Interview : Laurence Fishburne

Believe it or not, Val Kilmer was the one man who might have prevented Laurence Fishburne from nabbing the role of Morpheus in "The Matrix" movies. Thankfully, Mr Kilmer turned his nose at the role, and Fishburne claimed it as his own. And can you imagine anyone else in the role besides Larry? Now, he’s back starring in the first of two super-sequels "The Matrix Reloaded".

Laurence Fishburne gained widespread acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his gripping performance as the Svengali-like Ike Turner in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) and went on to rack up an impressive string of credits playing leads and supporting roles on stage, screen, and television.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, the sole child of a corrections officer and an educator, Fishburne was raised in Brooklyn following his parents’ divorce. An unusually sensitive child with a natural gift for acting, he was taken to various New York stage auditions before landing his first professional role at the age of ten. Two years later, he made his feature film debut with a major role in Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975). A turning point in the young actor’s career came when he lied about his age and won the role of a young Navy gunner in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. On location in the Philippines, the teenage actor effectively bade farewell to childhood as he endured the many legendary problems that befell Coppola’s production over the next two years. In between shooting days, Fishburne hung out with the adult actors, often exposing himself to their off-screen drinking and drugging antics.

Back in Hollywood by the late ’70s, he continued playing small supporting roles in features and on television. Like many black actors, he was frequently relegated to playing thugs and young hoodlums. He would continue to appear in Coppola productions like Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984) throughout the 1980s. Wanting a change from playing heavies, he accepted a recurring role as friendly Cowboy Curtis opposite Paul Reubens on the loopy CBS children’s series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. By the early ’90s, Fishburne had begun to escape the stereotypical roles of his early career. In 1990, he played a psychotic hit man opposite Christopher Walken in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York and a chess-playing hustler in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). Following his great success in the Tina Turner biopic, he became one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors, appearing in films such as John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995). Fishburne, who had known Singleton when the latter was a security guard on the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse set, had previously appeared in the director’s debut film Boyz ‘N the Hood (1991). After Higher Learning came Othello (1995) and Always Outnumbered, which he also produced. Fishburne had previously produced Hoodlum (1997), in which he also starred. In 1999, he stepped into blockbuster territory with his starring role in the stylish sci-fi action film The Matrix. Increasingly geared towards /action films, Fishburne could be seen in the fast and furious motorcycle flick Biker Boyz as fans prepared for the release of the upcoming Matrix sequels and will next be seen in the Clint Eastwood-directed Mystic River. Fishburne talked to PAUL FISCHER.

Question: Were you surprised at how Matrix has transformed things?

Answer: I think everyone is very surprised at how matrix has become the pop culture phenomenon that it is. I think we were all surprised.

Question: What was it about the first film that struck the chord with so many people?

Answer: There’s a lot of things, and I think the major thing is that in crafting their story and structuring their story, the Wachowski brothers relied heavily on Greek mythology and primarily the old myths and the hero’s journey, the reluctant messiah story, which is one of the oldest stories and has been with us in every culture, in every clime in some way or form. And they basically put it in a modern context and I think that’s the thing that everybody connected to.

Question: There are also religious connotations.

Answer: Yes there are. I did say reluctant messiah, didn’t I?

Question: Did you ask yourself, where does Morpheus come from?

Answer: No, I did not ask myself that. I didn’t have to ask myself that.

Question: John the Baptist?

Answer: Well obviously, the Baptist is one of the elements, one of the things that’s inside of him. But the other thing that is inside of him is the mythological thing, the idea of dream. So it was really about embracing all of that and anything else that was valuable, whether it was somebody specific some specific story, anything. I don’t know.

Question: Could you identify with him?

Answer: Sure. I relate to him because he’s a man of faith. He has tremendous faith, and I have tremendous faith and that’s the place where we really connect. That’s the place where I can consciously say, oh yeah, we’re similar. I’m sure there are other things about me that are absolutely in line with him. I probably have a lot of qualities that are similar to his, but I guess I’m too close to them to really be able to go – oh yeah, that’s what it is.

Question: When you were working on the first film, and no one knew how going to turn out. Did you sense a difference when you came back to work on these?

Answer: I think for the brothers Wachowski that there was a lot more pressure for them. I think it’s the pressure they put themselves under, more so than anything else. I think perfectionists is one way of describing them. I really believe they care tremendously about whatever it is they’ve made, and they wanted it to be the way they’ve imagined it. But then you get that coming down from the top kind of pressure. Well, the coming down from the top kind of pressure, that studio pressure etc. etc I think they had a very good handle on it. They seemed to anyway.

Question: How did they change from the first film?

Answer: They’re pretty much the same guys.

Question: What is the real Keanu like?

