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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

(continued from page 2)

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.

"I won't sign pictures and that shit. Just won't do it," he says. Sure, he's now a big deal in the movies, and if people want to view him as a star, that's their business and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. But Fishburne says he refuses to think of himself as a star. He's an actor, an artist, and he believes that for an artist "star trips" are one giant step down the road to ruin. Nor is he about to parade his family life in public, the way some stars do.

In 1985, Fishburne married casting agent Hajna Moss and they had two kids. The marriage didn't last, and today there is no way Fishburne will discuss the subject. He's happy to answer anything about his work, but private matters are strictly that: private. The artistic credo that Fishburne forged in Apocalypse Now clearly serves him well; it's the shockproof, heavy-duty bullshit detector that keeps him on his path. But that same credo can also be something of a curse. For after you've gone to the well in something like Apocalypse Now, what do you do for an encore? Where do you turn, at age 17 or 18, to find that kind of juice? After returning from the Philippines, Fishburne inevitably drifted to Los Angeles, looking for acting jobs. He found work but nothing with the fire of what he'd just come through.

Then, as he struggled to find a new foothold, Fishburne came to a stark realization: his ride into acting had been wild, but his childhood had been cut dramatically short. So he decided to go home to Park Slope, to spend some time cooling down in the old neighborhood with his mother, one of the main anchors in his life. Fishburne describes his mother as a remarkable woman.

By training and profession, Hattie Fishburne was a science teacher, but her first concern was always Laurence, her only child. Laurence was born on July 30, 1961, in Atlanta. Hattie and her husband, Laurence Sr., split up before Laurence Jr. was born. After the birth, Hattie moved to New York to make a new life for her and her son. She found a house and made them a home in Park Slope, a melting-pot immigrant neighborhood that proved to be ideal for the precocious Laurence. To support herself and her child, she taught at a school for Jewish girls and tried to further her career by taking classes at Columbia. Hattie saw talent in her young son and pushed Laurence toward acting. When, at age 14, he lied about his age and conned his way into an audition for Apocalypse Now, and then got the part, who packed their bags and went to the Philippines, to watch over her vulnerable son? Hattie. "I've got to tell you," Fishburne says today, "my mother is very bright. I mean she's got a really, really amazing mind. Now I'm a really smart guy. I'm bright. I know shit from shinola. And all that I get from her."

Fishburne's father has also been a strong presence in his life, though in a very different way. "Here's the thing with Fish," Fishburne says of his father. "He was big. In my mind he was huge. My mom saw something in me, she saw that the whole creative thing was going on. But Fish was the one who took me to the movies. Guy movies. Action movies. He would take me to see Clint Eastwood movies and he took me to a lot of John Wayne movies. They were so cool. And I remember going to see Where Eagles Dare with him and thinking, 'Wow, Richard Burton. That's one bad-ass motherfucker.'"

After spending time in Park Slope, Fishburne did something he had never done before: he lived with his dad for a while. It gave them a chance to reconnect. "It was only for a short time, three months I think," Fishburne says, "but it was good. It was something I needed to do at some period in my life." After the long, unsettling months in the Philippines, hanging out with Dennis Hopper and the gang, Fishburne was now home with his no-nonsense dad.

And Fishburne Sr. knew plenty of ways to make sure that his bad-ass son didn't slip into trouble. "Fish was a corrections officer, in juvenile justice," Fishburne says. "One day, early on, he took a group of inmates to see Cornbread, Earl and Me. Then he calls me up and says, 'The guys in the lockup, they got a message for you. They said you got a real good thing going for yourself. They're real proud of you. And they said if you ever fuck it up and wind up in a lockdown, they'll whip your ass.'"

A little smile plays across Fishburne's face as he recounts the story, and you can see that he loves to make his old man proud. Laurence Sr. imparted something else to his son: a love of good cigars. "My dad was a cigar smoker," Fishburne says. "My relationship with cigars really began with him. Whenever I was out of the country, I'd smuggle a box of Cubans back to my dad. He really liked them." Fishburne started smoking during filming in the Philippines. "I started smoking cigars when I was doing Apocalypse Now," Fishburne says. "We found the craziest cigars out there--'Crooks,' I think they were called. They were three cigars braided together and soaked in rum. You smoked all three of them at the same time. That was my first cigar experience."

