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The decision to give Laurence Fishburne the Distinguished Decade of Achievement in Film Award suggests that there is something particularly impressive about the past 10 years of his career. But Fishburne, 44, has been turning in outstanding performances for more than three decades, from his movie debut as the lead in 1975’s “Cornbread, Earl and Me” through roles in such films as 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” for which he earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ike Turner.
If anything distinguishes the past decade from the earlier part of Fishburne’s career, it’s his role as Morpheus, a mystical rebel leader who grooms mankind’s savior (Keanu Reeves) in the 1999-2003 “The Matrix” film trilogy, which has earned a reported $1.6 billion at the global boxoffice and made him an icon to science fiction fans worldwide. In Lionsgate’s upcoming drama “Akeelah and the Bee,” Fishburne also tutors a gifted novice — this time an 11-year-old South Los Angeles girl (Keke Palmer) trying to advance to the National Spelling Bee. Fishburne spoke recently with Todd Longwell for The Hollywood Reporter about his career choices and what the next decade holds for him.
The Hollywood Reporter: Has the success of “The Matrix” films changed your life or career significantly?
Laurence Fishburne: Realistically, I’m not going to know how it has affected me until much later. I’m really just kind of trying to live my life and just be a person, so for me to dwell on how it has affected my life and blah, blah, blah is kind of pointless, really.
THR: That mirrors what you have said about how you choose films: You instinctively select roles that appeal you, as opposed to following a grand career strategy.
Fishburne: Yeah. This business is too iffy, chancy and risky — there are no guarantees — so I’m kind of just going along. Actors always fear that they won’t work; it took me 20-some-odd years to get over that, so now I know I’m going to work. What is it going to be? I don’t know.
THR: Doug Atchison’s script for “Akeelah and the Bee” had been kicking around Hollywood since 1990.
Fishburne: I read it in ’02 or ’03 and fell in love with it, but it’s such a rarified kind of piece that I didn’t really believe that anybody would have the courage to step up and finance it. It’s a small story; it’s an African-American story. There are no gangsters in it; there are no rappers in it. Studios are looking for an easy way to make money; (with black films), it’s comedy, or it’s action, or it’s “ghetto fabulous.” There’s a time and a place for all of that — all of that’s fun — but it’s not what I’ve been doing all of my life.
THR: You debuted as a writer-director with 2000’s “Once in the Life.” Are you eager to write and direct more films?
Fishburne: Very much so. Part of the natural progression for me as an artist is to move into directing and writing; it’s kind of born out of the same place my acting is born out of. There are stories that I’d love to tell and things I’m trying to develop, but my taste is pretty … I don’t know how I’d describe my taste, but it’s not popular. (Laughs) I’ve never actively pursued things that I’ve thought would be popular with audiences. I think of myself as an artist, and I’m doing things that speak to me — and a lot of different things speak to me.
THR: As a director, are there things that you’ve taken from people such as Francis Ford Coppola and Clint Eastwood and others you’ve worked with?
Fishburne: Certainly, with someone like Eastwood, you’re going to learn a lot because he was an actor first. A lot of what I know about acting I learned working with Francis, watching and observing Dennis Hopper, playing with Martin Sheen. So, I’ll take as much as I can from everybody. As you gain experience, you develop your own sense of style. I’ve only made one film as a director, so the great thing for me is as both a writer and a director, I’m still fairly young. As an actor, I’m an old dog. I’m an old master. And I’m only fortysomething years old, but I’ve been at it for thirtysomething years, which doesn’t mean I can’t learn some more shit. But part of the way in which I will learn it — and even relearn it — is through developing my craft as a writer, and developing my craft and creating and discovering my voice as a director.
THR: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
Fishburne: I’m just going to try to stay on the path that I’m on. And I’m going to try to grow as a person. I’m going to try to be a good father to my children. I’m going to try to be a good husband to my wife. And I’m going to try to become a better writer. I’m going to try to make some movies and hopefully become a good director. I’m going to continue to look for things that are going to challenge me as an actor and to help me stretch and grow, but I can’t tell you definitively where I’m going to be. (Laughs)
THR: No, that’s a stupid thing to do, because you always end up looking like a fool.
Fishburne: We make plans. God laughs.
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