A Q&A with ‘The Matrix’ star Laurence Fishburne

The Hollywood star performed at the Old Globe nearly three decades ago; he’ll receive an award from the San Diego Film Festival in October


The last time Laurence Fishburne took to a stage in San Diego, it worked out pretty well for him: The actor’s 1991 stint in the Old Globe production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” was a prelude to a Broadway encore that earned him a Tony Award.

That was when Fishburne was a relatively little-known stage and screen actor who still went professionally by the first name “Larry.” And it was a good eight years before he was to gain the status of pop-culture icon as Morpheus, the mystical, shades-sporting, impeccably cool resistance leader from the “Matrix”movies.

Now, Fishburne is heading back to town — this time to pick up an honor named for another showbiz eminence.

On Oct. 18, Fishburne will receive the Gregory Peck Award for Cinematic Excellence, bestowed by the San Diego International Film Festival as part of its Night of the Stars tribute.

The award goes to “an individual whose work has made a profound impact on the art of cinema”; past honorees have included Alan Arkin, Annette Bening, Sir Patrick Stewart and Keith Carradine.

The late Peck was a San Diego native whose memorable movie career included an Academy Award for his turn as the principled attorney Atticus Finch in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; he also was an original co-founder of La Jolla Playhouse.

And to Fishburne, Peck was a hero and role model who distinguished himself with his “quiet power and presence.”

As it happens, Fishburne made his own mark in the role of a legal giant — earning a 2008 Tony nomination for his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Broadway solo play “Thurgood.”

Along with his “Matrix” fame, though, Fishburne is perhaps best-known for wide-ranging performances in such movies as “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (which earned him a 1994 Oscar nomination), “Boyz n the Hood,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Mystic River,” “Othello” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” along with the TV shows “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Black-ish,” which he helps produce.

On the phone from Los Angeles, Fishburne talked in his instantly recognizable, throaty baritone about the Peck award, some favorite movie roles, the prospect of returning for the fourth “Matrix” film (sorry, not much to say there) and his memories of that earlier stint in San Diego.

Q: So, obviously you’ve been to San Diego at least once before, with the pre-Broadway staging of “Two Trains Running.”

A: Yes. A hundred years ago!

Q: What do you remember about that experience?

A: Well, I found the Old Globe to be one of the most beautiful theaters in America — certainly that I’ve ever played. Just the grounds there in Balboa Park — it was really an amazing environment to go to work in.

Q: I’m guessing they’d love to have you back!

A: I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s a beautiful place.

Q: There’s also a theatrical connection with the Gregory Peck Award, given that he helped found La Jolla Playhouse. Do you still consider theater a big part of your life and career?

A: You know, I started in the theater, and I’m actually returning to the theater next year. I’m going into a production of (David Mamet’s) “American Buffalo,” with Sam Rockwell. It’s gonna be fun, yeah! I’m looking forward to it.

Q: Winning a Tony Award for one of the late August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays was obviously a pivotal moment for you. Do you consider Wilson a hero of yours?

Laurence Fishburne (right) with his "Matrix" co-star Keanu Reeves.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

A: Absolutely. August is definitely a hero and a mentor. I miss him a great deal. I had the good fortune of working with him and the late (director) Lloyd Richards and the late (actor) Roscoe Lee Brown all at the same time. Those three men really had a huge impact on my life.

Q: It seems as though you’ve been able to shift so nimbly among characters onstage and in film — heroes and villains and everyday people and characters with extraordinary gifts. Would you say that stretching yourself that way is what feeds your artistic soul?

A: You know, I always want to try and surprise the audience as well as myself. So having range is helpful to that. And yeah, it keeps it fun for me: What can I do differently this time?

Q: That range extends to taking on creative roles outside of acting as well — you’re producing an animated series for Disney soon, right?

A: Yes — my production company, Cinema Gypsy, we’re developing this piece of material for Marvel called “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” (about an African-American superhero). It’s a really interesting little comic book that came out maybe 15 years ago. So we’re bringing that to animated TV. We’ve been working on it for about three years, and it’s been a really interesting process.

Q: How did that project come about?

A: I went to my friends at Marvel and said, “How can I be involved with Marvel?” And they were like, “Well, we’ll look and see if there’s something for you to do.” And they found a nice role for me in the “Ant-Man” movies. Which was cool! And then they approached me about “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur,” and I was like, “Oooh yeah, thank you, please!”

Q: Have you always been a comics fan?

A: Oh yeah, man! I loved comic books as a kid. I was an avid Marvel reader. I was also a DC (Comics) reader. Oh yeah.

