In the event of a nuclear meltdown, Larry Fishburne’s eyes would be a welcome refuge. Hooded, cool, compassionate, they are just part of an unforgettable face belonging to one of our most gifted actors. Born in Brooklyn, broken in by Coppola at 14 in Apocalypse Now, and capturing audiences in Boyz N the Hood, at 30, the Fish is making waves. We talked after his rehearsals for Two Trains Running, a new play by August Wilson headed for Broadway. He was rehearsing on the fourth floor of 890 Broadway, I was rehearsing A Few Good Men on the seventh. We tooled around the corner to Cal’s and had this chat.
Michael O’Keefe Cal’s Restaurant.
Larry Fishburne Here it is, Cal’s Restaurant. (sings) If you want to change your look, go see Cal. If you want to buy a truck, go see Cal. If your axle is a draggin’, and your wife is always naggin’, go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.
MO Have you seen Heart of Darkness, the documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now?
LF I saw it in Los Angeles when I was making Deep Cover. I knew I would cry when I saw it, I knew I would break down.
MO Did you identify with that 14-year-old kid on the screen?
LF That’s me, that’s who I was, that’s who I am, so it was painful because I was a baby: innocent and vulnerable and impressionable and scared. I took this gig and I had to do it, so I had all this false bravado that teenagers have, you know, man, I’m cool, that stuff.
MO Yeah, that hurts.
LF And so I had to watch that. I’ve always felt that if you asked me about Apocalypse Now I’d say it was wonderful, I’d do it again, it was great. I couldn’t see it as a negative experience in any way, but watching myself in that documentary at 14—I had my heart ripped out.
MO What do you mean?
LF When you’re 14, the world is a pretty happening place, and the possibilities are infinite. The possibilities for joy—for great things. And I was thrown into a situation where we were making a movie called Apocalypse Now, which means “the end of the world— now .”
MO That woke you up, huh?
LF I took it very seriously. I was walking around calling myself an existentialist.
MO At 14?
LF At 14, after learning about the end of the world, and prophesies of the Bible, and yada, yada, yada. I started believing everybody was doomed, and the end was nigh.
MO Everybody in the documentary, almost without fail, said that was the heaviest part of their life, ever. [Martin] Sheen said, "My life was over. I didn’t know what I was doing." Actors disappeared into the jungle for a month, two months at a time.
LF I don’t know about those cats, the land wasn’t my thing. My thing was being on the boat. I got “sea legs” after the first 18 hours, and was a sailor from then on. I had to learn how to curse really well, drink really well, and just be swabbie. The stories you heard are true, I would imagine. (laughter)
MO There’s some heavy shit in the movie. Coppola telling the studio, “Martin Sheen’s not dead until I say he’s dead.”
LF He says, in the film, that it was like being in Vietnam. We had access to too much equipment and too much money and we all went insane. That’s what happened in a nutshell.
MO You were over there the whole time?
LF We were there the first three months. Then we came back for a month. Then we went and stayed six or seven months. Then we came back for Christmas. Then we went back again.
MO How long after that did we meet? When we did Rumor of War?
LF That was like two years after that.
MO By then you were 17?
LF By then I was 18.
MO Do you remember telling everybody that you had been in Vietnam?
LF I know that I probably said something like that (laughter). When I got back to the world I was a vegetable.
MO I remember: We were in the lobby of the hotel in Mexico City, and I introduced myself to you, and you said, "Yeah, man, it’s good to see you. Anything you wanna know about Nam, I’m your man." (laughter)
LF You could see that look in my eye.
MO You had the thousand yard stare . . . That was ’79, and then we did Short Eyes in ’84. Five years had gone by and you had grown up—you were a whole other fuckin’ cat. You walked in, and I thought, "Oh, this must be the Fish’s Dad, the Fish will be right behind him with his beret on, and this slinky walk happening." But you were this dude.
LF Yeah, I was grown up.
MO You were only 24, and I felt like calling you “Sir.” (laughter) You were playing Ice, this guy who was in charge and cool, and I remember thinking you had gotten deep real fast. When we were in Mexico City doing Rumor of War, you wouldn’t even talk to anyone unless it was in hip-hop.
