A decade passed between U.S. Supreme Court oral-argument questions from Clarence Thomas. The streak — February 2006 to February 2016 — made him all the more interesting to New Orleans’ Wendell Pierce, who portrays Thomas in the HBO movie “Confirmation,” debuting at 7 p.m. April 16.
“He’s a fascinating man,” Pierce said. “We are from two different worlds, and different (political) opinions, but playing the role, it made me realize that even in this sort of polarized, partisan world that we live in, we have so much more in common. I’ve found a lot of the humanity, which makes me even more curious about his opinions.”
Pierce plays Thomas to Kerry Washington’s Anita Hill in the film, which also stars Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time hearings to confirm Thomas to the court became a national forum on sexual harassment in the workplace. Hill alleged that Thomas made comments of a sexual nature to her during earlier legal postings they’d shared.
The film is set in that confirmation caldron, and despite the fact that Thomas was eventually elevated to the court, its cast believes that the dialog about its issues begun in 1991 continues today.
“One of the goals, quite honestly, in making this film was to continue the conversation,” Washington said. “Because one of the most important things that happened as a result of these hearings was that it changed not just the national but the global conversation, and that is an outcome that we all felt was really important, and we wanted to make sure that that conversation continues, because some of those issues have evolved enormously.”
The cast was required to undergo workplace sexual-harassment orientation before filming began, “which was a little bit surreal,” Washington said.
“And yet some of the issues are still rearing their head in terms of gender and in terms of race and how we understand those things,” she continued. “So I think, really, the outcome of what happened was that the conversation began, and we want to make sure that that conversation continues.”
A film like “Confirmation” is “where we have a conversation as a society,” Pierce said. “As viewers of the film, to say, ‘What are our values? What do we consider important? And how are we going to act on those?’”
Pierce, who cowrote his 2015 memoir “The Wind in the Reeds” with conservative Louisiana author and commentator Rod Dreher — an eye-opening experience for both, they’ve both said — tried to approach playing Thomas with an open mind.
“As an actor, you’re always searching for the humanity of the character,” Pierce said. “I hope people don’t prejudge the film because of his reputation. But I had to check my own prejudice about who I thought he was, and then had this wonderful epiphany studying the man and realizing how much we had in common — his family coming from Pin Point, Georgia, my family from Assumption Parish in Louisiana.
“My grandfather had a saying. ‘Can’t die three days before the creation of the world, so don’t ever tell me you can’t do anything.’ His grandfather said, ‘Can’t is already dead. I helped to bury him.’ And his grandfather was someone who is a hero of his. And as I studied his life, I realized how much we had in common, and I realized that the only way that I was going to be able to play the man was to be authentic and true to his humanity and his experience.
“The situation just gives you a wealth of things to play. ‘What did I do? Do I even remember it? At the pinnacle of my career, something comes from my past that challenges it.’ And so that is something that we all can understand and put ourselves into. And so those are the variables that an actor deals with when playing the role.
“I didn’t think of him as a political figure. I thought of him as a man about to lose the greatest opportunity he ever had.”