Laurence Fishburne’s place in pop culture history is so ingrained that most people can barely look at a red pill without thinking of him.
As Morpheus in “The Matrix,” Fishburne was part of a genuine phenomenon that benefitted from cutting-edge filmmaking technology and the perfect timing of the beginning of the DVD boom. But Fishburne, who popped onto the cinematic scene at the age of 15 in “Apocalypse Now,” hardly needs technology to make his mark.
This Emmy- and Tony-winning actor has breathed life into characters as diverse as Othello, the Silver Surfer and Ike Turner (in a part that earned him an Oscar nomination), and continues to challenge himself with roles equally varied and complex.
Starting today, filmgoers can see him opposite Kevin Spacey in “21” as the private eye seeking to take down a group of MIT-trained cardsharps. Then, next month, Bankrate readers in New York can catch Fishburne in his first-ever one-man show, as he portrays Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Thurgood,” which premieres April 30 at the Booth Theater on Broadway.
Bankrate spoke to Fishburne about his career, his favorite roles and the joy of using your success to treat others.
Bankrate: You’re about to return to Broadway in the one-man show “Thurgood.” How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor since you won your Tony award 16 years ago (for his portrayal of Sterling in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running”)?
Laurence Fishburne: Oh, goodness. I’m 16 years older, man. I was 30 when I won my Tony, and from 46 you look back to 30 and think, I was a kid. (laughs) Now, I don’t feel like I’m an old man. I’m much more comfortable with 46 than I was with 40. I’m just grateful that I’m getting the opportunity to play this part.
How I’ve grown as an actor, it’s hard to say. I hope I’ve grown as much as an actor as I’ve grown as a human being. I’m a completely different man than I was at 30. My responsibilities are greater, my life is larger, and I can only hope that in some ways I have nurtured my talent and tried to reach for things that are realistic for me. (In “Thurgood,”) I’m gonna be playing a man who was 44 when he won the Brown (vs. the Board of Education) case, and that was the peak of his professional life, I think.
Bankrate: You’re a theater actor, film actor, director, producer and screenwriter. Is there any one aspect of what you do that you’d consider your favorite?
Laurence Fishburne: Goodness. The thing about it is that they are all fingers on the hand — the acting in film and the acting in theater are kind of like my thumb and my index finger. The writing is like my wedding finger. Producing is one you flip the bird with. (Large laugh) They all stem from my basic creativity. Fundamentally I’m a creative being, and I’ve learned how to do these different things as a way of expressing my creativity.
Bankrate: With all the roles you’ve played, is there any one role you can call your favorite?
Laurence Fishburne: Othello really resonated for me. I actually had a proposal from Kevin Spacey to join him in a production of “Othello” at the Old Vic sometime in the next couple of years, and I really would like to revisit that, because it’s a role I’ve never played on stage.
Bankrate: What is it about that role that moves you so?
Laurence Fishburne: It’s just delicious language, and also it’s incredibly difficult. It’s an emotional roller coaster, and it’s very difficult to ride. So that resonated for me a lot.
I would have to say, this last piece I did, “Akeelah and the Bee,” playing Dr. Larabee, resonated for me a lot because of my own relationship with my daughter. I think what has happened for me is that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the right roles at the right times in my life, and therefore I’m able to do some different things. Because as we go through life, we change. Sometimes it’s in subtle ways, and sometimes we have sweeping change.
I’ve been fortunate enough to really have met up with the right roles at the right times. “Thurgood” is a perfect example of that. “Othello” was a wonderful thing to happen as it did, as with Sterling in “Two Trains Running,” as with Morpheus from “The Matrix.” It was the perfect time for me and this character to meet. It was very auspicious timing.
Bankrate: I would imagine that “The Matrix” is the project for which you’re best known. How did it feel being part of a genuine phenomenon?
Laurence Fishburne: It’s really amazing. I think subconsciously I might have been striving for something like that most of my career. People were asking, “how has this changed your life?” five minutes after the movie came out, and it’s impossible to know five minutes after something like that happens. Now that it’s been almost 10 years since the first “Matrix” was released, I understand a little bit more about how it has changed my life, but I don’t have a full understanding of it, because it’s going to affect my life for a very long time.
Bankrate: So what is your understanding at this point of how it changed your life?
Laurence Fishburne: As Morpheus, I became a part of the collective consciousness, because the movie presented these archetypal characters that resonated at the level of subconscious.
Bankrate: And DVD took it even another step.
Laurence Fishburne: Exactly. This was a collective consciousness. If you think about our generation, who will Sean Connery always be? James Bond. So it’s the same kind of thing. It doesn’t mean he’s not Sean Connery, but for me and you he’s the only 007 there will ever be. So it’s kind of that thing.
For a lot of people, I’m just Morpheus. I have the ability to be more than that, I need to be more than that for me. But if that’s what other people need me to be, if that’s what other people decided I am for them, OK. Cool.
Bankrate: Some younger fans may not realize that you were in “Apocalypse Now” when you were only 15 years old. Looking back, what are your sharpest memories of that experience?
Laurence Fishburne: The most important thing that happened to me while making “Apocalypse Now” was that I came into a kind of awareness that I had an opportunity in being an actor, and doing the work that actors do, to reach out and touch people. You don’t always get to do that. If you’re making things like “Death Wish II,” which I also made, that’s not exactly the kind of work I’m talking about. There’s no shame in that kind of work, that work is necessary and has its place. If you’re doing something like “King of New York,” that’s not gonna touch everybody, but there are people that the movie does touch. It touches something inside of them.
Bankrate: Where do you live now?
Laurence Fishburne: Now I’m mostly in L.A., but I also have a home in New York on the Upper West Side.
Bankrate: How often do you get out there?
Laurence Fishburne: Often enough. I’ve been making trips to New York regularly since “Two Trains Running.” I’m in and out of New York a lot.
Bankrate: Having grown up in Brooklyn, do you live a more extravagant lifestyle now than the one you grew up with?
Laurence Fishburne: Of course. I have three homes now. I grew up in an apartment building.
Bankrate: Are you an extravagant person, generally?
Laurence Fishburne: No, I don’t think so.
Bankrate: The New York upbringing keeps you kind of humble?
Laurence Fishburne: Pretty much.
Bankrate: Considering all your success, what would you say are the greatest extravagances you treat yourself to?
Laurence Fishburne: My wife and I occasionally like to have an evening where we dine on caviar. That’s probably the most extravagant that it gets.
Bankrate: Do you get to treat your family to some cool things?
Laurence Fishburne: Oh sure. My dad has a nice car; my mom has a nice car. It’s nice to be able to share your success with the people in your life.
Bankrate: Any one particular thing you’ve gotten to treat someone to that really stands out?
Laurence Fishburne: Just recently I did some work for the NFL Network. I narrated something called “America’s Game,” where I narrated about 10 different episodes. One of the perks I received was free Super Bowl tickets. So I took a cousin of mine who is a real sports enthusiast to the Super Bowl. That was pretty special.
Bankrate: I’ve heard about a film you have coming up called “Newport 56.” Are you playing Duke Ellington?
Laurence Fishburne: Yeah. It’s a movie I’ve been trying to get made for a while about Duke Ellington, and the renaissance that happened in ’56 after the performance at Newport. We were supposed to get that off the ground last year, but you know how movies are. It’s like everything else. It’s “in development.”