The Mentor

In 'Akeelah and the Bee,' Laurence Fishburne once again plays a memorable role model, this time coaching a gifted young girl.

BY: Nell Minow

 

 

Laurence Fishburne speaks with an oratorical flourish. He uses the cadences of a politician or a preacher, with repetition and variation, to describe his vision, whether speaking of a character he wants to play or a lesson he wants to teach. And he has that glorious instrument of his voice--musical, powerful, mesmerizing. 

 

Fishburne began acting at age 9. When he was 14 he was cast as a sailor in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” spending 18 months in the Philippines on the notoriously troubled production. Then he came back to the United States, where it was 15 months before he got another acting job. “I didn't know what was going on. I think if I'd been older, I would not have survived it. It allowed me to do my angry young man thing and come to Hollywood and misbehave, but nothing too bad. I had a chip on my shoulder,” he writes on his website. “I think I've certainly learned a lot of lessons in humility and continue to work on that part of my self.”

 

Fishburne, now 44, went on to act in a wide variety of roles, from his performance as Cowboy Curtis on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” to playing Othello opposite Kenneth Branaugh's Iago and Ike Turner opposite Angela Bassett's Tina. He won  a Tonyfor his performance om August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.” He played the homeless chess master who befriends a young player in “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” 

In the three box office powerhouse “Matrix” films, he was Morpheus, the mentor who offers Keanu Reeves’s Neo the famous choice between the red pill (which brings knowledge) and the blue pill (which permits people to live on in ignorance of the illusion they believe to be reality).

 

Fishburne has also been active as a producer, writer, and director. He has made two trips to South Africa as a UNICEF ambassador, working to promote AIDS education and prevention programs. And he is a co-founding member of the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club, a group that rides motorcycles to places where they can see great works of art. 

 

In his latest movie, “Akeelah and the Bee,” which he also co-produced, Fishburne again appears as a mentor, Dr. Joshua Larabee, a reserved and demanding professor who coaches a young girl from the inner city who wants to compete in the National Spelling Bee. In an interview in Washington, D.C, he spoke of his career, his life, and the new film.  

 

What drew you to the role?

 

Everything. I loved the script, loved the characters, the way the story unfolds, the community. Dr. Larrabee was also an opportunity to take a step towards young women, and that was important to me. With “Boyz in the Hood” I was cast as a strong, devoted father. As a result of what we did, I became a father figure for fatherless boys in our community, and with this one I can do the same thing for fatherless girls, which is really important.

 

Do you have any special concerns or techniques for acting with a child, as you did in this film and in “Searching for Bobby Fischer?” 

 

It's marvelous; children are beautiful and the best actors. You can't be bad when you're working with a kid. They have the instincts that all great actors have. Acting is a childlike thing. To act well you have to be childlike in order to free yourself. Because they’re still young and being formed they don't have judgments about looking silly or feeling stupid.  

 

You began very young. What was some of the best advice you got? 

 

I didn't get a lot of advice. I observed people and took what I wanted and thought was useful. I just made sure to pay attention-- things people would do to get in trouble, things that worked. 

 

Francis [Ford Coppola] is the guy that kind of was my mentor in terms of my artistic life. He made me think of film as art, acting as art, really shaped me. He gave me the opportunity to do things that nobody else would give me. 

 

Who are your most important artistic influences and inspirations?  

 

Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Katharine Hepburn. Those were like “that's what it is; the rest is bullshit.” Also Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch [in “To Kill a Mockingbird”]. 

 

What about acting is most satisfying? 

 

Getting to do it. The gravy is that people dig it, but the meal is getting to act.

 

You have a stillness on screen that is very magnetic. How do you achieve that?

 

That's something I learned. I acquired it. I know it’s not something I have always had. You just get more comfortable in your skin. Some characters need to be more performance-orientated, some you have to be still. I don't work with a technique--I’m instinctual. I don't try to over-think. I get out of the way. I make myself available for the character and let the character do what it’s supposed to do. 

 

If I can't connect to the character, then I'm not interested. If I can, it feels natural. I like to bring whatever I can to the character. Observing is important--small details are what give you the character. With Vinnie [in “Searching for Bobby Fischer”], I found out that the real-life character had a lot more going on than what was in the script. He was gay and a drug addict. I said, “Let me play all that!” The director said no.

 

But you projected some of that anyway, the junkie aspect, with your strung-out vocal rhythms.

 

Yeah, I got some of it.

 

It was great to see you on screen again with Angela Bassett, who appears in "Akeelah," , though you only have one real scene together.

 

It was nice that we got to do this together, to bookend this young talent, Keke Palmer [who plays the girl]--she's enormous. And it made us think about what we could do together. I’d like to work with her again.

 

This film is all about the power of words. Was there one of the spelling words that was particularly meaningful to you? And are you a good speller?

 

Prestidigitation! And no!

 

The film makes great use of Marianne Williamson’s wonderful quote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Is there a quote that particularly inspires you? 

 

In our garden, we have this quotation from Florence Scoville Shinn, a predecessor of Williamson’s: “Nothing is too good to be true, nothing is too good to last, nothing is too wonderful to happen." The Williamson quote is wonderful. Those are the messages that we need to communicate to all young people as soon and often as possible--those kind of affirmations, those kind of statements, those kind of powerful ideas that give people hope.

 

What is your faith background and what is the role of spirituality in your life? 

 

I’m making it up as I go along. I love God and God loves me. Beyond that, I’m just making it up as I go along.


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