On Friday July 14 2000, Morgan Freeman was interviewed by Richard Jobson in front of a packed audience in London’s National Film Theatre. The event followed a screening of his latest movie, the taut psychological thriller Under Suspicion, in which he stars with Gene Hackman
Richard Jobson: Our guest tonight is regarded by many to be one of the greatest living actors, if not the greatest living actor, and I’ll nail my colours to the mast and say I think he’s right up there. He’s a man who started late in his big screen career, but when it kicked in, he made people stand up and pay attention. His controlled performances have had a consistency and dynamic that not many people have matched. There are these words that are often thrown around – words like dignity, gravitas, intelligence, and I know all those words really piss them off. We’re going to throw them out tonight and ask him why he’s so sick of them. But the fact is they’re accurate, I think the performances that he’s given over the years give those films a moral centre. He does something that Spencer Tracey used to do – make you believe that against a very bleak backdrop something good can come out of terrible circumstances. So give a very big warm welcome to Morgan Freeman tonight because he’s come in specially for this event – he’s flew in this morning, a little bit jet-lagged, a little tired, and then he’s going away tomorrow. I think it’s incredible that the NFT have managed to entice him to coming for this special event so I think, give him a warm welcome. Morgan Freeman.
Morgan Freeman: I was thinking backstage that I just have a couple of words to say and I’ll be very brief: Thank you.
RJ: Thanks for coming in and thanks for coming in at such short notice.
MF: Believe me, it’s my pleasure.
RJ: Obviously you truly believe in Under Suspicion, and you’re prepared to support it in this way –
RJ: Has it been a special experience for you?
MF: Yes because I’ve only just recently formed a film company, y’know, and this represents our first feature. Let me tell you how difficult it is to make a movie – not to shoot it – but to get it. To go somewhere and say: ‘I have this really terrific movie but I need some . . . money’ – Good luck!
RJ: I think a lot of people think because you’re Morgan Freeman and because Gene Hackman was involved it’s easy for you to go and knock on someone’s door and they throw millions of dollars at you. Is that bullshit?
RJ: Yeah. It wasn’t an easy project to sell either. It’s a tough film. It was a pretty bleak message in that movie.
MF: It’s a very strange thing, Richard, we have this little project, it takes two characters, primarily, it’s a two-character piece, although we have four of us working. But raising the money for that is just difficult. Now let’s say you’ve got an idea for $130m science fiction movie [and they say]: ‘No problem, when do you want to go into production? When will you have the script? Here’s the cheque. . .’
RJ: Why is that? Is it because your film was a more difficult project to sell?
MF: I can’t begin to tell you why. I think that the mogul business of people who make these decisions kind of understand that if you have a large budget, not the word blockbuster, but it’s a large movie – it’s got lots of mayhem and action and stuff like that. Your audience is going to be young and pretty much non-discriminating. They’ll be there. Where as if you do something where you need a thinking audience then you don’t have a guarantee.
RJ: It’s kind of sad though isn’t it that films that are more provocative, that ask more of an audience, they really are on the back foot these days. The big Friday night flick is really kicking smaller films out of place. . .
MF: You want me to tell you something fantastic?
MF: Everywhere I go, everywhere I go, everywhere I go. People say, ‘Love your movies. Shawshank Redemption‘ or they say ‘Shooshunk’ or ‘Shankshout – Best movie I ever saw.’ It opened the same year that Dumb and Dumber opened. It made $35m at the box office – domestic. Dumb and Dumber made $110m. Duu-uh.
RJ: That doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the industry and what you do?
MF: Well, no. I am not in it to make money [accompanied by wicked grin to the audience].
RJ: I think you’re having me on Morgan.
MF: No, seriously. The reason actors, artists, writers have agents is because we’ll do it for nothing. That’s a basic fact – you gotta do it.
RJ: Well, you did Under Suspicion for nothing.
MF: Pretty much, but I was paying me, so. . .
RJ: Why did you come into movies relatively late?
MF: I got sidetracked I think, by reality. I started out in. . . I went to Hollywood straight away. I got a good running start towards ‘The Wall’ – get down, not going to let anything stop me – but the wall was brick. So when I bounced, I bounced all the way to New York and got onto the stage and stayed there.
RJ: Which was probably a blessing in disguise.
MF: Yeah. Absolutely. No question about it. Back in the 70s when the black exploitation period started, all the New York actors were going to Hollywood, starring in it, making $40,000. I said to my agent whose name was Jeff Hunter, picked me up from the first stage play I did in New York. I said, “Everybody’s going out there and they’re working. I’m sitting here languishing. I should go – don’t you think I should go out to Hollywood?” “I don’t think so,” he said, “When they want you, they’ll send for you.” It worked. Though they didn’t want me for a long time.
RJ: Do you feel good about skipping that whole period, that black exploitation period? That you didn’t get involved?
MF: We were talking about blessings in disguise weren’t we?
RJ: Yeah. It’s kind of weird that they’ve been reassessed – a lot of those films have got a strange hip-ness about them. But for the most part they’re pretty terrible films aren’t they?
MF: For the most part, yeah. I mean you had Shaft and you had Cotton Comes to Harlem and everything else was sort of sort of.
RJ: Yeah. I mean, what was that brick wall that bounced you back. What was it? Was it because you were a young black actor do you think?
MF: Well, ’cause I was a young actor – black, white or otherwise, you keep running at that wall in Hollywood, everyone’s going to hit it, sooner or later. Most of us are going to hit at first shot. You get out there and you don’t know anything or anybody and anybody you ask in Hollywood “What do you do?” it’s “I’m at actor. Just waiting tables or pumping gas or delivering mail until my shot comes, y’know” – so that’s what that’s about.
RJ: Let’s talk about your stage career – because that’s been very important to you, hasn’t it?
MF: That’s, yeah, that’s what I was doing from childhood.
RJ: What kind of work were you doing when you went back to New York?
