Great Conversations: Laurence Fishburne

I interviewed actor Laurence Fishburne in April, 2006 for Venice Magazine. "Fish," as his friends call him, was exhausted, having been pulling promotional duties for the film "Akeelah and the Bee" non-stop for the previous three days. Originally intended to be a career-encompassing interview, Fishburne asked if we could cut it short. Sympathetic, as I'd been burning the candle at both ends, as well, I happily agreed. We headed down to the valet together. He clapped my shoulder gently, saying "Thanks for being a real person. We'll meet again." I'm sure one day, we will.


Laurence Fishburne cut his acting teeth under the guise of Francis Coppola, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando from 1976-78 during the now-legendary shoot for the equally-mythic Apocalypse Now (1979). Although already a seasoned actor at age 14 when he was cast in Coppola's surreal Vietnam war epic, young "Larry" (as he was billed then) Fishburne went on location to the jungles of the Philippines a boy, and returned both a man, and one of our finest actors. He hasn't stopped working since.

Born in Augusta, Georgia July 30, 1961, Fishburne ("Fish" to his friends and colleagues) was raised in New York City, the son of a city corrections officer and a teacher. After being cast in the daytime soap One Life to Live for a three year stint beginning when he was 12, Fishburne made his feature debut in the urban drama Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975). Sixty-five features and telefilms later, Fishburne now boasts credits as actor, producer, writer and director. Just a few of his noteworthy credits over 30+ years include The Color Purple (1985), School Daze (1988), King of New York (1990), Boyz N the Hood (1991), his Oscar-nominated turn as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993), Mystic River (2003), and his role as the sage Morpheus in The Matrix Trilogy (1999, 2003).

Laurence Fishburne turns in another strong performance in the Lions Gate release Akeelah and the Bee (which he also co-produced), an inspirational story that avoids the pitfalls of stereotypes in the tale of a young girl (Keke Palmer, excellent) from South-Central Los Angeles whose remarkable mental acuity makes her a spelling prodigy. Under the guidance of a gifted linguistics professor (Fishburne), Akeelah competes for The National Spelling Bee title. Angela Bassett (Fishburne's co-star from What's Love Got to Do With It?) and Curtis Armstrong offer strong support. A gem of a film, it opens April 28.

Laurence Fishburne sat down with us recently to discuss his latest labor of love.

I liked the fact that all the characters in the film seemed very real: no one was all-bad or all-good, just shades of gray.

Laurence Fishburne: Yeah, it's a nice movie. I read it about four years ago, and fell in love with it. I attached myself as actor and producer. That got the ball rolling and made it not easy, but easier, for (writer/director) Doug Atchison to find the financing.

You've worked with first-time directors before.

Yeah, which is always a great experience, but for me, it's always about the material. It's not always about the director's experience. I figured if he could write that well, then he could visualize it and given the right tools and right crew, he could pull it off.

God bless you for giving props to the writer!

(laughs) Thanks.

How was it collaborating with Angela Bassett again?

It was nice. It's been a long time, 14 years, since we last worked together, but it was kind of like riding a bicycle. We both feel like we'd like to do something else together, something a little meatier and juicier for the both of us. But we both also felt that this was important to do.

Tell us about your character, Dr. Larabee.

Larabee's a guy who went to The National Spelling Bee as a kid, didn't fare too well, but didn't do too bad, either. He's on sabbatical and is trying to recover from a tragedy in his own life. When he meets this little girl, he's reinvigorated and re-inspired by her. She really breaks down his defenses.

It was interesting watching your character evolve over the course of the film. His body language even changed from someone who was obviously driven completely from his head, to someone who seemed to re-inhabit the rest of his body.

Yeah, academics sometimes have trouble making that heart-mind connection. Through the relationship with this little girl, he kind of is forced to move into his heart space, which is very, very touching.

I thought Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah, was remarkable.

Yeah, Keke is very intelligent, very talented, has great instincts. We really had a good time working together. J.R. Villarreal, who plays Javier, is also a terrific actor. I did another film with him, called The Death and Life of Bobby Z., that's also coming out this year. The chemistry between him and Keke is wonderful. The young actors who play Keke's brothers are terrific. This was not an easy film to get made, so it's been really gratifying to see how people have been responding to it.