Q: Did you hang onto your collection from childhood?

A: You know, I have an amazing collection now because I worked for DC. So I have this astonishing collection of what they call “The New 52,” which is all the DC titles.

Q: So I’d imagine you’re no stranger to San Diego Comic-Con International?

A: Actually, you know I’ve never been to Comic-Con. Believe it or not, I’m kind of a shy person. And Comic-Con ... there’s a lot of people at Comic-Con! (He laughs deeply.) You know what I mean? Oh man. I know there are a lot of folks in my business who are well known and well recognized and put costumes on and stuff and go. But somehow I don’t feel like that would be the way to go for me.

Q: You’re obviously identified in so many fans’ minds with the “Matrix” trilogy. What has it been like to be a part of such an enduring cultural phenomenon?

A: It’s been really wonderful. The (original) movie really holds up. It’s totally embedded into the lexicon of popular culture. And that’s really a beautiful thing. It’s a very, very nice thing to have had happen to me.

Q: You don’t ever kind of reach your limit of having people ask you about Morpheus?

A: No, no. I mean, it’s a blessing, man. It’s been nothing but a blessing. I”m really grateful. I feel very lucky. It was a dream come true for me to be involved in something that was as successful and impactful as “The Matrix” has been. Yeah. Yeah.

Q: It was announced in August that a fourth “Matrix” movie will begin shooting next year, and that your original co-stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss will be a part of it. Is there much you can say about your status with that project?

A: There’s nothing I can tell you. All I can say is that, I hope it’s great! (Another big laugh.) I hope it gets done, and I hope it turns out to be great.

Q: Can you say if there’s still a chance you could be involved?

A: You know what, I have no real answer for you. I just don’t have the answer to that question.

Q: The “Matrix” franchise aside, are there certain other performances of yours that you’re particularly proud of, or would love to have people identify you with as well?

A: Oh yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a bunch. I mean, I loved the character I did called Jimmy Jump in a movie called “King of New York.” My Othello is one of those characters, one of those performances that’s a personal favorite. “Thurgood” was a wonderful thing to do.

Even the character I’m playing recently now, Pops on “Black-ish,” is fun.

Q: You’ve obviously been honored with plenty of awards over the years. Does the Gregory Peck award mean something special to you?

A: Well you know, Gregory Peck was one of those actors who embodied a kind of ideal in many ways. He really embodied a sense of moral correctness. And at the same time, he was also fallible. He was a guy who was always in pursuit of, let’s say, true north, right? In the sense of morality.

And at the same time, he was also a flawed human being, in many of his characterizations. He always struggled with trying to get to true north. And I think this is the thing that made people love him and appreciate him so much, you know?

And I was very, very fortunate years ago to meet his widow, Veronique. And she let me know that he had appreciated my work. So that, for me — to know that someone like Gregory Peck appreciated and admired my work is really everything.

As I said to you before: August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, Roscoe Lee Brown, all were giants in my life. They were teachers, mentors, father figures.

And Peck has a similar kind of quality. His performance in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” His performance in “Roman Holiday.” His performance in — how could we forget? — the original “Cape Fear.” He’s a formidable dude — he goes up against Robert Mitchum, you know what I mean? He takes on Robert Mitchum. And Robert Mitchum is a dangerous dude in that movie!

Those kinds of performances, and then of course the quintessential one, for me anyway: Atticus.

What he did is he played ordinary men who were placed in extraordinary circumstances. And they rose above those circumstances. It’s what he did brilliantly. His characters always rose to the challenge — as difficult as those challenges were.

And that kind of moral, or rather testicular, fortitude, is (bleeping) great.

Q: It definitely sounds as though you’ve thought a lot about him and his work.

A: Well, I’ve been moved by it. And influenced by it. Because what Gregory also had — and obviously this man was incredibly good-looking, and he had that incredible voice, that lovely baritone.

But he had a kind of quiet power. He had a quiet power and presence, you know? And I think that’s also part of what has made him a lasting icon in terms of film stars or movie actors or whatever you want to call them.

Q: So clearly, it carries a special significance to you for his name to be on this honor?

A: Absolutely. Absolutely.

San Diego International Film Festival

When: Oct. 15-20. Night of the Stars Tribute begins at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Pendry Hotel, 550 J St., downtown; individual tickets are $250. The event also honors Jared Harris (“Chernobyl”) with the Cinema Vanguard Award, and Jillian Bell (“Brittany Runs a Marathon”) with the Fairbanks Award.

Tickets: $16 for most films. Single or multi-day passes range from $79-$2,500 (for VIP/all-access)