MF: Everything. I did Brecht, Shakespeare, lots of new plays, and when I was coming along, which was in the late 60s, 70s, 80s – all the way up to the last play I did, which was in 1990 – I did a lot of – well we had Off-Broadway, when we started out and Dungeon. Anybody needin’ me to explain Dungeon? No? We’re okay. And then Dungeon had to step up because the prices got to be so much that we had Broadway, Off-Broadway, Dungeon became Off-Off-Broadway and then we had another Dungeon. So that was my career as it were. You go back and forth. You’re on Broadway this year, maybe you had a successful, I was – I had to take a photograph of the first time my name (whispers) Morgan Freeman, was above the title on Broadway in New York City. Let me tell you what a moment it was for this young guy. And the play lasted about four . . . days. So of course, you’re back to Dungeon. That’s the way it goes in New York.
RJ: Yeah, but just working makes you obviously keep your nose to the grind.
MF: You would work, you would do it. If someone pays you – great, I get busfare to get to the theatre!
RJ: What was the worst role you did, you think? What was the lowest moment during that period?
MF: Well, I don’t know about low moments, but I know the worst role I did was that play on Broadway. It was a three character play – would-be comedy – and I think the funniest thing about it was the one night the lead actor just completely forgot every line. It was one of those situations where you can’t help – you can’t throw him a line, you can’t suggest a way for him to get out of it, you can’t do anything. It’s his problem. The audience now begins to know that it’s his problem. You hear that, what they call a titter, running through a crowd here – that’s what you were doing, sort of tittering. That begins to grow as this actor struggles to find out where he’s supposed to be. Then we just closed the curtain.
RJ: You were the lead in that weren’t you?
MF: I was not, no.
RJ: The first movie that made an impression – what one was that do you think?
MF: The first movie that I did?
RJ: No, the first movie that made an impression.
MF: On me?
RJ: Yeah, no – that got you noticed –
MF: The first one I saw!
RJ: The first one you did, I think.
MF: The first one I did that made an impression on anybody – that’s what you’re asking me? Richard would you be clear?
RJ: Okay, I think that is one all.
MF: It was a movie called Street Smart with Christopher Reeve and Kathy Baker. I played the pimp. My favourite role. No seriously, I think it’s probably the best I ever did because when I look at it, I see a side of my character that isn’t out there – it’s not walking out in the open, but it’s very definite. I had a great time.
RJ: You were Oscar-nominated for that role, weren’t you?
MF: Say that a little louder?
RJ: I think you were Oscar-nominated for that role, were you not?
MF: (Loudly) That was my FIRST Oscar nomination.
RJ: It’s strange because so many people have a very distinct impression of you, and it’s not as a pimp is it?
MF: No. I’m this noble, wise, dignified. . .
RJ: Gravitas. . . does that piss you off?
MF: No it doesn’t piss me off but you know all my life in the theatre I’ve really not meant to get pigeon-holed – not to get bracketed so that my roles were chosen for me. Now I’ve become and I’m going to ask forgiveness, but I’ve sort of become the Henry Fonda. . . you know what I mean though, right? I played a bad guy in a movie and they showed it to an audience – and we’re letting an audience tell us what to do now – y’know, and the audience said, ‘Well, I don’t want him – Morgan can’t die!’ And I was a thief. ‘He should get some money’. So that’s a dilemma. It’s a real dilemma.
RJ: And that was Hard Rain. You changed the ending right?
MF: Yeah, I’m telling you – we went back into the studio and re-shot it so that I didn’t die and I did get some money. Did any of you see this movie? Don’t, just don’t. Well anyway, this is the case, you know I’m right – that in any of these movies I’m seen. . .
RJ: Yeah. Let’s talk about a couple of other films. Let’s talk about Clean and Sober – what’s your memory of that movie?
MF: Clean and Sober was the first movie I got to do a year after I got Street Smart – an Oscar nomination. People said: “Well that’s it man, you’re off and running now – scripts be coming hot and heavy.” Well they weren’t. Glenn Caron hired me. He loved what I did and he hired me to play this drug counsellor. About this guy, a coke addict who was trying to clean up in a – what do you call these places? – a detox centre and the frictional relationship that develops in there.
RJ: That was with Michael Keaton?
MF: With Michael Keaton and Kathy Baker again. Fun.
RJ: Did you enjoy that experience?
MF: I enjoyed that experience. I had played a junkie, once, in a TV movie, actually but I didn’t really know. . . but I had a friend who was a counsellor, he was a counsellor and he’d been one. I would try anything, except some things. I would not try heroin just to find out what the high was like. I was scared to death to do that. I would go to my friend and say, ‘Alright now, tell me this. What happens when you first shoot up, when that jolt hits you – what’s the first thing that happens?’ And he said, ‘That’s where the nod is.’ Uh, okay fine. ‘It depends on how much you get as to how deep the nod is and as it wears off you start to get antsier and antsier and antsier; waiting, how are you going to get the next hit.’ So I knew what I was doing in terms of playing the character. I also knew where to address it from in terms of the counsellor. That sort of no-mercy attitude that you have to have. Because no one is going to kick the habit for you – you’re going to do it, or you’re not going to do it. Plain and simple.
RJ: Yeah, he was a tough-ass guy wasn’t he? And he had some hair-do.
MF: Well you know, I’m an actor – so I can change my hair if I want to.
RJ: Now this is the time when a different kind of role started to appear. This is the period of Driving Miss Daisy and Glory – when we start to see the other Morgan Freeman emerge.
MF: Yeah I think the big mistake was Driving Miss Daisy, actually.
RJ: In what sense?
MF: Well, the character caught on – this wise, old, dignified, black man that once people get an iconic – [to audience] can I use that term? You know what I mean, I’m makin’ up words as I goin’ and you can’t always communicate with made-up words, so if I lose you, you gotta stand up and say what the hell are you talking about? But some characters become sort of bracketed, identifiable – identified – you and him. People come up and say: ‘I just. . .’ and cry and stuff and everywhere you go they’re going to expect some aspect of that character out of you and if you disappoint them too many times. . . am I right?
