"I was in fifth grade, and my mother wanted me to audition for this play," said Larry Fishburne, leaning back in his chair at the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in Detroit recently. "I said, `Get outta here. What do I have to do?' She said, `Sing a little song, do a little dance.' I said, `Get outta here.' She came back about a week later and said, `You know, you could have made $350 if you'd gone down there.' And I went, `$350? Why didn't you tell me?"'
Next time, Fishburne sang a little song, did a little dance and ended up as a professional actor at age 10. He's on screens all over the country now in "Cadence" as the head of the "Soul Patrol" stockade squad that teaches Charlie Sheen a few things about American social injustice. He's now on screen in "Class Action," playing Gene Hackman's smart partner in the law thriller that pits liberal activist Hackman against his yuppie lawyer daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.Martin Sheen, Fishburne's director for "Cadence," is an old friend. At 14, Fishburne was cast in "Apocalypse Now" and spent two years with director Francis Coppola and actors Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper in the Philippines. He went on to roles in Coppola's "Gardens of Stone," "The Cotton Club" and "Rumblefish." He starred in Spike Lee's "School Daze" and played gang member Jimmy Jump in last fall's "King of New York." He's touring the country in August Wilson's next play, "Two Trains Running," set for Los Angeles and New York in 1992.
Fishburne looked good in an African contemporary coat designed by Brooklyn's Bill Lester, accented by his silver Brazilian ornament of a tiny little guy shinning up his left ear lobe. It must be a good luck little guy because Fishburne has had a knack for being at the right place at the right time and making ensemble acting work with the right directors, movies and plays.
"When we did `Cadence,"' said Fishburne, "Martin asked if anything on the page didn't ring true. We said, `Well, some of it does, some of it doesn't.' He said we should feel free to add, take away. So we did. The march step was something the whole Soul Patrol worked out with a choreographer whose name is Russell Clark. He came in and he kind of watched us at work and at play and picked us apart. He took body parts off each person and kind of slammed together this jumbo thing that we all could do. And there's some of everybody in that `stockade shuffle' march step."
Fishburne figured out how to take the entertainment lead as the only child in a family that moved from Atlanta to Brooklyn when he was a little kid. "I used to go to the movies once a week and I'd come back and act out the movie for everyone," he remembered. "I was Peter Pan in second grade and all that kind of stuff. I had no brothers and sisters, so I had to do something."
He figured out how to become part of the group in something most 14-year-olds would consider a scary test: working for two years in the Philippines with big guns like Coppola, Brando and Martin Sheen. "I hung out with older people all the time," he says, "until Martin's family came. Then I hung out with Emilio (Estevez, Sheen's son), who was my age. Charlie was a couple years younger, but Emilio and I didn't hang out with him. 'Cause we didn't want 11-year-olds hanging out with us."
Notoriously, those two years didn't go like clockwork on a shoot known for its typhoon problems and Martin Sheen's heart attack. "The first day, we were going to shoot the scene where Capt. Willard's boat takes off," says Fishburne. "So we started heading out to sea, toward the mouth of the river. The boat had two engines on it, and one of them wasn't working that well.
"All of a sudden a noise comes from the engine and the technical advisor comes on deck and starts yelling, `It's gonna blow up!' So we turn the engine off, and we can't get it started. And we're at the mouth of the sea. And the whole crew leaves. And that was just the first day."
He met Spike Lee, he says, "when I was sitting in Washington Square Park one day watching Charlie Barnett the comic do his show. And a guy tapped me on the shoulder, and it was Spike.
"And he said, `I'm Spike Lee.' And he said, `You're Larry Fishburne. You're a great actor.'
"And I said, `Yeah?' And he said, `I'm Spike Lee. I got an Oscar. I did this movie. And I live in Brooklyn.' And I said, `I live in Brooklyn, too.' And he said, `I want to make movies. I want you to be in my movies.' And I said, `Great.' So that was it.
"A lot of the stuff in `School Daze' was just, like, `Go.' Spike's really good at setting up a nice framework for that. So if you're in the right group, you can really take it and make some nice things happen. Which is what did happen with myself, Bill Nunn, Kadeem Hardison, James Bond III and Branford Marsalis."
Part of Fishburne's role was to help the other actors prepare for the slow-motion, surrealistic ending of the movie that asks its audience to wake up and get moving to fight injustice. "Spike explained to me that the ending was a surreal kind of thing. And I'd come from Surrealism School in `Apocalypse Now.' So I was, like, `OK.' And people ask me sometimes, `What did you mean: wake up?' So I answer, `You don't know? You'd better go see the movie.' And that's what it is. If you don't get it, you'd better see it again."
Fishburne also has kept his eyes open to the roles originally intended for white actors. "With `King of New York,"' he said, "the role was written for Jimmy Russo. Then I came in and I'd been hearing about hip-hop gangsters, hip-hop gangsters. I'd hear about them in rap songs, and I thought, `How come I've never seen one in a movie?' So I thought, `I'll make the character like Flav R Flav, with two guns."'
His most important upcoming movie is "Boys in the 'Hood," about three black kids from south central L.A. and how they grow up. It's due this summer, from director John Singleton - "who," says Fishburne, "they are going to try and call the new Spike Lee. But he has his own style. He's a powerful writer. He doesn't leave a lot up to improv. You can really trust your text. He's something like the Coen Brothers, and `Miller's Crossing' (by the Coens) was my favorite gangster movie last year."
Right now, though, his big deal is August Wilson's "Two Trains Running." He'll get priceless experience developing the stage role during its two-year tour before opening to a virtually certain lock on Tony nominations in New York. "It's about seven characters and their relationships," says Fishburne. "It's more contemporary than Wilson's earlier plays in the series, set in the late '60s in a diner in Pittsburgh.
"The owner of the diner is in his 50s; he wants to sell the building. Another man who's an old regular there is like an old griot, a storyteller kind of man. He's into an old woman, Aunt Esther, who's 322 years old. Then there's Risa, the waitress, who's a very attractive woman and has scarred up her legs. Because men are always after her. So she figures she'll scar up her legs, and make herself less attractive. And then they'll have to look at her and see what kind of personality she has.
"Then there's Wolf, who's a numbers runner. Then there's Hambone. Hambone is the guy who painted the fence of a white man across the street, a butcher. And the man told him in advance he'd give him a chicken. And if he did a good job, he'd give him a ham. "My character's Sterling, who just got out of prison. He's got no job, and he wants to get his luck changed.
"And as far as acting, my chops are gonna be real serious by the time I finish that role."