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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
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

Laurence Fishburne kicks back in a plush leather chair in Manhattan’s Grand Havana Room, overlooking a northward view of the city encompassing Central Park and the Upper East Side. He lights a Cuban Quai d’Orsay (“A nice little Churchill,” he says with satisfaction) and surveys his surroundings like visiting royalty, though it’s really just one stop in a busy day. He’s wearing an unstructured suit from Moshood (“Stevie Wonder wears their clothes, too,” Fishburne notes), an Afrocentric boutique in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Loose-fitting, rough-woven and comfortable-looking, it’s an eye-catching ivory with pinstripes in crimson and black crisscrossing to make a subtle windowpane plaid.

At the moment, Fishburne is that happiest of all thespians: a working actor. And not just working, but working every day, thanks to the rigors of a new TV series, “Hannibal,” which joined NBC’s primetime lineup in April.

Oh, and he’s got a movie coming out in June, a little something you may have heard of called Man of Steel. He’s playing Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, where Clark Kent (a.k.a. Superman) works as a reporter. Fishburne is more than pleased to be part of what he and Warner Bros. hopes will be the first of a new series of Superman movies, kicked off by this summer’s relaunch. He’s got the fervor of a true fan.

“I’m a comic collector,” Fishburne says. “I’ve got over 10,000 comics. I was mostly a Marvel guy growing up. But after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books, you can’t ignore the Bat. And you can’t ignore Superman either.”

Man of Steel stars British newcomer Henry Cavill as Superman, with an all-star cast that also includes Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane and Amy Adams. “It’s an incredibly gifted cast,” Fishburne says. He also has high praise for the film’s director, Zack Snyder, the man behind the blockbuster hit 300 and Watchmen.

“Did you see his film Sucker Punch?” Fishburne says. “It was so awesome. A lot of people didn’t get it, but I loved that film.”
For his part, Snyder was excited to meet Fishburne, remembering the 1979 Christmas treat his father gave him: taking him to see Apocalypse Now on Christmas morning.

“He’s amazing to work with,” Snyder says. “I can’t say enough awesome things about him. When you meet an actor that you admire, there’s always that level of tension, like, will he be what I thought or will it be an illusion created by a role? But the meeting was better than I hoped. He’s incredibly collaborative and smart. He’s the professional’s professional on the set—but he also has fun with it.”

The Superman story has been transplanted from comic books to movie and television screens practically since the first Superman comic appeared in 1938. George Reeves wore the cape in the 1950s TV series, then Christopher Reeve embodied the transplant from the planet Krypton in the big-budget films of the 1970s and 1980s. But none of the subsequent Superman efforts, especially 2006’s Superman Returns, have caught on with the type of impact delivered by films built around Batman and Spider-Man.

Man of Steel, Fishburne notes, offers a script and story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, who combined for the Batman trilogy that concluded last year with The Dark Knight Rises. Fishburne expects their effort to resonate with fans. “It’s their treatment of this material. It will be quite different from that last one. It’s a combination of the Superman origin story and the plot of the Richard Donner Superman [from 1978].”

Snyder cast Fishburne because “he has that cool guru quality. For Perry White I wanted, not necessarily a father figure, but someone who, when he told you something, that was it. And that’s what Laurence is all about.”

Fishburne’s Perry White is “full of dimension, and not just barking at Lois Lane,” Snyder says. “He’s definitely a leader, he’s physical. It’s a cool evolution.” Notes Fishburne’s friend, filmmaker John Singleton, “Fish is a real geek. I think that, privately, he really loves playing Perry White.”

As a collector, Fishburne is a connoisseur of comic-book movies. Even as he’s hopeful as an actor that Man of Steel will spawn sequels, he’s eager—as a fan—for a movie about the Justice League of America, the superhero team that includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a host of other heroes. Imagine the Justice League as the DC Comics answer to Marvel’s The Avengers, the movie about Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and other heroes that ranks as one of the top grossers of all time.

“They’d do well to make a Justice League movie,” says Fishburne. “The Avengers was really good. I liked it better than all the movies that were leading up to it. The first Iron Man I really liked; Thor I wish I liked more.”

Though he obviously fits the demographic, Fishburne has never made a trek to Comic-Con, the annual gathering in San Diego that’s like Mecca for fans of fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror and comic books. Even before he was cast as Perry White, Fishburne was a legend among the sci-fi cognoscenti, having played the essential character Morpheus in The Matrix trilogy. He wouldn’t get 10 feet on the convention-hall floor without being mobbed.

“I can’t go and just walk around, I’m afraid,” he says, sounding a bit wistful. “I have yet to go to Comic-Con, though I’m sure that, in the future, there will be a moment in time when I would go as the guy who played Morpheus.”

Though he’s been working in Toronto, Fishburne is in Manhattan to check in on his ailing father. He keeps a place in New York and is a member of the Grand Havana Room, where cigars are always welcome.

“I recently put down cigarettes,” Fishburne says, “so I’m smoking more cigars. My go-to cigar is probably any kind of maduro. I like a dark, rich, sweet, mature cigar. I can’t rattle off the names of brands I like. I do like that in Toronto I can get Cubans without having to go through ‘channels.’

“It’s very easy to smoke a cigar every day. When I said that to my doctor, he frowned. But my wife and my daughter don’t give me a hard time. I take the cigars outside.”

The Brooklyn native has lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, but now spends most of his time in Toronto, where he’s been living with his wife, actress Gina Torres, and their young daughter since he finished his run on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” in 2011.  The same year, Torres started production in Toronto on her USA Network series, “Suits,” which recently finished airing its third season.