RJ: How do you deal with that? How do you shake that off?
MF: I haven’t shaken it off. I told you they turned a whole movie around for that one reason.
RJ: Did that movie change your career?
MF: Change my career? Everything changes my career – by change it means keeps going, so –
RJ: Did it make it more financially remunerative – were you offered better roles, more money?
MF: You’re never offered more money – you have to beg for more money. Well I got my second ACADEMY AWARD nomination there, which you didn’t mention.
RJ: Well, I was pretty sure you might have mentioned it. Do you remember it fondly, the film?
MF: I remember every film I did fondly, except maybe, two.
RJ: One of them we’re aware of which is uh. . . and the other will remain a secret.
MF: It has to.
RJ: What about Glory? Let’s talk about Ed Zwick’s show.
MF: Glory came about, I was asked to do it. Ed Zwick and Freddie Fields, Freddie was the producer and Ed was the director. So we have this civil war movie – and I said: “Oh I know about these people and this is such a great, great, great idea and I am so happy that you want me to be involved. I know that song, the language.” And so we put this movie together and we went to Savannah, Georgia and for three weeks we rehearsed it and we wrote it. It was framed around a war without fleshed-out characters. We had character skeletons – so each actor got to actually put the meat on the bones of his character and it was a great experience. You see a lot of stuff in Glory that we actually sat down and improvised and then wrote down.
RJ: Do you feel a different kind of emotion when you’re involved in a film like that – that has actually has a resonance, has some real meaning?
MF: I think so, well for me, Glory is a film that I am absolutely most proud of as a work. It did everything I think a movie can do: it entertains; it instructs; it says something about the human spirit and vision; it covers a wide spectrum of positive things that we have the opportunity or the mandate to do as people who can influence large numbers of people who are thinking.
RJ: But you weren’t Oscar-nominated for that one, were you?. . . Don’t look at me like that!
MF: Is this going to be an adversarial affair? No, but DENZEL though, won an Academy Award!
RJ: You’ve always made a pretty strong point about transcending colour and the characters you played, certainly later in your career, they could be from, anywhere – really, characters like Somerset, and the character in Kiss the Girls, I mean it doesn’t matter, right – but those movies, it kind of did matter. Were you still, at that point in time, regarded as a black actor who’s put in roles which were. . .
MF: I am going to stop here a moment and try to be intelligent. You’re never going to get away from being a black actor or a Chinese actor or an Asian actor or whatever your ethnicity might be – but Hollywood, or I should say the industry itself, is keeping up with the fact that we now have jet airplanes and the internet and all that – so we’re tending to see not in these groupings. But more cohesive, more homogeneous – can I use that word? And so I try to exploit that fact, that I don’t want to walk around, y’know – I don’t have to say I’m black, in other words, do I?
RJ: This brings us on to Amistad.
MF: Aa-miiss-taad. Another one of those moments when your heart goes pitter patter because I can never explain to you what it’s like when the phone goes and someone says, ‘It’s for you, it’s Steven Spielberg’. This has happened to me on a number of occasions, but it still drops me and it’s like – oomph. The first time it happened was in 1978 and it was José Ferrer. This man I idolise. I saw Cyrano de Bergerac and he played Cyrano and I thought I would never see the better. He called me on the telephone: ‘Morgan, this is José Ferrer’. So it’s Steven Spielberg on the phone: ‘I have this wonderful project, I’m going to messenger the script over to you. There are two characters in there and I want you to consider.’ It was Amistad. I knew the story of the Amistad, but nobody had ever actually sat down and done a movie about this incident and I was just, again – number one I can’t believe the luck, having the sheer luck at having someone consider me for this wonderful idea. I really need to knock wood, because part of my career, a large part of my career has been enormous amounts of great good luck. Someone calls me up and says: ‘We have this great project, we thought of you’. Shawshank Redemption, Se7en, Amistad, Unforgiven. . .
RJ: It makes such sense though from their point of view – I mean casting you in that role in Amistad makes a lot of sense, I can’t think of anyone else taking that role.
MF: Of course it makes sense!
RJ: They told me to say that, I might add.
MF: Well done, I must say.
RJ: We’ve been rehearsing that one all day. . . What was he like to work with, Spielberg?
MF: He’s exciting, that’s what he’s like to work with. He knows precisely what he’s doing, he’s attentive, he’s so knowledgeable, he’s quick and if you’ve got an idea, he’s nothing but ears. If you want to say something, you have his total attention. He’s all he’s cracked up to be.
RJ: What do you think he brought to that story?
MF: Himself. His belief, his fervour. . . he brought Steven Spielberg and all of him came with him, I think.
RJ: And what about the finished film? What did you think when you sat back and watched that?
MF: Well, I loved the film. I really did. I had a moment of err, during the killings. I thought that was a little over-wrought. But he wanted to make a point and I understood that.
RJ: He tends to do that with a lot of his work, doesn’t he? He wants to make a point so he manipulates it and. . .
MF: But that’s what you do when you’re a storyteller.
RJ: But he kind of unashamedly emotional in that way, isn’t he – he wants to make an audience feel emotion, he wants to manipulate those emotions out of them. Is that a bad thing?
MF: No, it can’t possibly be a bad thing, that’s what any storyteller wants to do, I mean, you want to tell the story, you’re telling it for a purpose, you want to do something to your audience, particularly if you’re Steven Spielberg, that’s why he’s Steven Spielberg. When I walk out of a Steven Spielberg movie, something has happened to me. When I saw Close Encounters, my wife and I jumped into the car and drove out into the country where there were no lights so we could look up and see. . . y’know.
RJ: Yeah. You mentioned Shawshank –
MF: Shemshonk. Shemsham.
RJ: Tell us about your relationship with Tim Robbins and how you bonded with him. In those lonely prison cells.