Answer: I can’t tell you a fucking thing about Keanu. I’ve been working with him for five years. I don’t know a fucking thing about him. All I can tell you about Keanu is that after I’ve spent that much time with him, I love the motherfucker, but I can’t tell you a fucking thing about him.

Question: Working far away, spending so much time away from home. Does it affect the way you work?

Answer: Well, I mean it affects your life. It changes you. We were picked up and dropped in another country, another culture. I found it on one hand delightful, and really quite exciting. On the other hand, you know, I was away from my friends and my family and the familiar places. Simple things like the kind of toothpaste you can get, the kind of soft drinks you can get. You fall in love with some of the stuff that’s there. The think I lament about our country is that I can’t get a fucking meat pie in our country.

Question: Were you working on the film at the time of 9/11?

Answer: 9/11 I was here stateside. Jada was stateside. Keanu was travelling, and Carrie Ann. was in Australia.

Question: Any effect at all on the workplace?

Answer: Of course. And on the entire world. I wasn’t back – I didn’t get back to Australia until around the 22nd of September because again you just couldn’t get on a plane and leave America. So it affected me. It shook my faith. It made me question everything, which is what that whole event was designed to do. But initially it was for me – okay, this is the way the rest of the world has been living for 35 years.

Question: Did it change direction of the film?

Answer: You know, we are really a very very large family of people – everybody that’s involved in these films. So one of the great things that happened is that when we got back to Australia, every day from Sept. 12 on, you could walk around the Fox studios and you could see someone who was on the crew wearing a NY city fire department shirt. Some Australian would have a new York city fire department shirt on as a way of supporting the families and survivors of all those people who died in that . . . so that’s one way in which we were affected.

Question: Talk about balancing between character and special effects.

Answer: Special effects are characters. Special effects are essential Elements. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. We found the characters in the first movie. Certain aspects of it were a lot more fun this time, but there’s nothing like the first time. It’s never as good as the first time.

Question: In spite of the focus on Neo, Morpheus is still the centre. The one with the will and the determination.

Answer: It’s interesting to hear you say that because most people, in fact most of the people we were working with would say – he’s so different in this movie, he’s changed. – No, we get to see more. That’s all it is. To see different levels of him. And the fact of the matter is he’s surrounded by naysayers in this movie. He’s surrounded by non-believers. And depending on whom you are and your perspective, he either makes a believer out of you or he pushes you further away from the idea of The One. Again, I think there were certain things about this that were a lot more fun. Like the speechifying, the zealous testament on the mount thing that he does, which is a lovely thing. Or even those small exchanges he has with Niobe???? That really kind of great resolution in the third movie.

Question: You do some cool things.

Answer: Yeah, he got to do some really cool things. I mean the whole freeway thing was very cool.

Question: Were you contracted to the sequel?

Answer: No, I was not. There was no thought process at all. I remember when we were halfway through the first Matrix, Larry and Andy sent me a small gift of a bottle of champagne with a note that said – halfway there, one down, two to go. And I just kind of went – okay. And we kind of speculate about that they might be like. And when you receive the script, you wonder where they are going to take this. Sometime in June or July of 2000, they called and said, we have a couple of scripts ready for you to read, and we’ll give you one first because it’s really quite overwhelming to have to read both of them back to back. Okay, that’s cool. And I read reloaded, and I thought this is wonderful. I was committed to do reloaded and revolution before I ever read the scripts. I didn’t need to read the scripts to know that I was absolutely a hundred per cent committed to doing these movies – because of what we did on the first movie. Because of my experience on the first movie told me that were absolutely brilliant writers, they’re absolutely visionary directors. They have absolutely achieved that which they set out to achieve. So how could I miss? It was a new experience. But I never thought about it. I was just like – that’s what we’re doing. I didn’t assume anything. It was just – you know, I was in. they always knew it was a trilogy. They wrote it as a trilogy. They just didn’t give us all the information at the outset because the studio wasn’t going to buy off on it until they saw the results of the first one.

Question: When we have the whole at Christmas, how do you think it will be perceived in terms of the total package?

Answer: Gosh. It’s definitely cinema-making history. It’s definitely the kind of thing that is going to be a pop cultural stone for a generation at least.

Question: What was the set like?

Answer: We had a lot of downtime since there was so much going on. There’s Reload going on, there’s Revolutions going on, both of them being shot outside of sequence. So one day you could shoot a sequence from both movies. And the matrix is going on at the same time cause ure shooting a movie of the game. So it was like being part of a hive.

Question: So what are you working on now?

Answer: I’m writing a screenplay, adapting a book the Alchemist into a screenplay which I’m going to direct. I directed my first film in 98 after first Matrix, called Once In A Life, and this will be only my second picture as a director, writer, and actor.

Question: And how are Clint’s sets?

Answer: Wow. Quiet man, really really quiet. He’s a man of few words but a lot more confidence, a lot more experience.