Stephen McKinley Henderson, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in the days before integration, played his first supporting role at just 7 years old.
His older brother, Ronald Eugene, was deaf and had been struggling at a public school in Missouri. Ronald Eugene’s classmates teased him endlessly, and his school was ill-equipped to deal with the needs of a deaf child. Something had to be done.
“My aunt in Oklahoma that we would go and visit, she knew that my brother was not doing well in the regular schools … and if we raised some money he could go to a school for the deaf,” Henderson, now 63, recalls. “When he was 12 and I was 7, [my brother] learned to sign the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. And I memorized it, and she took us around to these churches in Oklahoma to raise money.”
Henderson, a stage and screen actor and University at Buffalo professor whose career is in the midst of major upswing, quickly learned that he had to do more than just speak the words in order to hold the attention of the crowd.
“I knew that I couldn’t just go, ‘Our-father-who-art-in-heaven-hallowed-be-thy-name, thy-kingdom-come-thy- will-be-done,’ ” he said. “Suddenly, [my brother’s] future was on the line.”
When Henderson talks about the experience – and what it meant for his brother – his perpetual smile stretches a little wider and his eyes seem to brighten by a few degrees. Over lunch at Kostas on Hertel Avenue, not far from Henderson’s North Buffalo home, he relived the moment:
“Something happened to me, watching him, staying connected to him and me trying to dramatize it,” Henderson says. “And people would look at him and they would also look at me and say, ‘What’s that little boy doing? Because he’s really sellin’ this, he’s really trying to sell this.’ ”
Young Stephen sold it well enough for his brother to attend a school for the deaf in Fulton, Mo. (His brother died in 1999.) And in the process of performing in all those churches, in learning how to command the attention of those congregations, a light switched on in Stephen’s mind.
Since that moment, he has worked doggedly to make a living from performing.
And all that work – from his days as a spear-carrier in a St. Louis repertory company to the dozens of small roles out of which a character actor painstakingly builds a career – has begun to reap big rewards.
After Henderson was nominated for a Tony Award for his 2010 Broadway performance with Denzel Washington in August Wilson’s “Fences,” his film career took off. In the past two years, Henderson has appeared in small but significant roles in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film “Lincoln,” Stephen Daldry’s Sept. 11 film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the action-comedy “Tower Heist” and Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom.”
He also appeared last year as part of the ambitious “My America” project at Baltimore’s Centerstage theater company and is in talks with the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis about a pair of theater projects potentially bound for Broadway.
At the same time, Henderson has enjoyed a healthy career at UB, where he teaches during the spring semester each year. He also remains closely involved with the theater scene in Buffalo, serving as a key adviser to Road Less Traveled Theater co-founders Scott Behrend and Jon Elston and Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s Taylor Doherty and Kathleen Golde.
Though Henderson’s only son now lives in New York City, he says, his roots here and his affiliation with UB are keeping him glued to Western New York. And Los Angeles, he adds, has never been his speed.
“It would have to be something quite incredible for me not to want to operate from here. Because I’ve been able to do some really wonderful things operating from Buffalo,” he says. “I can’t foresee the future, but I don’t foresee a future that says I’m gettin’ too big to be in Buffalo. I don’t see that at all.”
And this month, in a rare appearance on the cover of a local playbill, he is directing the play “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” featuring Doherty and Golde, for the Buffalo Laboratory Theatre. That show, which opened Friday, runs through Feb. 9 at Hilbert College in Hamburg.
On stage and in front of the camera, Henderson is most at home playing well-built supporting characters, the sort he is known for taking on in the work of the late Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson, a close friend and mentor.
His approach to acting, and to directing, grows out of Wilson’s mentorship and that of the late legendary theater director Lloyd Richards. It’s a specific, methodical and painstaking process that, properly executed, comes across to audiences as pure, honest and completely free of affect.
“I’m not a box office name, and I’m not a box office face, and I’m not an action hero,” Henderson says. “I’m an actor, and I mainly work because someone trusts me with dramatic literature. I’m what I like to call a story-line actor.
“Some people call them character actors, but it’s really story-line actors. It’s like, you gotta get someone to believe in the story.”
Making it real
Convincing audiences to forget that they’re watching a performance – to see straight through the artifice and buy into the character – is tough, messy work. But it’s what has driven Henderson through his entire career.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Henderson, dressed comfortably in a blue tracksuit, paces the stage of the Swan Auditorium at Hilbert College as Doherty and Golde work through a tricky scene in “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” The director is in his element.
Doherty is rehearsing a loaded conversation with Golde, who is perched on a wooden riser across what is supposed to be an expanse of ice. But the scene isn’t quite clicking. Henderson tells them to run a certain section of dialogue again and again, interjecting instructions to slow down or to play a certain exchange more delicately. The frustration on all sides was becoming palpable.
“Convince yourself,” Henderson says of the imaginary patch of ice separating Golde from Doherty, whose character is in a wheelchair. “If you guys would trust me on this about not falling into the center. If you don’t get them to feel…”
The them Henderson refers to is the audience, on which he is always laser-focused in his own performances and in the plays he directs.
For Doherty, who studied with Henderson as a graduate student at UB and has remained close friends with him since, the opportunity to be directed by him in a professional production has been a career highlight.
“At first it was almost frustrating, because you stop almost on every line and parse every line and talk about the specificity of every single moment. But he works beautifully. He’s that specific because he knows as an actor how to do that,” Doherty says of the rehearsal process. “Every action is a specific thing. You don’t play emotion, you play the truth. And it’s great. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, particularly as a director, just seeing him parse the script like that.”
Doherty says Henderson introduced him to the finer points of Wilson’s plays during an independent study class at UB, and he credits him with opening his mind to the possibilities of theater.