MF: Shawshank was one of those situations where I was first hired and they ran a whole bunch of possibilities past me: Who do you wanna work with? Tim Robbins. So it was me and Tim. He is another one of those actors, who, I think he is just transcendent in his work. When he got his teeth into something he is totally watchable. Absolutely engrossing, to me. And we, I think actors who have characters who they totally understand help each other understand even more and I think that was what was happening with us. The deeper we got, the more we shot, the more we understood each other. The bonding was just the normal character thing. Of course we’re close friends now. It’s a transcendent moment for us as actors that the movie comes out and becomes what it has become. One of the most watched, one of the most rented videos, I guess in the world.
RJ: How does Frank Darabont stand up against the very eclectic bag of people you’ve worked with?
MF: Frank. I have a problem with writer/directors, personal. I can’t work well with both of them on the set, if both of them are giving instructions. Writers tend to be in love with what they wrote. You can’t always translate the words into the meaning, sometimes the meaning is better served without the words, difficult to make a writer to try to understand that. It gets, sometimes, tense.
RJ: He speaks very highly of you. He was in town recently!
MF: And I think highly of him too – he directed that movie! I didn’t direct the movie. He wrote it, he directed it, it’s his movie, his mark and it’s a great film.
RJ: It connected you with people that movie, didn’t it?
MF: Oh, absolutely.
RJ: What do you think was the heartbeat of that movie that connected to people in such a general way?
MF: The development, the relationship of those two men. What happened at the end took everybody all the way through that movie. That he got out and he somehow remembered that there was help somewhere, I mean Red. And ultimately the two of them came together. Like old lovers. The rejoining of two people who cared a lot about each other. A lot of movie say they love that movie and I know why, because it’s about love.
RJ: You are drawn to a certain kind of actor aren’t you? We’ve seen it tonight with Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman is of course, the star, but you don’t think of him as a sort of star, you think of him as an actor. Is that something that you would like to be regarded as?
MF: Oh yes, absolutely. I know for a fact, I know, that when you get the sobriquet, ‘star’, that label is put on you so that the audience will come to see you. You. An actor thinks the audience is coming to see what you’re doing. Am I making sense there? In other words, I don’t like to think of myself as a personality. I can’t wear a nose ring, dreadlocks, or any of that – because my next character has to be able to fit what’s on the page – rather than have the page fit what I’m walking around with.
RJ: I think that’s very well explained.
RJ: I think even worthy of an Oscar nomination, I think.
MF: No one mentioned that I got my third Oscar nomination for Shawshank.
RJ: We did skip by that didn’t we?
MF: Oh, it’s alright, it’s okay.
RJ: Hackman. Let’s get a few words on Hackman, because he’s a tour de force, isn’t he?
MF: This is another one of those situations where, I don’t know, I’m a child of the movies, I grew up going to the movies. Every day I could get the 12 cents together, eventually it was 25 cents, and now it’s $10 – and you don’t even get a cartoon. So I idolise movie actors, both sexes. Hackman is one of those people. He’s a movie actor, boy he’s an actor and every time I go see him I just marvel at him. I just. . . When I go to movies, not only am I being entertained, but I am also being trained as an actor because I am shameless in my thievery. If I can make it work for me and you did it, well, sue me. You’re not going to be able to look like anyone else, no matter how hard you try, unless you’re a mimic, then you’re not acting, you’re just mimicking. You can’t go on being John Wayne, that’s John Wayne. So you’re not going to steal from John Wayne. I’m not going to steal from John Wayne and you’re not going to come back and say ‘Didn’t you get that from the circus?’ You know. But he is one of those people who instructs me, whom I look up to – whom I think is one of the masters of his craft that I am so enamoured of. So the opportunity and the, there’s another word that means what happens when someone says you’re good enough to do this, what is it? But if Gene says ‘Morgan, here’s a piece that I would like us to do’ I mean, it’s Gene Hackman. You know. You may think it’s different, but that’s me – that’s how I react to having the opportunity to work with these people I think so highly of.
RJ: When you’re that close to them and you’re working that closely with them, what is it you appropriate from them?
MF: I am not sure I can answer all of that because what is it that makes a Picasso a Picasso – what is it that makes Gene Hackman the actor he is? Wherever he goes with what he does, he totally focused on what he’s doing. He’s not commenting on it, he’s not grandstanding with it, he’s just focusing on being the deepest and best he can be. And that helps you be the deepest and the best you can be. An actor who’s going to run towards the cliff, hold his nose and jump – just hold hands and do it. What was that from? Quick.
Audience member: Butch Cassidy.
MF: You are so bright.
RJ: So he’s got that instinctive thing?
MF: Yes, instinct is the right word, it’s almost automatic. You learn technique, but it’s ingrained – what it is – how it is, is what you learn.
RJ: I get the feeling that you also share with him the belief that if it’s not on the page you’re not going to make it happen on the screen. It needs to be fundamentally there.
MF: Yes, it has to be fundamentally there. I think that the great unsung heroes of movies are the writers – you look at the movie credits and you might see eight writers from an idea – but if it’s not on the page, you’re not likely to get it, not so that your audience likes it. Every hole, every place where you’ve patched it, every mis-step, every plot contrivance. And the hardest thing to do is to tell people who are sitting in some of these front offices, ‘Audiences think, stupid. You can trust that they think.’ A lot of people think that you’ve got to be spoon fed every little want, every little thing. I don’t think that either. You know why I don’t think that? Because I am in the audience. I go to movies too.
RJ: And you want to believe it. You want to sit there and believe it.
MF: Absolutely. Almost TEN DOLLARS!
RJ: You’ve never gone to the extreme to the method acting. You said earlier in your career you investigated certain technical things, but beyond that, I know when you were working with Brad Pitt, in Se7en, that Brad liked to take it as far as he could in taking up everything in that kind of method-y way –
MF: Listen, method is a misnomer. No one is really a method actor, everyone has their way of going about it, preparing for it, but method is preparation, it’s what you do to prepare. So my method is to read the script. Some actors’ method is to read the script a hundred times and in the doing of it, to immerse themselves in as much of the reality as possible. Me, I believe strictly in acting. If I am out of breath, I’m out of breath. I ain’t running nowhere.
