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Fences - Broadway

Denzel Washington stars in the revival of August Wilson's powerful drama.

Fences Star Chris Chalk on Eight Seconds in Rent and What He's Learned from Denzel

Age: “I tell everyone at the theater that I’m 20.”

Hometown: Asheville, North Carolina

Currently: Making his Broadway debut as Cory Maxson, the aspiring college football player who clashes with his unsupportive father, Troy (played by Denzel Washington), in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

Mother Love: Chalk got his start onstage in a fifth grade Christmas program, but didn’t consider acting as a career until he entered the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “I didn’t even know I was going to college [as a kid],” he explains. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and no one else in my family had gone. Looking at schools was very scary—just the idea of going away from home was new. But when I got there and realized acting was an option, I knew what I wanted to do.” Asked how his family differed from the August Wilson's Maxsons, Chalk speaks cryptically of his own absent father. “My mother is the best in the world, my stepfather is loving and supportive and hilarious, and my father is wherever he is. We all have daddy issues.”

Sink or Swim: Arriving in New York shortly after September 11, Chalk says, “I didn’t leave the house for the first six months. The city was depressed, and I fell into that.” He then spent a couple of years as a doorman at the W Hotel in Times Square. “I was a little doorman,” he elaborates. “The other guy was 6’8”, 325 [pounds], and I’m 5’9”.” Finally, he nailed an audition for Law & Order: SVU. “The producer ran out and said, ‘Chris! Chris! Can you kayak?’ And I said, ‘I’m from North Carolina!’ The excited exec took that as a “yes,” but in fact, Chalk says with a laugh, “I can’t even swim. We were on the Hudson River in February, and the water was throwing us everywhere. The other guy kayaked professionally, and he had a hard time. It took five hours to film this little scene.” When Chalk got to his line about finding a dead baby in a cooler, “I was so bad, I had to do a voiceover later. It was embarrassing.” Lesson learned: “Don’t lie.”

I’ll Cover You: The Law & Order casting department obviously didn’t hold a grudge, because Chalk appeared in several more episodes, then landed the role of “Street Vendor Who Sells Coats” in the 2005 feature film version of Rent. “Oh, I remember that day, another February shoot, and we were working outside,” he says. “Jesse L. Martin [Tom Collins] came over and said, ‘Hey Chris! We shot a couple of things [together],’ and I was like, ‘I know who you are. Why do you remember who I am?’ It was the sweetest thing in the world.” After an all-day shoot in the freezing cold, Chalk says, “I am in that movie for less than eight seconds.”

Taking the Stage: Around the same time, Chalk’s theatrical career began heating up, with roles off-Broadway in The Hasty Heart, Defiance, The Overwhelming and eventually the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner Ruined. He revels in the challenge of building a stage resume in New York: “You might not make money in everything you do, but there are so many opportunities to find work. I’m a member of Labyrinth Theater Company [where he acted in Unconditional] and I worked with them for five years doing odd jobs before I was even a member. That was so beneficial.” In spite of his steady climb, Chalk says, “People still don’t have any idea who I am, so it’s an everyday grind.” But his profile has definitely gone up since his successful audition with Denzel Washington.

The Son Also Rises: Chalk first met his Fences dad when the two-time Oscar winner came backstage at Ruined. “I noticed that night that he’s just a dude; he doesn’t buy into all the stardom stuff. He is himself at all times—mad low-key, sweet, generous and very spiritual. He affects the world positively by being his best self.” Nevertheless, auditioning with Washington proved to be nerve-wracking. “I was saying to my manager, 'I’m not scared! I’m not worried!' Then I woke up that morning, and man, I was so scared!” A fervent New York Jets fan, Chalk found out he got the part the same day his team won a playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals. “A great day, a great day!” he says with a laugh. The key to playing a 17-year-old, he explains, is “to remember how impulsive kids are. When I’m working, I like to think everything through, but [director] Kenny Leon said, ‘Get out of the way!’ Now I’m having a blast.”

Full Circle: After spotting actress Jocelyn Bioh in the play Neighbors at the Public Theater over the winter, Chalk did a little Facebook flirting that led to a first date at Fela!, “and we’ve been hanging out since then,” he says. “She’s so nice, she scares me!” Case in point: Jocelyn managed to track down Courtney B. Vance, who created the role of Cory in Fences’ 1987 Broadway premiere, and asked him to write Chalk a note, which she framed. “When I met Courtney after the show [on opening night], he said, ‘Your lady is a good lady. She did a lot of work on this.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Girl! You’re trying to get kept.’” Chalk lets loose a raucous laugh that makes it clear he’s kidding. (We think.) As for the future, he says, “I’d like to do [TV] pilot season and make some money, but this will always be home. I like the solid foundation of New York.”

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