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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

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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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