Fishburne lit the fire for `Akeelah'

Actor's standing helped to get spelling bee film - in which he plays a key role - off the ground


Laurence Fishburne always knew he was onto a good thing with Akeelah and the Bee. The hard part was finding a studio that agreed.

"We went around and tried to find a distributor and financing. We took lots and lots and lots of meetings," Fishburne says of the inspirational drama in which he plays Joshua Larabee, the demanding mentor to a young contestant in a national spelling bee. "And, finally, Lionsgate stepped up and said, `Yeah, we'll help you finance it.' And then this company called 2929 Films said, `Yeah, we'll help you, too.' It was a long and drawn-out process."

Actually, it was even harder than Fishburne makes it sound. The filmmakers spent four years working to bring their vision to the big screen. And one of the key factors in their success was when he agreed to sign on as one of the film's 13 credited producers.

"All I know," Fishburne says over the phone from Washington, where he's stumping on behalf of the movie, "is that it required me stepping in, in a producer's role, to be a catalyst, to get people excited about it."

That makes his involvement with Akeelah a testimony not only to Fishburne's good taste, but also to his standing within the Hollywood community, where he's one of only a handful of African-American actors with enough stature and box-office appeal to get a film green-lighted simply by agreeing to be in it.

Fishburne, 44 and the father of two, has been a working actor since he was 14, when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as the culture-shocked soldier Clean in Apocalypse Now. He has been nominated for an Oscar (as Ike Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It?) and won a Tony (in 1992, for August Wilson's Two Trains Running).

He also has performed Shakespeare onscreen (1995's Othello) and has been at the center of one of the past decade's most popular film franchises as Morpheus, the mysterious, glowering mentor to Keanu Reeve's Neo in The Matrix and its two sequels.

Of course, many filmgoers know him only as Morpheus, which makes his far quieter and less action-oriented role in Akeelah seem like a change of direction. Fishburne, however, doesn't see it.

"I don't know what people have come to expect of me," he says, sounding far more irritated than frustrated. "I keep hearing that, but that's ridiculous. It's weird, I really don't get it."

Perhaps his frustration is understandable. With more than 60 acting jobs on his resume (including next month's Mission: Impossible III, in which he'll be playing the head of the fabled Impossible Missions Force), it would be a shame to be typecast because of one role.

Certainly, Fishburne has never been a one-dimensional actor. He's played everything from a kid-friendly postman on TV's Pee-wee's Playhouse to a mob leader in the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. As Clean in Apocalypse Now - a role that forced him to decline an invitation to attend New York's famous School for the Performing Arts - Fishburne memorably captured the confusion and sense of displacement felt by so many of the young kids forced to shoot their way through the rice fields and along the serpentine rivers of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

In his role as Ike Turner, he managed to show what Tina Turner both loved and feared in her erstwhile husband and music soul mate.

"I don't think of them as albatrosses," Fishburne says. "I think of them as characters. Morpheus is a great character, just like Dr. Larabee is a great character."

More than that, Fishburne says he hopes viewers see Dr. Larabee as an inspirational character. "He's very warm, very paternal. ... Those are the things that really got me excited about playing him."

Even better, Fishburne says, maybe Dr. Larabee could set something of a precedent and raise the standard for African-American characters in a Hollywood too often willing to settle for the irresponsible, drug-addled stereotype.

"This is kind of ... a response to that kind of material," he says. "It's our way of trying to achieve some balance [when] representing our community in films.

"Hollywood's basically played to the lowest common denominator for a good 20 years now. All I know is, I'm trying to do things that are a little different, whenever I can."

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