LF I was 18—that was my cover, man. When I left America, I left a place that’s culturally-ethnically-racially mixed. I was comfortable with everybody. But I knew that racism existed here, and that that meant something as far as who I was as a person of color. When I got to the Philippines, everybody was my color. Everybody was brown and had Chinese eyes. That does something to you. Your body gets a little straighter, and you hold your head a little higher—your self-esteem goes up. Then I got back to America. I was six feet tall, my voice had dropped. I had facial hair, and I wasn’t young and black and cute no more. I was tall, and dark and handsome—and threatening.
MO People got uptight.
LF That was new. And scary. My mother and I moved to Baldwin Hill in LA, and at the bottom of Baldwin Hill is the jungle . . . it was the first time I lived in an all-black neighborhood, and black folks thought I was weird.
MO Yeah, because you weren’t in the same stew. You had been somewhere else.
LF So I listened to rock-and-roll, and dressed funny. I just didn’t feel like I fit. I hung around punk rockers. And then the people I had to work with . . . I knew I was going to be cast as, if not the black guy, one of the black guys. So I decided that that’s what I would give them. For me that was safe.
MO The great thing about being an actor when you’re young is, if you don’t know who the fuck you are, you can be somebody else. I didn’t have a clue who I was until I was about 28 years old—even then it was vague. I had been acting for fifteen years at that point.
LF So what do you do then?
MO Then, all of a sudden, you’re playing this dad in Boyz N the Hood, and there are new kids running around. Did it hit you that it was just yesterday that you were that gangly kid in Apocalypse?
LF Yeah, Ice Cube and Morris, all of them are from L.A. by way of somewhere else, but they pretty much grew up in L.A.
MO What’s the difference being that age now?
LF They’re a lot sharper than we were. When we came up, drugs were cool.
MO Where are they at?
LF Drugs ain’t cool, man. Those guys were in high school in 1979! Everybody before me was like, “cocaine is fun!”
MO I had actually just quit then, that was my first year of getting off it. When we were down on that gig, there were a lot of people eating mushrooms and running around the jungle. It was still politically hip.
LF It was P.C. to do drugs.
MO Politically correct, yeah (laughter). Were those young actors in Boyz in the Hood lookin’ to you like peer-time or Daddy-time?
LF Daddy-time, Daddy-time.
MO They gotta be hip to your acting. They probably grew up watching you.
LF It’s kind of cool, but I’m outside of it. I can’t see it.
MO You’ve been doing solid work all along. But people can feel the maturity in a role like that. That film brought out a side to you I really liked seeing.
MO We all know there’s a scene about being a black actor, that you need to play a certain game. Is that the way you see it?
LF I always felt I was an actor first. I happen to have this black skin, okay cool, that means what? So now they’re sayin’ it’s limited to this? No problem. I always knew that if I put the right stuff into the work, it would transcend all of that. I just knew that I could play anything if given the chance.
MO When you came back to work with Coppola in Cotton Club, where was he at?
LF What changed that relationship was Rumble Fish. During Apocalypse, Francis [Coppola] and Marty [Sheen] were father figures to me. Marty was more so emotionally and Francis intellectually. Francis was always trying to pick the brain and get me to think, whereas Marty just accepted me. When Zoetrope was ready to cast The Outsiders, somebody called me and said, “Fish, do you know any young, white actors?” I didn’t even want to hear that. It made me real mad. But I knew this dude and another dude . . . and then when they were casting Rumble Fish, Fred Roos sent me the script. The part that I wound up playing had three key scenes. But the part he wanted me to play—this mugger who hits Mattie [Dillon] in the head with a crow bar—had two lines. I couldn’t believe that, man. I spent three years with these people in the jungle, getting real tight with them, we’re supposed to be family. And they go offer me crumbs. (laughter) I really felt like a nigger then, you know what I’m saying. That hurt me bad. So anyway . . . I went back to see Fred. He wouldn’t see me. He’s busy, blah, blah. So I said, “I can wait.” And I sat outside his office for three hours reading the book, Rumble Fish. Then I went inside, and said, "Fred, what’s up? Come on man, you offer me one line as a mugger, then you offer me two lines of something else, and you have a character in the book who’s black. You don’t even need to change it. You see every other black actor in town but you don’t see me?" He said, "Well, yeah, Fish, we tried to call you. We thought about calling you, but we thought you was too old." I said, “Fred, you can tell me I ain’t white enough. You can tell me I ain’t black enough. You can tell me that you don’t want to pay a certain amount of money, but you’re telling me I’m too old! You’re calling me a fucking has-been! I’m 19!" So he gave me the part.
