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Laurence Fishburne: Flying Fish

Actor, writer and now director, Laurence Fishburne is in full artistic soar.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

Laurence Fishburne is growing impatient. For more than half an hour, on this gorgeous morning in Manhattan, he's been drinking coffee, eating chicken sandwiches and talking. Talking about his parents. About his boyhood in Brooklyn. About his recent work in The Matrix and about his latest creative charge: writing and directing.

This is all important, fascinating ground, and Fishburne is happy to go over it. But it's not enough. Fishburne, as one can tell from his work, is a man who demands precision. Sharp edges. Clarity. He wants to go deeper, he wants to cut through all the externals and go straight to the core.

So now, leaning forward, eyes blazing, Fishburne reaches out and touches it, he places the tip of his finger on the exact spot where his life, his work, his entire being snapped into focus: It was on that boat, that battered little gunboat, edging its way upriver, edging deeper and deeper into the wilds of Vietnam, edging closer and closer to that murderous rendezvous with the man named Kurtz. It was more than 20 years ago, but for Fishburne everything from that boat remains vivid and huge, painted in bold, primeval colors that will never fade or lose their magic: Brando. Martin Sheen. Robert Duvall. Dennis Hopper. Sam Bottoms. Frederic Forrest. Francis Ford Coppola. Apocalypse Now. In Fishburne's mind, they're all still there together, on the boat or on the set: his comrades and mentors, taking in hand a raw, gawky 16-year-old kid and passing him the flame.

"For me, this was the moment, the artist-is-born moment," Fishburne says, his eyes glowing in their sockets. "I'm 16, I'm on that boat, and we're making Heart of Darkness." Fishburne pauses and sips his coffee. Outside is the clamor of Manhattan; inside he's back in the Philippines, on that wild, two-year, go-for-broke shoot that is now an enduring part of cinema legend. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Fishburne was by no means a newcomer to acting.

At the age of 10, when he was growing up in the corner of Brooklyn known as Park Slope, Fishburne made his debut on the New York stage. A year later, he was a popular regular on the ABC soap opera "One Life To Live." And at 14, when his buddies in Park Slope were starting to leer at girls and inspect their first whiskers in front of the mirror, Fishburne was landing his first big movie role. That was as Wilford Robinson, a sensitive youth who watches his basketball-playing hero get murdered, in the 1975 film Cornbread, Earl and Me. For an emerging young talent like Fishburne, all this was exceptional experience. But none of it was adequate preparation for what Coppola would put him through.

Many writers dream of writing The Great American Novel; after making The Godfather, Coppola wanted to write and make The Great American Movie. Apocalypse Now was to be it. On one level, the film was to be an excoriating statement about the madness of America's war in Vietnam. On a deeper level, this was to be Coppola's own personal rendering of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's masterful unmasking of man's hidden capacities for evil and horror. Coppola wasn't after soap opera; he demanded high art. And damn the cost, damn whatever toll it would take on himself and everyone else, Francis Coppola would settle for nothing less than a masterpiece. Where was Fishburne in all this? On that boat, caught in the vortex of this giant swirl of talent and ambition. Fishburne found it daunting, of course, as anyone would, no matter what his age. But the young actor developed an effective strategy for getting past his monumental doubts and fears. "Here I am, surrounded by these amazing guys, and they're making me responsible for my crap," Fishburne says today. "And I'm thinking, 'Wow, if these cats were artists, and if they were making The Great American Movie, and if I was hanging out with these cats, then I could be like them. They had honored me with a place at their table; I was an element in their painting, so I must be one of them.' And so I decided that I would act that way. Then and there I made up my mind: acting, I would take it seriously."

Fishburne's role was not small. He played "Clean," a raw, freaked-out young Navy gunner on the boat. To learn the ropes, to understand what Coppola was demanding, Fishburne diligently studied Martin Sheen, who was playing the central role of Capt. Benjamin Willard, the assassin with orders to eliminate Walter E. Kurtz, the renegade U.S. colonel played by Marlon Brando. But even watching and working with Sheen, a seasoned pro, was not enough. Because Coppola gave all his actors something exceptional: almost total artistic freedom--and that shook young Fishburne right to the marrow. "We had a script and everything, but the dialogue, what we did on the boat, that was up to us to create," Fishburne says. "Francis would say, 'The scene starts here and the scene ends here. This is basically what you're doing. How you get there, that's up to you.'" In Fishburne's mind, Coppola was essentially saying: OK, go. Do what it takes. Improvise. Create. Spread your wings and fly, baby. But beware: you won't be getting any parachute from me. What, ultimately, did Coppola want from his actors? Fisburne is clear: "A moment of combustion."

Week after week, month after month, Coppola's approach kept young Fishburne on the razor's edge, balanced precariously between a sense of power and a sense of terror. "He gave us the window to create, but it was also really scary," Fishburne says. "Because you are responsible. Francis's message was clear: 'I'm not telling you what to say. I'm not putting words in your mouth. I'm not putting thoughts in your head. So if the shit comes out and it's fucked up, that's on you.'" Fishburne never went to acting school; this was his acting school. This was where he forged his skills; this was where he forged his mindset and his artistic credo. These came in part from the great actors around him but also from watching many of the people Coppola had recruited for his production team.

People like the legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. "I'd be sitting there watching Vittorio do his thing," Fishburne recalls, "and often Vittorio would turn to Francis and say, 'I wonder, you know, if it would be possible for us to wait two weeks for this shot, to get the right light?' Two weeks! And Francis would go, 'OK, maestro, if that's what we have to do, that's what we have to do.'" The mindset and artistic credo that Fishburne absorbed on the set of Apocalypse Now were clear and cast in stone, even though they usually went unspoken. With a rush of anecdotes about his heroes and mentors, Fishburne distills the essence of that credo: Filmmaking and acting, in their highest expressions, are not about star status or box-office grosses or the money or the prizes. They are art forms. And artists--the true artists, not the poseurs-- answer to a different call.

They carry inside them a different flame. When the camera rolls, they do whatever it takes, they go to the bottom of their innards, they bring it all up and then they lay it all bare for the world to see. True artists do it for the challenge, for the pure joy of working with other artists and from bringing out their best. And they do it for one thing more: the enduring sense of pride they derive from knowing they got it exactly right. The two years with Coppola and his team were a defining, transformative experience for Fishburne, and they've left a lasting imprint. Looking at him today, through the clarifying lens of Apocalypse Now, several facets of the man come into focus. Fishburne is a big man, powerfully built, and on close inspection you see that everything about him is stripped to the essentials: blue jeans, no belt. Black T-shirt, no pocket. Look him up and down and you see no rings, no chains, no hint of artifice or pretense. Some core part of him seems to be saying, World, this is it, the unvarnished me. Take it or leave it. "Star" is a word that Fishburne loathes.

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