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In February 1998, Laurence Fishburn arrived in Sydney on the eve of Hoodlum’s opening around Australia, in which he stars as … a hoodlum. But he came to Australia to make another film: the science fiction drama, The Matrix, in which he gets to work with Australia’s Hugo Weaving. Before shooting started, Fishburn pulled up a chair in a city club to speak to ANDREW L. URBAN, and told him about his latest recreation – scuba diving.

Sydney’s inner city workers are sharing an early evening drink in the trendy mid-city bar downstairs, while upstairs in the elegance of a private club, furnished with spacious armchairs that might have come from a wealthy architect’s home, a shaven headed Laurence Fishburne is being gently ushered from a tv interview into an adjoining room for our interview, as he gets ready to shoot his new sci-fi thriller here, The Matrix, with co-stars Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving.

"Certainly I had my angry young man period, when everything was everybody else’s fault and I couldn’t get ahead"

Fishburne is relaxed and amiable, not the tense, serious-faced actor of seven years ago, when a similar interview was arranged in San Fransisco’s Ritz-Carlton, just after he’d played Ike Turner opposite Angela Bassett’s Tina Turner, in What’s Love Got To Do With It. He may have been tense because it was perhaps the tail end of his angry years.

"Certainly I had my angry young man period, when everything was everybody else’s fault and I couldn’t get ahead," he says matter of factly, and although it didn’t happen suddenly, he’s way past that. And not only because he is 36.

"He showed up as an articulate and intelligent human being every time" on Sidney Poitier

Much has changed: African American filmmakers and actors now outnumber the fingers on his two hands, he says; Hollywood, and the world, has realised their worth.

There was a time, Fishburn recalls, when the only black man he saw at the movies was Sidney Poitier. "And he’s still someone I watch, to learn." And the biggest thing Poitier taught Fishburn was "intelligence….he under no circumstances downplayed his intelligence. He showed up as an articulate and intelligent human being every time."

It was that role as Ike Turner that earned Fishburne the enormous recognition he enjoys as a leading man throughout the mainstream movie industry, propelling his career to new heights – even though he had already appeared in several Francis Ford Coppola movies, like Apocalypse Now (when he was 14). The role also earned him an Oscar nomination, which tends to help an actor’s profile.

"I got completely intimidated by it and I was totally afraid of it" on Othello

Around that time he was also picking up Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards and other plaudits for his work on the stage. His films since then include Boyz N The Hood, Higher Learning and latterly, Event Horizon, and currently (from this week) the role of Bumpy Johnson in Hoodlum. But it was the 1995 Oliver Parker directed Othello (co-starring with Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob) that stands out for Fishburne as the role of which he is most proud to date.

"I got completely intimidated by it and I was totally afraid of it," he says candidly, but when asked if he ever considered saying no to it, he bursts out into loud laughter, "NO!" To deal with his fear, he talked to "every actor I knew who I respected who had done any Shakespeare, like James Earl Jones and Patrick Stewart ….and others. And I was asking, what do I do? And they all just said, you’ll be fine. You’re all right. They reassured me."

The film had mixed reviews, but Fishburne was generally well received: "Laurence Fishburne brings an outsider's dignity to the role of Shakespeare's noblest chump," wrote Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, for example.

"The real Bumpy Johnson...was a neat dresser.. but had a vicious, nasty temper" on Hoodlum

In Hoodlum, Fishburne has the kind of authority that grows with experience, and he looks heavier, bigger and older than in real life. The real Bumpy Johnson, who reigned over Harlem for many years, was a neat dresser and rather unfeeling, but had a vicious, nasty temper. The source of that information, he confides, comes from none other than the veteran actor Milton Berle, who had met the real hoodlum. Fishburne’s research helped him create a flesh and blood character, and having previously worked with the producer/director team of Frank Mancuso jnr and Bill Duke (on Fled), Fishburne enjoyed a familiar environment.

"It’s a wonderful character and a really interesting premise this movie" on Matrix

Now in Sydney, Fishburne faces a few months on the set of The Matrix; "It’s a wonderful character and a really interesting premise this movie," he says fluently. "It’s set in the future when computers run the world and use human beings as batteries. In exchange for the bio-electrical energy we give them, they give us a false reality which we live out in our minds, and the place we live out this imagined reality is called The Matrix. My character is a man called Morpheus, who lives outside of The Matrix in the real world, having managed to free himself, and is looking for someone who will have the power to change the world as we know it. And he believes that is someone called Neo, who is played by Keanu Reeves."

Fishburn has already rehearsed with Hugo Weaving, who plays the baddie, and was familiar with some of Weaving’s work. "He’s a wonderful actor and we are getting on very well."

By the time Fishburne finishes The Matrix, he’ll be aching to get back under water, wearing a SCUBA unit, probably on the Barrier Reef. He discovered diving a couple of years ago through his godfather, and it is now his main form of recreation. And he is finally starting to take some time off: "last year I had five whole months – it was marvellous." He spent it with his wife and two children, and some fishes.

This article also appeared in The Australian; Saturday February 28,1998.

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