Laurence Fishburne: Straight talking guy

Laurence Fishburne doesn't do hype. He speaks to Leslie Felperin about plot-holes, Arnie's limitations, and why the Matrix films lack emotion
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The line-up in Clint Eastwood's new thriller, Mystic River is so strong that it almost doesn't seem odd that an actor of Laurence Fishburne's calibre is playing second-banana to Kevin Bacon's cop.

Fishburne is the sort of natural actor who so seldom showboats, he's in danger of being taken for granted. It seems like he's been around for ever, or at least since he lied about his age to get the part playing the jumpy street kid Mr Clean who gets killed by a spear in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now! (1979). Between then and becoming an instantly recognisable icon when he took the role of Morpheus in The Matrix in 1999, he worked solidly in both schlocky pics (Red Heat, Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Event Horizon) and minor classics (Rumble Fish, King of New York, Deep Cover).

On top of that, there are films he's made better just by being in them and giving terrific performances, like What's Love Got to Do With It where he played an indelibly vicious Ike Turner, Boyz N The Hood where his stoical father adds spine to the story, or the very middling version of Othello in which he takes the title role.

If you add it up, he probably isn't in Mystic River for more than 25 minutes, but Fishburne infuses his wry, aggressive character (Whitey Powers) with spiky vivacity that by the end of 137 minutes, when his function has been served and he's long gone, you still want to know where he went to. A dapper professional who's come out for interviews to support the film all the same, Fishburne doesn't seem to mind that Whitey's story fades out - that, in his words, for the finale to work, we have to believe his character is "really dumb". "I think it's cool," he shrugs. "The focus of the story is these three men and it's so powerful and human and tragic and shit, I loved that."

So, er, did he do a lot of preparation for the role, I ask, mainly out of politeness. "There wasn't a whole lot for me to do, just show up," he says, followed by a booming laugh so loud that I can only compare the experience with that of standing next to a Marshall speaker stack during a drum solo.

Clearly, when Clint Eastwood comes to ask you to be in his newest film, you don't say no, especially if it means a chance to work with some old friends. "Sean [Penn] and I have known each other since we were kids," Fishburne explains. "Kevin [Bacon] and I knew each other back in the Eighties. Kevin and I did a picture together called Quicksilver where we played enemies so it was natural for us to come together and play partners."

Given his air of knightly gravitas, he must have played a fair share of cops by now. "I've played a couple. Probably more criminals than cops, but there's not much difference between the two," he says and laughs, the sound more of a snare-drum snicker this time. "The character was for me a combination of two people, a cat I grew up with in New York whose name is Whitey, a real sweet cat, big Irish cat; and my uncle who was a police detective sergeant in New York. The way that the character dresses, that's my uncle, but the way he talks is Whitey. In the novel, Whitey is a 50-year-old white man who wears sports jerseys and flip flops..."

Fishburne thinks it's a great joke that here he is, a black man playing a character called Whitey. He's a loose kind of guy who gives respect where respect is due, but doesn't gush about anyone - or even toe the line when he's supposed to. For example, I confide that while I admired the film, as a thriller it disappointed me since I guessed quickly who did the murder. He mouths back, without making a sound that could be recorded on tape, "I guessed too," and then chuckles. "But some things you got to go along with for the sake of the text and the ride," he resumes, back on message. "I don't think everybody will get [who did the murder] though, and that's the cool thing about whodunits."

The conversation turns more general and - although he won't be drawn on his own politics - I'm guessing that he's pretty liberal when he asks rhetorically, "Why haven't we cured cancer? Because we can't? We can put men on the moon and travel to the sea and shit but we can't cure cancer? I don't think so."

What does he think about his co-star from Red Heat being elected governor [of California]? "You know what man?" he replies. "Arnold has wanted this - his whole path has been leading to this, and this kind of achievement. Everybody knew that even then." Does he think he'll do a good job? "I don't know. I don't know anything about being a governor," he says, the laugh a little more sour. "I don't know what that means. Somebody might know, but I don't know if he does. Somebody said this morning the winner could have been worse, but could it? I suppose it could. He said he'll be back and he is."

Speaking of being back, Fishburne will be seen on screen once again next month for the final instalment in the Matrix trilogy, Matrix Revolutions. No, Fishburne hasn't seen it yet either but should do soon once he gets back to LA. He seems vaguely hesitant to hype it when I ask what it's going to be like. "I read it, I was in it, I shot it," he explains. "I mean there's what I do and there's all this other stuff. I can tell you 60 per cent of the imagery is computer generated but the really great thing is that the Wachowski Brothers did a great job in preparing the audiences for what they're going to see next. The first short in The Animatrix - the one called The Flight of the Osiris - that gives you the flavour of what the battle for Zion is going to be like. That should be really exciting."

The tone of voice doesn't sound all that excited. Was he surprised at the negative reactions to the last Matrix film? "It was to be expected," he says resignedly. "The first Matrix movie was such a surprise. It was what it was, and there were no expectations. Also, the thing is not over yet. They did it classic cliffhanger style, which I think was a brilliant idea, a throwback to old-style film-making. That's what's so great. Everything [in the Matrix series] is old, it's just been synthesised and served up in a modern way."

Sadly, he doesn't get to show off how much he knows about kung fu in the next film, he explains: "I'm granddaddy," he chuckles. "It's alright - somebody has got to be granddaddy. And you see my relationship with Jada Pinkett Smith's character played out a bit more. It's more an emotional thing I'm responsible for. A little bit more..." he pauses for a fraction of a second. "...Matrix movies aren't deeply emotional."

Although he's been in London shooting Scheherazade with Michael Apted, Fishburne's next big project is going to be directing his second film, The Alchemist, based on Paulo Coelho's bestselling book.

"I'm developing it with Warner Brothers," he explains. "It's a project they've had for a while. You know, it is a result of the success of The Matrix that it's allowed me to be in a position to go to them and say I'd like to do this, and they're taking me seriously."

Basically, the film's about a shepherd boy who meets a 200-year-old Arab who knows how to make gold out of lead. And Fishburne himself has a role - as a 200-year-old wizard. Granddaddy again, I say and he laughs. "It works. If it ain't broke don't fix it. I've been old all my life. I was an old man when I was 18. I've been playing older since I was a kid and now I've finally caught up to myself." He says Eastwood has inspired him to keep trying new things. "I figure he's a perfect example of what is possible for an actor of my age, status and experience."

He likes the way Eastwood works on set. "When things are going well he says, 'Now we're cooking'. He has a kind of quiet confidence about him. A real confidence that spreads throughout the set and everybody picks up on. He's a jazz musician - and so am I."

What does play? "Anything so long as it's not in my hands," he laughs, meaning he sings. And if laughing were drumming, he'd be Buddy Rich.