AMERICAN SON
Photo: David Lee/Netflix/David Lee/Netflix
Photo: David Lee/Netflix/David Lee/Netflix

INTERVIEW: Kenny Leon adapts ‘American Son’ play starring Kerry Washington to Netflix film out November 1

Originally posted Tuesday, October 29, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

For Kerry Washington’s vulnerable Kendra Ellis-Connor in Netflix’s film “American Son,” there is no Olivia Pope to save her. Nothing is “handled.” 

In this emotional adaptation of the successful Broadway stage play, Kendra faces not-so-subtle prejudice from a cop, marital resentment over her estranged white husband Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) and a confused bi-racial teen son Jamal who has disappeared.

The entire movie, with the exception of a few flashbacks, takes place in a Miami police waiting room in the middle of the night. There are only four speaking roles, including the two cops tasked to figuring out what happened to Jamal. 

Atlanta playwright and director Kenny Leon - who seamlessly toggles between film and stage - wanted “American Son” on a platform where it could be seen by millions as oppose to thousands on Broadway. Netflix, with 150 million-plus subscribers, is as big as it gets.

“I always thought the story lent itself to being an even better film than play,” Leon said in a recent phone interview. “The challenge was to keep the camera moving and keep the tension in the room. It needed a cinematic point of view.”   

He said, given the horrible weather outside and overnight setting, the entire film feels like a horror flick, as in “a mother’s worst nightmare.” 

Leon purposely chose not to show what Jamal looks like because he wanted people to feel like it could be anybody’s son. Thus, the title: “American Son.” 

All four actors were in the stage play so Leon spent two days helping them adjust to a film version. That meant being less demonstrative, more internalized. But all four actors have film experience, he said, so it wasn’t a tough transition.

He had three hand-held or Steadicam operators and two boom operators. So he had up to nine people in this dance of sorts. “I taught them how to dance,” he said, in a sense. 

The entire movie was shot in just four and a half days on a Brooklyn sound stage. Given the density of dialogue, that averaged out to 23 pages of script a day.

For Washington, it was the toughest because she was in almost every scene, every second.

“She is the real deal,” Leon said. “While the stage play was seen through four people’s eyes, the film is seen through her eyes. She gave me 100 percent every take.”

Washington embraced a role where she wears virtually no makeup and has to spill her guts out for hours on end. “She turned in a great piece art to say something to the world,” Leon said. “And she trusted me. I’m forever grateful to that.”

Kendra’s despair and frustration while talking with the overnight cop Officer Paul Larkin (played by Jeremy Jordan) is palpable during the first 20 minutes. His condescending, often racially prejudiced questioning (Does her son have any tattoos? Does he have any aliases?) only makes the situation worse.

But the dynamic changes when Kendra’s husband, an FBI agent, shows up. Larkin is far more helpful and kind with the white dude. Eventually, the daytime “public information officer” (played with intensity by Eugene Lee) shows up and the atmosphere shifts yet again - and not necessarily for the better.

Leon loves the dynamic between Washington and Pasquale, an inter-racial couple with both commonalities and experiential differences. “They are a believable couple,” he said. “They look right together.” 

Bottom line: race and police brutality are interwoven into this story and Leon hopes it inspires not just conversation but action: “Hopefully we can get past thoughts and prayers and do something.”

ON NETFLIX

“American Son,” available to subscribers starting November 1, 2019

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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