MO Probably scared the shit out of him, man.
LF But I couldn’t believe that. So when the Cotton Club thing came down, I had heard about it, everybody was running around New York, "Oh, they’re making the Cotton Club Movie, buzz, buzz, buzz." Everybody assumed that there would be a lot of work for black folks in it. But common sense told me, well, this is a gangster movie. Somebody who was going to produce it showed up dead, the guy who directed Godfather is directing it . . . this is a gangster movie, and not a movie which features black folks in any significant way. I knew that without reading nothing, just from the things that had happened . . . So I put on some baggy pants and one of my Dad’s old shirts from the ’50’s, button the top up, put a big rag around my head, and went to the audition. Gregory Hines was there, and all these people were stretching and getting their voices ready and this guy walks up and says, "Hi, how are ya, what are you going to sing for us today?" I said, "I’m not going to sing for you today, I’m going to play a gangster in this movie." The guy looked at me, and Gregory looked at me, and Gregory said, "Okay, fine."
MO See, if I even thought of getting away with something like that, they’d look at me like, could you throw that white boy in the trash, please? We’re not going to take any shit from him.
LF But see, that was the internal thing about how you know something. After we’d been shooting for months, Gregory said, "I remember when Francis was writing the first draft, we were up in Napa, and he looked at me and said, "the Bumpy character, Larry Fishburne." They knew that then.
MO But that never got to you?
LF No, it never got to me in the proper way. I guess Gregory gave it to me in the best way he could.
MO So how do you perceive what’s happening now in film? Something happened a couple of years ago.
LF Spike Lee happened. It’s just remarkable what he’s been able to do in terms of inspiring people to get up and do it. Just keep the ball rolling. The fact that he didn’t just disappear, and he’s not going to disappear—it’s wonderful. So that happened, and a few really good scripts got made: Soldier Story, Glory, Cry Freedom, Lean on Me.
MO How did this kid Singleton break through? I shouldn’t call him a kid.
MO He was a film school prodigy? (mm hmm) And he wrote the script when he was in film school? (mm hmm) Didn’t you tell me he was working as a P.A. on a film?
LF He was working PeeWee’s Playhouse when I met him. He was 18, coming to me with the whole dad thing: "Heh, man, wow, you worked with Spike," and “oh my God, tell me some stories!” “Sure, kid, you want a cup of coffee?” He couldn’t believe I got him a cup of coffee.
MO Was he already working on something at that point?
LF He told me then he would write something for me. I said, “How old are you?” He said, “I’m 18.” I said, "You going to film school?" He said, “Yup.” I said, "Babe, when you need me, here’s my number." Three years later he sent me a script.
MO They made that movie for nothing.
LF Six Mil.
MO He got six million dollars to make that movie? Jesus, that’s a lot of dough, actually!
LF You look at that script; it’s air tight.
MO How did he work with Ice Cube and those guys as a director?
LF He wrote it for him.
MO Well, we know he came from that world, so it ain’t like he’s going to have to go searching for anything.
LF He wrote Dough Boy for Ice Cube, Furious for me. He knew that when he was writing it.
MO And how were those guys with the over and over again thing, take one . . . take 20. Could they handle it?
LF No problem. We didn’t do a whole lot of coverage and shooting. It was a well-run ship. He had veteran black folks who had been working in the Hollywood industry from 15 to 30 years, a serious crew. Everybody was protective—we were all looking out for him.
MO There’s a scene in the movie where your ex-wife wants to give you your son and let you raise him. That’s the heaviest thing I’ve ever seen in a movie as far as couples go. Do you know what I mean?
MO That they both understood what it really meant. How did you see that?
LF I felt, as a character, that he was really pleased. I don’t think he thought it could ever happen.
MO That he’d get a chance to raise his kid?
