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A day after his 74th birthday June 1 (which he spent shooting a public-service film for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital) and just before receiving the AFI Life Achievement Award on June 9, the Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter after checking his birthday e-mails.
The Hollywood Reporter: Congrats on your AFI honor. Are there any clips from your early work that you’re hoping don’t get shown at the dinner?
Morgan Freeman: No. It’s not that I’m proud of everything I’ve done; I just don’t care. All my work has always been out there.
THR: Speaking of your work, what do you recall most about your early days on the PBS children’s show The Electric Company?
Freeman: My agents and I agreed that I would do the show for a couple of years, enjoy it and then move on — but I stayed with it for five years. My best memories are of the first couple of years when we were doing a lot of very creative, free-range stuff.
THR: Was any of it improvised?
Freeman: Attitudes were improvised. We had to stick with the script because it was like we were on a medical show. We really did have an agenda.
THR: Has the current glut of broad, often crude comedies and those with over-the-top action limited your role choices?
Freeman: I have a lot of things to attribute lack of work to — such as getting older. Older actors, we don’t get into those high-action films. Too much stunt work. Bad knees and ankles, fragile bodies. There’s sufficient work, however. I don’t feel left out.
THR: Have you started filming The Dark Knight Rises?
Freeman: We start in about three weeks in the U.K. Then we’ll be in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
THR: What is it about your working relationship with Clint Eastwood that has resulted in so much good work (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus)?
Freeman: I’ve always been a big fan of his acting and directing. When we got together on Unforgiven, I found him very easy to work with and listen to. He doesn’t direct actors — he hires them. The process is very different. It’s very much a collaborative effort. It’s one of the great things about him and why so many actors love him so much.
THR: Did Nelson Mandela give you his impression of Invictus?
Freeman: He didn’t say it in so many words, but I got the impression he wasn’t offended. When we showed him the film, he nodded and smiled a lot. During the scene when he comes out of prison, he leaned over to me and said, “I know that fellow.”
THR: You’re one of the few African-American actors to have played the president of the United States (Deep Impact). Do you think that opened the doors for a candidate like Barack Obama to be elected?
Freeman: I don’t think so. The public will accept a lot of things in the movies that they won’t accept in real life.
THR: Have you met Obama?
Freeman: I’ve met him on a number of occasions. He’s a very nice guy. He might be just a little bit too regular to be the president of the United States ’cause he’s a young guy, he likes to play basketball, and I’ve noticed that he has a Chicago walk. Watch him when he walks up to the podium. He doesn’t walk up one, two, three, stop. He goes one, two and one, two. He’s got a little bit of a beat to it.
THR: The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies, but it didn’t do well at the box office.
Freeman: The title of the book was Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The studio decided that they couldn’t put the whole title. Well, nobody could say it. It came out Shim, Shaum, Shack, Sham. … One lady said she saw The Hudsucker Redemption. So that was a problem. I don’t care how much you advertise, word- of-mouth is what sells a movie. If they can’t say the title, you’re not going to get many people into it.
THR: But then people found it on video and cable TV, and it became very popular.
Freeman: The script for The Shawshank Redemption was excellent. I was willing to do anything in that movie that I was asked to do. I was very surprised when my agent said, “They want you to play Red.”
THR: That character was originally an Irishman. Do you feel you’ve played a role in making casting directors more open to colorblind casting?
Freeman: I certainly hope so, but in that instance, the Screen Actors Guild was pushing for open casting at the time. I was just a beneficiary.
THR: Although you found steady work as a theater and TV actor as a younger man, you were almost 50 when Street Smart was released.
Freeman: I’ve had moments when I wished my career had gotten started earlier. I could have done more active stuff. But I’m also grateful that it got started when it did because there are no guarantees. It didn’t have to get started at all.
THR: Do you have any desire to go back to the theater?
Freeman: No. My life’s goal, my life’s dream from childhood, was to be an actor in the movies, but you go where the work is. For me, it was onstage for the longest time. Then I made it into the movies. In ’08, I went back onstage [in Mike Nichols‘ revival of The Country Girl opposite Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher], the way all actors will do. Some actors, like Al Pacino, just love it. I find I don’t.
THR: What do you do when you’re not working? What do you do for fun?
Freeman: Fun? I work all the time. I do a lot of voice work. I make a lot of different kinds of appearances. If I have a good stretch of time, I have this beautiful boat in the Caribbean, so I can go and hang out there.
THR: Do you make it down there often?
Freeman: I used to live on the boat and work out of there. When I moved ashore, I went down there every year around November and came back in late January or February or whenever I was called for a job.
THR: Finally, I have to ask: Do you like the sound of your own voice?
Freeman: Sometimes, when I get up in the morning, it’s deep and resonant; it sounds good then. Most of the time, it’s just another voice. I get a little confused when people start talking about how unique it is. It’s not unique to me.
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