NEW YORK — There are a handful of roles that every good actor is more than honored to play. So when Laurence Fishburne was asked to portray Nelson Mandela in a new miniseries, he didn’t hesitate. At first.
“I was offered the part. I said ‘yes’ immediately, was completely honored to be asked. And then, 15 minutes later, panic set in. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” recalled the Emmy- and Tony Award-winner.
Fishburne put aside his fears when he learned he’d be filming exclusively in South Africa with South African actors helping tell the story Mandela told in his own autobiographies.
“Our storytelling is really about the man, more so than the myth. We’ve tried to reveal how the man became the myth,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience.”
The result is “Madiba,” a six-hour film broadcast over three nights on BET starting Wednesday. It takes its title from the clan name of Mandela, who became one of the world’s most beloved statesmen.
The star of “The Matrix” and “Man of Steel” has played real people before — Thurgood Marshall and Ike Turner — but Mandela is in a special class. “There’s Christ. There’s Gandhi,” he said, listing options. “A couple of Shakespearian kings and queens, if you will. Popes. Some Roman emperors. And perhaps a few gods, some Olympian gods.”
Producer Lance Samuels reached out to Mandela to get his blessing almost eight years ago. The only directive Mandela had was he wanted the film to explore the less well-known figures in the anti-apartheid struggle, like Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.
“The fact that we have the six hours to work with gives us a much larger canvas,” said Fishburne. “We can introduce people to the audience who were instrumental not only in bringing apartheid down but also people who very influential in Nelson Mandela’s life — people who helped to guide him, shape him, counsel him, oppose him, challenge him.”
Orlando Jones, who plays Tambo, noted that the vast majority of the cast in “Madiba” is South African, plus it marks the first time an African-American director has helmed a story about Mandela’s life and also the first time a South African actress has played Winnie Mandela. “South Africans finally have a voice in this South African story,” said Jones.
Director Kevin Hooks, who directed Fishburne in “Fled,” put the actor at the top of his list when it came to casting. Hooks knew he made the right choice while filming Fishburne in a scene in which the imprisoned Mandell learns his son has died.
“I was at the monitor when I said, ‘Cut!’ I had to compose myself because I was near tears,” said Hooks. “I was speechless because it was just so powerful. That’s when I knew that it was a home run for me.”
Though daunting as an acting task, Fishburne knew he could handle the assignment as he was doing a special tour of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg before filming began.
He was looking though Mandela’s letters and artifacts when he spied a bust of Thurgood Marshall — the same kind of bust he had been given by the Thurgood Marshall Foundation to celebrate his opening night playing the Supreme Court justice on Broadway in 2008.
“I think, ‘OK. I’m good. Somebody gave him the same kind of award they gave me, so I’ll be OK. I should be able to pull it off,’” said Fishburne. “When I saw that, it was like the silent wink.”
In a twist, Fishburne’s BET movie will not only be competing with his latest movie — ” John Wick: Chapter Two” — but also with his turn as the crotchety Pops Johnson in ABC’s “black-ish,” which he said he’s loving.
“I am in the grandpa chair and I’m loving the grandpa chair,” he said. “I get to show this side of myself that’s been in the background, not really at the forefront. It’s nice because I like change. I don’t want to always do the same thing. I don’t want to be predictable. I want to mix it up.
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