RJ: So how quickly did you connect with Somerset then when you read Se7en?
MF: I put the script down and I was ready to go on the set. All you need when you know it, when you read it and you say ‘Oooh, oooh. Find me a costume designer, quick. ‘Cause I need this, this, this and this.’ Costume designer comes along and says, ‘Y’know I was thinking about this, this, this and a hat.’ (makes big smooching sound) We’re in, we’re homefree. Simple. It isn’t rocket science. Well, it is, but we make it up as we go.
RJ: Was it all on the page then?
MF: Every line, every nuance. Everything was on the page except the manner in which the director wanted to shoot it and the lighting.
RJ: And that is where the boat was pushed out, right? You tried to take a crime thriller and do something new with it? Did you achieve that?
MF: I think he did it in spades. This young guy, this David Fincher, he comes out of the Northern Californian school system but he was like, a drop-out. He started making music videos, so he is very computer literate, graphic oriented, knows all about film. He wanted to shoot this movie dark, he wanted it dark, so he was going to do a reclamation process, where you would take all of the silver nitrate that comes out of the wash when you develop the film, run it back through again, which takes the shaded, the dark parts of the movie and makes it darker. That just dampens down the entire movie. The light, the colours, makes it deeper. That is what he did. The problem with the process is that in the newer theatres, they have a different lighting system than the old arc light, that were in the reel to reels. So in those the light you have to pump it way up in order to get the light, because if you don’t – people really can’t see.
RJ: So he hadn’t thought it through, had he?
MF: Well, he’d thought it through, but we want to look at it in the big theatres in Hollywood, we’re not going to go to the art houses.
RJ: Did you feel that you were involved in a special project with that, did it feel immediately that this is something. . .
MF: I wanna get this straight with you, right now. If I’m in it, it’s there. If I’m in it, it’s special. Hey.
RJ: What was it about Somerset that you liked as a character?
MF: Answering this question is going to do my image some damage. Somerset was a driving force in this story. A very excellent psychological drama. This character was the driving force, like Red in Shawshank. He was the narrator, he was the whole shooting match in terms of setting the mood, in terms of pushing the story along. That was Somerset. Aside from the fact that it was really a great script, it was a fabulously powerful character to play. It was a no-brainer.
RJ: It was a really bleak movie though, right? Even Somerset being the glimmer of hope in that film. . .
MF: Yeah, bleak, bleak, bleak. But very, very immediate to me. It’s a story that borders on fantasy because we were in a non-identifiable place in almost a phantasmigorical situation. I mean, imagine someone deciding that he’s going to murder seven people for seven reasons. It had a great plot.
RJ: In seven days. . .
MF: Seven days. They’re all gonna be discovered in seven days. Victor (the sin of Sloth) was years, it went on for a long time, months, I guess. It wouldn’t be years. There was this character who was brain dead, but he was still alive. He’d starved him to death, not to death even – right? Remember that character? What grabbed me about it was that fact, that this was the driving force, this really rather incredible script.
RJ: Do you see some kind of parallel between the John Doe character and the Somerset character?
MF: Only when you pointed it out to me.
RJ: Two of the same bleak views. . .
MF: I never really did see that as a parallel until you pointed that out, until you mentioned that and then I could see. . . there was a moment in Se7en when they’re driving out into the desert, and John Doe, the Kevin Spacey character, is talking about why he did what he did, and the moralist, played by Brad Pitt, is just ranting at him, and Somerset is asking these little low-key questions and watching and listening, but I think he is also thinking, “Hmmm, you can’t really argue with that, I see that.” There are people out there who, between us, we look at them and we say, “Gosh, why are they even living.” And we go on – we don’t start plotting to get rid of them, but we do that. So that was a parallel in that the world we’re in, Somerset’s character was brought on by the same things that are driving John Doe to commit his crimes that he’s committing. Had you not pointed that out to me, Richard, I would have gone to my grave having never made that connection.
RJ: So you got a taste for playing the detective after Se7en?
MF: I always wanted to be a fireman, a cop, an Indian chief, a doctor, a lawyer. I always wanted to be all these things, so I am drawn to these kinds of characters.
RJ: I know it annoys you that people say with Alex Cross (Kiss the Girls) and Somerset, “Hold on, it’s the same guy again.” But it’s not, is it? They’re very different people.
MF: If they say that to me and it’s true, then I have really hit bottom. I don’t think it’s the same guy. But I don’t think John Wayne thought that any of his characters were the same guy, he just . . .
RJ: He’s a very different kind of detective isn’t he?
MF: Oh, completely different. One guy’s drives a Porsche and the other one walks.
RJ: One wore a hat, the other –
MF: Yeah, one was a little older. . . so different costume designers.
RJ: Did you enjoy that experience, Kiss the Girls?
MF: I didn’t really. Gary Fleder is a young man but he has a real flair for making movies. I like working with directors because I’m really opinionated as you might, or might not have gathered by now, about what things work and may not work, what audiences like and may not like, (not really) but I do have opinions about things. I like to be able to say them and then have them acted on. The director who responds to me like that, always gets my appreciation. I do appreciate it. What I find is the best directors, no matter what kind of name they have, are like that.
RJ: The were a few rumours that came through from the Se7en period, that you and Brad, while you worked well, there were moments that were explosive, you kind of disagreed. Was that true?
MF: No, that’s rumour. We never actually disagreed. We had moments where we had difficulty getting the shot, getting the scene done but I don’t recall that we ever had any serious tension between us. There might have been one moment when I opened my mouth once too often.
RJ: There was a tension between the characters at the beginning. . .
MF: Yeah, that was serious, but Brad and I got along. I get along with actors. I could name on one hand that I’ve worked with that I would have something unkind to say about. And then that I’m sort of making up.
RJ: You just finished working with (director) Stephen Hopkins as well. What do you think he’s got? What did you like about the way he worked?
