Actor Laurence Fishburne

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Award-winning actor shares how he balances reprising the role he originated on Broadway as the first African American Supreme Court justice in Thurgood with his star turn in TV’s CSI.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Laurence Fishburne on this program. The Oscar-nominated actor, of course, continues on one of TV’s most popular shows, “CSI,” and if you are lucky enough to be in L.A. or in the L.A. area over the next month or so you can catch him in the brilliant play “Thurgood.” The production runs here at the Geffen Playhouse from July 7th to August 8th. Here now a scene from “Thurgood.”
Tavis: You were studying that clip so hard, like you were looking for something.
Laurence Fishburne: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: What were you looking for?
Fishburne: I can’t tell you that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Is that part of your process?
Fishburne: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: You are as cantankerous as ever, and that’s why I love you.
Fishburne: That’s right, that’s right. How you doing?
Tavis: How you been, man?
Fishburne: I’m good, man. You?
Tavis: I’m good, good to see you.
Fishburne: You too, you too.
Tavis: Let’s bring onto the air what we were discussing off-air the minute you walked on set.
Fishburne: These hearings, these Elena Kagan hearings, yes.
Tavis: These Elena Kagan hearings. I have been upset about two things regarding – upset about a lot of things this week, but two things with specific regard to the late, great, Justice Marshall.
One, in no particular order, these Republicans, many of them, have been beating his legacy like it were a piñata. I can’t – I’m like Popeye. I done stoods all I can stand –
Fishburne: (Laughs) And I can’t stands no more.
Tavis: – I can’t stands no more for how they’ve been treating Thurgood Marshall this week in these hearings, and his legacy, number one.
Fishburne: Okay, right.
Tavis: That’s not making me happy. Number two, for all that Thurgood Marshall did to give Ms. Kagan in her twenties an opportunity to clerk for him, I personally don’t think she has been as aggressive defending his legacy as she should have been.
Fishburne: Right, right.
Tavis: That’s my take. I ain’t playing Thurgood Marshall. Have you seen any of this stuff?
Fishburne: I’ve read a lot of this stuff and just my take on it is that the Republicans are not aware of Thurgood’s history, his contribution, his writings, his rulings as a justice. They are ignorant of just how effective and long-lasting the changes are that he was responsible for creating in this country.
If they really, really were aware of the history they would have to come away being very ashamed of the things that they’re attempting to do, because I think they’re attempting to beat up his legacy. I don’t think they’re being successful at all, and I would think that Kagan would argue that Justice Marshall doesn’t need to be defended, that his work basically speaks for itself.
Tavis: See, that’s why I love you. That’s a charitable and generous read, I think, on your part. Because if I were there and they were hitting Thurgood the way they were, I’d have to stand up and say, “Wait, wait, hold up.”
Fishburne: Stop.
Tavis: We’re not going to slam Justice Marshall like this.
Fishburne: Right, right, right.
Tavis: But then again I’m not nominated for Supreme Court either, so.
Fishburne: Justice Marshall was always up for a fight. Justice Marshall could trade body blows with anybody. So I think Justice Marshall’s legacy can more than stand up to these – it’s like shooting mosquitoes with an elephant gun.
Tavis: I’m with you on that, we agree on that part. This kind of talk about Marshall does what, if anything, for the launching of this play?
Fishburne: Well, I think it’s nice to have his name spoken. We were in D.C. just before we came here, performing for three weeks at the Kennedy Center, at the Eisenhower Theater, to a real triumph. We had standing ovations every evening and we had Supreme Court justices from the chief justice to Sotomayor, the president and the first lady, the attorney general – so many people came through.
Any time we’re talking about Thurgood Marshall, that’s a good thing, I think, because it gives us an opportunity to go back, look at the history and recognize what his contributions were.
Tavis: I saw you, as you recall, on Broadway with the play and had a great time seeing it there. To your point now, what was it like playing him in Washington?
Fishburne: I don’t think I will ever have a better experience playing Thurgood Marshall than I had in Washington. He was from Baltimore, which is right there, he went to school in D.C. at Howard, he went to college at Lincoln, which is on the border. The Supreme Court was right there, we got a great tour of the Supreme Court while we were there.
I actually had the opportunity to stand at the lectern in the Supreme Court and face the justices, which was really a powerful thing for me.
The airport in Baltimore is named after him. So his personage – as I said, we got standing ovations every evening. A lot of that, certainly some of that, was for my performance, but I have to give credit where credit is due and I believe that most of that was for his personage, his legacy, his work as a hometown guy.