From there, Fishburne developed a taste for good cigars. He doesn't smoke cigars every day, but when he does smoke, he prefers maduros and Cohiba Robustos. With cigars, Fishburne finds some of the same things he loves about acting: the sense of tradition, the feeling of camaraderie. "Cigars are about gathering. They're about connecting. And we've gotten too far away from that. We need to reconnect with that kind of spirit and that kind of community." Accordingly, Fishburne belongs to a cigar club in New York: the Grand Havana Room.

There he runs into other actors who share his taste for fine cigars. "Guys like Bill Cosby, guys like Gregory Hines and Dean Stockwell," he says. "These guys have been smoking cigars for 30, 40 years, long before it was the rage. Cigars are not a daily thing with me, though I wish they were. I'm a cigarette smoker right now and I know I can't do that for the rest of my life. So I'd like to be able to wean myself off cigarettes and move into cigars, take my tobacco that way. That would be a wise and healthy feeling."

In the early 1980s, Fishburne went back on the hunt, looking for acting jobs that paid the bills and fit his credo. The man he gravitated to, of course, was Francis Coppola. The result was three more roles in Coppola pictures: Rumble Fish in 1983, Cotton Club in 1984 and Gardens of Stone in 1987. These, too, were the years when Fishburne was getting married and becoming a father; one can imagine that the balancing act was anything but simple. Fishburne's talent came into full flower in the 1990s.

He feels the breakthrough film was the 1990 violence-drenched crime thriller King of New York, in which he played a whacko hit man named Jimmy Jump, opposite Christopher Walken. Fishburne had been coming out of a period of volcanic anger in his work and in his private life, and he feels he was able to project that into the role and clear it from his system. As he puts it, "I just got rid of a lot of shit that I don't have to carry around with me anymore." The upshot of that cleansing was evident in his next big role, the one that proclaimed Fishburne to be an actor of the highest caliber: Boyz N the Hood. In director John Singleton's powerful portrayal of life and death in south-central Los Angeles, Fishburne gave a riveting performance as Furious Styles, the only father in the 'hood with the brass and the clarity to keep his son, Tre, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., from winding up like several of his pals: in jail or dead. In Tre's eyes, Furious is huge. He's a towering, archetypal father figure who is warm and understanding or tough and unbending when need be. Fishburne obviously didn't have to look far to find a model from whom to draw.

From Boyz N the Hood, Fishburne's career began to soar; he was now an artist with his wings fully spread. He brought home a string of acclaimed performances: As a wily undercover narcotics agent in Deep Cover (1992). As a street-wise chess hustler and mentor in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). As the searing, coke-snorting, wife-beating pop music star Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It (1993). That portrayal won him an Oscar nomination. He also did a rare turn on television, in a 1993 episode of "Tribeca," a short-lived series produced by Robert De Niro. That performance earned him an Emmy. In this same period, Fishburne was still sharpening his tools on the stage. In 1992, he took Broadway by storm with his portrayal of Sterling Johnson in playwright August Wilson's Two Trains Running. That earned Fishburne a Tony and a slew of other awards. "The theater, man, you do it every night, whether you feel like it or not," Fishburne says. "You don't even realize it, but every night you're just out there building that muscle." Building muscle, sharpening his tools, always looking for new creative juice--Fishburne's essential quest had not changed from the days of Apocalypse Now. And therein hides what can be a curse: You always want more. You always want to go deeper. You always want to keep on growing. And that can lead to mountains of frustration. When he was portraying Vinnie, the chess hustler in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fishburne wanted to go deeper.

He wanted to inject Vinnie with a kinky little twist. The powers that be said no. When he was playing Tanny Brown, the wicked cop in the thriller Just Cause, opposite Sean Connery, again Fishburne wanted more, he wanted to go deeper, add a few twists of his own. In essence he wanted a taste of the same freedom he had been given by Coppola almost two decades before. The director told him no.

Out of raw frustration, Fishburne took out his pen and began to write. "I started writing at night, late at night, just in a journal, and one night I started writing and I said, 'Shit, I know what that is; that's a scene.' So I just kept writing. And then I was doing it on the set. I would go and work and do a scene and then I'd go back and write." It was all flowing out of him, right into a pile of notebooks, but Fishburne had his doubts. He wasn't a trained writer. So he called his buddy August Wilson, the playwright, asking him, What should I do, man? Find myself a writing coach? "'Nah,' Wilson said. 'You don't need any of that. What you need is fearlessness. Just keep writing and you'll be fine,'" Fishburne recalls. "And that was great, you know. It was like I was the plant and he just got in there and pruned me and offered me sunshine." The result was Riff Raff, a one-act play that Fishburne wrote, directed and starred in. The play opened in Los Angeles in 1994 and then ran off-Broadway in New York. On one level, the story was about a drug heist gone bad. On another, it was about the poisons that eat away at family, brotherhood and community. The response to the play was very strong and Fishburne was hooked. He began thinking of turning Riff Raff into a screenplay, but that would have to wait. A year later, Fishburne landed the lead in the film version of Shakespeare's Othello.

