Morgan Freeman, one of the rare performers who takes acting to artistic heights, has been a star for more than three decades in an industry where being older and/or African-American can be a career killer.
A Man for All Seasons
The 73-year-old has played the president of the United States; the head of the CIA; a street pimp; a crime boss named simply the Boss; a boxing trainer; the driver of Miss Daisy; a bald New York judge; the prison inmate you would most want on your side; a Civil War soldier; a sophisticated detective; Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and Nelson Mandela; and, oh yeah, God. He debuted on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and spent several years on The Electric Company as, among other characters, Easy Reader, Mad Scientist, Count Dracula, and Mel Mounds. He’s earned five Academy Award nominations and won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Million Dollar Baby. His deep and reassuring speaking voice has enhanced TV specials on subjects from the Civil War, slavery, and blues music to film and Clint Eastwood; and provided the narration for a variety of projects, from such documentaries as the award-winning March of the Penguins and Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon and a TV production of A Raisin in the Sun to several of the movies in which he’s starred. He’s even discussed sex with Clint Eastwood while riding horseback in the Old West, and helped Batman develop the cool gadgets and gear that allow the masked vigilante to kick criminal ass. The Mississippi native truly is a man for all seasons.
What made you decide to do your new action film, Red, with Bruce Willis?
It was pretty much the same thing that attracts me to almost anything I do: I needed a job [laughs]. Put that up there in the first column… I really admire Bruce Willis. He’s got a good track record and has done some very interesting films. He’s also fun to work with. We have the same kind of attitude on the set, which is, everything is on the surface and it’s just a movie. Bruce is very professional, but he doesn’t have the attitude that what he does is holy. You do your work, then they say “Cut,” then you talk about something else, like baseball. Bruce doesn’t hit his head between takes trying to stay in character or in the moment.
When Clint Eastwood first met with you about costarring in Unforgiven, what do you think he really wanted to know about you?
I don’t know if he wanted to know anything because he didn’t meet with me. I was in Africa when I got a phone call from my agent telling me Clint wanted me to be in this western. When we were making Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner told me about this script that Clint owned which had a role I should campaign for. Clint later sent me the script, but I didn’t meet him until I got to Calgary.
You’ve been directed by Eastwood in three films. How has your personal and professional relationship changed?
It’s just gotten deeper. I’ve been a big fan of his since he starred in the Sergio Leone-directed [Man With No Name] trilogy, which they shot in Italy. Watching Clint progress as an actor/director in his career, starting with his amazing work in both areas in Play Misty for Me, I got an entirely different feeling as to who he was as an actor. He was not invincible at all, but ready to show a lot of vulnerability. In all the films he’s done, particularly as a director, there’s always been something special that’s gotten my attention.
Has there been a film in recent years that you wished you were offered?
I wish I was offered almost everything I’ve seen Denzel Washington in [laughs]. That’s a good answer. That’s probably the answer.
Have you ever turned down a film that you knew would be successful because you suspected you weren’t right for it?
There was only one film — Bopha — which I would have been right for, but I decided against it because I was directing the picture. I just didn’t see myself in that role, but I could clearly see Danny Glover. I have not had the misfortune of turning something down that I knew would be a hit. There aren’t any roles I’d turn down except roles of religious posturing of any kind. And I don’t care if they’re in a film that could be a big hit, because I would still turn them down.
Why didn’t you ever direct a film again?
Directing has three parts: preproduction and production, which are great fun for me, and post-production, which I find boring because you’re only approving the work of an editor or a sound person. Also, I’m not very interested in ADR [automated dialog replacement], which is basically looping. Some actors are very good at it and some actors really suck at it… [and] I find it hard to imagine that you can’t reproduce your own rhythm or voice. I found that I’m basically lazy. I love acting, but it doesn’t take that long. If I’m lucky I can do four movies a year as an actor, but only one as a director.
Why haven’t you played more villains?
Once I did Glory and Driving Miss Daisy, I think my slot was set. Paramount Pictures reshot the endings of Deep Impact and Hard Rain because the test audiences didn’t like the fact that I died. I love being cast against type, but audiences seem to trust me when I’m on-screen, which makes producers reluctant to mess with that faith by casting me as a bad guy.
Most actors work from the inside out or vice versa in finding a character. What was your creative process in playing God?
Good question. God is not something you’ve got to look for. My belief in God is total. I’m God. [Looking amused] You look disappointed that I didn’t go for the laugh here.
If you were an aspiring actor, would you be disappointed if you lost a role to an inexperienced rapper because the film studio thought the rapper had an audience that would buy tickets to see him on the big screen?
Yes, I would, if I was any kind of actor. I understand it because I remember when Hollywood was hiring sports figures for acting roles because they assumed athletes had the celebrity to put people in the seats. Mind you, I don’t believe that stars make movies. I think that movies make stars. There’s a barrier actors have to cross before film studios think they’re able or bankable.