“He made me realize in that class that even the most esoteric theater-of-the-absurd stuff has to have a soul to it. I felt like that just opened up a world to me, that you could have both sides coexisting,” Doherty says. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s all great theater, this theater of the absurd, it’s all great, Taylor, but it’s gotta have a soul. It’s gotta have a soul, it needs to really be there.’ It’s not like I’m not like a romantic at heart already, but somehow I had bifurcated the two worlds. He helped me to find the blend.”
Golde, who met Henderson when he caught her crashing his acting class by peeking through the open door of his classroom, also praised his approach to directing.
“In this moment,” Golde says just after the rehearsal ends, “it always feels like a true collaboration and a true dialogue. We fight, we get in there, we fight like dogs. Nobody takes prisoners here. And we make terrible fun of each other.”
Right place, right time
Henderson has been similarly instrumental in the life of Road Less Traveled Productions, the company founded by director Scott Behrend and playwright Jon Elston in 2002. His connections have helped the company to snag Eric Bogosian and Guirgis – who wrote “The Last Days of Judas Isacariot,” in which Henderson appeared off-Broadway – for Buffalo appearances. That, in turn, has helped Road Less Traveled become one of the most buzzed-about companies on Buffalo’s theater scene in the past decade.
“I will forever be indebted to him for just at times being able to tap into his theatrical wisdom, his professional wisdom, how the business works,” Behrend says. “And then, from a Road Less Traveled standpoint, he was one of the key figures early on who believed in me and then believed in what the mission of what Road Less Traveled was about.
“He has a deep love for the theater, and not just New York theater. And where I think Stephen sees the possibility of great theater happening in a community, he wants to support that.”
It was through Behrend and Elson – very indirectly – that Henderson clinched his role in “Lincoln.”
In the summer of 2011, the two prevailed upon Henderson to accompany them to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner was speaking. Kushner also wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln.”
Behrend and Elson were hoping Henderson’s relationship with Kushner would give them a chance to chat with the playwright, but Henderson was reluctant – he had recently turned down an offer from Kushner to participate in a project. (“When you’re dealing with a genius, man, they don’t hear people say no to them too much,” Henderson says now.)
He went anyway and had a warm exchange with Kushner – so warm Kushner made sure he had Henderson’s current email address. A couple of weeks later, Henderson’s agent got a call from director Steven Spielberg’s office, and the ball was rolling.
“It was joyous and it was so meaningful, because everybody there came with a sense of a mission,” Henderson says of the experience of filming “Lincoln.” “You knew what it meant to Steven Spielberg and you knew what it mean to Kushner. If you got a chance like I did to work so closely with Daniel [Day-Lewis], it was clear that it was going to be one of his truly committed and dedicated performances.”
In “Lincoln,” Henderson plays the 16th president’s personal valet and friend William Slade, a role with far more symbolic significance than speaking lines. Henderson says that, with the always-in-character Day-Lewis, interactions on the set were always between Lincoln and Slade, no matter whether the cameras were rolling.
“When I first came to the set, he said, ‘Oh, Mr. Slade, it’s so good to see you again.’ He wasn’t meeting a new actor, he was meeting an old friend,” Henderson says.
For Henderson, the idea of contributing to the success of local theater companies, even while his film and television career enters a new and much busier phase, is a matter of principle.
“Those are labors of love,” he says. “Being in the business these years, I’m just glad that it does translate into being able to do something, and that there’s this incredible new generation coming along that acknowledges that I’ve been out there.”
He credits the teachers he had at Sumner High School in Kansas City with helping him start his career. The teachers, he recalls, were overqualified black professionals who had hit the glass ceiling in their respective careers, and were intent on readying their students for the days after integration.
“We had teachers that were teaching the student, not the subject, you know? And they would find out whatever it was that you had a propensity for, and they would push you along those lines,” Henderson says. “Without that, I’m still sittin’ in Kansas City, Kansas, I might have a nice job for the electric company, or you know, building cars …”
Henderson carried those lessons forward, through Lincoln University in Missouri and onto the Julliard School in New York City, where he was a member of the school’s very first acting class. He carried them to the University of North Carolina’s School for the Arts, where he became involved in the black theater movement of the 1970s, and to Purdue University, where he received his graduate degree. Later, they went with him during stints in St. Louis, Dublin, Ireland and as an itinerant actor jobbing into regional theaters around the country.
After appearing in several productions at Studio Arena Theatre in the mid-1980s, Henderson brought all those experiences to Buffalo in 1987, when UB offered him a job in its theater department. After that, he appeared frequently on the Studio Arena stage and was the final actor to appear there before the theater closed in 2008. (The space has since reopened under new management, as the 710 Main Theatre.)
All the while, Henderson has maintained a dedication to the simple power of acting that he can trace all the way back to his recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in those Oklahoma churches.
There is a poignant moment in “Lincoln,” just after Henderson’s character helps the president into his coat and trademark stovepipe hat. As Lincoln strides out the door on the way to meet his fate at Ford’s Theatre, Slade casts a glance at him that seems to say a thousand things at once. The expression on his face – now flickering across a movie screen near you – contains a poignant combination of emotions, from confusion and worry to unmitigated awe.
That is the kind of rare moment – simple, honest, and overflowing with significance – that Henderson has worked for decades to perfect. In talking about the experience of shooting that scene, his grin stretches out again and that familiar light returns to his eyes.
“They call the crew in and say ‘OK,’ And we’re there, and we’re just staying in it. That’s the joy of the craft,” Henderson says. “I tell students this always: The career you seek may elude you, but the craft you seek is in your hands. You work on that your whole life.”