Laurence Fishburne 2


Given the nature of his latest role and the stature of his predecessors in the part, Laurence Fishburne’s opening greeting is not perhaps what you would expect – not from someone who is one of only a handful of actors to have had the privilege of playing Othello on film.

“Hey, whassup babe ? ’’ he murmurs coolly, lazily leaning forward to shake hands. “How you livin’ man ? ”

By the time he casually tells a group of European arts journalists that his “hope with acting is that I touch people in some way. I saw a great opportunity to do that with a character as tragic as this cat,” you can see what some of the stuffier the film journalists are thinking: Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles were never like this.

But this is Fishburne’s style and, to some degree, the style of his Othello: someone who carries with him the swagger and street suss, the laidback but powerful presence, of a person who knows: He is One Cool Dude.

When Othello makes his entrance in the film – his suavely shaven head flanked with cool, tribal tattoos; his voice, deep and rich, almost lasciviously sexy – it’s a bit like seeing Othello played by Issac Hayes. You imagine them rejecting the idea of Othello wearing mirror-shades only with some reluctance.

The more cultured critics amongst the group cough uncomfortably. This is not ‘Othello.’ Not the Great Bard. Not right. Fishburne had already said in Vanity Fair that, even though he had never played Shakespeare before, he hadn’t bothered to read the play, arguing: “why should I read all those words that I’m not going to say ?”

But after the way the magazine trashed him for what they saw as his arrogance, journalists at today’s New York press conference expected Fishburne to give a more ‘actorly’ interview, maybe talk about how challenging and rewarding the part was, or discuss the honour and responsibility of being the first black actor since Paul Robeson to play the part on film.

Instead Fishburne strolls in and is soon talking about how “groovy” the film was, whilst his summary of how he played Othello has their jaws falling towards the floor.
“The motherfucker’s a fuckin’ pirate man, who, like deals in blood. He would just invade some place, do his thing and split with the booty.”

Things look up for a while when he makes a perfectly reverential speech about the quality of the writing, explaining “what’s fascinating is that Iago manages to use everyone’s good qualities to make them fall,” only to blow it by concluding, “in fact, it’s fucking tragic !! ” and roaring with laughter.

But Shakespearean sceptics and purists would be wise not to take Fishburne lightly or under-estimate his ability to survive – and thrive – on his instincts. He is the first to admit he is ‘eccentric’ and is certainly more than aware of the comprehensively cool quality of his nature. He loves all the jazz jive and homeboy clowning he does, but there is a deeply serious side to Fishburne, burning inside. He can play it that way too.

His films have shown undeniably that he has the authority and the ability to back-up the brooding arrogance and attitude that goes with the swagger. In fact, when you delve a little deeper, you realise that in some respects, Laurence Fishburne is well-suited more so to play Othello than most of his peers.

Perhaps, even uniquely so.

The first time I met Laurence Fishburne was five years ago in a nightclub in Los Angeles.

He was celebrating the release of the film in which he served notice that he was here to stay, Abel Ferrara’s glamorously violent ‘King of New York’, playing Jump, “cinema’s first hip-hop gangster.”

Sitting overlooking the dancefloor, surrounded by a gang of heavy-looking black dudes in sunglasses and a number of beautiful women in hardly anything, Fishburne and his crew looked like they had fallen right out of the movie.

In those days he was called Larry, only 29 but with a string of minor roles in films like ‘Death Wish II’ and ‘The Color Purple’ already behind him, a result of having started his film career when he was only twelve.

He said he’d got the part in ‘King of New York’ after wife (at the time), Hajna, a casting agent (the most striking of the women there), had heard they were looking for “the baddest motherfuckers in New York.”
“And she was like, ‘do you know my husband ? ’ Hahaha.”

Back at their place on Venice Beach, he and Hajna spent the whole time in each other’s arms/on each other laps/staring into each other’s eyes. With his wife looking on adoringly, Fishburne said he’d always been pretty wild, “a little bit off, you know what I’m sayin’ ? But she’s working on it. Straight’nin’ me out and shit.”

