‘Matrix’ Man Keeps the Faith
Having ensured his name stands the test of time in the pantheon of sci-fi greats, Laurence Fishburne discusses the parallels between his time in cinema and his faith off-screen.
With his imposing frame and booming voice, Laurence Fishburne would have suited the life of a preacher. Though he may have chosen acting as his profession – and now with a host of acclaimed performances to his name –the idea of Fishburne having a career in the Church is not as far-fetched as it seems.
“I wasn’t raised in a religious environment, but I’ve always had unshakeable faith,” the 57-year-old nods. “Always. And I’m grateful for that. God is real for me. Whatever name you want to give him is up to you. But I know that there is one. I know, because I believe.”
You can almost hear the sermon in Fishburne’s stage-honed voice.
“I believe in myself,” he declares. “I believe in God; I believe in my children; I believe in human beings. I believe in the goodness that is in human beings. I believe in many, many things that I cannot prove. I believe that there is the world of the seen and the world of the unseen.
“We’ve all had experiences. I mean, everything good that’s happened to me is proof to me of my relationship to God. I work for God, in fact. It’s total unshakeable faith. It’s comforting. Very comforting.”
Perhaps there was something about Fishburne’s hypothetically clerical manner that can be traced back to arguably his biggest success in his real-life vocation. Known mostly for starring alongside Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in the Wachowskis’ genre-defining Matrix trilogy, Fishburne’s black-clad and sunglass-wearing character Morpheus is an influential leader and teacher.
“People still like to call me Morpheus, but that’s cool!” he laughs. “It’s the kind of role that sticks to you and I’m fine with that, although I have to tell people my name is not Morpheus. It was a great chapter in my life and those films affected people and impacted audiences in a big way. I believe that The Matrix paved the way for all these big comic book films that have become so important in the last decade especially. The Matrix films changed the landscape.
“I knew it would be great, but I didn’t know if anybody would watch it. I knew we were making something amazing. But how people would respond to it was something else. It was the most original material that I had ever encountered. What was great about playing Morpheus is that he is like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi rolled up into one.”
Aside from fellow sci-fi references, Morpheus also represents a veritable smorgasbord of mythology and religious manifestations. Named after the Greek god of dreams, the character’s relationship with Reeves’ Neo – or ‘The One’ – has many similarities with the biblical story of John the Baptist. In fact, Fishburne believes that the twin ideologies of sci-fi and theology are often intertwined – with his most recognisable work playing a key part in that duality over the years.
“The Matrix franchise changed the landscape of movies,” he explains. “It brought philosophy to science fiction. For me, it’s an old story, biblical in its scope. It’s the story of the Messiah who saves the earth. But those movies took that story and added contemporary symbols in the form of technology. There was something ancestral told in a contemporary and universal way. I loved science fiction to begin with, because I am convinced that we are not by ourselves in the universe. I grew up with the Carl Sagan Cosmos series and Star Trek – I’m very curious about the world and everything that lies beyond.”
Fishburne’s interest in the more nuanced aspects of science fiction, and its relationship to his own ongoing search for guidance through his faith, could go some way to explaining most of his recent filmography. There has been standard sci-fi fare such as The Signal (2014) or Passengers (2016), and roles in several comic book adaptations, including DC’s Man of Steel in 2013 and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp last year.
Fishburne’s first major project came a lot closer to home, however, as Tyrone ‘Mr Clean’ Miller, the gangly gunboat-manning GI accompanying Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s visionary Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Though now considered a classic of the genre, Coppola’s film was originally met with mixed reviews – a disappointment for the 14-year-old Fishburne who had told the legendary director he was 16 in order to make his way onto set.
“It’s still regarded as one of his best films and one of the greatest films ever. I was pretty disappointed by the fact that the public didn’t respond to it the way a lot of us were expecting, but I think that was because the Vietnam War was such a bitter experience for Americans and not enough time had gone by for people to want to confront the reality of that.”
