Laurence Fishburne Discusses New Film ‘Last Flag Flying’ and How He Relates to His Characters

Almost four decades after he first made a name for himself in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now,” Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Laurence Fishburne co-stars in a film that explores the lasting effects of that conflict, Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” a dramedy based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan. Set in 2003, the film follows three former brothers in arms (Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell) as they reunite decades after traveling down very different paths in order to bury one of their sons, a soldier killed in Iraq. Fishburne plays Pastor Richard Mueller, a recovered substance abuser who serves as the trio’s moral compass. Fishburne opened up to “Entertainment Voice” about playing this role, working with Linklater and Cranston, and how his being on the sitcom “Black-ish” is a refreshing change of pace.

What attracted you to “Last Flag Flying”?

Everything. The director, the material, the characters, the story. I loved all of it…. There’s not just one thing. Obviously, there’s the theme of camaraderie, there’s the theme of grief and loss, the theme of the right and wrong of these conflicts that we get into. There’s the theme of when is it appropriate to tell the truth and when is it appropriate to spare people the truth. There’s so much. It’s so layered. It’s really collective for me. It’s really all of these elements that make our story great.

Your character, he’s pretty interesting because he has a checkered past and now he’s a minister. What was it like preparing to play him?

It was great. It was really a matter of just really working with the script. We had two week of rehearsal time, so we spent a couple of days just reading the script, and then we’d sit around and we’d talk about it and we’d ask questions and we’d present ideas and pitch ideas, and we’d go through the book and we’d try and find things that we thought maybe we could put back into the script, things that hadn’t made it in. It was really a great process.

What was it like for you to work with Richard Linklater? Everyone has been saying he’s very collaborative.

Yeah, he’s very thoughtful. He’s very soulful. He’s very curious, and he’s got this whole laidback style where he’s really open to everybody’s creativity. He also worked with a lot of the same people over the last 20-something years, so there’s a kind of shorthand that goes along with working with his crew and his key people. He also is somebody who respects actors and really gets the actors’ language very well, so our whole process was very collaborative and very easy.

You have worked with Bryan Cranston before and in the press notes you mentioned that you had been looking forward to working with him again. What is your guys’ working relationship like?

He’s great. Bryan is like a brother to me. We had a great time on “Contagion,” which is the first picture we worked on with Steven Soderbergh in 2009. And then this came up, and it was just like riding a bike; you never forget how.

You’ve said that even though you weren’t in the service yourself, you learned a lot in the making of “Apocalypse Now.” Can you talk a little bit about what you took from that role that you brought into this role?

“Apocalypse Now” was made in 1976 and 1977. That’s, what, 40 years ago? It took two years to make that movie. We made it in the Philippines and a lot of the people who were on the movie as technical advisors were people who had actually served in Vietnam, and I was with these men when I was about 14-16 years old. They were very much like uncles to me, and they passed on a lot of their values and a lot of their traditions, and I was able to absorb a lot of their stories, and I really was initiated, when I made that movie, into a community of artists, and at the same time, I was kind of initiated by these men who had served in the military. So, it is those things that I carry with me that are a part of me that I was able to use in portraying this character in this movie.

Did you relate to him, Mueller? Do you think you’re like him, someone who likes to move forward and not dwell on the past, or do you identify more with the Bryan Cranston character in real life?

I don’t think I’m like any of these characters, but I can understand them and I can relate to them, because I’m a human being, but I don’t see much of myself in any of them. I mean, I haven’t served in the military and I’m not a church-going man, not to say that I don’t believe in a power greater than myself, but my life has been very different.

Do you have a favorite scene in the film?

There are so many great scenes in this movie. I really liked the scene where Bryan and I are sitting in the chairs in the funeral home, and he says, “I’m going to suit you up. I’m going to get you some new clothes.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And then he says, “I love you.” And I don’t say anything, and he’s like, “That really shook you up when I said that.” [Laughs]. I thought that was really funny.

Out of all the characters you’ve portrayed over the years, is there one that you have related to the most?

I’ve played a lot of characters and I loved them, and the only thing I can tell you is, I always start trying to love the character that I’m playing. If I start with love, then I feel like I’ll have a better opportunity or a better way of understanding that character, and really portraying that character in a way that is honest and truthful.

After playing so many serious film roles, what was it like to transition to a sitcom in “Black-ish”?

You know what? I love it. I had only done one comedy before that, which was “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” That’s going back 30-some odd years. But the “Black-ish” thing, what’s really cool about it is now that I’m in the grandpa chair, there’s a lot of stuff that I get to say that I would have gotten to say 25 years ago. It might have been stuff that I was thinking 25 years ago, but I wouldn’t get to say it and have it been received in the same way. It’s nice.

Do you have a favorite episode or storyline?

I love a lot of the episodes. I loved the one that was called “Dr. Hell No,” where I wasn’t going to go to the doctor. I loved the season premiere this year about slavery. I loved the post-partum episode this year. They’re are just so many. They’re so good.

Would you like to do more comedic roles?

Well, you know, I always like to mix it up.

What do have coming up next?

I’m involved in this thing called “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which is the sequel to the “Ant-Man” movies in the Marvel world.

I’ve already worked with Rick [Linklater] again. I did a little part for him in this other movie he’s got coming out called “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”

Can you talk about your role in “Ant-Man”?

I play a character named Bill Foster and that’s all I’m permitted to say.

Another big film that you’re known for that I have to ask you about is “The Matrix.” When you were making it, did you know it would become such a cultural phenomenon?

I don’t know if anybody knew it would becomes what it became. I just knew that it was one of the most original pieces of material that I had ever saw and I very much wanted to be a part of it.

Last Flag Flying” opens Nov. 3 in Los Angeles and New York, Nov. 17 nationwide.