It’s hard to believe that Laurence Fishburne has been acting for nearly 50 years, but the guy is a workhorse who has enjoyed an incredibly varied career, from Apocalypse Now to The Matrix. 38 years after scoring his big break in Frances Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie, Fishburne is one of the stars of Richard Linklater’s own commentary on war, Last Flag Flying, which is currently in theaters.
Fishburne plays Richard Mueller, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam and has created a new life for himself as a reverend. When his old pals Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Doc (Steve Carell) show up out of the blue at his church, Mueller finds himself embarking on a road trip to bury Doc’s son, a soldier who was killed in Iraq and is entitled to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Fishburne clearly enjoyed working with Linklater, as he also plays a smaller role in the director’s next movie Where’d You Go Bernadette? starring Cate Blanchett. A well-respected veteran within the acting ranks, Fishburne is the rare actor to straddle the DCEU and the MCU, with roles in both Man of Steel and Marvel’s upcoming sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp, in which he plays Dr. Bill Foster, a character who has played a large role in Ant-Man’s solo comics.
The Tracking Board sat down with Fishburne a few weeks back to talk about all these things, and read through to the end, where Fishburne pays tribute to his mentor, Harry Dean Stanton.
Last Flag Flying is just wonderful, seeing the trio of you working from Rick’s script, just the way he’s made a commentary on war.
Yeah, how beautiful is it?
He made a war movie without actually …
Without actually showing war.
Do you get the screenplay and say, “Oh, this is Rick Linklater. Should be good.”
Actually, I got a call from Rick about it and then we had a great conversation. Then I got the script, and I immediately had a sort of intuitive response to it. This was a grief piece even more than it’s a war piece. We’re dealing with the death of a child, which is the most unnatural of all things. As human beings we think of that as being unnatural, although it’s something that happens more often than one would think. That requires you to grieve, it forces you to grieve. That’s not something you can just put away. You have to deal with that, when you lose a child. That’s kind of how I think of the piece to begin with. What’s great about it is, inside of all of that, there’s this buddy movie. That allows for laughter and joy while you’re grieving.
Are you one of those guys who reads the screenplay the whole way through?
Yeah, I read the script. I generally will read a script once, just once. The nature of making film and television is that you have to shoot out of sequence anyway. What I love about it is the reading of it once. It requires me to hold on to the story, and the most important thread of the story, it requires me to hold on to it. Whatever that feeling is that I get from reading it once, I hold onto that, and then craft whatever needs to be crafted on the day for whatever it is that we’re shooting on the day. Knowing that all I have to do to remember my place is, “Okay, if I’m in this moment, where did I come from and where am I going?”
What’s your familiarity with the original movie The Last Detail — had you seen it? Do you know it?
I had seen it when I was a kid and loved it. You know it’s Hal Ashby, man. I remembered that because after I committed to this, it happened to be on, so I watched it again, and I was like, it made me so happy. Because you know the movie isn’t about anything, it’s not about anything. It’s these three guys, and because it’s not about anything in particular, it’s about everything.
Then, you know, Otis is so good. I remember thinking when I first saw it as a kid, I was like, “Yeah.” You know it’s one of the few roles for a man of color in a movie with a major star like Nicholson was at the time, and this guy is on par with Nicholson. They are the same rank. For me as an actor, that was quite inspirational because I thought, “Oh, there’s roles for me. There’s going to be roles for me,” because I was a young actor then.
Did you literally see it when it came out? Because I think you would have been twelve.
Yeah, but I saw it because my father would take me to movies that were totally inappropriate for my age.
Right, because there was a lot of swearing going on in the ‘70s.
Yeah, my old man would take me. It might’ve been one of those things that I actually … You know what? I bet, if I’m not mistaken, it might’ve been one of those movies that I played hooky from school to go to 42nd Street to see. When I was about 12 or so. Yeah, so I could sneak it into the movies.
Now I think Rick is trying to get away from this being a sequel to that movie.
It is, it’s not a sequel. Even though it’s based on the books, it’s not a sequel because it doesn’t have the Vietnam component. Like Last Detail, they’re not Vietnam era guys, they’re before it. There’s no Vietnam, they’re shore patrol guys and they’re just f*cking off. This has the Vietnam component, he and Darryl put the Vietnam component in it, so now you have this multi-generational thing with the Iraq veterans and the Vietnam veterans communicating, which goes on a lot now and is very, very important. It’s a relationship that really hadn’t existed before because Civil War veterans didn’t get to talk to World War I veterans. World War I veterans really didn’t get to talk to World War II veterans. Then the Vietnam veterans and the World War II veterans, they didn’t really have that kind of bond either because they didn’t understand each other. These guys do, so it’s interesting.
You got to do a Vietnam movie when you were young and you get to do-
That’s the other thing. Everything that happened to me while making Apocalypse Now, while making Rumors of War, while making Gardens of Stone, all Vietnam era pieces; all those movies informed what I was able to do in this movie.