As Torres finished production of the latest season of her show, Fishburne began shooting his new one: “Hannibal,” a new crime thriller for NBC, which debuted April 4. The series is a prequel to the Hannibal Lecter story, which began with Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon. In that book Lecter, an imprisoned psychiatrist known as “Hannibal the Cannibal” for killing and eating several victims, played a large role in support of an FBI criminal profiler named Will Graham, who had come out of retirement to help find a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. One of the reasons for Graham’s retirement? Just before he captured Lecter, he was nearly killed by the cannibal psychiatrist.

The new TV series starts before Lecter has been identified as a serial killer. In the show a young Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) is hired by the FBI due to his talents as a criminal profiler. But his new boss, Jack Crawford—played by Fishburne—has his doubts, worrying that Graham will need therapy to maintain his equilibrium given the intense nature of the work. So he hires a psychiatrist to help him—Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen.

“My character heads the Behavioral Science section of the FBI who recruits Graham, because he has this incredible empathy,” Fishburne says. “He’s been recruited to catch serial killers because he can enter the emotional state of the killer. He can enter their minds; that’s not a healthy thing to do. That makes him fragile—so my character enlists Lecter to counsel him, to be his therapist.

“It’s actually very clever. You watch these three guys playing mind games. There are some horrifying images along the way, not all of them produced by Lecter. It’s quite smart—very interesting. It’s not a procedural —it’s very much character-driven.”
Bryan Fuller, executive producer of “Hannibal,” says, “We were talking about who could play Jack Crawford. When Laurence’s name came up, I wondered if we even dared to dream that we could get him. He’s an iconic actor; you look at his résumé and there’s one classic, distinctive film after another. And yet he’ll do something quirky like play Cowboy Curtis on ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’ After the mere mention of his name, we couldn’t think of anyone else being that character.”

The Hannibal Lecter novels have all been adapted as films; the first one, Red Dragon, was made by Michael Mann as Manhunter in 1986, then as Red Dragon by Brett Ratner in 2002. Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, was made in 2001 and Hannibal Rising followed in 2007. The most successful of all the film adaptations, The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards in 1992, winning Oscars for best picture, director, adapted screenplay, actor and actress.

So Fishburne is taking TV viewers into a familiar world, filled with characters that previously have been played by other actors. Will Graham was played by William Petersen in Manhunter and Edward Norton in Red Dragon, prior to Dancy’s characterization on the TV series. Jack Crawford has been played by Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel in various films. The connection to Glenn, with whom Fishburne worked as a teenager in Apocalypse Now, was particularly meaningful.

“I was talking to him about what we wanted to do, beyond what you normally see with this role in this kind of crime story,” Fuller says. “We started talking about Scott Glenn. Laurence is a great raconteur telling stories about his career. He started telling me about working with Scott and how he looked on him as one of his ‘uncles’ on Apocalypse Now. His love of Scott and his affection for him was one of the things that impressed me, along with his passion for playing a role one of his ‘uncles’ had played. He wanted to make it his own and yet still honor what Scott—and Harvey and Dennis—had done.”

The continuing public appetite for Harris’ characters—especially Hannibal Lecter—is a cultural phenomenon that never seems to diminish. What is it about Hannibal Lecter in particular, and serial killers in general, that seems to appeal to the darker instincts of an audience?

“Everybody’s dirty little secret is that we all, at some moment, fantasize about killing someone else,” Fishburne says. “So Hannibal is the living embodiment of that fantasy. But it’s meant as purely fantasy.

“Look at a show like ‘Dexter.’ I’m a huge ‘Dexter’ fan. Obviously, his being a serial killer is a metaphor for being different. But I wonder what it says that we’ve got this serial killer as our hero.”

Fishburne can even tease out a connection between the world of Hannibal Lecter and that of “CSI,” one of television’s most popular long-running shows.

“Billy Petersen [who played Gil Grissom for almost 200 episodes of “CSI”] played Will Graham in Manhunter—and without that performance, I don’t think there would have been ‘CSI’ as we knew it,” says Fishburne. “That character was the prototype for what would become Grissom.” And, of course, Fishburne, who is playing Will Graham’s mentor in “Hannibal,” replaced Petersen in “CSI” as Dr. Raymond Langston, an experience Fishburne says convinced him that a role in a quality TV series may be the best gig around.

“First of all, ‘CSI’ was incredibly convenient—five minutes from my house,” he says. “And I got there nine seasons in, after all the heavy lifting had been done. They’d worked hard and built this well-oiled machine. All I had to do was enter and sit where the foundation had been laid. The best way for me to service the show was to fill the space. Because Billy was leaving a big hole.”

So Fishburne is happy to return to the demands of a weekly hour-long crime drama. After three seasons on “CSI,” Fishburne sees TV as the kind of job actors like best: one that requires them to be at the top of their craft on a daily basis. “TV gives me the opportunity to work every day,” Fishburne says with barely contained joy. “There’s an immediacy with television. You don’t have to wait for it. I shot the Superman movie in, what, 2011? And it’s not out yet.

“I just enjoy acting. I don’t make a distinction between TV and film and theater. I enjoy them all. Really, the most interesting things being made, aside from documentaries, is the TV that’s being done on cable. It’s more interesting, really, than mainstream movies. Everything is remakes and sequels and tentpoles. And now reboots. And zombie movies.”

Notes Fuller, “He’s such a smart actor. He’s that guy who’s always thinking about where his character is at any given moment in that world. He’s a storyteller as a human being; so he’s an intuitive actor who is aware of the story being told.”

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.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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