LOS ANGELES—Laurence Fishburne in person comes across like a possibly more genial version of the characters he often plays in films: articulate, charismatic, physically commanding, and as though he might—given sufficient provocation—punch your lights out.
Speaking in an L.A. hotel room, he has that familiar imposing voice and a decided reason for wanting to be in the sci-fi thriller Contagion, which opens next Friday (September 9).
“I was kind of blown away by how smart it was,” Fishburne says. “Because a lot of what is being made now is kind of stupid.” His listeners laugh approvingly, prompting the actor to smile his faintly menacing, gap-toothed smile.
By now, Fishburne undoubtedly knows smart films from dumb. At 14 (reportedly fibbing about his age), he began filming Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Playing the Navy patrol boat gunner Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller, the then rather scraggy young actor unrestrainedly danced to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and sprayed a sampan of civilians with machine-gun rounds.
Subsequently, Fishburne acted in everything from Boyz N the Hood to Mystic River. In ever-present sunglasses, he played the profound cyber-hipster Morpheus in those mind-muddling Matrix movies. His decidedly convincing portrayal of the alternately charming and wife-beating Ike in 1993’s Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It elicited an Oscar nomination.
He has a knack for acting with a certain undeniable authority—perhaps explaining why director Steven Soderbergh cast Fishburne as Contagion’s Dr. Ellis Cheever, who, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s deputy director, faces a chillingly nimble virus turned global pandemic.
“Well, it wasn’t really that complex for me,” he says. He talked endlessly with the film’s on-set expert, renowned virologist Dr. Ian Lipkin. “He’d be on his phone and he’d go ‘Let me show you this.’ And it would be, like, something that could potentially be an outbreak. Almost every day he had some new disease that the CDC is tracking and keeping an eye on. So it became really easy just to go ‘Oh, right. So the stakes for this thing that you do are always here.’ ”
A journalist complains that implausibilities in the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (in which Fishburne played Dr. Raymond Langston from 2008 until this past June, when he decided not to) drive the journalist’s lab-technician wife “up the wall”.
“I understand,” Fishburne says. “That’s why I’m not there.”
Someone else wonders if, filming Contagion—in which Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever must believably know his microbiology and pesky contagious diseases—the “right equipment” and “terminology” were important.
“Well, I mean, would you believe it if he’s, like, ‘Pass me the thingy!’?” Fishburne’s costar Matt Damon asks, interrupting. “It might take you out of the movie: ‘We’ve got an outbreak of [mumble, mumble].’ ”
“Yeah, this,” Fishburne says, miming holding up and examining something or other. “I could have done that. I did that for a long time,” he adds, alluding to his erstwhile CSI gig. “But I think it’s how I got this job, so it wasn’t all bad.”
And did making a film in which someone coughing on you can be unpleasantly fatal incite any sudden hand-washing tendencies?
“I ain’t afraid of germs, man. And I ain’t afraid of getting sick. Dying, that’s some other shit.”
Watch the trailer for Contagion.