MF: Hopkins is another one. . . now when I say young, I mean people who are under 60. Hopkins, I don’t know if he fits in that category. But when you’ve got to do a new project with a director, if he deigns and usually, if you’ve been round a minute or two like I have, he deigns to do an interview with you about the project. There is something that grabs you. What Fincher did, we went to dinner and he said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ And I could see it. In that context, I can be directed. You can say to me, ‘Morgan, wait. Don’t say that line until I get this far around so that I can get that light on this side of your face’. I understand it very clearly and I will do as many takes you want to do to get it just the way you want it. Make sure I understand and it’s no problem. Hopkins is like that, y’know? He’s one of those who sits down and says, ‘The way I see it is like this’ – wow, I never thought of that, what a great idea. What do I have to do? ‘Well what you have to do is what you do’, but every once and awhile he’ll say, ‘Just step around a little bit more’ – that’s a technical thing. Simple. Directors who want to direct actors are headed for trouble. I don’t like to be directed.
RJ: I mean the directing is in the casting, right? I mean they cast you for a reason?
MF: I believe that’s what most of us believe. If you cast it right, you just hire someone to say ‘Action’. They come in later and say ‘Cut’.
RJ: I think this quite neatly to actors who become directors. I think before we talk about your own directorial debut with Bopha!, let’s talk about Eastwood. Can he direct?
MF: Oh yeah. Eastwood is non-pretentious. Three takes and you’ve got it. No question about it, move on. You don’t have to do 17 takes because you think maybe there’s something else you can show me: “I really like that third take, we’re moving on.” I love that. I think that’s the way to make a movie. Some actors don’t like that at all: “I need 15 takes because I’m pumping during the first 14 , I’m just pumping. Building. By 15 I’m up high enough I’m going to give you an award-winning performance.” It’s true of some actors, it’s true of Meryl Streep. Nobody can deny that this woman is beyond magic, but she worked with Clint Eastwood. She’s like: “Where you going?” “We’ve got it.” “NO, that was a rehearsal!” Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman. Dustin pumps, pumps, pumps. What’s wrong with that is that you’ve got to up there pumping with him.
RJ: Did you get it?
MF: One more. But you know it’s all fun. We all have our different ways of doing it and you have to go along with whomever.
RJ: Did you feel confident about your directorial debut?
MF: No, it was the first time. The year, two years before, or a year and a half before, I had worked on a second project with John Avildsen. So I said to John Avildsen, ‘John, I’m getting ready to direct a movie.’ He said, ‘Great. I think you’re going to do really wonderful. If you want any advice from me at all, just ask. If you want to stand around a camera, anything you want, y’know, do. But my best advice to you is, listen.’ I got that, because I believed that already. Then I worked with Clint in the very next movie and watched a guy who got it one take or he got it in two takes or he got it in three takes. He packed up and he changed sets. That’s the way you can have the courage to do that. You can look at it and say: ‘Got it. Move it.’ That’s how I shot Bopha! We got it, we moved it. Didn’t we? One day we were doing a soccer match. We did 32 set-ups in one afternoon. Let me tell you, that’s moving.
RJ: Why that project, why Bopha!?
MF: Well, Bopha! was dropped in my lap. This guy comes along with a script and he wants me to star in it and direct it. I looked at the script and it’s a story set in South Africa and it’s about a black South African policeman. There were a bunch of those guys, black policemen on the townships. They had lives that were horrendous. Their families fall apart because no one on the township respects them. Hates them, actually. This man thought of himself as being a pillar of the community because he had a profession, because he believed in the law. He was really deep into it. He had a child, a son, who was coming of age, getting ready to come out of high school. He’s my son, y’know, he’s going to follow me into this, as soon as you graduate and we can go the academy. This kid is the leader of the student rebellion and it winds up with them coming head on and him having to arrest his own son. It was a horrendous thing. Riots, it was a great story. And we made a really good movie. It was Danny Glover and some great English actors and some South African actors.
RJ: Did it give you a taste for directing?
MF: Oh, yeah, I enjoyed it so much. I really, really, really enjoyed the experience of helming, to use the Variety term for directing a movie, for being captain, for controlling the ship. But there are politics involved that I cannot deal with. We were Hollywood going to Africa to shoot a movie, not about black people, about Africans. And we looked at the script and we looked at South Africa and we looked at the script again and all of a sudden, we gotta do this and we got into trouble. We made the movie, but we got into trouble.
MF: We had to kill the leading man. This cop, the movie starts off with a necklace. They take a tyre, soak it with gasoline, put it round a person and light it. The movie opened with this scene. Setting this cop on fire. So we don’t like cops in this area. We don’t like ’em, they’re. . . and it goes on down. In the end, what the original script wanted was a coming together between father and son, some sort of détente. They had this riot, all these kids were shot down, by the police. And they have their rallies at the funerals. They are all at these funerals, seven or eight kids that they’re burying at one time and now he’s denounced his stuff. He shows up at the funeral, this is the end of the movie. They’re telling, the powers, that he’s got to, he and his son, that they’ve got to have that moment together. And so with looking at this and looking at this, and Danny says, ‘He’s never going to make it through that crowd. They’re not going to beat him up, they’re going to kill him!’ So he’s got to die. That’s the only way he can get redemption. That’s the only redeeming possibility in this story. So we said to a man, producers, directors, actors: ‘That’s it’. So we all went with it. The studio said: ‘Under no circumstances can you shoot that ending’. Well they were in Hollywood and we were in South Africa, so. . . !
RJ: I think that this is a pretty good time to bring some people in, I am sure that a lot of you have some questions.
Q1: An American critic recently wrote that you would be the perfect casting for Abraham Lincoln. Apart from the gravitas and the dignity, what sort of essential American qualities do you think he saw in you?
MF: How can you say apart from the gravitas and the dignity because that’s all he means?! I am not sure how he got from wherever he got from to Abraham Lincoln, but I don’t even know how, I can’t even begin to answer.
Q1: Do you think there is anything specifically American in you that he sees?