Tavis: I promise not to ask a follow-up – there is no follow-up coming behind this, and I’m not asking to put you on the spot or start any mess, but I am just curious.
Fishburne: Yes, sir.
Tavis: When you mentioned that certain justices came to see it, including Sotomayor, to your knowledge, was Justice Thomas there?
Fishburne: Justice Thomas, to my knowledge, did not attend.
Tavis: Just asking.
Fishburne: No problem.
Tavis: Just asking.
Fishburne: Yeah, understood. Understood.
Tavis: Where was I now? (Laughter)
Fishburne: See, you took yourself out. You thought – you were waiting for me to take you out; you took yourself out.
Tavis: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. (Laughter) I’m just asking, that’s all.
Fishburne: No, Justice Thomas didn’t make it.
Tavis: Okay. So a little birdie told me that – I don’t know how, but a little birdie told me that this one-man show is even better now than when I saw it on Broadway. I can’t imagine –
Fishburne: Is that right? Somebody said that to you?
Tavis: I hear that. (Laughter) I can’t imagine that. Is that possible? Have you tweaked it a little bit?
Fishburne: It is certainly deeper. It is certainly deeper and richer because I had the two years to sort of let it ferment and geminate inside me. Then bringing it back out, having gone to D.C. and played it where it all happened, so to speak, has added something to it.
The Marshall family has graced me with their presence in the audience many, many, many times and given me so much love. All of these things have just enriched the performance. I think I’ve grown with it. I think it’s much deeper. I think you’ll see that when you come check it out.
Tavis: What drew you to this material, to playing him in the first place?
Fishburne: When I read the material I learned so much. I had no idea that for example he argued Brown v Board of Education and won. I only knew that he was the first African American Supreme Court justice.
So learning that he argued Brown, for example, that he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them –
Tavis: Was solicitor general, ironically, the same position that Kagan has now.
Fishburne: Right, was solicitor general, and that he and the team that Charlie Houston put together, Charlie Houston being the architect of dismantling legal segregation in this country.
That the two of them and their team – well, the team of them systematically dismantled segregation, legalized segregation in this country over a period of what really is 20 years.
There’s 20 years of work that went into what the result of – the result being Brown versus the Board of Education. That’s astonishing, and that’s real long-view thinking, it is an incredible way to use the law.
This is important stuff for people to know. This is important stuff for people to know, so I just thought, well, you know what? I can make some kind of small contribution doing this.
Tavis: With a life and legacy as rich and full as his is, how do you go about whittling this down to the time frame?
Fishburne: Well, the playwright, George Stevens Jr., has done a great job of doing it. Basically he takes two things – he takes the history of the whole sort of civil rights movement, with respect to how they used the law, how they worked within the construct of the law, and Thurgood’s personal story, his personal history, and he sort of weaves them together in such a way that the history that you’re receiving is coming at you in such a personalized way and such a human way that it reflects everyone’s history in this country.
Tavis: I’m still blown away – I’ve asked this question of you in our private conversations; now I’ll ask it publicly. I am just – it’s mind-boggling to me to watch you perform this, to figure out how you recall all of this dialogue.
Fishburne: Yes, yes.
Tavis: It’s just you.
Fishburne: It’s just me.
Tavis: For what, 90 minutes?
Fishburne: Ninety minutes.
Tavis: Just you. That’s a lot of dialogue.
Fishburne: Sure, it’s a lot of dialogue. Well, think about it this way. When we were in D.C. I did an interview with a gentleman who gave me a recording of Justice Marshall arguing before the Supreme Court in 1958, and in the performance, in the show, Thurgood argues before the Supreme Court in 1952 and is interrupted 43 times by the justices. In 1958 he argues before the Supreme Court again. He argues for 90 minutes; he wasn’t even interrupted three times.
Now, he was just doing what he was doing as a lawyer. I don’t know how much of what he was arguing was written down. I have a whole script that’s been written down that I’ve been practicing for (laughter) two and a half years now. It’s kind of like a big piece of music to me.
If I was a musician I would have to know – and I was going to play a piece, a symphony, I’d have to be able to read the music but I’d also have to play the music in time. So for me it’s just kind of like what I imagine a musician does in learning a piece of music and then playing it.
Tavis: I was pleasantly surprised by this, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to see it, but I was pleasantly surprised, Fish, when I saw that it wasn’t just a recitation of his legal prowess.
Fishburne: No.
Tavis: I learned.
