Actor Laurence Fishburne talks about coming on board to this hit CBS series
It was officially announced this morning that Laurence Fishburne has signed on to replace series star William Petersen in the hit CBS drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Fishburne will play a former pathlogist-turned-college-lecturer who joins the CSI team as a Level 1 CSI.
Later on this morning, a conference call was held with Fishburne and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation executive producers Carol Mendelsohn and Naren Shankar to discuss this new addition to the successfull series. I was in on the call and here's what they all had to say.
Can you talk a little bit about how, if Fishburne's character is a college professor, how he goes from them investigating a murder to running the team, or what discussions there were internally about maybe promoting from within or why you wanted to bring in someone totally new?
Naren Shankar: His background is more than just being a college professor. The character that we're creating has a background as a medical doctor, as a research pathologist, in fact. For a number of reasons, that get revealed throughout the course of the season, we'll find out that he's been forced out of that career and has become a college lecturer, an itinerant college professor, and he's teaching a course in criminalistics when he gets involved in an investigation with CSI. Part of the grounds for qualification for being a CSI is a background in science or pathology and that's what gets him in the door.
Carol Mendelsohn: The Professor joining the cast does not negate the fact that there may be some promotions from within, involving our other CSI's.
Naren Shankar: The Professor is actually going to be joining our team as a CSI Level 1.
For Mr. Fishburne, were you a CSI fan and had you watched before?
Laurence Fishburne: I am now (Laughs). To be perfectly frank, when we met in New York, I felt a little stupid because I hadn't watched the show, prior to having a meeting with them. I'm happy to say that the episodes that they sent to me to look at, were really really engaging and really wonderful and kind of dark and moody, like a lot of the work that I've actually been involved in. I thought, 'Hmmm. Wow. This will work!' So I'm very excited.
You have a very busy movie career too. I'm wondering why did you want to step away and have you ever worked in series television on a regular basis before?
Laurence Fishburne: Not since the mid-to-late 80s with a wonderful CBS show called Pee-wee's Playhouse, where I played the psychadelic cowboy, Curtis. I wouldn't say that going into a weekly television series is actually stepping away from anything. It's another medium in which to work as an actor. Because I haven't done series television since Pee-wee's Playhouse, it's a welcome change. It's going to be challenging, it's going to be fun and it's going to be exciting.
Carol and Naren, how did you first land on Laurence as a possibility for this part and why he was your dream casting choice?
Carol Mendelsohn: When you're casting a new role on a series, the first thing that happens is the casting people at CBS and internally always give you a list of names, which probably encompasses everyone that's ever acted (Laughs). You realize that you have to take the soul and spirit of your show and say, 'Who do you want?' So, Lorraine and I actually sat down and said, 'OK, pull out all the stops, but don't think about if it's realistic. If we could have anyone in the world, who do we want?' We said Laurence Fishburne. Sometimes there's just magic and sometimes things are just meant to be and that's where we put our effort and here we are today.
Naren Shankar: We're a show that spends a lot of time thinking. We don't blow stuff up. We don't go chasing people down and shooting people. The quality that we were looking for was deep intelligence and Mr. Fishburne, when you look at his work, he's always brought that sensibility to the material that he's done and he was the perfect fit for CSI.
Will William Petersen's character and Fishburne's character overlap at all?
Naren Shankar: Yes, they will. They will be involved in a case together in Episodes 9 and 10.
Do you have a name for the new character yet?
Carol Mendelsohn: (Laughs) We were just talking about that. No, we don't, but we're open for suggestions.
Naren Shankar: Our internal code name for this character is "The Professor."
It has been said already about the fact that Mr. Fishburne's character is going to find out that he has the same genetic profile as many serial killers. I'm wondering how prominent a part of the character will that be and, also, for Mr. Fishburne, how do you play that?
Laurence Fishburne: (Laughs) Well, let me just say that I have no knowledge of such a biological profile, nor would I be at liberty to speak about such a biological profile, or if such biological profiles exist. I don't know. I'm just really excited that I'm actually going to be joining this team and we have a lot of stuff to work out. Just the last question was 'What is this character's name?' (Laughs) So we have a lot of stuff to flesh out and we've only had an opportunity to sit down with each other face-to-face one time. I think over the next couple of weeks we'll get cracking and really discover what the answers to those questions are. All of this stuff is discovery for everyone involved. Bringing new characters into such an established piece such as CSI requires a lot of thought and consideration. You have to consider, not just the folks that work on the show, but the audience and a number of things. It's a good question. I wish I had a great answer for you, but I'm sorry. That's the best I can do.
Naren Shankar: Just to clarify one thing, I think it was mis-reported a little bit about him having the genetic make-up of a serial killer, because, in reality, there is no such thing. From the outset, we really wanted to play with, in a dramatic sense, a character who has been able to examine his own genetic profile to a ceratin extent and find certain complexes and certain clusters of biological facts that he has in common, or that are associated with, aggressive or criminal behavior. That's all it is. Obviously, that's a mouthful and it's not as simple as the genetic profile as a serial killer, but it's just one of the things that's going to lead this character to be interested in the world of violent criminals and criminalistics and forensics. It's sort of what draws him to it, in a sense that he's found within himself certain tendencies and certain behaviors and he's left to wonder about how these things turn into murder, how they turn into violence, how they turn into criminal behavior. That's all it is. It's an underlying element to the character and, again, it's nothing as simple as he's got the genes of a serial killer, because there is no such thing.
