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A presence on screen for 45 years, Laurence Fishburne has appeared in everything from John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood to the Matrix film franchise. He earned an Oscar nomination for What's Love Got to Do With It and won two Emmys, for performances in TriBeCa and Miss Evers’ Boys. He’s nominated again -- his 11th total -- for Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for his harrowing performance as Lt. Poincy in the Quibi series #FreeRayshawn about a Black man in a standoff with the police.
Fishburne says that while they could have never predicted what happened to George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of the police one month after #FreeRayshawn debuted on the streaming platform, it speaks to the realities of what it means to be a Black person in America. “As much as it’s a case of art imitating life, it’s life imitating art too,” the actor tells ET’s Kevin Frazier, adding that Rayshawn (played by Stephan James) “is all of the people who have been senselessly and needlessly killed for the, you know, the dumbest reason in the world.”
It’s a powerful sentiment from the acting legend, who has never shied away from starring in projects that have centered Black voices and experiences on screen, including The Tuskegee Airmen, the 2016 remake of Roots and the ABC sitcom Black-ish, in which he plays Earl “Pops” Johnson and serves as executive producer.
Created by Kenya Barris, the comedy has mixed humor with deference when tackling issues of race relations, family dynamics, police brutality and politics, with episodes like “Hope” and “Please, Baby, Please.” The latter, a season 4 episode that was critical of President Donald Trump, was initially shelved after ABC deemed it too political for the network. In August, the episode finally debuted on Hulu.
While Fishburne fully doesn’t understand ABC’s decision at the time, he admits he “was surprised” it happened. But now that it’s available to stream, the actor feels “encouraged again.”
“I’m so encouraged by the temperature and by the way it has risen. There is an awareness now that is undeniable,” he says. “You know, once upon a time, folks could deny things and say, ‘Oh that really didn’t [happen].’ But I don’t think people can do that so easily anymore.”
Renewed for a seventh season, Fishburne says the team is going back to work this week amid the coronavirus pandemic, which initially shut down film and TV production all across the world back in March. “We are going to start again,” he confirms. “We have all the protocols in place. We have come up with a very clever way of working around COVID that I think will satisfy the audience, hopefully. And we have some good stories in store, some very, very inspirational, aspirational and positive and real stories coming for you.”
While Fishburne busies himself with the return of Black-ish, the actor, sadly, will not be part of the new Matrix sequel currently filming in Berlin, Germany.
The fourth installment marks the return of leads Keanu Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, with Jada Pinkett Smith and Lambert Wilson reprising their roles from the two sequels. Noticeably absent from the cast list is Fishburne as Morpheus, the leader of the surviving humans responsible for recruiting Neo in their fight against the Matrix.
“I have not been asked to join them, which is fine,” the actor says. “I am hopeful that it will be wonderful and it will satisfy audiences and that people will love it.” But when asked about whether Watchmen breakout and franchise newcomer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is playing a younger version of his character, Fishburne says, “I have no clue. I haven’t read anything.”
In the meantime, the actor is hopeful about what the current Black Lives Matter movement and the Emmy nominations for #FreeRayshawn mean for the future. “I'm glad that people are woke a little more than they have been,” Fishburne says, adding that he’s inspired by athletes taking a knee or speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
“It is so American. It is so inspiring and it is so courageous. I applaud them and salute them for really understanding how best to use their position and their platform to really inspire people and to show courage and determination to get this thing changed,” he concludes.
#FreeRayshawn is now streaming on Quibi ahead of the 2020 Creative Arts Emmys, which will be handed out over a four-day period, from Monday, Sept. 14 through Thursday, Sept. 17 on Emmys.com.