Hajna smiled and explained, “I’ll say to him ‘the camera has stopped. This is not how you do things in real life’.”
“Yeah I always wanted to be Joe Normal,” Fishburne sighed somewhat sombrely. “I’m still fightin’ reality. Fighting the fantasy thing too. I’m learning though. She’s not finished with me yet ! ”

Fishburne was as happy as Larry back then, his big crazy laugh – a wild, excitable eruption – booming round the room like some deranged jungle animal’s.

‘King of New York’, he said, was “break-out” for him, the first time that anyone had given him “something to run with.” As a result, Fishburne ran away with the whole film, despite a cast that included Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi and David Caruso in minor supporting roles, not to mention Christopher Walken at his best.

With his next film, the courtroom drama ‘Class Action’ raising his profile higher still, he was on a roll. Directors began to capitalise on the strength of his presence and in ‘Innocent Moves’ and ‘Boyz ‘n’ The Hood’ in particular, Fishburne conveyed an emotional depth missing from his repertoire of bad boys.

He graduated to starring roles, outclassing Sean Connery as an ultra-cool, corrupt, Southern sheriff, in ‘Just Cause’, with a gloriously scary, scene-stealing torture scene in which he shoves a gun down the suspect’s mouth, grinning, and starts playing Russian roulette. ‘Deep Cover’ was even cooler – “like the kind of undercover cop shows that were on TV when I was a kid in the ’70s, cop shows like fuckin’ ‘Beretta’ an’ shit like that.”

In 1992, he won a Tony Award for August Wilson’s ‘Two Trains Running’, and followed it with an Emmy for ‘Tribeca’ and an Oscar nomination for a menacing, complex, portrayal of Ike Turner in ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.

“Ike was really scary,” he laughed. “I didn’t wanna touch Ike. Oh, I was not interested man. On the page, he was just this two-dimensional beast. He was terrible. But I had to do it once Angela (Bassett) accepted. Cos, you know, Angela and me did something that was very special in ‘Boyz’, something that touched people in a really profound way, but didn’t get the opportunity to have a really good go at it. So this was it.”

By the time the director of ‘Othello’ Oliver Parker came to casting the lead, Fishburne had established a range and prowess that belied his years and a reputation as one of the most dynamic, enthralling actors around.

“Laurence is mesmerising to watch,” Parker enthused. “He has a danger, an unpredictability. He’s just electric. He has this youthful, vibrant nature to him but also has a great old-fashioned movie star quality. His face in repose is incredibly composed, like something out of a Biblical epic. That makes a very good balance. So, when it came to casting the part of Othello, he was our only choice.”

It’s not hard to understand why Fishburne used to describe himself as being “a bit off”. Or why he’s spent so much of his adult life wrestling with “the reality/fantasy thing.”

Fishburne was a child performer at the age of nine, which, he laughed madly, “was a drag for your real life – cos you didn’t have one !!”

Working in showbusiness from the age of nine was bad enough, but when he was 14, Francis Ford Coppola entered his life and took him away to make ‘Apocalypse Now’. By the time the shoot had finished, the best part of his childhood was over, leaving him (like everyone else in the movie) feeling, “pretty fucken’ crazy.”

“I realised this when I met Her,” Fishburne told me, looking over at his wife. “In fact, not even when I met her. When she told me, heh-heh.”

He intended to keep their son, Langston, out of acting.
“I mean, I did alright, but I got help.”

Originally from Georgia, but brought up in Brooklyn, it was Fishburne’s mother, a teacher (“she was educated and all that shit”), who got him involved in acting. His father worked for the Dept. of Juvenile Justice, transporting criminal kids from jail to court. His mother “lived vicariously through me. She went out and found me an agent when I was 9. She said I was happy when I was doing it.”
His shrug did not indicate whether he was.
“I never ‘became’ an actor. I was doing it by the time I was ten years old.”

His first part was a Charles Fuller play. Then, his agent got him a part in a TV soap (‘One Night To Live’), which he did from the age of 11 to 13. He did his first movie, ‘Cornbread, Earl & Me’, when he was twelve.

