Fishburne Reloaded

Laurence Fishburne has been on camera since he was a boy. Now the man from the Matrix is playing Superman’s boss and taking on Hannibal Lecter

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Adds Singleton, “Fish is a self-made actor who didn’t have any formal training. But he’s always challenged himself to go further. Anything he does, he just gives it a voice of authority. People take something seriously if they know he’s involved. When he joined the cast of ‘CSI,’ people’s ears perked up.”
It’s been more than 40 years since the 10-year-old Fishburne started auditioning for—and winning—movie and TV roles. It has been a rollercoaster career, one that began with roles on a TV soap opera (“One Life to Live”) and a starring role in a 1975 film, Cornbread, Earl and Me, opposite UCLA basketball star Jamaal (then Keith) Wilkes. Early success can lead to early disappointment, something that Fishburne experienced in spectacular fashion when he was cast in one of the biggest films of the 1970s, Apocalypse Now. The film was Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie after The Godfather, Part II, and adapted Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War. Coppola famously went far over schedule and over budget, shooting in the Philippines for two years, mortgaging much of his personal fortune to finish the film.
Fishburne had auditioned to play one of the crew of the boat that took Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) up the river in search of the renegade Col. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. The character was meant to be 17; Fishburne told Coppola he was 16 when he auditioned. In fact, he was 14.
“I don’t think anyone was fooled,” he recalls with a chuckle. But he still got the part.
Accompanied by his mother, Fishburne spent the next two years filming in the Philippines with Coppola. Actors were fired and hired, weather destroyed sets, money ran out—but Fishburne just kept working, happily, watched over by his mother. “She had some stage mother to her,” Fishburne says with a laugh. “And I couldn’t have gone without her. I don’t know many mothers who would do that. I’m grateful she did, that she recognized the opportunity for what it was. We made the best of an unpredictable situation. And we had fun.”
Though the film was a hit—and is ranked in the Top 100 films of all time by the American Film Institute—it received mixed reviews when it opened. While it was a box-office success, it was not a blockbuster in the way The Godfather films had been.
“That movie is an American masterpiece—but that’s not how it was received when it came out in 1979,” Fishburne says. “I remember being disappointed that people didn’t get it at the time. I was aware that it wasn’t a hit, that it wasn’t doing the kind of business that Godfather had done. It was just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War and that was too close. It was a very divisive war.
“Out of the whole experience, what I learned is that sometimes you get disappointed in life. You’ve got to figure it out and get over it, then move on. It’s not the disappointment that matters; it’s how you deal with it. As it is, I think of that movie as a kind of home movie. That movie is like my high-school yearbook.”
Singleton puts it another way: “He told me one time that he went into the jungle a boy, but he came out a man.”
Still a teenager when Apocalypse Now was released, Fishburne focused on acting, working through his 20s in TV and films. He made three more films with Coppola in the 1980s: The Cotton Club, Rumble Fish and Gardens of Stone.
“Francis was my godfather, for certain—like an uncle or a father figure,” Fishburne says. “That experience—me working with him on that movie and three more—he’s the reason I turned out to be the kind of actor I am.”
Fishburne really hit his stride around the time he turned 30. Roles in Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) led to a crucial role in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood. Playing the stern but patient father of a teen, portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr., in a troubled South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, Fishburne tapped into his inner authority figure. It changed his career.
“I had expectations at 18 and 19 that were completely unrealistic,” Fishburne recalls. “So by the time I was 30, I had left those behind. That period—my 20s—helped me gain a considerable amount of humility. They say it takes 10 years to make an actor and, by the time I was 20, I’d been acting for 10 years. But there weren’t that many roles for people of color that were front and center. So, in my 20s, like most young people, I was aggressively trying to create myself and define myself.
“By the time I was 30, I’d been an actor for 20 years, which sort of gave me an edge. I had a perspective that was very helpful to me. It wasn’t until 30 that I became a name. I got a Tony Award when I was 30 (for August Wilson’s Two Trains Running) and Oscar nomination at 32 (for playing Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It). And I won two Emmy Awards around the same time. Things changed. There were more roles for people of color, roles that were more than cardboard cutouts in the background, relegated to fourth or fifth banana in the story.”
Singleton remembers meeting Fishburne when the actor was playing Cowboy Curtis on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and Singleton was a college student working as a security guard/production assistant.
“I was in awe of him,” Singleton recalled. “I told him my story: how I was going to film school and was going to write a movie. He said, ‘How old are you?’ I told him I was 19, and he smiled and said, ‘Go ahead, brother.’ Three years later I sent him the script for Boyz. I wrote the role for him. And he did the film.