Fishburne: Okay.
Tavis: I consider myself a decent student of Marshall, decent. I learned so much about his personal life and about his back story that made the play, I thought, really work.
Fishburne: Well, this is why it’s such an engaging evening, because you come sort of with the expectation that it’s just going to be this presentational recitation of law and facts and dates, and what you get is you get the monumental storyteller.
This man was in the tradition of the African griot. He was a master storyteller, and every story had a lesson, every story had a reason, every story – he had someplace he was going to take you with the story.
And he was going to expose you to something, he was going to get you to look at something in a different way, in a way that was completely different from the way – here’s a glass. Look at this glass. I’m going to tell you this story, take you around the world, and by the time we get over to this side of it you’re going to look at this glass and you’re going to be like, “Wow, I didn’t know all of that was capable – I didn’t know you could hold all that in that glass.”
Tavis: Apparently, a funny a guy – a prankster.
Fishburne: Hilarious. Hilarious, which is the other thing that I get to do that I don’t normally get to do. People don’t really – you know that I’m funny because you and I have spent some time together, but he was really, really a very funny man.
Tavis: A lot of folk know you’re funny. We remember Cowboy Curtis.
Fishburne: Yeah, okay.
Tavis: Way, way, way, way back.
Fishburne: Way back.
Tavis: (Laughs) To your point about being funny and all the various things you’ve had a chance to play – this is a crazy question; let me ask anyway – how do you situate this thus far in your body of work?
Fishburne: I don’t really know. There’s a good chance that I will be able to grow with this piece, do it every three or four years. Just take it out, shake it off, travel to a different city and perform, which will keep –
Tavis: You love the material that much, to do it?
Fishburne: I love the material that much. I think the material is that important. I think that I am well matched to it. I think I’m suited to it well.
Tavis: Let me jump here. Why do you think that? I agree, but why do you think that?
Fishburne: Well, you know when your clothes fit. (Laughter) You know when your clothes fit right.
Tavis: I like that. It just fits, huh?
Fishburne: You know when your clothes fit and you put it on and you like it and it makes you feel – so I think it’s a good suit of clothes for me.
Tavis: You wear it well.
Fishburne: Yes, and again, it is important material. It is not going to lose any significance in our lifetime. In our lifetime it won’t lose any significance. It’s the kind of history that people need to know, and it comes at people in a way that is so much fun.
By the time the first 20 minutes goes by people are sort of – I think they’re very sort of caught off-guard by how much fun they’re having, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that we’ve known each other for a while, and I don’t want to overstate our relationship, but I’ve never regarded you – you may very well be – I’ve never regarded you as an overly sentimental sort of guy.
Fishburne: Okay.
Tavis: I say that to ask whether or not there are certain sentiments, certain emotions running through you when, to your earlier point, you get a chance to play this in Washington and it just so happens that the president, the first African American president, is in the audience watching you play Thurgood Marshall. Tell me about that night.
Fishburne: This was huge for me. We did the show in New York in 2008 when he was running for president, and we had word from the playwright, George Stevens Jr., that he might attend a performance one evening. Ultimately he didn’t because he was very busy; he was running for president.
I was also told that he keeps a portrait of Thurgood Marshall in his private office, so quite naturally one would assume that Marshall was a role model for him. So he becomes elected, that’s terrific. All the feelings that all of us have about that in this country, regardless of what color we are, that it signals that there’s some kind of change at work in the American psyche and in American hearts.
So to be in D.C., for President Obama and Mrs. Obama to come to the show with the attorney general and his wife –
Tavis: First Black attorney general.
Fishburne: Okay? I said to them when I met them afterwards, I said that you have inspired people in this country so much and I just wanted to do something to help inspire you to continue so that you can continue to do what you’re doing. Because the size of the responsibility that this man and his family have taken on is – I can’t even imagine what it must be like.
Tavis: The irony, as I listen to you now talk about this, Laurence, the irony for me about Marshall specifically is that while we do and should celebrate the fact – somebody once said that every race should be judged by the best they’ve been able to produce and not by the worst.
Fishburne: Oh.
Tavis: So Marshall clearly ranks among the best that our people have ever given the world.
Fishburne: Absolutely, sure.
Tavis: So we should revel and celebrate in that, this Black man and his accomplishment on the one hand.
On the other hand, what I celebrate about Marshall is not so much the fact that he was Black or what he did for Blacks, but I celebrate the humanity that was at the epicenter of all – does that make sense?