MF: Well, no. Because I don’t have any other experience, I’ve travelled a lot, but I am essentially American. All my input has been American, it has not been Abraham Lincoln. I don’t have the same feeling about Abraham Lincoln as you might do.
RJ: You’re a pretty good president in Deep Impact, you know, that moment when you say ‘Hello America’ I believed you.
Q2: Can you imagine any situation where you might go back on the stage?
MF: Yeah. I can imagine a situation.
Q2: And could you explain what the situation might be?
MF: Well we are constantly looking for something new to do. I’ve always said I wanted to do King Lear and I was at one point going to do it at the Shakespeare Festival, in the park. That was the last play I did, Shakespeare. Now, I’ve been doing movies non-stop for years and I’m getting what actors seem to get – lazy. Stage is really hard work. You’ve got to do it every night. Not like doing it once and walking away. If you do it, you’ve got to commit at least six months to it [makes snoring sound]. So, if a good, new – y’know Driving Miss Daisy was a play, first. I saw it even before it was written – I was at Playwright’s Horizon to see another play and on their little calendar was a little blurb about coming events. The coming event was this play by Alfred Uhry about a Jewish woman and her chauffeur in Atlanta, periods of 1960 to whatever, over a period of 25 years. And I thought: “Oh, that looks good” and it came to pass that I did that. Something new, something exciting, I think that is what I would be drawn back by.
RJ: He’s just worked with the playwright Neil LaBute, people think of him as a film-maker, but he is essentially a playwright before he was a film-maker. The director of A Company of Men and Friends and Neighbors. In his new piece [Nurse Betty], which is something very special. Give us an indication of what he was like to work with – because he didn’t write this, did he?
MF: Neil has been like a kind of teddy bear. He is kind of a large man and he’s warm, cuddly and huggable.
RJ: That’s not very evident in his work
MF: No, it’s not. But he’s sort of a minch. Is that the right word? He’s easy going, he doesn’t tense up about stuff. There’s a sense of smooth, easy, lots of laughs. When we’re kicking back and having fun, we’re doing the work. It’s flowing. I loved him. I have this feeling for him. I have seen two of his movies – and ooph. But this movie was kind of a departure, but in the same kind of dark vein that he likes to work in. I’m an easy lay, I guess I can say that.
Q3: Have you any plans to work with Gene Hackman again? – the two of you on screen blows my mind.
MF: We don’t make plans. All actors say, “Let’s do it again,” but the chances are slim, or none that you will do it again, but it does happen. We do move round in circles like that and sometimes we intersect again. And of course if the opportunity ever presents itself, Gene and I will doubtless leap at it.
Q4: What was it like to see yourself on screen for the first time?
MF: Good question. The answer is not what you think. I pretty much cut my teeth, that is, I grew up on the stage. The big difference is that on the stage I see me through you. I see me through the audience. You are my reflection of my work and I always walk away from the theatre expanded. I’m fantastic, I’m really good. Then you do a film. And now you see yourself and you’re not so good. I thought I looked better than that, now you all become liars, I cannot trust you, because I know. The big fear is that one day, you’re going to know.
MF: That was a good answer, wasn’t it? It was the truth. I cannot stand watching myself. I can, y’know, it’s not nearly the same. It’s humbling to watch yourself, to see yourself up there.
Q4: Are you talking about performance or your grey hair?
MF: I am talking about everything – the performance, what I look like – I don’t have to look, if I stand up and some lady goes: “Ooh”. My whole thing changes. . .
Q5: Is there anyone that you really want to work with that you’ve missed?
MF: Oh yeah. Anybody. I don’t want to call out any names because I may leave out the main ones, but whomever that you can think of that I have not worked with is who I want to work with.
Q6:</B There’s a lot of noise in the UK at the moment about the movie The Patriot – any thoughts?
MF: I haven’t seen it and I don’t know anything about it.
Q7: Is there any politics involved as to why you were nominated for an Oscar for Shawshank but didn’t get it?
MF: No. No politics or stories at all. The problem with the Academy Awards, and to me it’s a big problem, is that if you don’t win it, you lose it. I think in all cases, the Academy – you’ve got a vote and sometimes you can’t really separate it. So you might toss a coin. You might go on the fact that you know this actor longer than you know that one. You might go on the fact that you’ve seen this one in more pictures. I don’t think it has anything to do with race.
Q8: What are your favourite films?
MF: I don’t know, Riders of the Purple Sage. Anything. I think I was maybe 15 years old when I saw John Wayne as Kurt Evans in Angel and the Badman. I don’t like John Wayne today, but when I was 15, he was what was happening to me. The first movie that I remember was King Kong. It always has this mythic place in my memory. Moby Dick was a book I read, one of the two books I read, that turned into a movie that was as good, but I wasn’t a child then. When I went to movies when I was a kid, I had people I liked and whatever those people were in. . . and those people: Jay Maynard, John Macbrown, Jimmy Wakely – do you know who these people were? My point. But they were Saturday cowboys. (Makes shooting noises), that was the soundtrack, man. Horses never walked, they would run all day. Six-shooters could shoot 18 times.
RJ: What were you saying yesterday that there were movies you really liked?
MF: Dead Man Walking, American Beauty – anything I was in.
RJ: Enough of that.
Q9: Aside from directing and acting, is there any other part of film-making you would like to do? Costume?
RJ: Is it time for Morgan Freeman the costume maker? That is a great question!
MF: You got close, I married one. No, I’m sidling, inching, into producing. Which will be an easy move for me because I have this incredible partner who was really born to produce, so I just sort of tag along with her and get credit. That’s if I have any other career. . . I am probably going to move further and further into that aspect of it.
RJ: I even saw that you’re producing the new David Fincher movie. Big hundred million dollar sci-fi flick.
Q10: Are you going to do some comedy? ‘Cause you’re really funny!