“He was the anchor of that film. What’s interesting is that, when we did it, he was, like, 28. He was playing Cuba’s father—and Cuba was 22. I mean, I was 22 when I made that and the rest of the cast was younger than me. And he was very generous to me and to that young cast.”
Says Fishburne, “The message of Boyz was powerful and, for whatever reason, that performance affected people. That was important to my career, both artistically and commercially.”
That film led Fishburne to a run of leading roles, including becoming the first African-American actor to play the title role of Othello in a feature film of the Shakespearean tragedy. He ended the decade by costarring in what became one of the most successful, and influential films, of the time: The Matrix, followed by its two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, which combined for more than $1.6 billion worldwide at the box office.
While he was making the first of that trilogy, Fishburne had no sense of how deeply The Matrix would embed itself into popular culture.
“I knew it would be great,” he says. “But I didn’t know if anybody would watch it. I knew we were making something amazing. But how people would respond to it was something else.”
Observes Singleton, “He was The Man in that movie—the baddest dude around. Here was this multiethnic sci-fi world that became this huge pop-culture phenomenon. And Fish was a huge part of that.”
Snyder adds, “He’s like the ultimate Yoda in those movies—that take on the teacher/guru/father figure is so amazing. But he is a living, breathing Yoda. He’s kind and cool and wants to be in good work. When it’s time to work, he gets to work. But he’s also fun to be around.”
Fishburne has had no shortage of roles since the turn of the century, working steadily on the Matrix films, “CSI” and a one-man show, Thurgood. The play is based on the life of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the Court, as well as the attorney who argued (and won) Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ended state-supported school segregation. Thurgood earned him his second Tony Award; he played it on Broadway for four months, as well as taking it on the road. He also received an Emmy nomination for a filmed version that aired on HBO.
He remembers specifically the 2010 performance in Washington, D.C., when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in attendance: “That was the thrill of a lifetime—to perform for President Obama and the First Lady. It’s command-performance time. I have no words to describe how proud and humble I was,” Fishburne says.
“Apparently, many White House staffers had come to see the show, although I wasn’t aware of it until the president came. The first thing he told me backstage was, ‘You’re the talk of the East Wing. We came because so many people on our staff have seen it and insisted that we do.’ ”
While he was pleased to play the first black justice before the first black president, Fishburne apparently didn’t get the chance to perform for the Supreme Court’s second black justice. To Fishburne’s knowledge, Justice Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall on the Supreme Court, never came to see Thurgood.
“I went to the Supreme Court and watched him work, but he never returned the favor,” Fishburne says with a laugh.
If performing for the Obamas was exciting, Fishburne says, he was even more satisfied with the response from Marshall’s family. “The most gratifying thing has been how much his family enjoyed it,” he says. “His wife, his sons and their children were all in attendance many times. I heard from people who clerked for Justice Marshall. His widow came and sat front row center with her girlfriends, all wearing their best clothes, on her birthday. It was extraordinary.
“I’m not done with it, not by a long shot. I’d love to go back to D.C. and do an extended run. Look at Hal Holbrook; he’s still out there doing Mark Twain. I’ll be doing Thurgood as long as I’m able to.”
With more than four decades of experience, Fishburne says the satisfaction he gets from acting “has only gotten better. The satisfaction from creativity is very rewarding.”
There’s also the fulfillment of becoming a father again in his 40s. Now 51, he and Torres have a daughter, Delilah, who will be 6 in June. (Fishburne has two grown children from his first marriage.)
“Being a mature father, as it were, is much better,” he says. “I feel like I have the resources to provide for my children and family at this point. I’m not scared or worried about that. I’m just more confident; I’ve been a dad for a long time. Every kid is different; it’s about recognizing who they are. I’m a lot more patient with myself, so I can be more patient with her.”
Meanwhile, Fishburne will wait to see how far “Hannibal” can go, to see if there’s further life to be had as Perry White, to continue to embody Thurgood Marshall on the theatrical stage—in other words, to keep working as an actor. That, Fishburne says, is always the goal.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity or a movie star—I think of myself as an artist,” Fishburne says, studying his cigar, just before he’s ready to head out into a late-winter New York afternoon. “My artistic discipline is my acting. That may make me sound like I take myself too seriously, but I don’t, as you can see from my fanciful clown outfit,” he says, indicating his baggy suit.
“People make the mistake of thinking that what I do is who I am,” he says. “Hopefully that’s because I do what I do successfully.”
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