Mueller’s sort of a two pronged character, because he has this past where he’s big, loud … He’s probably more like Sal at one point.
He was very much like Sal. He put that in perspective, has a woman in his life who has supported him in being a good man as opposed to being reckless, and he has a flock that he’s the shepherd of– he’s responsible for other people’s spiritual lives.
What’s Rick like as a director?
He’s fantastic. He’s so easy going. It’s like he’s got this true collaborative spirit. He’s inquisitive about everything. Really good directors know what not to say, and Rick’s really good about that. He knows how to ask questions. In asking the right question, there’s room for discovery, and there’s room for your imagination, and there’s room to make mistakes. Everything doesn’t have to work, and if everything doesn’t work, that’s okay. It may get us to the thing that does work.
I know you worked with Bryan before, what was it like for the three of you? I know you spent like two and a half weeks in rehearsal.
Yeah, two and a half weeks of rehearsal, which was nice. Gave us time to walk through it, gave Darryl [Ponicsan, writer of the original novels] time to see what we were up to, and to come and bring us other stuff. That was invaluable. Yeah, we just put it all together, man. We would work as we did in rehearsal. We’d read a scene, talk about it, read a scene, talk about it. On the day we would shoot it, we would read it and talk about it some more. Then we would go execute, and it was just so valuable and such a pleasure.
Congratulations on the success of Black-ish and how well that’s being received. I love Anthony Anderson and have been a huge fan for many years, so I’m glad he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.
Me too, exactly.
What’s it been like doing TV again?
it’s funny, because I did Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the 80’s, then I did CSI. I was on CSI for three seasons, and then I did three seasons of Hannibal. From 2008, I’ve pretty much been in the television world quite a lot. Never a series comedy other than Pee-wee‘s, which I don’t know if you qualify that as series comedy. It’s not really sitcom, comedy yes, but not sitcom. It’s been a blast doing black-ish. I haven’t made a movie like this in a very long time because they don’t make movies like this anymore. I’ve been lucky enough, blessed enough to be in the franchise of the DC world, and now I’ve been blessed to be in the Marvel world. I’m one of the few actors that’s actually been able to be in both DC and Marvel universes. That’s exciting to me because I read both comics.
Do you have kids who are young enough to appreciate their dad being in comic book movies.
Yes, absolutely. That’s cool. The movie thing, I’ve managed to do some small little independent things. Did this thing called The Signal, which I enjoyed doing, this thing called Standoff, which was fun. This kind of material, this is really rarefied now.
I know you can’t say anything about Marvel, but what was it like being in that world?
I was like a kid in a candy store a week and a half ago when I was there because I realized where I was. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in the Marvel Universe.” It’s very exciting for me, I was an avid comic book reader as a child, from the time I was, I would say six or seven years old. I was primarily a Marvel guy growing up here in New York City. The books were reflecting what was happening in New York City at the time, particularly Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, then Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. You just name it, there were so many of the comic book characters that lived here in New York.
Were you already familiar with Bill Foster? He’s such a great character and they’ve done such interesting things with him.
He is. It’s cool, I’m super excited about that.
I’m not sure if this was known before but when I saw John Wick 2, it was a nice surprise to see you reunited with Keanu Reeves.
No, it was a nice little surprise at the bottom of the Cracker Jack bag.
Do you think they’ll bring your character back for the third movie?
I’m sure they will. What that was was I had a chance to hang with Keanu after I had seen the first movie. I had such a good time watching the first movie and he was training for the second one. I was like, “Bro, you got to talk to the guys”, because all of my friends are in the movie. You know John Leguizamo is in the movie, McShane’s in the movie. You just name it, David Patrick Kelly shows up in the movie. I’m like, “Dude, please put me.” As it turned out, they did kind of have me in mind for that at any rate.
That’s one of those smaller roles where, like you said, you could just go in a couple days.
It was basically like two days. It’s nice to be a part of it, man
And you also made another movie with Rick…
Yeah, i just did two days with him on Bernadette with Cate Blanchett. After we did Flag, he called me and said, “I want you to come do two days. It’s a scene, Cate Blanchett.” I was like, “I’m in.”
He tells you’re just going to stand there.
“She’s going to talk, you listen.” I was like, “I’m in. I’m good with that. I’m really, really good with that.”
Congratulations on this amazing career you’ve had. Hopefully I’ll get to talk to you again in less than 10 years.
By the way, I recently rewatched King of New York at this theater near me and thought it would be cool for a theater to do a retrospective of your films while you’re still alive.
I would like that.
They did one for Harry Dean Stanton at the Quad downtown, and it had been planned before he passed away.
Are they? Harry was one of my uncles you know. When I did Apocalypse Now, I flew over to the Philippines with Harry Dean Stanton. Yeah, when I was 14. Harry was very, very dear to me. I miss him terribly.
Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is still playing in select cities across the country, so check it out while you can.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor