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
"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
"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
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
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.