LF It’s the kind of thing he needed when he was a kid, but didn’t get, so he was aware of how important it would be to have an influence on his son’s life. He’s faced with the challenge of teaching this kid some discipline and some responsibility. And he’s up for it.
MO That’s really what the movie’s about, growing up, and becoming their own men, too. But even more, it’s about what you impart to him. You give him something.
LF Without that, he’d end up like the other ones. Vague. Uncertain about everything, looking for his future in an army TV commercial.
MO “Be all that you can be . . . ”
LF This kid’s father tells him he’s got options.
MO There’s another heavy scene when you take him to a rough part of Watts, and show him and a bunch of teenagers that billboard, and you hip these guys to the way the system works. That’s something Malcolm was into.
LF Yeah, that’s Malcolm stuff. That’s the neat thing about Furious. Furious is a cat who exists out there.
MO The single black father. That ain’t the way it’s done in traditional theater and film. When you read about what’s happening, it’s single mothers with kids.
LF Right. Single women usually do it.
MO What’s this August Wilson play, Two Trains Running?
LF Two Trains, yeah man, smokin’. It’s a dream come true. I always wanted to do a black play on Broadway, the great white way, where you say, "No, man, I don’t have to be tap dancing and singing to be up there!" That stuffs beautiful and I dig those who do it well, but it’s not me. I’m a dramatic actor. I can make you cry, and make you weep, and touch you, and make you laugh, and all that through the drama, through this play, written by August, who’s got these Pulitzer Prizes, this track record that rivals O’Neill, and Lloyd Richards, who broke the color line as a director back in ’59. Roscoe Lee Brown has joined us now. I got this young, leading-man role, this guy who’s fresh out of jail, who gets the girl and all that kind of neat stuff. A righteous black man, as the brothers like to say. So I’m with it, and I get to originate the role, too. I’ve been on it since 1990, and I’ll make my Broadway debut in ’92.
MO You’ve been working on this play for a year? Did you do it somewhere else first?
LF Did it at Yale Rep first, and they did Boston while I was doing Boyz. We did Seattle Rep and San Diego, The Old Globe, this year from January to April. Now we’re off to L.A.
MO When do you open on Broadway?
LF April 13, 1992.
MO Far out.
LF Walter Kerr Theater.
MO I always knew you were gonna get there, because I loved you and we worked together. You stood above whatever the piece was, you transcended all of it.
MO Do you have to re-evaluate your goals? When I was young, all I wanted was to work, get noticed, make a living, do it. And all of a sudden I was 23 years old, I had an Oscar nomination, and I thought, I’ve got to reorient my goals because I just accomplished everything. I’m 23 and I can retire. Did you go through that?
LF In my personal life, yeah. In work, I haven’t hit that point yet. Whatever the changes are that come, I’m going to adapt. More and more I’ve started to admit that I want to write and direct. I’m not really aggressive about it. I’m still shy. It’s new.
MO You know, Roscoe got me into poetry. He turned me into a writer when we were doing Count of Monte Cristo together in Washington. He turned me onto John Berryman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens . . . he opened up my head and heart. I’m really grateful to him for that. That’s the great thing about being a young actor, you get to work with these heavies. When other kids are rifling their brother’s drawers for clean underwear, you’re doing movies with Brando. It may be that your youth was taken away or changed . . .
LF It was, but the benefit is a life that’s certainly rich.
MO What about politically, in the business, do you sense that we’re peeling back layers and layers of racism? We peel back one layer and everybody takes a deep breath, but then there’s a heavier layer that nobody knows about. The ’60s were a heavy layer that got peeled back. And like Spike now, there’s a whole new scene. They’re young and they’re breaking heavy. I never liked the word militancy because it has a cop-out kind of reference, but there’s a real position people are taking which is: No man, you don’t understand things, it’s just beginning. Just because it ain’t on the news doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.
LF Racism is a funny thing. It attacks you on a whole lot of fronts. You focus on attacking it in one spot, and that area goes, "Ah, ah, okay, okay, I’m backin’ up." But it moves and attacks you in another area. Look at the homeless. There’s homeless people of all colors, but there’s more people of color who are homeless.
MO That’s the statistic.