Fishburne: Absolutely. A gentleman was at the show the other night and he said that when Marshall retired he was walking down the steps of the Supreme Court. I reporter approached him and asked him, “Justice Marshall, do you believe that your service on the Supreme Court has been beneficial to Black and brown Americans?”
Justice Marshall replied, “I believe that my service on the Supreme Court has been beneficial to all Americans.” I think that’s really who he was as a human being.
Tavis: Folk get that when they see the play if they happen not to be Black?
Fishburne: They do. They do. Yes, they do.
Tavis: So how are you balancing this now with your TV work?
Fishburne: The theater work gives texture to the other work. This I learned from the late Lloyd Richards, who directed the August Wilson cycle from the very beginning. He was August’s partner at the beginning and he said that the theatrical work lends and gives texture to the film work, the television work.
So this nine weeks that I’m playing the show is only going to make me stronger and is only going to get me more fired up. By the time I get back to “CSI” I’ll just be bubbling with stuff and hopefully we can apply it to that and make that more exciting for people.
Tavis: I was flipping channels the other day and you’re on somewhere all the time.
Fishburne: Somewhere. (Laughs)
Tavis: I was flipping channels and “Cornbread, Earl and Me” was –
Fishburne: That’s what happens when you work for 40 years.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughs) I’m glad you said that.
Fishburne: That’s what happens when you make movies for 40 years.
Tavis: I’m flipping and I come across “Cornbread, Earl and Me” the other day and I know, of course, that we’re going to – I’m thinking that I’m going to see Laurence in a couple of days and talk about this Thurgood Marshall project.
I was wondering whether or not this career that you started when you were so young, has it turned out the way you thought it was? Has it –
Fishburne: It’s turned out much better.
Tavis: Much better, even.
Fishburne: Much better, are you kidding? Oh, much better. Yeah, God has been really good to me, Tavis. I have taken care of my gift, and because I’ve taken care of my gift I feel like I’ve been continually and constantly blessed to get to do wonderful things.
I’m getting to play Thurgood Marshall at a time when there are a lot of people that don’t know who he was and what he did. And I have the opportunity not only to sort of educate them about that but to entertain them at the same time, and they come away inspired. That’s a gift. That’s an incredible gift.
Tavis: When you said earlier that you have taken care of the gift, you’ve taken care of the instrument, by that you mean what?
Fishburne: I mean I’ve tried not to be lazy, I’ve tried not to do the same thing over and over again, I’ve tried to be as interesting as I can without completely alienating the audience. I’ve tried to do things that are different.
I don’t necessarily go out and try to do something that’s going to be just something that will please the audience. I’m not interested in doing something where I get the most people to come see the movie at the same time and they get the biggest explosion. I’m not interested in that.
But I am interested in touching people and reflecting our common humanity to people. I am interested in that.
Tavis: There’s a risk, it seems to me, though – it’s a beautiful thing if you’re so inclined, I would think, but there’s a risk in deliberately plotting and planning to do something different every time. It’s a beautiful thing –
Fishburne: I don’t necessarily think that risk is a bad thing. I think risk is important. I think for an artist, risk is very important. I was watching a biography of Miles Davis a couple of nights ago and his whole trajectory was about I did that, I’ve got to do something else, because I’ve just got to do something else, because I’m not going to be happy and it’s not going to be interesting.
If he hadn’t done all of that we wouldn’t have those last records. Those last two records of his, “Amandla” and “Tutu,” those things are just – they’re staggering.
Tavis: Some folk didn’t get that. Some folk pushed back on Miles for pushing the envelope so far. But it speaks for itself.
Fishburne: Yeah, yeah. Marshall wasn’t resting on his laurels, either. He was trying to take it as far as he could.
Tavis: Neither is Laurence Fishburne, that is to say, resting on his laurels. (Laughter)
Fishburne: Trying not to.
Tavis: That’s why he’s working like a –
Fishburne: That’s why I’m working.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly.
Fishburne: It’s working.
Tavis: It’ll work if you work it –
Fishburne: Exactly.
Tavis: – and he’s working it. (Laughter) His name, of course, Laurence Fishburne. The play is “Thurgood.” If you are lucky enough to be anywhere in Southern California, try to get a ticket to see this thing. It won’t be easy, but try to get a ticket to see it at the Geffen Playhouse. You got my tickets?
Fishburne: I have your tickets, Tavis.
Tavis: Whew – my man, my man. (Laughter) At least I know I can get in
Fishburne: You can get in.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Fishburne: You too, man. Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm