December 19, 2004|A man who needs little introduction in American cinema, Morgan Freeman is taller in person than you'd expect (slimmer, too) and gracious to the point of delaying his lunch so that we could finish our conversation. In town to receive a lifetime achievement award at the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival, Mr. Freeman granted interviews with no specific movie to hump, his long-awaited reunion with director Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby, still flying low on the radar at that point. He was there sans agenda, in other words, a rare place to find an interview subject and an invitation--a daunting one--to go over some ground that has already been trampled flat. The challenge of chatting with someone as well-known as Mr. Freeman is always going to be finding something new to discuss: even if you come up with a fresh question, after all, like anyone polished in the apple of the public eye, the super-famous and the oft-dissected have developed a skill for reverting to stock answers and widely-published responses. (As the saying goes, they answer the question they wish they were asked.) It's not affectedness, exactly--it's training. And after a while, that training becomes as helpless a reflex as blinking.
So the tactic became one of approaching Mr. Freeman without an agenda--well, truthfully, with one agenda: to ask him about his feelings on the enduring legacy of Driving Miss Daisy, knowing full well what his answer would be but having the perverse desire to hear it again. (Sure enough, it was a favourite stage production, and sure enough, he regrets how history has read his character as an unkind stereotype.) Yet there's something thrilling about getting it from the horse's mouth--like T.S. Eliot reading "The Wasteland", I guess--that feeds into the mysterious cult of celebrity. I got a similar charge out of Francis Ford Coppola telling me a stock story from the set of Apocalypse Now, for instance. But I realize that it makes for extremely poor, extremely tedious reading in the same way as any act of ego (mine, not his): there's only so much of the junket line you can read before echoes of Chris Farley's SNL talk show host ("Remember that part in that one movie you did? That was AWESOME!") start ringing in the ear.
So, acknowledging that you may find some of this stuff familiar, I offer this: that Mr. Freeman seems like a genuinely warm person; that he loves babies with an unaffected joy; and that he treats his assistant like a member of his family. He loves food, he loves Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, and Jose Ferrer, and he's really, really tired of people bringing up his Easy Reader from "The Electric Company". He has a way, too, of sounding as though he's imparting information for the first time no matter the number of situations in which he's imparted it (a skill that confirms his being a notoriously consistent multiple-take actor), and at the end of our conversation he shook my hand firmly and looked me right in the eye. I don't care for a lot of the movies Freeman is doing nowadays, but I respect that he allowed me to feel respected for the forty-five minutes or so that we talked--a good reminder, if a reminder were needed (as it has been more often than not lately), that, Hey man, he's good.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So, "The Twilight Zone of the Subjunctive Mood."
MORGAN FREEMAN: (laughs) "Woulda coulda shoulda," I don't live in that place.
You worked with Christopher Reeve in Street Smart, still one of your best performances--talk to me about his death and his lasting legacy.
Chris's life was governed by circumstances that spiralled away from him, I think. He was a very passionate actor--he loved a lot of things, he loved the stage, he had a lot of aspirations to film a lot of different things. But then Superman came and something happened to him that happens to a lot of actors. He was so wholly swallowed [by] the Superman myth or the myth of Superman that by the time he did Superman II, he had completely internalized that image and character. And eventually, I think he realized the lie of that persona, so that when Superman III came around as it inevitably must, he did it under some duress. He had started to desire the old things again--you know, that old passion started to stir him again and he wanted more and more to go against the popular grain or rather, the cast that his popularity had put him in. So he started to desire, more and more, weaker roles--I should say more human parts. So now Cannon wants to make Superman IV and he doesn't want to make it at all. He ultimately couldn't resist, the money was stupid, but he held them up so that he could do Street Smart. The whole idea of Street Smart was one of flawed people.
What did Cannon think of Reeve taking a "flawed" role?
They were against it, of course, really against it. They worried about how the public would react to him being human but that was the point I met him where he was trying really hard to be human again. He was going back to Williamstown, doing little plays, amateur theatre, reintroducing himself to the reasons that he got into acting. He was a different person when I met him than he was I bet even just a few months before. The accident--and remember he was a pilot, he was a sailor, he lived his life fully--but the accident, he didn't have greatness until that accident. The idea that even this could be overcome: so many people in that situation began to think that if he could overcome, than I could overcome.