“There was a lot of black films getting made then. ‘Blaxploitation’ stuff, but fuck it. Brothers was getting work, know what I’m saying? ”

When he was 14, he made his second movie: ‘Apocalypse Now’. Originally only a 16-week shoot, Fishburne spent “most of ’76 and half of ’77” in the Philippine Jungle, working with Coppola, Sheen and Brando at their craziest. Sometimes, the day’s call-sheets would just read: ‘Scenes Unknown.’

“Everyone was just gone, man,” Fishburne remembered shaking his head. “I got into drinking, smokin’ reefer and shit.”

Frederick Forrest got to the stage where he used to deny that he was even there.
“I’m not here,” he would announce to Coppola in the morning, grinning madly. “I’m in Montana with Jack Nicholson.”

It’s hard to imagine what the effect of making ‘Apocalypse Now’ would be if you were that young but we get an idea watching Eleanor Coppola’s brilliant documentary about the movie, ‘Hearts of Darkness’. We see a fresh-faced Fishburne – his 70s afro and awestruck innocence making him a dead ringer for one of the Jackson 5 – looking round and enthusing “the whole thing’s really fun. Shit, you can do anything you want to. That’s why Vietnam must have been so much fun for the guys who were out there.”

When Coppola shoots the scene with go-go dancers landing in helicopters, Fishburne’s eyes are as wide as saucers, stutters shyly, “this sho’ ‘nuff is bizarre in the middle of this shit.”

Fishburne remembers Brando (when he eventually turned up) throwing a party with a Philippino cabaret band doing American chart songs, and sitting next to him for the magic act.

“I was 14, so I was, like ‘Wow ! How does he do that ? ’ And Marlon’s like, ‘it’s all bullshit’.” (One of life’s more disconcerting sights is looking at Laurence Fishburne’s face while it sounds exactly like Marlon Brando).

“Marlon would have us waiting three weeks for the right light. He insisted on lighting his own scenes. The cat was writing equations on blackboards and God knows what.”

The only thing that could possibly have worsened the effect of the combination of all these things on an impressionable 14 year-old duly happened with the arrival of a deranged Dennis Hopper.

“I thought he was incredible,” Fishburne remembers. “I’d never heard of him, never seen him in anything. When I saw him behaving like that, I thought, ‘this is the guy I wanna be like’.”

By the time he got home, it’s no wonder he describes himself as “totally insane”.
“The worst thing was, this was only my second movie. I just thought this was the way all films were made.”

Five years ago, when Fishburne told me “I’ve always got work in this town” (Hollywood), the significance of the remark passed me by – probably because his face and the way he carries himself always make him seem a lot older. At 34, he is still rarely cast as his real age. In fact, even Fishburne’s early career would represent an achievement for any actor, let alone a young black actor with no formal training.

Before ‘King of New York’, he’d got work in films like ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘Quicksilver’, ‘Red Heat’, even ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street 3’ (“the best one – I didn’t die”).

Coppola had used him again in ‘Gardens of Stone’, ‘The Cotton Club’ and ‘Rumblefish’.
“A beautiful movie. It’s Francis, man. Fuckin’ black & white ! ”, where he plays the first character you see – ‘‘Yeah ! ‘Biff Wilcox is looking for you Rusty James’, hahahaha.”

His performance in ‘King of New York’ was extravagant, energetic, packed with flair. He played the part Large (as he tends to): big, rolling walk, big, crazed laughter, styling the homeboy hitman in big gold chain, black shades and a bowler hat. Jump’s wicked charisma was all Fishburne’s. He could dominate a room of a 10, 000 people if he wanted to.

The director, Abel Ferrara, remembers Fishburne was not only consummately professional but expected everyone else to live up to his standards too.

“Well when I was young I always paid attention, worked hard. On ‘One Life To Live’, they used to say, ‘concentrate, kid, concentrate’. Coppola trained me. Francis was always constantly testing me. He would put us in these situations and not give us any answers, and that has stayed with me. So I’ve naturally gravitated to those kinds of situations work-wise.”