LF That’s where racism is doing what it’s always done. Entertainment-wise, the issue of racism is in vogue, it’s a money-maker. Okay, cool. But what’s that doing for a cat who can’t get a meal, let alone a place to live?
MO Do you have to make politically hip films every time?
LF No, I don’t think so. If you make the mistake of coming from that platform all the time, then people expect that of you. The only thing that I require of myself is that I do something that is at bottom basic, honest, human stuff. Catching yourself in the mirror. I aim for those things. I don’t know that I hit, but if I’m aiming for that, I have a chance to connect with people on a human level. Naturally I’m going to connect with black folks quicker, at least black males. They can identify because of the visual.
MO They see something in you they want to be. That’s partly why people go to the movies, to see their dreams come true. Or to see you do what they wish they could do under similar circumstances. And when you do it for them, you complete this. When you come on screen, there’s an implicit promise—I’m going to do something for you now. I know what you’re feeling. I know what you’re about and we’re going to go somewhere with that.
LF That’s what it is! That explains that feeling people try to impose on actors. That’s what that is.
MO You’re doing something for them that they’re not always in a position to do for themselves.
LF I want to talk about King of New York. That’s an example of doing that for some kinds of cats. I wanted to show up in a movie with guns blazing, be a two-gun kid and all that. And I got to do that in King of New York. A lot of brothers get their shit off serious when they watch that movie. I had four of them roll up on me last night, they were like, “Yes, you’re the shit, kid!”
MO (laughter) Yeah, and they’re holding or they’re dirty.
LF I’m about to have this white chocolate mousse.
MO I’ll have a cappuccino.
There’s a pecking order. Eddie Murphy or Denzel Washington is going to get the first cut, and then what they don’t want may come down to someone else. But that’s gotta be a short way now, from Eddie and Denzel to you.
LF It’s not as far as it used to be, let’s put it that way. Somebody said, “Larry Fishburne, the next Danny Glover.” That was neat to hear. I’m just trying to get mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with whatever it is that is coming.
MO You can’t get ready for it, it hits you like a fucking truck. You may as well just call 911 when it comes. (laughter) There is something to be said for the fact that you’ve been doing this for 20 years.
LF Twenty years and this is the first hit movie I’ve ever been in. That makes me able to say, it’s about the work, and if the movie is a hit, that’s great. I’m proud to be a part of it. I did a movie that is one of the best of all time, Apocalypse Now. It wasn’t no hit, but I knew what it was. When I moved to L.A., I was flabbergasted that people weren’t treating me like the acting legend I thought I was just for surviving that experience. So I learned my lesson.
MO Who do we want to work with?
LF Gary Oldman.
MO Yeah, Oldman, he’s for real.
LF Oh, man, he’s the boy, man.
MO Someone should wash his hair.
LF That’s just a character acting thing, man. I saw him shopping at Armani in L.A., his hygiene was cool.
MO You gave him the Fishburne code of approval.
LF Board of health wouldn’t have slapped no violations on him. But he’s the boy, Sid and Nancy, Chattahoochee, y’all better call the police!
MO That’s right, Dennis Hopper . . . Do we want to dish anybody?
LF No, it ain’t my style.
Yo, the Coen Brothers, deep man!
MO They’re heavy. People think Barton Fink is a surrealist movie, but it’s actually realism.
LF Those studio guys could actually treat each other that way. That’s the scary part to me. That was painful. But Miller’s Crossing!
MO That’s a deep movie. Is Gabriel Byrne the coolest fuckin’ thing in the world in that or what? I got tight with him after a while. He’s something, he just is it.
LF He nailed it. "It’s mine, I want it. I want me hat. I want a drink. Why didn’t you say so?"
MO Well, man, this has been great.
LF I’m going over to Naked Angels now.
MO What’s that?
LF Matthew Broderick, Robbie Baitz, Fisher Stevens, Jenifer Estess . . . got this space over there, all these young cats: writers, directors, actors, folks that aren’t happy with the work that’s available in the more traditional, established spots in time.
MO All right, Fish, later man.
LF Yeah, Mike, later.
—Michael O'Keefe is an actor and writer. He is currently touring the play A Few Good Men, and can be seen in the forthcoming film, Fanny, with Elizabeth McGovern.