28 Feb 2009: He lost it in ‘Nam, kept it cool in the hood and showed Keanu the way in cyberspace. As CSI prepares for the Laurence Fishburne takeover Amy Raphael meets the man who can

Laurence Fishburne was a 14-year-old virgin when he landed a role in Apocalypse Now. He’d been acting since he realised, aged 10, that it was his life’s calling.

As he would put it now, acting chose him and he simply fell in with the flow of the universe. So he spent a few years on a soap opera and reluctantly joined the Negro Ensemble Theater. By the late -70s he was in the Philippines with Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen et al, worrying about his lack of sexual experience.

“There was this one scene in Apocalypse Now where my character had to talk about his love of Playboy magazine and I was really bad because I didn’t know what I was talking about. I couldn’t express what was at the core of the scene because I didn’t have that life experience. I guess somewhere after about take 49, Martin Sheen came over and whispered in my ear: ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a really good actor?’ He gave me something I needed at that moment as a human being.”

Sitting in a large leather armchair in a private room in central London, Fishburne is a commanding, almost regal presence. He says “fuck” for emphasis, stirs his latte furiously and closes his eyes when overwhelmed by jetlag. He’s a big guy with a compelling physical presence. He’d make a great dinner guest. I ask what people generally make of him; after his part as the charismatic seer Morpheus in The Matrix a decade ago, do they think he’s iconic, cool? “I really don’t know that I’m iconic. I don’t even know that people think I’m cool.”

He sits forward on this chair and slaps his ripped jeans. “I know that I’m cool. I’m a cool motherfucker. I’m very frosty. I have no problems with that. But I’ve heard that people think I’m scary and unapproachable and all of that shit.” Because he’s a black guy? “Probably. Not just that I’m black. But I’m black, smart and I don’t hide my intelligence, I lead with it. I have very strong opinions about shit and I don’t have a problem saying what I think. I’m thoughtful. But you know… I can’t play dumb. A smart black guy is confronting for most people. But that’s on them, not on me.”

We haven’t seen much of Fishburne in this country recently but this has little to do with workrate or success. Over in the US he’s been starring in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and doing sell-out runs at Broadway theatres, most recently with the one-man show Thurgood. His portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve in the Supreme Court of the United States, won Fishburne a clutch of awards. He also writes and directs plays, some of which are then developed into low-budget movies (Riff Raff was redone for the big screen as Once In The Life).

He’s evidently very good at multi-tasking. “Yeah. Right. I’m left-handed: I can think and feel at the same time. My feminine side is very highly developed.” And he fills the room with deep laughter. For a major Hollywood player, Fishburne is remarkably frank. Quentin Tarantino wrote the role of Jules Winnfield with Fishburne in mind but when the actor read the script he was troubled. “It was really for two reasons: I felt like the script was too much in favour of heroin use. It felt a little glamorous to me.”

He stirs the latte vigorously again. “Second, I found the rape of Marsellus Wallace to be… I don’t know if ‘vulgar’ is the right word. Unnecessary. This guy is supposed to be the baddest motherfucker in the movie. He’s supposed to be King Shit. So why he gotta get fucked up the ass? Why? So.” There’s a moment’s silence. Then he brightens up. “The thing is, Sam (Jackson) steals the movie as Jules. He’s fucking brilliant. He makes Travolta better in that movie too.” No regrets? “No. I’m good with it.”

Fishburne isn’t one to have regrets. He feels guided by the universe and decisions are therefore out of his hands. Like when he was asked to join CSI
last year as Dr Ray Langston, a research pathologist now doing the university circuit. Fishburne didn’t stop to think about his career trajectory, from Matrix co-star to TV series. “I was doing Thurgood, minding my fucking business, and somebody showed me an article in a paper about the CSI producers considering me or John Malkovich to step in for William Petersen (who played Gil Grissom). I never made any decisions. They came to me.”

He wasn’t a fan of CSI before he was in it, simply because he’d never seen it. He stopped watching TV in 1989 and for years felt much happier without it in his life. Then in 1995 he met his second wife, actress Gina Torres, and she introduced him to 24, Dexter, Prime Suspect and Homicide: Life On The Street. Last year he was given a few CSI episodes to watch, including one directed by Tarantino. Immediately impressed with the quality of writing, he signed up for 18 months.

Which means he’s sorted through the economic downturn. “See what I mean? I get to stay home, see my family (he has three children, aged 21, 17 and nearly two), sleep in my own bed. I’m making great money and playing a wonderful character in the most popular show on the planet. And they didn’t hire me because I’m a black guy but because of my intelligence.”

If this sounds like an unnecessary point, it’s not; watch Fishburne in CSI and you’ll see a powerhouse of an actor giving a subtle performance. His race is irrelevant; it’s the way he allows layers of his personality to peel away that matters. Although he has a tendency to say things like “theatre is church for actors; it’s where I do my service to humanity”, he actually has some interesting things to stay about America. Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1961 to a teacher and a juvenile corrections officer, he is old enough to remember a segregated, deeply racist America.

Unsurprisingly, Obama is a new hero. “As a man of colour, I’ve spent my life asking people to see me for who I am. With Obama in the White House, it
feels like people have finally caught up to where I’ve been most of my life. Our whole country has been depressed for the last eight years. We’ve been fed a steady diet of fear. Our spiritual decline has been reflected in the economy. Obama doesn’t have a magic fucking bullet, it’s not really about what he’s going to do, it’s more about what we’re going to do as a country. But we were both born in 1961 and I feel hugely inspired by him.”

Talk moves on to cinematic heroes. He is still in touch with his Matrix co-star Keanu Reeves (“He plays stupid but he’s a bright boy”) and he lists Sidney Poitier, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as inspirations. Yet it’s Meryl that really does it for him. “Oh man, Meryl Streep! She’s up there with Kate Hepburn. I call her the department of the interior because her interior shit is… oh man!”

For an actor who has yet to repeat the global success of the Matrix trilogy, Fishburne is in steady demand. After CSI, he’s hoping to direct and star in the film adaptation of Paulo Coelho’s bestselling novel The Alchemist and there are several films in pre-production.

At some point Fishburne might turn up in London at Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic as Othello. All these projects he describes as “fucking awesome”, but we’ll just have to wait and see what the universe throws his way.

• Laurence Fishburne joins CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 10 Mar, 9pm, Five USA

• This article was amended on Tuesday 3 March 2009. We had described Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American to serve in the US supreme court and a former aide to Bill Clinton. It was Thurgood Marshall Jr, son of the supreme court judge, who was Bill Clinton’s aide. This has been corrected.