Without ever seeming ambitious for the sake of it, it was always clear Fishburne was going in only one direction. His career has been the result of a quiet determination to produce good work and, above all, to create challenges for himself. At the end of last year, he directed and starred in his first play, ‘Riff Raff’ (about three men meeting up after a drug deal has gone wrong) and one thing you never see Laurence Fishburne do is coasting. You would treat him frivolously at your peril. He takes his responsibilities deadly seriously.

“People go to the movies and they see something that touches them and they never forget it. So why not take that seriously. Why not TRY to make something special.”

It’s noticeable that in the two films he treasures most (‘Boyz ‘n’ The Hood’ and ‘Innocent Moves’), his roles are virtually identical: The wise, intrinsically hip, parent/teacher, trying to steer a feckless young son/pupil on to the righteous path.

This (presumably) reflects his attitude towards bringing up his son but perhaps he is also able to identify with the boy’s problems too. The eldest son and only boy, his parents were separated, He only saw his father “once a month or so.”

Given his own ‘lost’ childhood, in both performances, there is a feeling of Fishburne being drawn to the role of naive/immature young ‘streetplayer’ trying to be a good father; trying to be a man.

Fishburne won’t talk about it. But you get can sense it in him; sense that he’s carrying it with him.

Meeting Fishburne this time, as he says, “shit sure has changed, lemme tell you.”

Over the last four years, he has changed his name – from Larry to Laurence: “Laurence gets you courtesy” – and stopped hanging out with the likes of Walken and Ferrara, two decisions that, if nothing else, represent an idea of how seriously he started to take his career.

“Yeah, well, hanging out with those cats, I would just push the self-destruct button. Go totally crazy. It’s all or nothing, you know what I mean ? ”

When we meet, he has been performing all day, promoting ‘Othello’.

Whereas most Hollywood stars treat press conferences so earnestly they become horribly anodyne, Fishburne likes to enjoy himself. He lopes round the room casually helping himself to food, doing hilarious, uproarious impressions, throwing journalists’ questions back at them then roaring with laughter at their discomfort.

Later, he’s in more reflective mood when I find him, lounging in the gloom of his room, puffing on an American Spirit cigarette from a long, black cigarette holder, having just despatched one of his buddies to ‘re-appropriate’ two enormous framed posters the film company has been using for the press conference.

When I ask him how he sees the last few years, he smiles, edgily, “things are Different man. I’m a movie-star now. To a lot of people.”

Success has brought Fishburne his problems though. He has become notoriously protective about his private life, and increasingly uncomfortable with the attentions of the prying press, eager to know more about the break-up of his marriage, his separation from his son and daughter, and a rather public falling out with his mother.

The Vanity Fair piece got nasty after he over-reacted to the journalist’s (fairly innocent) opening question about his dairies.

You can sense why Fishburne has such presence on screen as soon as you meet him. With the lithe, lean frame of a basketball player, languid, menacing eyes, his voice (as anyone who’s heard his superlative voice-over on ‘Deep Cover’ knows) is totally seductive: rugged, smooth: real cool. His self-assurance seems total. It would need to be to have the female lead in ‘Deep Cover’ describe you as “like some beautiful panther… a dangerous, magnificent beast.”

Though he is unusually friendly for an actor of his stature, as Oliver Parker has remarked, Fishburne has an unpredictability to him that adds to a definite feeling of threat lurking beneath the surface. Kenneth Branagh (who plays Iago in the film) told me.

“One thing Laurence carries as an actor is an incredible sense of danger. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Laurence, let me tell you. He’s a dangerous man.”

Characteristically, Fishburne’s Othello is not the conventional ‘noble Lord’, but a more basic mercenary/warrior – “a pirate” – experienced in war but not in love, a strong leader but emotionally weak, vulnerable. Fiercely romantic but romantically naive, he acts from a brooding sense of betrayal rather than furious jealousy. He is, in many ways, less possessive as Othello than he was as Ike Turner.

