of what’s at stake. He’d say, “That’s great. That testimony was exactly the way it should be. But I want you to remember how angry you are with these men and how they remind you of all the people who told you that you don’t speak well enough, you’re unintelligent and you shouldn’t have this opportunity. This is the old boy network that said you weren’t good enough to be a part of their network. I just want you to remember that.” He reminded me what was at stake, all the time, and that was a great thing. And that’s the role of any director. They have to pull all those elements together physically, but they also have to remind you, as you create your performance, what’s at stake. That’s what Rick is very good at doing.
I’m such a big fan of your work on Suits, and you do such great work on that show.
PIERCE: Oh, thank you!
How much fun has it been to be a part of that?
PIERCE: It’s been great. I pride myself on being a journeyman actor and doing things as diverse as possible. The Odd Couple is [back on CBS], and I’m in Confirmation. That just goes to show you that I pride myself on diversity. One of the things I love is the fact that, while I’m on these different shows, there’s also Suits in that mix. To have this film come out is a defining moment in my career, and I think it’s a culmination of all these other roles that I’ve done, where people can appreciate my work and see me now bite off a little bit more and sink my teeth into something a lot more complex. Hopefully, people can appreciate the dexterity of what I’m trying to do. That’s why I studied so hard. I just want to give myself the opportunity to do it all.
Confirmation premieres on HBO on April 16th.