And his activism, of course.
His work championing stem-cell research--the way that he became a real citizen of his world and the way that he allowed his life to be opened to the public so that they could see him at his weakest... The accident was a horrible thing--but that horrible thing made Chris, at the end of his life, Superman. It's a happy irony if there is such a thing. I'm proud to have known him.
I've heard you mention Brecht a few times when you talk about your stage work.
(laughs) Let me tell you about Brecht. My first taste of Brecht was "The Threepenny Opera" in amateur theatre and then a few others in Boston and New York. Brecht, as you know, is often just a long series of monologues and if it's your monologue, fine, great, go crazy--but if it's not your monologue then you're just standing on stage trying not to upstage but also having nothing to do. So it was during my time doing Brecht that I taught myself how to roll cigarettes. I got myself a bag of tobacco and that's what I did for minutes and minutes on stage was (miming rolling a blunt) roll my cigarette. But I don't know any other Brecht. My most enjoyable experience on stage was doing [Shakespeare's] "Corialanus" at a formative time in my career--and then "The Taming of the Shrew"...
Who'd you play?
I was Petruchio with Tracey Ullman as Kate--it was set in the American South. But that production was an important one for me because it was the first time that I froze in front of an audience. I forgot all of my lines and there wasn't anyone there who was able to prompt me. The situation was a bad one and all the other actors on the stage were looking at me with this challenge on their face like "what you gonna do now, fool, to get out of this?"
What did you do?
To this day, I can't remember. (laughs)
Any interest in Lear?
The whole thing was that eventually I would go back to the stage and do Lear. Everyone would say to me that that's what I should do: Lear, it'd be a great swansong for me. I hope they meant on the stage, that's pretty ominous. But that was a long time ago, no longer, not interested.
Jose Ferrer was an idol of yours.
Man, yes. Ferrer in Cyrano De Bergerac, that language--he just owned that character, that guy. "You shall die exquisitely"--I was just in thrall of that performance and so I got a call, September of 1978, and (as Jose Ferrer) "Morgan?" "Yeah?" "It's Jose Ferrer." And I said, "Who?"--but I knew it was him, man, nobody had a voice like his voice. He wanted me to do a two-act play with him and when he asked I said, kinda falsetto, "Yeah." (laughs) I mean this is my hero and he's calling me to work with him and here I am, living in New Jersey, I drove right to New York and we did this play. But you know, in the second week of rehearsal he pulled me aside, set me down and said, "You've got to get over this worship" (laughs), 'cause we couldn't do that play with me making all these worshipful eyes at him all the time. But you know, he was... He could act, man. It was a pinch-me moment. I couldn't believe--still can't believe--that it happened.
What'd you take from him?
Stillness. It's what I learn from the great actors that I work with. Stillness. That's all and that's the hardest thing. The other actor still like that is Anthony Hopkins. Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen--that stillness becomes a radiance.
Hopkins in Remains of the Day--one of my favourite performances of all time.
Oh man, yes. And it's all about eloquent stillness. I've told Hopkins that that performance was one of the great lessons for me as an actor. I've done that in movies where a director will say, "Let's do it again," and I ask him what he wants new and he says that I don't seem to be doing anything and, well, you got to look at it on the monitor.
Does Eastwood as a director recognize that stillness?
God yes--and he'll do more than three takes but it won't be because of your performance. You can ask for extra takes, but no, he's not jerking around. Three takes, two, one. He'll do it in one. If it's there, it's there.
An example of stillness in a director.
Well put. He's believes in that saying that the essence of directing is casting--the essence of performance, too. You do that right, you don't have much left to do. You do it right and you can just stand back and watch. I tried to carry that into Bopha!.
Your only film as director, done right after Unforgiven.
Right. I came on set the first day and the first assistant asked me for a shot list and I said, "Naw, nothing." I thank Eastwood for that confidence.
It was a complicated shoot, though, the soccer match had thirty-two different setups and you did it in one afternoon.
That's the gift of a good crew. I had a crew that would do anything for you and that's a serious gift.