“There is nobility in him,” Fishburne says. “He’s certainly honest and open. But with the exception of Raul Julia, I haven’t seen the side of the warrior done before.”

Fishburne says the mercenary side of Othello, and his emotional naivety, are crucial in explaining why, Iago – besides suspecting Othello of sleeping with his wife, and feeling wounded for being passed over for promotion, is angry/jealous that Othello hasn’t told him of his marriage to Desdemona.

“There ain’t been no women involved ! It’s been: we go to war, we fight, we kill, we get the loot, the booty and the wenches and come home and go out and do it all again.”

American critics have complained that Parker’s treatment of the play is too populist, protesting about the (inevitable) cuts to the text, even that it was ‘too cinematic’ (he has added flashbacks and fantasy sequences and soliloquies are spoken straight to camera). Parker also re-structured the plot to emphasis the aspects of the play as “an erotic thriller” – something Fishburne’s smouldering sensuality certainly accentuates.

“Oh I think Othello has flirted with Iago’s wife,” Fishburne smiles mischievously. “I think Othello has flirted with all the ladies and I think they flirted back.”

Fishburne’s decision to style Othello as a pirate, in big black leather boots, large earrings, and even a bandanna, could have added to the purists’ outrage but the power of Fishburne’s unconventional, flamboyant, performance won almost unanimous praise.

The LA Times stated: “Fishburne has everything it takes to make Shakespeare’s tragic hero work: talent, intellect, depth, imposing physical presence, innate dignity, handsomeness, sex appeal, and a resonant voice.”

The LA magazine, ‘Paper’ wrote, “When his eyes fill up with tears at the imagined indiscretions of his beloved Desdemona, he’s a truly magnificent, full-blooded tragic figure. He burns a hole in the screen.”

Given the strictly PC nature of Hollywood these days, Fishburne’s other courageous choice was the decision not to downplay the racist/outsider aspect of the play, with references to Othello as “an old black ram” “tupping” Senator Brabantio’s “white ewe” (Desdemona), as well as his “thick lips” and “sooty bosom”, being left in the screenplay. Fishburne’s accent is at times more African than Moorish; while he carries a decidedly tribal ivory staff with him, which Fishburne argues also denotes ‘‘I’m the motherfucker in charge hahaha.”

Othello is accused of drugging Desdemona, using witchcraft and sorcery on her, and – unusually – Fishburne plays Othello as if he would certainly have known about such things. In the peak of his pain, he even cries out “arise black vengeance.”

“Yeah, that’s a trip,” laughs Fishburne. “Motherfucker’s calling up some conjurations and shit.”

Some critics’ comments in the American press were themselves bordering on racism, saying for instance, that Fishburne “injects sex, youth and especially blackness into the story” and “Fishburne brings an unmistakable edge of danger, moody menace and barely tamed barbarianism to the part.”

In some American cities, the film was promoted with ‘blacks only’ screenings, but Fishburne has, surprisingly, downplayed the ‘black’ element of his Othello emphasising its ‘universal’ relevance as a love story instead. He has resisted the opportunity of condemning Welles and Olivier ‘blacking-up’ to play the part and stated he has no objection to white actors playing Othello, as long as black actors like himself can play Macbeth or Hamlet.

“Some of Olivier’s performance was absolutely brilliant. Though with he and Welles, their performances are informed by the racism of the times, the racism of the country and the racism they were taught. Any actor would want to play Othello. I don’t give a fuck about what colour he is.”

When one journalist wonders aloud “whether there’s an element of the race issue in Othello,” as if she’s latched on to something no-one else has ever noticed before, Fishburne’s patience is certainly extraordinary. He diplomatically sidesteps anything controversial, downplays comparisons with the OJ Simpson case, and just mutters “I ain’t interested in politics” when anything gets too close for comfort.

It’s also noticeable he’s careful not to rock Hollywood’s boat about the lack of black lead roles.

