Published in The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — LAURENCE FISHBURNE first read the one-man play “Thurgood” while flying last year from New York to Boston, where he was being honored as the Harvard Foundation’s artist of the year. After checking into his hotel, he walked down a hall lined with portraits of Harvard alumni and paused in front of one of them: Charles Hamilton Houston, a Harvard Law graduate who was Thurgood Marshall’s mentor. “I thought to myself, well, I really don’t have a choice about whether I should do this play or not,” he said.
Much of what Mr. Fishburne does — onstage, on screen and in life — is driven by intuition rather than deliberation. “Most actors are nervous, they’re timid, they find their way sideways into the role, they find every reason not to actually do the scene, they’d rather talk about it for a hundred years,” said Leonard Foglia, the director of “Thurgood,” which opens Wednesday at the Booth Theater. “Laurence is a very visceral person.”
Sheldon Epps, who directed Mr. Fishburne in “Fences” at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, said, “The first word that comes to mind is fearless.”
Mr. Fishburne’s impulses have led him to play a wide range of roles. He was a king (“The Lion in Winter”) and an ex-con (“Two Trains Running”) on Broadway. He received an Oscar nomination for playing Ike Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in 1994.
At a lunch interview in a Los Angeles cafe, Mr. Fishburne — who arrived on his BMW GS1100 motorcycle wearing jeans and a tight, black long-sleeve shirt adorned in tattoo art — recalled a high school field trip to Broadway to see James Earl Jones in a solo play about the black actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.
“He was never mentioned in any classroom I had been in, and I learned a great deal,” he said. “I was inspired.”
Before reading George Stevens Jr.’s script for “Thurgood,” he knew little about Marshall’s early career as the civil rights lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that ended official segregation in public schools. “My only real knowledge of him was that he was the first black man appointed to the United States Supreme Court,” Mr. Fishburne said. “I thought that this would be an opportunity for me to educate people.”
Fittingly, Mr. Fishburne is taking over a role originated by Mr. Jones, at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut in 2006. It’s a familiar path for him: in “Fences,” he played Troy Maxson, the role for which Mr. Jones won a Tony Award.
Mr. Jones decided not to continue with “Thurgood” and is now on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Through a publicist, he declined comment, except to say that he admires Mr. Fishburne’s talents and wishes the production good luck. “Thurgood” is presented as a lecture at Howard University, where Marshall attended law school. Marshall, 83 years old and retired, takes the audience on a journey through his career, with a focus on his fight for integration.
Mr. Fishburne is 46, three decades younger than Mr. Jones but only a year older than Marshall was when the Brown decision was announced. “I hope to be able to play it with a kind of energy that he would have had at that time,” he said.
Mr. Fishburne had little experience with segregation. Though he was born in Augusta, Ga., in 1961, at about 4 he moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, a melting-pot neighborhood where he played with children from many backgrounds. “I learned tolerance at a very early age,” he said.
He does remember his mother dropping him at his grandmother’s house before flying to Atlanta to attend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Currently, in his home in the French Quarter of New Orleans (he also lives in Hollywood and New York), he keeps Jim Crow-era signs on the wall as a reminder.
Mr. Fishburne never went to college and shunned acting lessons, preferring to learn through experience, from mentors like Francis Ford Coppola (who directed him in “Apocalypse Now” and other films) and by emulating his idols, including Mr. Jones, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. “I work with my instincts,” he said. “I don’t have a process that I learned in an acting class whereby I break a script down or whereby I do a certain kind of research.”
Marshall is akin to Mr. Fishburne’s many mentor-teacher figure roles, among them Furious Styles in “Boyz N the Hood” and Morpheus in the “Matrix” movies. In these roles, through his poised demeanor and his precise, confident intonation, Mr. Fishburne exudes intelligence and moral authority. For roles at the other end of the spectrum, like the casino enforcer in the recent film “21,” he puts on a swagger and gives his voice more of an edge.
Similarly, Marshall, a world-class raconteur, would adapt his speaking style to his audience — exaggerating his drawl while in Southern courtrooms, for instance. “The voice he spoke to his wife with would have been very different from the voice he would have used when he was arguing Brown,” Mr. Fishburne said.
Toward the end of lunch Mr. Fishburne’s wife, the actress Gina Torres, showed up, and the couple cooed over their baby daughter, Delilah. Were the three of them all going home on the BMW? “Never,” Ms. Torres said. “She is never going to ride her daddy’s motorcycle.” Minutes later Mr. Fishburne put on his helmet, got on his bike and sped off toward Hollywood.