"The greatest teaching medium of all time and here we're sending these messed-up messages."
Tell me about getting in trouble with Bopha!.
Well. The script that we initially got was "Ozzie and Harriet".
That's how it got greenlighted.
(laughs) That's just about right. And we got to Africa and Danny [Glover] and Alfre [Woodard] went down to Johannesburg and found these policemen's wives, all ex-wives, and they learned how horribly these women lived. We learned a lot about the truths of the situation and the time and place and here we have this hero, that we've already taken a lot of liberties with, I mean, there was never a time during apartheid where a black sergeant had any kind of power and they would never have taken someone that they'd arrested and given him a badge. So anyway, once that research was done and we got back together, we all decided that we needed rewrites--we had "Ozzie and Harriet" in Africa, an American-style nuclear family with the Western patriarchal hierarchy. Then we had this sort of easygoing family drama with no tension at anytime in the picture. So we got the rewrites going, they were going along just fine, and finally get to the ending and it just wasn't going to work.
The gauntlet scene.
Right--he'd show up at a funeral and walk through this throng and they'd beat on him and he'd finally emerge at the graveside. This sort of On the Waterfront kind of thing, but shit no, it's not gonna happen that way. The film starts with a neck-lacing, man--the guy's got to die. There's no other ending for him, right? So I get this call from the producers who say that under no circumstances does Danny die. But I did it the way that I saw it and that's what we did--no matter what you have to empower yourself and for good or for bad, that's my movie and nobody else's. It's not to say that I didn't need encouragement and support, you know, I did--and courage. But if it's yours be sure that it's yours.
Se7en: Who was Somerset to you?
Jaded, tired, end of his career. He gets a beautiful closing narration that contextualizes the film, but the original thought never was cemented. My character originally was trying to save Brad [Pitt] so in the first run I'm the one who executes Kevin [Spacey]. I'm old and tired, I'll do the deed, I'm ready to get out of here. But Brad felt like it would be a cheat to do it that way, so to his way of thinking he had to do it and that's powerful stuff.
What I love is that you can see John Doe's point in that film--and that in that final car ride you three take, you seem to be acceding it.
Well anyone can see his point. It's a good point. (laughs) Somerset's thing was that you're actually compounding a wrong because we have a system of checks and balances: laws that deal with wrongdoing and you're not doing anything good to work outside of that societal order.
You name Jay Maynard, John Macbrown, and Jimmy Wakely as your chief influences growing up: serial cowboys. So kind of a dream come true, right, to lie in a dry riverbed shooting a gun with Clint Eastwood at your side.
Oh man. Oh man. You go back to Jose Ferrer in that moment. A pinch-me moment in a life and a career. One of my favourite movies is The Outlaw Josey Wales. And Clint, he just handles things with so much surety--especially in that genre, you know. Listen, I was in Africa, negotiating to do another picture that ended up not having enough money. But the producer for Unforgiven called me telling me that my agent was trying to price me out of a career so I said all right, that I'd have a word with my agent. Put in the call, back and forth, didn't get a call back somewhere along the line and thought all right, that's that. Then Clint calls me and made an offer, same offer they were making before but the first time I hear about the project, which turns out to be, you know, the film that I'd give my left testicle to do. It was one of those, be careful what you ask for. It's all coming.
Anything you can tell me about Million Dollar Baby?
Just that working with Clint again is like coming home.
(laughs) You're talking about reshooting the ending where I die so my character, who was too popular, would get away with it at the end. It's a weird thing, a strange dichotomy. We started back in the '70s having criminals get away with certain crimes, Topkapi, Thomas Crown Affair, stuff like that. People we like pulling off heists and getting away kind of thing. And we screen Hard Rain and we got people not just wanting me to get away, but to get paid--and once the audience says they don't like the ending, some producers heel. Not only do I have to live, right, I have to get some cash for my troubles--it's a scary thing, and people need to start to think about the messages that they send in the movies. The greatest teaching medium of all time and here we're sending these messed-up messages. Me, I was doing a job, I'm a working actor first thing, but some days the Twilight Zone of the Subjunctive Mood is the only thing keeps me from going crazy.