MF: My dignity. . . My persona as a dignified, wise, fatherly (grandfatherly perhaps) doesn’t lend itself in that direction – so first comedy chance I get of course, I’ll be right out there. I think my next movie [Nurse Betty] might be billed as comedy.
RJ: It’s a two-hander – with Chris Rock, and a must-see.
Q11: Have you met Nelson Mandela, and how do you feel about playing him?
MF: Yes I have and Mr Mandela and I have a pact that whenever we are within a thousand miles of each other that we will get together because I need to spend as much quality time with him before I play him on film. I need to know him very well, and he understands that and so we get together as often as we can. We just had dinner in Washington DC about a month ago – the other part of your question was what?
Q11: How do you feel about playing him?
MF: Oh, I’m honoured and terrified that I won’t live up to the job of really presenting this man. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi sort of bench-marked that for us. If you don’t do at least that good, maybe you should stay at home. So. . . it’s a serious challenge, but I am really looking forward to it. One of the best directors around is going to direct it, [Elizabeth director] Shekhar Kapur, so I think we’re going to come out of that alright.
Q12: The character in Street Smart [a pimp]- do you think you’ll ever do a character like that again?
MF: I’ll never do that one again. No. The problem that finding something like that, you know what happened behind Street Smart is that every script that I got after that was like, that. People say, if you do something well, then the people who send you scripts say ‘This is right up your alley, this is what you do well’. It’s a strange kind of compliment, because it really isn’t a compliment. That’s not what I do well, I do everything well. I mean, I’m an actor. That’s not me, don’t send me a script saying ‘I wrote this with you in mind’. No you didn’t. You wrote it with a character in mind. Maybe something you saw me do, but it’s not me. So don’t do that. Write a script and say that maybe you’d like Morgan Freeman to try and play this – but you can’t write it with me in mind.
Q13: Are there any more characters you’d like to play?
MF: No, I’ve done it. That’s it, I’m over. What do you mean?
Q13: Is there anyone else you’d like to portray?
MF: Oh, is there an Abraham Lincoln somewhere in my future? After Mandela you mean? He wrote a book about his thing and he said that he would like for me to play it. Will it happen again? I don’t know. I am not dying to play just historical characters, but I do very much like historical material because I think that I for instance, know that I am informed about history through books and movies. You can teach me more I have some concept of, having seen it in the movies or read about it in a book, than you can if I have not. The danger is always that in Hollywood we tend to rewrite history to match what we need to say. Which means that it’s no longer history, it’s somebody’s fiction. But pictures like Glory, where we strove mightily to be accurate, I think are important and I like to do those.
RJ: You’re also going through a period where you’re making choices which are way out there, I mean, working with Neil LaBute is a new kind of challenge and you’re both distinguished. . . and I don’t think that anyone believed what I was saying earlier about the character in Moist, which in itself tells you quite a lot about the movie, doesn’t it? Can you tell us what that character is, in Moist.
MF: It’s a wonderful concept. The character that I play is an international thief. Right now he’s busy stealing sperm and eggs because people are stock-piling it for later use and so if there was a millionaire who wants, for instance, Richard’s sperm, and I know that he’s got some stored up. . . I could get it for you wholesale. That’s the premise of the movie.
Q14: I teach American History and I try to use Glory but I often get quite negative reactions from parents and administrators (because of the violence of the battle scenes) – do you have any advice as to what I can say to them?
MF: ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’. The kids will go back and they will slow it down when they get home or y’know. There may be differing reasons why parents would not want them to see that, other than the ones you and I would jump at.
Q15: It says in our programme notes that you did long takes (of seven or eight minutes) for Under Suspicion. Is that for real, and was it hard work?
MF: That’s for real and because it’s dialogue driven, it was easy to do like that. Because Under Suspicion is essentially a play, they don’t need a lot of cuts and uh – We’re aware that there is a lot of close-ups in films by people who’ve done television. Small screens seem to demand that immediacy, whereas a film doesn’t, a film can sustain a tableau. If you have a scene that you can choreograph as a tableau so that the scene is seamless; then, number one, you’re going to save time and time is money; and number two, you’re going to be more immediate in your story without a lot of jumps and things. And I think it’s helpful, did you find it that way? Yes.
Q16: Why did you choose not to star in Bopha! as well as directing?
MF: Number one, I felt very strongly that Danny Glover was the better choice of actor for the role. I am not one who thinks he can do everything and survive, and that was the case for Bopha! Number two, I was not ready to try to direct myself in my first effort at directing. I didn’t want to. It’s very difficult, I think. Well, that’s primarily it. I didn’t want to play the lead. If I hadn’t directed, I wouldn’t have played the role.
RJ: If I can ask one final question – of all your body of work, what’s the one that you’re most proud of? I know you feel very good about a lot that you’ve made, you’ve made that very clear tonight, but –
MF: Most proud of Glory. My favourite character is in Street Smart and everything else is just work. I’m not downplaying it, it’s y’know –
RJ: You can look at a lot of other actor’s careers, and you could say, I mean, Gene Hackman, I’m obviously a huge fan of, but you look at some of the choices that Gene’s made and you think, ‘What was he thinking about doing this film?’ He’s never bad in those films, ’cause he’s too good. But he’s made some seriously weird choices of movies – I mean he’s been in some real crap.
MF: I think you can punch Gene Hackman right along with Michael Caine. Michael says, ‘It’s work and I’m an actor, so, sure, I’ll do it’. It’s a paycheque. And like you say, they’re never bad, so why not?
RJ: But you never regarded it in that way?
MF: No, if I hate the script I’m never going to get past that fact. No.
RJ: Do you think you’re still pushing the boat out, do you think you’ve learnt new things, you’re trying new things still?
MF: I’m always trying new things and learning new things. Once you think you’ve got it all, you should lie down. If there isn’t anything more you can learn – go off and die.
RJ: Don’t do that on us, because I think we’ve had a pretty amazing evening in your company tonight and I think it’s been a great honour sharing the stage with you.
MF: You’ve all been, let me tell you, extraordinarily wonderful. Laughed at all my little jokes.