Still, Fishburne acknowledges the effect Apocalypse Now has had on him in terms of both his acting career and wider life off-screen.
“Out of the whole experience, what I learned is that sometimes you get disappointed in life,” he says. “You’ve got to figure it out and get over it, then move on. It’s not the disappointment that matters; it’s how you deal with it. As it is, I think of that movie as a kind of home movie. That movie is like my high-school yearbook. And I’ll never forget Martin Sheen being really generous and helpful to me one day after I had done 40 or 50 takes and I was having trouble with a scene I was doing. He saw I was struggling, and he came over and whispered in my ear: ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a really good actor?’ He gave me something I needed at that moment as a human being.”
The list of acclamations to Fishburne’s name includes a nomination for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, and a Tony and Emmy Award win for Two Trains Running and TriBeCa respectively. As he nears his milestone sixtieth birthday, Fishburne can look on the majority of his life as having been spent on the stage or screen.
“I became a professional actor at the age of ten,” he reveals. “I did my first play at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse in New York, and as soon as I was up on stage, I knew that I could do this for the rest of my life. I was completely sold on acting and the creativity and excitement that comes with it.”
Like many successful actors, Fishburne relied on the support of his mother Hattie to help him overcome hardships. A product of both America’s Deep South and the Big Apple, Fishburne’s family instilled the values of both in him from the outset.
“I was born in Georgia but then my family moved to New York when I was two and I grew up in Brooklyn,” he explains. Later, Hattie became invaluable in Fishburne’s future career, offering financial incentive for the Hollywood hopeful, and placing her young son’s acting advancement ahead of her own professional life.
“My mom encouraged me to keep auditioning for parts because she would tell me that I could earn several hundred dollars per week doing theatre or even more doing a series,” he chuckles. “My first gig turned out only to pay ten bucks a week, which was kind of a disappointment! But it didn’t matter, I was hooked on it. I loved acting.”
“There was something of the stage mother about her, I can’t deny that, but I could never have done Apocalypse Now had she not been willing to stop her life and be there with me. She was a great mother and I’m very grateful that she did that for me. She knew how important that role was and everything else that has happened to me in this business is the result of that film.”
As for his own family – consisting of son Langston and daughter Montana from his first marriage to actress Hajna Moss, and daughter Delilah with former wife and co-star Gina Torres – Fishburne is happy to emulate the kind of help his own mother showed him during his formative years. But he hasn’t yet been called upon to make good on that intention.
“I don’t know if they will become actors. I don’t know what they will become. They have their own ambitions and when they’re ready to share those ambitions with the world, they will. My children will become the people that they want to become. I would encourage them to do whatever they want to do, but nobody’s come to me yet and said, ‘Dad, I want to be in the business...’”
Incredibly for someone who was sharing a screen with Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper et al by their early teens, Fishburne entertained ideas of pursuing a profession that would have made similar use of his naturally influential persona, and been more in line with his mother’s talents as a science and mathematics teacher.
“The first thing I wanted to be was a doctor, so I was always interested in science,” he says. “So that was an early introduction to the kinds of film projects I would end up doing later in life. As an actor, I realised I could be anything. When I had an opportunity to use my scientific knowledge or curiosity in later roles, I would try to do that and explore my interest.”
Recently, Fishburne has revisited his most successful cinematic venture – at least in part – by starring opposite Keanu Reeves once again in the second and third instalments of the hugely popular John Wick series. His career on-screen may well be rooted back to Morpheus and the pair’s Matrix partnership, but it seems that the star himself is looking ever outwards at the prospect of bringing a sense of divine intervention and exploration to everyday life.
“It’s funny, but when I think of The Matrix, I’m not a tech freak at all,” he smiles. “I have a smartphone, but I don’t live with it the way most people do. I don’t use social media – I’d rather talk to people. And I still call people instead of sending text messages! But the real questions that interest me are more along the lines of: ‘What is the nature of God?’”
By Peter Wallace