Los Angeles police helicopters circle the sky on night patrol, while on the ground, in a parking lot, a film crew’s spotlight hits a boxy sedan driven by actor Charles Martin Smith. Larry Fishburne, who’s playing narcotics officer Russell Stevens Jr. in Deep Cover, a psychological thriller about the seductions of undercover work, emerges from the shadows and steps firmly on two blue crosses taped to the pavement. Suddenly Smith, as Drug Enforcement Agency honcho Jerry Carver, screams at Fishburne, telling him he must back away from the drug ring he has infiltrated. Why? The kingpin is a friend of the American government.
Fishburne snarls, yanks the smaller man’s arm back, hurls him against the steaming car hood, and rams a gun into his neck. On the next try, Fishburne has a new idea. Maybe he should throw Smith against the hood on his back, the better to point the gun directly into his face. Director Bill Duke agrees. By dawn, Smith, the accountant-turned-gunslinger in The Untouchables (1987) has allowed Fishburne, the forthright father in Boyz N the Hood, to twist his arm back about 50 different ways.
The atmosphere on this set is improvisational, a mood that Duke, himself an actor (Bird on a Wire), encourages. ”It’s collaborative here,” says Fishburne. ”Everyone throws in his two cents.” The other actor lending his two cents to these proceedings is Jeff Goldblum, who plays David Jason, a lawyer who deals more drugs than many of the criminals he defends. This October afternoon, he tap-dances onto the set, singing ”Some Enchanted Evening.” If Fishburne moves with an almost feline grace, Goldblum is a hummingbird on diet pills. Dressed in a somber business suit on the day of the Senate Supreme Court Justice vote, he asks, ”Do I look like Clarence Thomas, huh, huh, huh?”
”Some of Jeff’s mannerisms are so funny, the hard part is not to crack up,” says Fishburne, who bonded with his costar a few weeks before filming when the pair rode around in an LAPD squad car that was unexpectedly called to the site of a homicide. Today’s scene is less harrowing: It climaxes with Goldblum pulling a briefcase full of cocaine out of his office ceiling and giving it to Fishburne; then he suggests the two men go on to breakfast. Take one: ”How would some breakfast grab you?” Goldblum says, smacking his lips.
Take two: ”I’ve stayed up all f—ing night!” He shakes his fist.
Take three: ”God, I love the morning,” Goldblum says, a manic, beatific grin on his face. Goldblum doesn’t care which version is printed. ”I love coming up with stuff on the spot,” he says.
But just as not every director wants his actors to add spontaneous dialogue, not every actor feels comfortable improvising. Duke recalls: ”Larry hated working with me in the beginning. He’s used to rehearsing a scene the way it’s going to be shot. I said, ‘Larry, that’s not how I work.’ It always made him nervous, but he started to trust me and we had a good collaboration.”
On a break, Goldblum sings three-part harmony with himself while Fishburne, sipping nonalcoholic beer, is a haiku of self-restraint. Mention that he seems more inclined to stick to the script, and Fishburne responds somewhat defensively, ”Jeff uses a lot more words to say things than I do. That’s why you’re more aware of him improvising.”
By now the crew has silenced a squeaking dolly track by spraying it with Pledge, and Fishburne and Goldblum are ready for another scene. As the two men walk across the courtyard, Goldblum starts an impromptu speech about drugs being the opiate of the people, moving swiftly on to comments on the state of mankind, and then back to the Clarence Thomas hearings, making a lewd observation about Sen. Orrin Hatch. Suddenly Duke’s voice booms out from a corner: ”Cut! Jeff, you can’t say that,” Duke says. Goldblum, the picture of innocence, just smiles.