Whether it be dramatizing the lessons of history in projects like "Roots," contributing the cultural comedy of "black-ish," or working opposite the superheroic national icons of the DC Extended Universe, much of Laurence Fishburne's work is very often centered at the heart of the American conversation.
That makes Fishburne an eminently appropriate choice to host PBS's broadcast of the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C., on May 28 alongside Joe Mantegna (filling in for the concert's traditional co-cost Gary Sinise), celebrating the service and sacrifices of the U.S. military and their families throughout the nation's history.
The actor joined Moviefone to reveal his thoughts on patriotism, paying tribute to the nation's servicemen and women, and, while celebrating "black-ish's" recent renewal for a fourth season, how happy he's been after a long dramatic career to finally be able to go for some big laughs.
Moviefone: Why was the opportunity to host this concert, this annual tradition, a "yes" for you. What was the thing about it that made you say "That's something that I absolutely want to go out and do"?
Laurence Fishburne: There's a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Joe Mantegna and I have been friends for a very long time. Gary Sinise and I have been friends for a long time. They invited me, I'm going to say about seven years ago. They wanted me to come and read a piece that we called "The Last Full Measure." It was an Abraham Lincoln speech that he delivered about the sacrifices that were made during the Civil War.
And that experience really kind of opened my eyes to just how special the National Memorial Day Concert is, in that it celebrates servicemen and women and their families, and it's a very small, but I think meaningful way, for us civilians to express our appreciation for our military. So that was the first reason.
Then, I returned again not too long ago. I also read another piece. It feels good to acknowledge these folks for the sacrifices that they make and for their hard work. So of course when Joe asked me, all I could say was yes. No would have been, like, completely inappropriate to say.
What do you enjoy about a performance that is an oratory, where you get to perform primarily in the reading, without all of the extra acting elements?
I had a whole orchestra behind me -- are you kidding? It was fantastic. Reading this beautiful, eloquent, moving speech, and I had the benefit of the orchestra with strings. It doesn't get any better than that.
Why do you think it's extra important for us to show up for these kind of events, and to engage in this kind of celebration and remembrance, particularly at this moment in time?
Because people are making huge sacrifices. People are in the military making supreme sacrifice in some cases. They're prepared to lay down their lives. They keep us safe. They go for long stretches of times without being with their families. They put themselves in harm's way. That demands our attention and our thanks.
You've been involved in a lot of projects that have cracked open history and exposed a wide audience to stories and moments in time, and you're certainly learning a lot about these things as an actor performing in it. Tell me about, for you, the value of these history lessons through your art, where we're learning about what's happened in the past.
I think of myself as being an eternal student. I'm very curious about the world. I'm very curious about my country. I'm very curious about what makes us tick as human beings. So these stories that you're referring to are, from a distance, examples of where we come from. There's lots of great lessons inside of those things.
Yeah, it's just I have a pretty insatiable curiosity about, not just my country, but the world. I'm always looking for things that are going to teach me something, and if I can teach somebody something from telling that story, then I feel like I've done my job.
We've been talking about Washington, D.C., and events taking place there in our everyday lives, pretty much every day, for the past several months. Are you interested to be in D.C. and catch the mood and see what's going on in that city right now?
Yeah, it'll be very interesting to see. I have not been to D.C. I might have been to D.C. briefly since President Trump has taken office. I haven't been in a while, so it will be interesting to see what the energy is like in D.C.
There's a lot of different feelings about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a patriot these days. Can you talk about where you fall in that discussion right now?
I feel, still, very proud to be an American. I was not a supporter of the current administration. But it is the administration that we have. I'm hopeful that things won't get too out of hand. Although, depending upon who you ask, some would say that things are already out of hand.
I'm still very, very much someone who loves our country, and I love our country. I think that we still have a lot to offer the world, collectively and individually, and I feel like this is a moment where we as artists have an opportunity to show through our work the best of the American character, if that makes any sense.
You've got another season to do that on "black-ish." Congratulations!
Thank you so much.
To be able to have your hand in the kind of topics that the show's been exploring, and the conversations that it's been launching, what has that meant to you at this moment in your career?
It is really something that I was not expecting, but I am incredibly grateful for it. We are all cognizant of the fact that we've been positioned in this way, where we do get to, with good humor, and with a kind of authenticity, express a lot of feelings, and views, and opinions, and perspectives across kind of a generational scale, what the experience is to being American, and also to be black. It's kind of cool.
Have you known a lot of versions of Pops in your time?
A lot of versions of Pops? Yeah, I think so. [Laughs] I think we all know a lot of versions of Pops. He's a pretty universal figure.
What's been fun to give voice to in that kind of archetypal character?
It's really nice to be able to say the things that people are thinking but they're not really sure they can say, which is kind of that senior thing. There's that thing that, people that are older, they've been around, and they've lived long enough to not suffer in fools, and they can just kind of cut straight to the chase, and get to the heart of the matter, with a few well-timed quips. It's kind of nice.
You've obviously had such a great career doing so many diverse roles, but with this one you really get to unleash the comedy. How long have you been dying to get a really funny, funny role?
It's been about ten years that I was sort of thinking about comedy and trying to figure out how to approach it. Being known for mostly dramatic roles, it's the kind of thing that I wanted to be careful that I didn't just abruptly spin things on its head, because I wanted the audience to be with me. This felt organic and right and correct, and just came along at just the right time. I'm hugely grateful.
Also, I have the benefit of working with Anthony Anderson, who is both wonderful in the dramatic and the comedic, and Tracee Ross, who also is able to move seamlessly between comedy and drama. So with those two people as the leads of the show, that gave me a really big comfort zone. I was in a really comfortable place to work. Neither one of them were going to let me fall.
Have you guys felt, with each new season, more emboldened in the topics you can take on? Is there also even a feeling of kind of responsibility to the topics that you guys have to tackle?
I think we certainly feel a bit of a responsibility, but that responsibility is born out of the immediacy of our lives, the reality of our lives, the realities of people of color in this country, and the realities of white people in this country. Our perspective is not singular. Our perspective covers a lot of ground.
We're in a position to sort of respond to what's going on, and I think that that's part of why we've been successful, is because our writing staff has been keeping their eye on what's happening, keeping a finger on the pulse, or the temperature, or whatever you want to call it, and trying to respond in ways that are fresh, and authentic, and real.
The National Memorial Day Concert airs Sunday, May 28th, on PBS.