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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Saniyya Sidney (Fences) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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In her short time as an actress, young Saniyya Sidney has acquitted herself with an impressive resume of appearances – having a small role on the 2016 remake of Roots, and appearing in two of 2016’s most critically celebrated films, Hidden Figures and the extraordinary Fences.

A delightful young lady with a breezy and warm personality, she exudes excitement for the craft of acting and has, in just a handful of appearances, appeared alongside legends in the filmmaking field. Saniyya spoke to Home Theater Forum about her time working on Fences, the friendship she has formed with Viola Davis, the respect she has for her director, Denzel Washington, and what she has learned along the way.

Fences is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.

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HTF: Tell me about your first day on the set of Fences. What was that like?

Saniyya Sidney: Everybody was so nice. At first, I was like, "Oh. My. Goodness. My goodness, I hope everybody loves me [laughter]." Because you never know how a person is like, but everybody's just so nice. The only person I knew at first was Mr. [Denzel] Washington. So I met Viola [Davis]. The best person you could ever hang out with. She is the sweetest. And Jovan [Adepo]. And Mykelti [Williamson], Russell [Hornsby], and Stephen [Henderson]. Everybody's just so nice and so sweet. That's what I call Jovan, his nickname [was] Sweet cheeks [laughter]. He's so awesome. And Viola, you can hang out with her for one day and say, "Man, I want to be friends with her." She is awesome, she is so nice, and she makes the best pasta [laughter].

HTF: And Viola Davis is an extraordinary actress. Did she give you advice and what did you learn from watching her?

Saniyya Sidney: I learned to bring your heart to work and bring 100% to the table and be in the moment of the character and actually really fall in love. That's why everybody fell in love with Rose. You can tell that she played Rose really, really well. She was just in the moment. Especially [in the scene where] she figured out [Troy] cheated on her, poor baby. But her performance is just so to the heart, which is like, "Wow." Maybe one day I get to play a role like that, that I can touch everybody because, man, her performance blew everybody away.

HTF: And she is absolutely one of the finest actresses of our generation. Does she inspire you?


“The first time I saw ‘The Help,’ I was like, "Man, I got to work with [Viola] one day." And here I am today…”


Saniyya Sidney: Yes. She's been inspiring me from the beginning. I know I'm only 10, but I've been following her for years. The first time I saw The Help, I was like, "Man, I got to work with her one day." And here I am today. And [I’m] pretty good friends with her daughter, Genesis. And Mr. Tennon, her husband, he is so nice too.

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HTF: You also worked on Hidden Figures this year, so you really picked two outstanding projects in the same year. And that film was also set several decades ago. What was it like for you working on set with all that old technology and old setting and old clothes?


That's why this story [‘Hidden Figures’] needed to come out and tell people, "You need to follow up on this woman [Katherine Johnson] because she is such an extraordinary person."


Saniyya Sidney: It was unique. And to know more about my history and how, oh my goodness, at that time, not just not a lot of African-Americans, but not a lot of women were getting to get into certain programs. And really that's why it was so special to teach everybody that these three women [Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson] were so special, especially Katherine, Ms. Johnson. I actually met her. She's 98 years old and she still has everything. She's the best person you could ever meet. She is a special person because she's actually special to everybody and she touches a lot of people as well. That's why this story needed to come out and tell people, "You need to follow up on this woman because she is such an extraordinary person."

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HTF: When your character Raynell first shows up in Fences, which is quite late in the film, you bring a warmth and sweetness to the film, and it’s at quite a sad moment in the film, too. You share a very powerful scene with Jovan there, singing the song that Denzel's character had sung in the film. Tell me about that scene and how you prepared for it with Jovan.


“…that's why you have to do research before anything because you can find this character. You can really dig deeper and say, "Oh, my goodness. I have to relate to something like this."


Saniyya Sidney: Well, I took Jovan under my wing because he didn't know the song at first [chuckles]. So I had to teach him that but at the same time, I had to focus and understand, "What would I feel like?" and "What would I feel like if both of my parents were gone?" I mean, I don't know what I would do. That's why it was so touching. And Viola’s character, Rose, took Raynell under her wing to take care of her for a reason. Maybe she knew [Troy] was going to pass. But that scene I had to feel like, "Okay. What would you do if your mother is someone that your father only dated and never married, and she passed when she gave birth to you, and your father just died? What would you feel in that process?" And you have to take all of that in because you can't just go up there and shoot a scene, and say, "Okay, he died. Now, what do I do now?" You're going to be stuck in the process, saying, "How am I supposed to find my character?" So that's why you have to do research before anything because you can find this character. You can really dig deeper and say, "Oh, my goodness. I have to relate to something like this."

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HTF: Denzel Washington had appeared in the Broadway revival of Fences, and knows the material back and forth – as does Viola, and several other of the cast members too who appeared on stage with him. When Denzel was directing you, could you sense from him his intimate familiarity with the material? Did that come through on set and through the direction he gave?


“…he told us he wanted us to basically follow in his footsteps. And he was, of course, the best director [laughter].”


Saniyya Sidney: Of course. He's an inspiration. He was so smart, and the way he breaks it down to people is just like, "Man, this dude really knows what he's talking about." The way he gave you stuff, it was just so humble. He said, "God picked you for a reason." And it's funny because whenever he talks, he talks so sternly, but then he smiles after. But the way he talks to you can tell that he knows what he's talking about. He has learned off other actors over the years. And he told us he wanted us to basically follow in his footsteps. And he was, of course, the best director [laughter].

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HTF: Did anybody give you suggestions for movies to watch in order to better appreciate the craft of acting? Or have you just sought out movies to watch that maybe have some of your co-stars in them?

Saniyya Sidney: Yes. Well, there's the time that somebody told me, "You should really see Roots." Because the first time I got the audition for [the remake of Roots], my manager said, "You need to watch this so you can figure out who Kizzy Kinte." So when I watched that, I said, "How awesome and how wonderful, and how tight and how special of a friendship she had with Missy." So when I watched that I thought, "Okay. She has the strength, the mind, and the type of a personality that her dad [Kunta Kinte] would have." That's basically what her dad was, a strong African-American man who looked out for his kids. So to play Kizzy was actually really, really special. So whoever played Missy, I thought, "I have to find this awesome, awesome connection with this person." Now, today Kierra Strauss who played Missy is my best friend. That's why when you find a specific type of character you need to do your research because maybe that can lead you to an awesome friendship.

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HTF: Oh, that's spectacular. So let me ask you. What advice would you give to little girls out there who want to be actresses like you? And because it's so important, what would you say is the thing they most need to know to get it and do right in this business?


“Be yourself, stay humble, and tell yourself in your mind, "No matter people say, no matter what people do, I'm a star inside."”


Saniyya Sidney: They have to have craft. Be yourself, stay humble, and tell yourself in your mind, "No matter people say, no matter what people do, I'm a star inside." Be true to yourself.

HTF: Well, that's wonderful advice. I think you've got a very bright future ahead of you and if people like Denzel Washington have chosen you to work in their films, you've definitely got the spark. All the very best to you.

Saniyya Sidney: You too. Thank you!
 

bujaki

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Oh my goodness, what a lovely young woman! Smart, smart, smart. I was so impressed by her in Fences. May she continue to be mentored by the best and have a long and successful career.
 

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