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.
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