Fishburne was the first African-American actor to play the brooding Moor on screen. (He once jokingly referred to himself as "the Jackie Robinson of Shakespeare.") For Fishburne, however, this was rugged new territory, his first classic role. How would Fishburne handle the Bard, where every word is carved in stone and steeped in tradition? And how would he fare against the great Shakespeare aficionado Kenneth Branagh (who played the villainous Iago in the film)? No problem. "Shakespeare? Baddest shit that's ever been written in the English language," Fishburne says. "You can't argue with that shit, you know what I'm saying? Sometimes you're in situations where you get the freedom, and it's like, 'OK, baby, can you fly?' Then sometimes you get the other thing, and everything is really well thought out ahead of time. Then you don't rely so much on the moment of spontaneity, the moment of combustion. There's structure to it. There are rules. It's like the blues.

Shakespeare's like that. But it doesn't make it any less beautiful." After Othello, Fishburne decided to try his hand at producing. In 1997, he produced and starred as Caleb Humphries in the HBO movie Miss Evers' Boys, based on the true story of the infamous Tuskegee study. That was the misbegotten health experiment in which the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld treatment from a group of African-American men with syphilis, in order to document the course of the disease. The TV special won five Emmys, a Golden Globe and three Image Awards. That year, Fishburne and his production partner, Helen Sugland, helped produce Hoodlum, a Prohibition-era drama in which Fishburne played legendary Harlem gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. In the spring of 1999, Fishburne had a worldwide megahit, one that catapulted him to another level of critical success and public exposure: The Matrix.

In the film, which also stars Keanu Reeves, Fishburne plays a charismatic, ethereal cyber-warrior named Morpheus. Fishburne loved the role and the intelligence of the script. "I think this is one the smartest films of our times; it's years in front of its time," Fishburne says. The story takes place sometime in the near future and its premise is chilling: reality as we perceive it is nothing more than an intricate facade, fashioned by a virulent, mysterious cyber-intelligence known only as the Matrix. Morpheus and a computer hacker named Neo, played by Reeves, lead a small band of rebels determined to stop the Matrix. The film, which drew some of its inspiration from animated Japanese warriors, proved so successful worldwide that a prequel and sequel are now in the works. "Andy and Larry Wachowski, the two brothers who made the film--now they are simply amazing young guys," Fishburne says. "They sit there and bat these ideas between them and come up with absolutely awesome stuff. Many times when we were making the movie, we just sat back and said, 'Wow.' There's an intelligence in this movie, a vision, at a level you rarely find in Hollywood." In 1999 Fishburne was also back on Broadway, playing Henry II of England in a revival of The Lion in Winter.

The play was not a critical success, but it did cement Fishburne's credentials as an actor of enormous power, presence and growing range. Although New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wasn't thrilled by the revival, he praised Fishburne's "formidable centeredness" and said he "looks every inch a king." The king is about to burst forth with something new: Once in the Life, the movie version of his one-act play, Riff Raff. The film, a low-budget production shot in New York, features Fishburne and his pal Titus Welliver reprising their stage roles. This will be Fishburne's debut as a screenwriter and director, but clearly this could be the beginning of a new creative thrust. "I loved the directing thing," Fishburne says. "And I realized something. I realized how dangerous it is to be an actor. I never really got that before." Fishburne is winding down; he's covered a lot of ground in this conversation. There was, however, was one last question to pose: As a director, which model did he choose? The road map? Or the wings? Fishburne lets out a long, deep laugh. "Wings, baby, wings! My script, it's the blueprint. It's the skeleton and we're here to flesh it out. So if it ain't coming off your tongue right, rewrite it. Make it yours. And really play with it, because it's not about my ideas being any better than anybody else's. It's just about creating an environment in which we can all create together and do our thing." Well said, sir. Francis Coppola would be proud. Paul

Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gerard Depardieu and coauthor of Harvest of Joy, the autobiography of Robert Mondavi.

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