You weren't much older than her when you started out.

Yeah, we were about the same age. I was ten years-old.

I think one reason the film has been getting such a positive response from people is that they're getting sick of "'Hood movies."

And there's a place for all that, but the reality is that there isn't a balance yet. There's not enough movies being made that are like this. The fact that we got this made is important and significant, and if we make people aware that the film is out there, that's the key. People in this town follow, they don't lead, so hopefully they'll follow all the positive word of mouth that the film's been getting. Then maybe we'll get people to consider making more of these kinds of movies.

You were born in Georgia, but grew up in New York.

Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn. I was two when we moved. My mom was in New York with my dad, who's from New York, then she went home to have me, returned to New York to finish her education, then she sent for me.

When did you know you were an actor?

When I was ten I did a play at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, Charles Fuller's first play. He went on to write A Soldier's Story, among other things. I realized 'Oh, I can be anything doing this.'

What made you want to get involved with theater to begin with?

My mom had wanted me to audition for a couple of things, and I wasn't really interested, then she came to me and said "You know if you got the part, you'd make 300 bucks a week." 'Well, why didn't you tell me that?' (laughs) So the next time I got a chance to audition I did, and I got the part. But I only made ten bucks a week! But, I had a great time, and I really, really loved doing it.

Fishburne, right, in
Cornbread, Earl and Me
(1975), his film debut.

When you work with a director, do you like to do a lot of takes, or to nail it in one or two?

It depends on what the budget will allow. If I had a blank check, I like it up around seven. But if we don't have a blank check, I'll get it in one or two. I've been around long enough now and have learned to be flexible enough to know that every movie isn't going to be Apocalypse Now and every director doesn't have to be Stanley Kubrick.

Some directors are Clint Eastwood, who's famous for doing minimal takes.

Yes, and that was really great. That style was also very eye-opening and very valuable. It doesn't always have to be a laborious process. You can do it simply, efficiently and still have quality. Clint trusts everyone. He doesn't hire people to mistrust them.

Fishburne with Kevin Bacon and Clint Eastwood on the
Mystic River

When you prepare for a part, do you do a lot of research or do you rely primarily on intuition?

It depends on the part, but mostly it's intuition, script, and really what's going on in the moment. It's the present moment that's important for me. If you're playing a real person, then you want to do a certain amount of research, but that's only going to be so useful to you. Each role requires a different kind of approach to get ready.

Every race you run is different, right?

That's right. You've gotta go look at the track. (laughs) You've gotta look at the turns, where the shadows are, where the track is slow, where is it dangerous? Where's it fast? Where's it tight? Yeah.

As someone who was a child actor, would you recommend it as an undertaking that most children should explore, or would you recommend they live life first, then look into acting?

In most cases I'd say to live life first. There are exceptions to that rule. I was an exception, as is Keke Palmer. Jodie Foster and Ron Howard were certainly exceptions to that rule, but most aren't.

When you work with a Coppola, or a Spike Lee, or the Wachowski brothers, all auteurs, for lack of a better word, what do you take away from it as an actor, and what do you take away from it as a filmmaker?

I've taken a lot from them as a filmmaker, and I've learned things from every single filmmaker I've ever worked with, and will hopefully apply them as I make films in the future. As an actor, Coppola trained me. That was my training ground. And because I've worked with first-timers and people in the early stages of their development like Spike, and Singleton, and like the Wachowskis, I try to bring to them the wealth of my experience. It's a great kind of way to exchange.

Boyz N the Hood started a new genre of film which Akeelah and the Bee is really an answer to.

Absolutely it's an answer to it, and by the way, the other person that deserves a lot of credit along with John Singleton for creating that genre is Ice Cube. He started in John Singleton's camp, then went on to make some movies that have created a nice balance to that genre: All About the Benjamins, Barbershop, Are We There Yet? All those movies he's made as a producer, they're born out of the black community, and there are elements of the so-called "'hood culture," or "hip-hop" culture in them, but it's not negative, necessarily.

I know you have kids in college now. What do you see as being the next artistic movement that your kids might be a part of?

Maybe literary. My son is someone who wants to be a writer. My son's been writing for a long time, since he was 14, and he's a published poet. I would like to think that could be a medium that could be used to express some of that dissent that we've spoken of.