LAURENCE FISHBURNE WAS ONLY 14 years old when director Francis Ford Coppola picked him to play Clean in Apocalypse Now. Although primed to begin classes at New York's prestigious High School for the Performing Arts, he opted to spend several grueling months in the Philippines with Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, filming the intense Vietnam War drama that, with its 1979 release, would go down as one of the seminal films of the decade. At the time of its release, Fishburne was 17.
Since then he's done a little bit of everything. On television's Pee-Wee's Playhouse, he played a merry cowboy named Curtis. He won an Emmy for the pilot episode of the series Tribeca, a Tony for playing an ex-con in August Wilson's Two Trains Running, and was nominated for an Oscar as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It. Most recently, he was in Mission: Impossible III.
We caught up with Fishburne recently while the actor was in Washington promoting Akeelah and the Bee, for which he also signed on as producer. In the film, he plays Dr. Larabee, a retired teacher who agrees to mentor a 13-year-old potential spelling-bee champ. The movie, he said, offered all sorts of opportunities he couldn't resist, including the chance to star in a film where blacks weren't relegated to playing drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. It also reteamed him with Angela Bassett, his co-star (and fellow Oscar nominee) in What's Love Got to Do With It.
What is it that attracted you to "Akeelah"?
"Everything. The girl's story, the teacher-mentor story, the father-daughter love story, the underdog story, the community from which the story comes. Everything."
Was there anything about the Larabee character that especially appealed to you?
"He's very warm, very paternal. Those are the things that really got me excited about playing him. I haven't gotten to [play] that in a little while. I thought it was time to do some of that."
Why aren't there more movies like this, movies with a very positive message, that don't arise from the mean streets, coming out of Hollywood?
"People are afraid to take chances. Nobody leads in Hollywood, people follow in Hollywood. ... Hollywood's basically played to the lowest common denominator for a good 20 years now."
"Apocalypse Now" proved an extraordinarily difficult shoot, and an expensive one. Were you aware of all the tumult surrounding the film? And how did being in such an extraordinary film at such a young age affect you?
"Apocalypse was really my school. I was very young. [All the controversies surrounding the shoot] were way above my head. I was happy to be there making a film. My association with those people, the time I spent with them, really shaped and informed me as an artist."
Is it becoming harder or easier to get quality films like "Akeelah" made?
"I see progress being made with this one, the fact that we got it made. If people like it, that's progress. ... My experience teaches me not to despair."
THE FILMS OF
Some Laurence Fishburne film credits include:
Rumble Fish (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Gardens of Stone (1987)
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Higher Learning (1995)
Miss Evers' Boys (1997)
The Matrix series (1999, 2003)
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)