“Take the word ‘America’ and you have ‘I am race’. It affects everything you do to a certain extent. If you look at my career, Denzel Washington’s career, Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes, Forrest Whittaker, Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson… that’s a bunch of guys. 30 years ago, all those parts were played by one guy. Plus the film-makers. It’s gradual man.”

His identification with the character seems more personal than merely racial. When I ask him how he relates to Othello, he says softly, “you know… he’s a guy who fell in love, and couldn’t handle it. It took him out. I can relate to that, oh yeah,” he says, laughing, for once, without any kind of joy.

Kenneth Branagh told me he thought one of the qualities Fishburne brings to Othello is “complexity. He’s less ‘sonorous’ and ‘majestic’ than some Othellos’ but he has a depth of pain that is very powerful.”

He pointed out “when Iago does the deed, and says ‘look to your wife. Observe her well with Cassio”, Laurence does a look, a beautiful look, I think. You just see it in his eye. Almost like a little boy who’s just been hurt. Very, very human. He really takes us inside a very vulnerable man.”

In the scenes where Othello breaks down, Fishburne himself seems suddenly exposed, terribly vulnerable.
“That was key to me, because there’s a great sense of loss there, of grief. I want people to be moved by Othello because of his pain. The pain comes out of the fact that he thinks he has lost this love. Not because he’s lost it but because he thinks he’s lost it. That’s hard.”

The parallels with his own broken romance are obvious (the marriage ended after 6 years), but a more intangible, individual connection between the two struck me, one that perhaps explains the unusually powerful resonance of his performance.

It’s easy to see a similarity between the ways Othello sacrificed the early part of his life for the army with the way Fishburne lost his childhood to acting. These sacrifices left them precociously capable in their own field, but struggling naively with the real world later on in life. As a result, they both end up in limbo, stuck, wrestling with a naively romanticised self-image and fumbling with their own different fantasies.

“Yeah well it never occurred to me,” Fishburne murmurs when I ask him about the similarities. “But it’s pretty clear that we have that in common. But not when I was playing it. It’s something I play without ever having to play it – because it’s part and parcel of who I am in a way. There’s no way I can get away from that.”

After three projects he is described as “heavy. Very artistic”, Fishburne says he has done “enough weeping” and wants to have some fun for a while. His next film is an action movie, ‘Fled’ which he summarises as “‘48 Hours’ meets ‘The Defiant Ones’.” While he (inevitably) says he’d like to work with Tarantino or Pacino, and do a Western with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, another wish for the future is (characteristically) less predictable.

“There’s a cat named Peter Greenaway,” he explains to the press conference. “I like his movies, man. He lets his actors get down.”

He intends to write more plays, and produce and direct them as films, stating categorically, “That will happen.”

In light of his recent spat with Vanity Fair, I ask him how he feels he’s coping.
“I’m doin’ the best I can,” he smiles. “The press is part of the gig. I’ve got to make some adjustments in my off-time. Really make it sacred and special and do things for me. The more activity I have in my schedule work-wise, the more important it is to really manage my private life and that time really well.”

Later on, I realise that, under his wife’s encouragement, this is almost exactly what he’d said in our interview five years ago.

He agrees becoming a movie-star wasn’t the best way of realising his “dream.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get back to the Joe Normal bourgeois fantasy,” he admits, wistfully.

When I tell him he’d probably hate it anyway, he doesn’t even consider it, smiling, “yeah but the naive part of me goes ‘Sunday in front of the tube, with the guys and the game… beautiful. Actually, I think London seems to me like the sort of place where I could do my Joe Normal routine without being Joe Normal. My movie-star-as-Joe-Normal routine,” he repeats, his attention drifting, in a dream. ‘‘I could do maybe that there.”

As I pack up to go, Fishburne is taking delivery of one of the massive framed posters his friend has ‘acquired’ from the press conference. One of them is a ruthlessly handsome picture of Fishburne/Othello, in striking tattoos, earrings and moody stare.

As I walk out of the door, he is crouched down before it, holding it in his hands, looking closely into his own image, and I hear him say to himself, “so cool man. So cool.”