Twenty-nine years ago, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne were celebrating their Academy Award nominations for portraying Tina Turner and Ike Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” This year, Bassett is nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar for her commanding performance as Queen Ramonda in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” and her longtime collaborator couldn’t be more thrilled.
Calling in between interviews for “John Wick: Chapter 4,” Fishburne tells Variety, “It’s what’s in my heart that I’d like to talk about more than what’s on my mind. I’m just really, really happy about all of the accolades that have been coming Angela’s way for this performance.”
Fishburne sought out “Wakanda Forever” early in its theatrical run, interested to see what the Marvel sequel had in store.
“I was just blown away by a couple of things,” he says, recounting the experience. “First and foremost, this is a movie with five Black women as the leads, which was incredible. And the way Angela held the space as the queen was beyond impressive. Her leadership in this movie is incredible and her generosity, also, was just so beautiful to see.”
When Bassett’s Queen Ramonda lamented over losing her entire family (“Have I not given everything?” she cries.), Fishburne was particularly bowled over: “It’s just heartbreaking and so brilliant.”
Coincidentally, it was Bassett’s turn opposite Fishburne in 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood,” that lay the foundation for that memorable monologue. During Variety’s cover shoot last November, “Wakanda Forever” filmmaker Ryan Coogler told Bassett that the scene where she and Fishburne verbally sparred over the care of their son Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) still stuck with him after all these years.
“You put him in his place,” Coogler said, summarizing the sequence. “You were like, ‘Moms have been doing what you’ve been doing all the time, so you don’t get no cookie.’”
Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne during 31st Annual Publicists Guild of America Awards Luncheon at Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel. Ron Galella Collection via Getty
While Fishburne doesn’t keep specific memories of filming scenes at the top of his mind, he does remember the first time he saw Bassett perform.
“She was in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’” Fishburne recalls. “I was absolutely blown away by her intelligence and her strength, her beauty, her acting — I mean, all of it. She was the total package. To see her live, if you’ve never seen her live, is really something.”
Of course, Fishburne eventually witnessed that talent from the closest proximity possible, as the actors developed a lasting partnership on screen and stage. Two years after “Boyz n the Hood” came “What’s Love Got to Do with It”; then, they collaborated twice in 2006, co-starring in “Akeelah and the Bee” in theaters and on stage in a production of August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Fishburne says, considering what makes Bassett such a special scene partner. “The word that people use is ‘chemistry,’ that Angela and I just have a chemistry that is undeniable and innate. But I think it is really born out of the fact that we both love what we do. And when we come together, we make room for each other to really, really use all of our abilities and all of our talents. We complement each other.”
Another touchstone in their connection is their shared background in theater. “We are both passionate about our craft and made choices that reflect that,” Fishburne adds. “So, this is not a surprise that she is receiving the kind of attention and accolades that she deserves for her work. It’s just a really beautiful moment.”
On Friday, Bassett sat down with “CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King to discuss her career and reflected on what it was like not winning the Oscar 29 years ago. “I choose to believe there’s a reason why it didn’t happen,” Bassett said, looking back.
In fact, despite delivering a truly transformative performance as Tina Turner, Bassett went 18 months before landing her next role, with “Strange Days,” “Vampire in Brooklyn” and “Waiting to Exhale” following the dry spell.
Asked what he remembers about that period, Fishburne says, “I was very happy that we got nominated, and we’ve gone on to have wonderful careers. Time didn’t stop. Obviously, Angela didn’t get the kind of offers that one would expect after getting an Academy Award nomination, but it was a different time.”
He explains: “There were still, as you say, barriers to be broken down. There wasn’t the variety of roles available to women of color like there are now, largely due to Angela’s presence on screen.”
With Bassett’s best supporting actress Oscar nod has come a reevaluation of her legacy, which boasts one classic after the other. Audiences are reminded of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Akeelah and the Bee” (starring a young Keke Palmer) and her portrayal of a host of historical figures, including Betty Shabazz (in “Malcolm X”), Katherine Jackson (“The Jacksons: An American Drama”) and Rosa Parks (“The Rosa Parks Story”).
Over the years, Fishburne has observed Bassett’s work as a fan, as much as he has as a friend. “Angela is a consummate actor. There’s nothing she can’t do,” he says, musing over her lengthy filmography. “One of my favorites is her take on Marie Laveau in the ‘American Horror Story’ series. I really loved her portrayal of that character. ‘Ruby’s Bucket of Blood’ is a lot of fun too; she was really great at that. But for me, really, I’m anxious to see what she does next.”
Could that next project be another on-screen reunion? “I’m sure there will be opportunities that come up for us to work together again,” Fishburne says. ‘Hopefully it’ll be something that we both feel passionate about and excited about, and then we’ll do it.”
In the meantime, Fishburne will be watching the Academy Awards on March 12 and rooting for Bassett.
“My hope is that she wins. I’m not gonna beat around the bush about it,” he says, bursting into a hearty chuckle. “I am just excited for her and happy for her. Nobody deserves it more.”
Laurence Fishburne, Keke Palmer and Angela Bassett attend the L.A. premiere of “Akeelah and the Bee” in 2006. Vince Bucci/Getty Images