If he’s a familiar face, I’d say, of course. Chances are you’ve seen Stephen McKinley Henderson, since four of his films were nominated for the Best Picture at the Oscars: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), Lincoln (2012), Fences (2016) and Manchester by the Sea (2016). On TV, he’s played numerous roles ranging from the stern judge on the long-running, acclaimed drama franchise, Law & Order, to fresh sitcoms like Tyler Perry's House of Payne and many more.
The road to Hollywood by way of Broadway started right here in Kansas City. In 1967, Henderson graduated from Sumner High School. He started his college education at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. There, a teacher, Patricia McIlrath, who coincidentally, formed the Missouri Repertory Theater (now KC Repertory) took an interest in him and told him about auditions for the prestigious Julliard School in New York. Already famous for music and later, dance, Julliard held auditions in Chicago in 1968. McIlrath helped sponsor Henderson’s trip and he made her investment worthwhile by being accepted into Julliard’s first drama class.
Henderson’s academic achievements continue many years later returning to Julliard as a master’s class teacher, this year, delivering the commencement address. He holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and in 2017 he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from his alma mater, Julliard.
Do you feel you made it?
When asked if he feels he made it, Henderson responds “It’s a blessing to do what you love to do. So, I wanted to be an actor. When I got my union card, working in St. Louis in a rep company, during a season of plays, I had become an actor. The thing I always appreciate is I set out to do this profession and I was able to do it for a living.”
He recalls some of the best memories. “I’ve had such great experiences. I always wanted to meet Muhammed Ali. I got a chance to direct a play about his life. Off Broadway in England and also at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta the year he lit the torch, 1996. In London, I got to spend time with him. He and his mother enjoyed the play.” Well-traveled, Henderson’s work has taken him worldwide, to destinations such as Dublin, Ireland.
In the acting realm, it’s hard to beat “Fences”, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama from August Wilson. “Working with Denzel and Viola on Broadway was a kick.” Henderson performed the play on Broadway with those two in a revival of the play in 2010. Then, Denzel directed the movie in 2016 securing Henderson in his same stage role as Bono, close friend and confidant of Denzel’s character, Troy. “Doing the movie six years later was really a kick. That’s uptown man!” Watching Denzel’s artistry in directing, shooting on the actual streets of Pittsburgh, were all bonuses of his role.
In Fences, with a small cast and Oscar-award winners as your cohort, the novice might be stressed, but not Henderson. “We had done it on stage. The pressure you feel is just to do your best. It’s not the circumstance. It’s the bar you hold yourself to, you want to bring your best game. It’s the same on any set as he recounts working with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, “In those scenes you do, you’re the whole cast.”
Class of 1967
“Nothing…Nothing, compares to coming back here with this class,” Henderson reflects on coming home for his 1967 class reunion. Born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in Kansas City, KS, the town represents some of his finest memories. “This is it. I feel like a survivor. I made it to this.”
“They’ll come upon you sometimes, when you’re in the business, and say ‘I know you’. ‘I know you’ or ‘I know you from somewhere’, or ‘I know you ‘cause I saw you in this’. When I come back here, these are people, that when they say ‘I know you’, they know me, they really do. They appreciate your journey more than anybody else can appreciate your journey.”
Henderson believes other actors can make a similar and successful track. “Start where you are. Find out who in the area is already in the arts will have a connection you haven’t explored. And for my money, you gotta start on stage. You don’t act for the camera. You can act for the people.”
Henderson has had a triumphant life, but not without its challenges. When he thinks of life today and what we all need, he recalls Amiri Baraka, the great writer and poet, who’s considered the founder of the Black Arts Movement and coined the term “revolutionary optimistic”. “It’s time to spread optimism. Don’t think you can’t get there. You can get through it. You can make it.”