Both sides mentioned theh word "collaboration" and I was just wondering how you all think that collaboration is going to work?
Laurence Fishburne: I think it's going to work really well. When we sat down and met, it was really clear that that's the sort of spirit that we all like to work in. When they sat down and talked to me about working with William Petersen from the outset, his approach was that they sort of approach it with a theatrical style. It's really going to be about throwing things into the pot and picking the best of everything, distilling things down until we really have something that represents the tone of the show in the best possible way.
Carol Mendelsohn: It will work the way it's worked for nine years. It was my marching orders from Billy Petersen, before the pilot, was that he came out of theater and he would like to recreate that type of ensemble, theater style, to have a true collaboration with the writers and directors. When we set up the show, from the very beginning, from day one, there would be collaboration between all departments of the show and especially between the writers and the actors and it is working. I think a lot of the magic and a lot of the success of CSI is due to that collabroation, that we work it out together. Clearly, when you're filming a show every eight and a half or nine days, the collaboration sometimes is limited, but sometimes, to an extent, in the case of creating a new character or, there is that time where you get to really sit down and noodle together and that is what we intend to do.
When does Mr. Fishburne start shooting?
Carol Mendelsohn: Around the middle of September, the 17th or 18th.
Will Mr. Fishburne have a producers credit and will we see by season's end that he will be running the team?
Carol Mendelsohn: You'll have to talk to CBS about the producers credit and in terms of running the team, again, we are in the process of creating the story and creating the character and our initial thought was we thought it was interesting to have our new CSI come in as a CSI Level 1, someone that is so intelligent, established in their own right, knowledgable and come into a crime scene with an eye and the attitude and the experiences of someone that hasn't been to a lot of crime scenes.
Naren Shankar: It also takes a special personality to be willing to start anew, to come into an entirely new situation and not in charge of everything and start over. That's a very interesting place for a character to be, thematically and as an actor and that's our plan to start this.
Carol Mendelsohn: And, again, this is just as we're starting to develop this character, so one of the things we're getting sights on is that the character will feel very at home in the bowels of the corroner's office...
Laurence Fishburne: Hmmm...
Carol Mendelsohn: If you talk to us in a few weeks, we'll know more about the character than we do now, but these are the things that we've been talking about.
As far as the overlap between Laurence Fishburne's character and William Petersen's, will we at least get Bill's take on this new guy? On whether he should be a part of the team? What will the dynamic be like over that brief overlap?
Naren Shankar: The idea now is to see a lot of Billy and Laurence together.
Critics have been talking about the lack of diversity amongst primetime programming, particularly the new shows. This will be the highest profile character of color that we'll see amongst CBS' procedurals. What does this mean to you guys? Was it important to take advantage of having a black character lead on one of TV's highest-rated shows?
Carol Mendelsohn: I think that when we said our dream was to have Laurence Fishburne join the team, our choice was made because he is such a talented and powerful and consumate and intense actor. As for the question about diversity, I think it's a great thing.
Laurence Fishburne: You know, I really have to sort my feelings out about this, because that's the first time that someone's really mentioned that to me, so you're going to have to let me sort that out myself. I'll let you know.
Just off the top of my head, Professor Morpheus has a certain ring to it.
Laurence Fishburne: (Laughs)
There are certain demands now to weekly television and this show has its own unique demands. There's a certain about of terminology you have to be comfortable with and the amount of gore. Does doing weekly television with these kinds of demands something you're looking forward to, or dreading?
Laurence Fishburne: I'm actually looking forward to it. I just finished doing a one-man show on Broadway which has been 145 performances in five months or six months or something. That's good good training for what I'm about to enter into, with respect to the speed at which you have to work when you're doing network series television. I think I'm very well-prepared to enter into this and, again, because the character is so different than anything I've ever done, I'm looking forward to that too. That's a challenge.
Mr. Fishburne, how do you feel about coming in and joining such a tight-knit cast?
Laurence Fishburne: Well, I've had the good fortune of working with a number of people that are on the cast, early on in my career, so I'm looking forward to that. The most important thing for me to remember is to not mistake my presence for the event. The event is the show. The event is CSI the show and everyone has a responsibility to bring their unique talents and gifts to it, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to enter into this with the most positive attitude I can. I'm coming to work with people who are wonderful, who have made great television for nine years. That's a gift. All I can say is I'm excited and I'm ready to play.
Speaking of new cast members, how has Lauren Lee Smith been working out so far?
Naren Shankar: We love Lauren. She's working out great. We're in the midst of shooting her third episode right now.
Look for Laurence Fishburne to join the cast of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in Episode 9 of this coming season, which doesn't have a specific air-date as of yet.