Just when you get used to seeing Laurence Fishburne in splashy, fun popcorn projects, like playing "Black-ish's" curmudgeonly Pops Johnson on TV or as Daily Planet newsman Perry White in the DC Comics superhero films, he reminds you that he's also an Emmy Award-winning, Oscar-nominated actor of considerable power.
The latest reminder comes in the form of "Madiba," the ambitious six-hour BET miniseries chronicling the epic life of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned over decades for his attempts to combat South Africa's racist rule of apartheid but eventually became the country's president. A longtime admirer of Mandela, Fishburne immersed himself in research in preparation for playing one of the preeminent leaders of the 20th century, discovering unexpected grace notes along the way, as he reveals to Moviefone.
Moviefone: You were very familiar with Nelson Mandela prior to your involvement with "Madiba" -- you saw him speak in Atlanta during his U.S. tour. Tell me what this project brought to you that was new about him.
Laurence Fishburne: So many things. Really interesting, unknown things, from the years that he worked in the rock quarry on Robben Island, they forbid the prisoners to wear shades while they were working. So it damaged his tear ducts, and he was unable to cry. Little things like that are just fascinating.
He had a very interesting relationship with food. Orlando said in another interview, he was institutionalized. He lived in jail for a long time. So as a result of that, when he was released from prison and began an earnest to travel the world as a statesman, he never changed time zones on his watch. Never. And he always ate at the same time. No matter where he was, he ate on South African time. Little things like that.
Versions of his story have been told before. Why do you think the time was right for this particular angle?
I think the time has always been right, it's just -- it's taken somebody a long time to develop it and really get the opportunity to do it. So we have the opportunity to tell the story in six hours, which nobody has done, which means we have the opportunity to really, really open the thing up and start bringing up more information, and introducing more characters.
He was really concerned that people understood that it wasn't just him. That if the ANC was the spear that broke apartheid he was the tip of the spear. But there are other parts to the spear, and you get to meet those other individuals in this in a real way. You get to learn more about Sisulu, and Tambo, and Ruth First, and Joe Slovo, and Kathrada, and all these people that have been on the periphery of the story in different tellings of it. But now they really all come front and center. It's really good.
Is there something good about the timing of the film, with the current political climate?
I don't know. The whole timing of things -- I never stop to think about those kind of things. I'm too invested in trying to just get my little part right. I'm not worried about the timing of it
To have the opportunity as an actor to bring your own skills to one of the great inspiring speakers of history -- tell me about figuring that out that element of the equation.
That's huge. That's huge. First of all, I was excited and I was honored to be asked. Then you get a little scared. You go, "Oh sh*t, what am I getting myself into?" I realize that I could trust myself after a while, if I was just honest, and I did my best, and was humbled with it.
But it's a huge thing, because there are very few personages, there's a handful of personages like this in history. There's Gandhi. There's Christ. There's a few kings, a few emperors, some queens, you know what I mean? So it's daunting, but again, I had a lot of help. [Director] Kevin Hooks and I have known each other for over 40 years. We have a history in this business together. So there was a lot of safety in that for me. I'm very trustful to be in his hands.
For you, personally, what's the abiding lesson to take away from Madiba, the man?
The man? That humility. Humility is one of the most important qualities for any human being to have, and to develop, and to nurture. We're all capable of greatness, but we're also susceptible to being complete fools.
When you treat your fellow human beings with dignity and respect, and you do it with a certain kind of humility that is born of your common humanity, then there's room for your differences, and there's also room for cooperation, and for really meeting each other with the best that you have.
This election episode of "Black-ish" was so well-received. I imagine putting it together must have been a very special experience. What did that mean to you to be able to tell that story?
I was still reeling from the election results, frankly, when I got the call from Kenya [Barris] that he wanted to do something special about it. And he told me about it, and I thought, "Oh, that's cool."
So for me, I think it was smart to do with Junior and Pops, to sort of create a generational link, contextualize it that way for that generation of people. And yeah, the fact is, there was more to the speech than what we've become accustomed to. So it was nice to give that piece of information, have that piece of information out there. Because people are upset. Some people are happy, and some people are upset.
We live in a great country, in that you can actually be upset. You can actually give voice to your feelings. And we also have a responsibility to try and figure out how to deal with it, how to deal with it in a civilized way. So yeah, it's cool.
At this stage in your career, to be able to do a dramatic historic piece like this, to be able do a thoughtful sitcom, to do a big blockbuster where you play an icon from comic books -- you've got to be living an actor's dream.
Sure, it's fun. Dude, I'm so happy! I'm loving it. Where I'm at is a beautiful place, and the other good thing is, the other really sweet thing is, particularly this season, it's like I'm seeing all these other young actors who are coming up and doing this great work. All the guys from "Moonlight," these guys that are in this New Edition [telepic] -- all these guys are now like, they're having their moment, too, and getting to watch them, and be like, "Go, boys!" So that's cool, too.
The first installment of "Madiba" premieres tonight (Feb. 1) on BET.