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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

(continued from page 6)

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.”


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