The man they call ‘the pro’s pro’ is also an Oscar winner and a sci-fi aficionado. He’s also the actor filmmakers turn to when they need someone to play God. His name is Morgan Freeman and he talked exclusively to Tony Earnshaw.
Unlike some Americans Morgan Freeman knows that English life and culture doesn’t revolve around London.
So when I introduce myself as “a writer with the Yorkshire Post, in Leeds in the north of England” Freeman immediately puts two-and-two together. “Yorkshire? Where’s Aysgarth Falls in relation to you?”
I’ve fielded stranger questions from movie stars yet, right now, I can’t recall a single one. But Freeman isn’t a collector of unusual geographical locations or Yorkshire topography. Instead he’s recalling the shoot of 1990’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, one of the blockbusters that starred Kevin Costner when he still had a career.
The film was shot all over the UK with key scenes filmed at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, at Hardraw Force near Hawes in Upper Wensleydale and, yes, at nearby Aysgarth Falls. Almost 20 years later 68-year-old Freeman remembers his flying visit to the Broad Acres with crystal clarity.
“I’ve been in your neighbourhood,” he says on the ‘phone from New York.
“From Hadrian’s Wall all the way back down to Aysgarth Falls it was gorgeous. We had to spend a lot of time travelling through a lot of England looking for greenery. We couldn’t use Sherwood Forest – it was brown! What do I remember? It was winter and it was cold, cold, cold! [Thankfully] I had a very nice, warm, comfortable costume to wear.”
The historically-challenged Robin Hood film came at a point in Freeman’s career when he was flying. In 1987, aged 49, he had landed a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for playing a vicious pimp in Street Smart. Two years later he landed the role of black chauffeur Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy. Another Oscar nomination followed – this one for best actor.
In 1991 he was hand-picked by Clint Eastwood to co-star in Unforgiven. Three years later there came The Shawshank Redemption and, you guessed it, another best actor Oscar nod. Not a bad tally considering he was nearly 50 before stardom beckoned. He finally won last year for Million Dollar Baby – his second collaboration with Eastwood
These days Morgan Freeman epitomises dignity and integrity. He gets to play detectives, scientists, generals and presidents. In Bruce Almighty he was God – the ultimate role. Even his bad guys – like his bank robber in 1998’s Hard Rain – seem to have honour at their core. Freeman gets a little tired of it.
“I think that’s the perception – that I have this wisdom, this gravitas, this dignity. I don’t know what it is that infuses the roles that I do. So I’m pretty much stuck with it. And, of course, who did they choose to play God?” he laughs.
So what does the man variously described as “the pro’s pro” and “the greatest living actor in American cinema” see when he looks in the mirror?
“I just see an itinerant actor. A working actor, that’s all. Itinerant – going from job to job. The same kind of people who used to not be able to be allowed into hotels: no pets, no children, no actors.”
Success was a long time coming. Born in Tennessee in 1937 Freeman was, say his friends, a natural actor who appeared in all his school’s plays. At 18 he joined the air force and spent four years as a mechanic, returning to civvie street in 1959. Acting beckoned in the early Sixties and Freeman headed for New York.
He drifted around Broadway (and, more frequently, off-Broadway), landed bit parts in Doris Day and Sammy Davis Jnr movies and went through the cattle call of auditions for episodic television. He admits he had it tough.
“I started trying [to land acting jobs] right after I got out of the military, so from 1959 to 1967 it was lean, lean, lean,” he recalls.
“Many times I thought ‘This ain’t happening. Move on’. I give all credit to the quality of my friends. [They were] people who believed in me and just offered encouragement, you know? Sometimes when you say ‘I gotta walk away, I gotta do something else. I really have to try and find some other way to sustain myself’ they say ‘No, you can’t. You really gotta stick to this. It’s gonna happen. You’re too good to quit.’”
In the Seventies he went through a self-destructive phase that involved a close run with alcoholism and an epiphany when he awoke face down in the gutter after a marathon drinking session.
He cleaned up his act and was soon landing movie roles. One of the earliest was Brubaker, starring and directed by Robert Redford. Soon after he played Malcolm X in the little-seen Death of a Prophet. By the mid-‘80s he was playing support to Paul Newman in Harry & Son.
Both Redford and Newman directed their movies and Freeman enjoyed their style. He likes no-nonsense directors. This week he stars in Lucky Number Slevin, a US caper thriller from Paul McGuigan who did Gangster No. 1. McGuigan is Freeman’s kind of director: easy-going, funny and self-deprecating.
“When you’re one of these rising star directors or writers there is a tendency to want to over micro-manage the set and the actors. I for one don’t suffer that very well,” he says. “If you give me the job and I think I can do it, let me do it. I’ve done best in situations where the director has said to me ‘Okay, that’s great. Now just a little bit faster is all I need.’ Eastwood is a master of that. He doesn’t micro-manage the set – someone else does that. He just quietly moves through it all. So I don’t like to be micro-managed. I don’t like it at all. And Paul was not in that mould of micro-managing.”
The movie harks back to the villain of Street Smart as Freeman plays The Boss, a gangster embroiled in a battle of wills with The Rabbi, a Hasidic Jewish mobster played by Ben Kingsley. But while he’s again playing a villain – anything to escape the pigeonholing of dignity, wisdom and gravitas – Freeman shrugs off comparisons with Street Smart.
“To me it’s a stretch to compare the two because the character in Street Smart was so volatile. This one doesn’t seem to have any volatility left. He’s just an old guy with a desire for revenge. I thought he was much quieter, much more deliberate.”
Lucky Number Slevin is an old-fashioned film noir with an ensemble cast that includes Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu and Stanley Tucci. One of its delights is the stand-off between Freeman and the Scarborough-born actor who demands to be known as SIR Ben Kingsley. Freeman is cautiously complimentary.
“Ben’s a very intense actor – not him personally; it’s his characters. He’s a quiet man, and obviously very gifted. So when you’re working with him it’s all very serious. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, is like me a lot. I’m very much on the surface: I do the work and then I’m done. I think some actors do find it hard to move away from the part that they’re playing. [That’s] not good.”
An actor with his own production company, Revelation Entertainment, Freeman has a couple of big ambitions left. One is to play Nelson Mandela in a film biopic, the other is to produce and star in a movie version of Arthur C Clarke’s 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama, about a mysterious 30-mile-long starship that enters Earth’s solar system in the 22nd century. David (Seven) Fincher is developing a script.
Says Freeman: “I’m a big fan of sci-fi. I’m very interested in the idea of space travel and exploration. I was in my 20s and 30s when I started really reading stuff like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Before that I was into more serious stuff – I don’t mean serious stuff. When I was nine I read Black Beauty. When I was 15 I read Peyton Place!
“One of the hardest parts of getting any movie going is getting a final script. It’s just really difficult. You’re always looking for the big one – the one that’s a great script and you feature prominently in it. There’s not that much running around that actually I feel is worth my time. Everybody has an idea but few people can write.”