The colorful billboards are everywhere – ABC is giving new comedy Black-ish a major promotional push to go with its high-profile time slot behind Modern Family. The ABC Studios series, created by Kenya Barris, stars Anthony Anderson as an upper-middle class black man who struggles to raise his children with a sense of cultural identity. Tracee Ellis Ross, and Laurence Fishburne, play his wife and father. Fishburne also executive produces Black-ish, which marks the first series for his Cinema Gypsy banner. In an interview with Deadline, Fishburne talks about his foray into comedy, Black-ish‘s provocative title, his experience on CSI, what’s next for his character on Hannibal and what projects are in the hopper at Cinema Gypsy.
DEADLINE: We obviously know you from The Matrix, Mystic River, CSI and Hannibal, but actually, you did an episode of M*A*S*H early on…
FISHBURNE: Long time ago.
DEADLINE: Yes, long time ago. You had done mostly dramas, and now you have Black-ish, and you did Ride Along. What attracted you to comedy at this stage in your career?
FISHBURNE: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for more than a decade, really. I’ve been thinking about how to expand my work and branch out into doing some comedy as well. But really, the focus has been my company, Cinema Gypsy, which we started back in the mid ‘90s, and we did a number of feature films, Hoodlum and Once In The Life, which was based on a play that I wrote. We produced some theater and some longform movies for HBO like The Tuskegee Airmen and Miss Evers’ Boys. When I made the transition into television on CSI, my company got a first-look deal from CBS (Studios). So, during the time that I was on CSI, I was actively, as a producer, trying to come up with something that could be viable for network television, and we tried a bunch of different things, some of which were comedies, some of which were dramas. Black-ish has been the first opportunity where we’ve actually made the sale, and people have bought the idea, and we’re just really, really excited that this is the way it’s panned out because it’s basically allowed me to service two things at the same time. It’s allowed me, as an actor, to be involved in a comedy, and as a producer, to have something that we could sell to an audience.
DEADLINE: How did Black-ish come along?
FISHBURNE: Kenya Barris was represented by the same agency at the time. He was introduced to me by (Paradigm agent) Debbee Klein, and he presented his idea. Myself and my team at Cinema Gypsy, we felt like it was really a perfect fit because it was so relatable, the stories that he was talking about, which are largely drawn from his own life, mirrored stories that came from my life. Then Brian Dobbins came on board with Anthony Anderson as our lead guy, which was very exciting because Anthony and I have known each other for a long time, and we have always wanted to work together. Brian was also working with Kenya.
So now we had a nice quartet, and then as things progressed, we pitched to almost every network in town. ABC, they were the most excited about us. Once that deal was done, Larry Wilmore came on as our showrunner, and all of his experience in the genre, going back to Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, and Bernie Mac, gave us somebody at the helm who had a real great track record with this kind of material. Once we knew that we were all going to be working together, we had to find the right partner for Anthony, and we couldn’t have asked for anybody better than Tracee Ellis Ross, because I had worked with her on CSI and really wanted to work with her again after that one experience. So, when she came on to round things out as the wife, Rainbow, in the show, it just all started clicking.
DEADLINE: Were you thinking about playing the dad from the get-go?
FISHBURNE That was always Kenya’s thought for me in terms of how I would participate in the show as an actor. That was always his first wish, was that I would come on and play the dad.
DEADLINE: Was the character tailored for you? Did you have a say?
FISHBURNE: Well, yeah..I wouldn’t say it’s tailored for me in the traditional sense because it’s not like I do a whole lot of comedy, so it’s not like I’m a known entity in the comedic genre. But what’s great about this show is it’s based on Kenya’s real-life experiences, but also based on the real-life experiences of everyone that participates. That would include myself, Larry Wilmore, Tracee Ross, Anthony Anderson, the children who are in our show, and the writers who are writing our show.
DEADLINE: Is there anything from your relationship with your own family that is reflected on the show too?
FISHBURNE: There’s a whole lot, of course. Yeah. There’s a lot of it. I’m not going to say what, but yes.
DEADLINE: Larry Wilmore has a new Comedy Central show coming up but is still working on Black-ish. Will he be able to complete the entire initial order of 13 episodes?
FISHBURNE: Yes. He’s going to be involved in the entire order of 13.
DEADLINE: Black-ish is getting a lot of attention with the title and the premise. ABC executives have said that it’s not about race but about class and family. What is your take? What is Black-ish about?
FISHBURNE: It’s about a family. It’s about the Johnson family, and in that regard, it’s about your family, and my family, and everybody’s family.
DEADLINE: Based on the title, could people feel like the show is not for everyone?
FISHBURNE: Here’s the thing about our title. Our title is a little bit of a wink. It’s a bit of a joke because, ultimately, if you live in America and you’ve been in America, let’s say, for the last 10, 15, 20 years, you’re probably a little Black-ish anyway. So that’s what’s wonderful about our title, and that’s really what it means. Everybody’s a little Jewish. Everybody’s a little Black-ish, you know?
DEADLINE: You made your series debut on CSI and left after two and a half seasons. What was that experience like?
FISHBURNE: It took nine months to actually get accustomed to the schedule. It’s a very rigorous schedule, first of all, which I enjoyed. I didn’t have any problem with it, but it was quite rigorous. It was like making a little movie every day, because, when I was there, they were still shooting on film, believe it or not, and they didn’t really go digital till about last season or so. So I really enjoyed it, and I think, if anything, it was also an opportunity for me to learn, as a producer, the television business a little better, because I was certainly unfamiliar with the workings of television from the business side. So it gave me an opportunity to act every day and to continue to work my craft as an actor, but it also gave me a chance, as a producer, to learn about the world of television development and producing for network television.
DEADLINE: You are juggling Black-ish and Hannibal. As an actor, it must be interesting because the two roles can’t be further apart — Black-ish is a family comedy, and you can’t go darker than Hannibal.
FISHBURNE: Yes, it’s wonderful. It’s exactly what I love about what I do as an actor. I love the opportunity to use my full range, and so playing in the comedy Black-ish gives me the opportunity to show my lighter side, and playing in this beautiful, elegant horror story of Hannibal, I get to use my darker and more cerebral side. It’s really wonderful.
DEADLINE: What can we expect from Jack in Season 3 of Hannibal?
FISHBURNE: Well, I’ll say it in two words. Jack is back.
DEADLINE: It’s pitch season. You’re busy with two shows, but are you looking to sell more projects with Cinema Gypsy?
FISHBURNE: We are in the process of developing some other things. We have a first-look deal with Entertainment One, and we have been developing something at Showtime. We have been developing a Socrates Fortlow series at HBO, Walter Mosley is involved in that. At Cinemax we’re developing something called Prison Town with writers Dawn Prestwich & Nicole Yorkin from The Killing and Fox TV Studios. We also have an animated series that we’re developing that’s based on my life as a child in Brooklyn.
DEADLINE: Has the animated series been set up at a network yet?
FISHBURNE: It has not. We have been out to networks many times, and we find that sometimes you have to put things on the side, put them on the back burner, and then bring them out a little later. Maybe the timing wasn’t right.
DEADLINE: Where you want to go from here? What do you want your production company to stand for?
FISHBURNE: My production company, what we are trying to do is I’m trying to create content that speaks to me, and it’s not one color. It’s not one size fits all. You know what I mean? It’s things that I really gravitate towards, and Black-ish is an example of that. Always Outnumbered, in terms of the film that we made for HBO, that’s an example of it. So we’re looking for a lot of things, but it’s really about telling stories that are authentic, telling human stories that are rooted, obviously, in either the African-American experience, or my own experience, or experiences that somehow speak to me.