Great Conversations: Morgan Freeman

To date, I've interviewed Morgan Freeman more than anyone else: five times. We're starting backwards with this piece, as it's the last time we sat down for a formal interview, for Morgan's very busy year of 2007, to discuss the release of "Gone Baby Gone, "Feast of Love," and "The Bucket List," the latter of which he co-starred in with the equally venerable and iconic Jack Nicholson.

Although I've spent a fair amount of time with Morgan Freeman over the years, I can't say I feel as though I really know him. Someone once described Lake Superior to me as "a place so vast, with areas that go to such depths, they're impenetrable."

That, to me, sums up the endlessly complex and fascinating Morgan Freeman.

By Alex Simon

If Orson Welles was everyone's idea of the voice of God during his life, Morgan Freeman has most likely assumed that mantle for the next generation of filmgoers. With his stentorian voice and Zen-like presence, Morgan Freeman has appeared in nearly 80 films and TV productions, since making his debut in a bit part in Sidney Lumet's classic The Pawnbroker, in 1964.

Since then, Morgan has won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor (for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby), along with another 32 award wins and 27 nominations. 2007 has proven to be a banner year for an actor who just seems to be getting busier, and better, with each passing year. After beginning the year playing (appropriately) God in the comedy Evan Almighty, he has also appeared in Ben Affleck's critically-acclaimed directing debut Gone Baby Gone, Robert Benton's Feast of Love, and Rob Reiner's The Bucket List, in which he co-stars with another American treasure, Jack Nicholson. The two play terminally-ill men who write up their "bucket lists," a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket.

A true renaissance man, Morgan Freeman is an accomplished pilot, and can often be found behind the controls of one of his three airplanes. In fact, he flew himself into Los Angeles recently to sit down with us over breakfast at The Four Seasons, dispensing equal parts, humor, truth and wisdom. Here's what transpired:

I just saw Gone Baby Gone last night...

Morgan Freeman: It's surprising to me that that movie is doing as well as it is.


I just didn't expect it: little movie, terrific performances. It was a solid script. The story's different, very different story. I really think if you give people something different, off the beaten path, they'll want to hear what you have to say. And I think this is a case in point.

I really like the fact that Ben Affleck had the courage to be so bleak.

Yeah. Again, that's what made it so different from most of what's out there right now.

Morgan Freeman confers with director Ben Affleck on the
Gone Baby Gone

I got the feeling he watched a lot of movies from the '70s before shooting it. It had that gritty, neo-realist feel that so many of the great films from that era had.

I don't know if he watched a lot of those films, or if that's just his sensibility. I'm not contradicting what you're saying, but we didn't really discuss that. It would be interesting to ask him if he'd done a lot of boning up beforehand. But it was a great choice. And Amy Ryan, who played the girl's mother, boy, was she outstanding.

She was so convincing that at first, I thought she was a local that Ben Affleck had discovered.

No, she was so believable. Just amazing. It will be interesting to see what Ben comes up with next.

Working with Ben, was it a different experience working with a director who's also an actor?

It's different, but everybody is different. Everybody has their own approach to things. You want to think that because an actor is now directing that their approach would now be more "on your side," so to speak. I'm more of a hands-off person and Ben is very hands-on. But the proof is in the pudding, no matter what.

Well, it had an amazing cast of actors. And for Casey Affleck, this is really his breakout year.

Well, I just watched The Assassination of Jesse James, and was just blown away.

I thought that was maybe the best movie of the year.

Yeah, in fact, I had to keep rewinding it and watching it over because I felt I was missing things, it was so rich.

Didn't it remind you of early Terrence Malick, or Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the way it just sort of washed over you?

Yes, very much. Casey was great, and I thought Brad (Pitt) did a great job. Just kept it very low.

I loved how everyone just looked so grimy, and had bad teeth. They all looked like they hadn't washed in a few weeks, and you'd guess that life was like that back then.

Yeah, everything, down to the tiniest detail was right there.

Whereas in the old movies, like Henry King's film Jesse James, Tyrone Power had perfect teeth and it looked like all his shirts had creases in them from the dry cleaners!

(laughs) Yeah, guys slept in their clothes all winter, out in fields...

Maybe once a month had a bath.

Maybe. If there was a woman somewhere. (laughs) Although if you don't sweat much, you're not going to smell bad, but you do shed skin every day.

I know that all my friends who've been in the service say it gets pretty ripe out in the field if you're in close quarters with your boys.

Yeah, it's not like a gym. I remember when I was first in the service, they'd drop you out in the middle of nowhere during basic training, and force you to get down in the mud and crawl around. It was nasty.

Where'd you do your basic?

Outside of San Antonio. Long time ago...(laughs)

You got to work with one of my heroes this year, Robert Benton, in Feast of Love.

Sweet man. Now there's a guy who's been in this business for a long time. He's as quiet as can be. Quiet. And that's how he directs. Just quiet. If he wants you to shift your performance slightly in this direction or that direction, that's what he'll ask you to do: "I want you to try something in this direction. See what happens..." Smart man. Uses a very unusual paint brush. I loved him. Loved working with him.

Well, if you look at his filmography, it says it all. He started out writing Bonnie & Clyde, for God's sake.

Bob wrote Bonnie & Clyde?

Yeah, with David Newman. He started as a screenwriter.

I didn't know that. I also didn't know Jack Nicholson was a screenwriter.

Sure. Got started with Roger Corman in the '60s.

All these things go by me...(laughs)

He actually directed a really interesting picture in the early '70s called Drive He Said, about college basketball players and student radicals.

Yeah, I remember the title.

Bruce Dern played the coach and Robert Towne played a professor. Towne was a hell of a good actor, actually.

Well, acting is not all that difficult to do if you've got some modicum of intelligence. If you've got that, it's fairly easy.

Let's get back to Feast of Love. It was a very sweet movie.

Yeah it was, although I read a review from somebody who called it "saccharine."

I thought it maybe treaded the line, but never crossed it.

I didn't think so, either. When I saw it, I kept watching it to see Bob's hand in it, just to see how the picture came together. I thought he did a really wonderful job.

You can tell it was made by a mature filmmaker, because you don't notice he's there.

Thank you! Please don't show yourself.

Right, keep the camera still, get your actors in the frame, in focus, and shoot. The Clint Eastwood approach.

(laughs) Right! Right. I love Clint for that. He's one of my favorites of all the directors I've worked with. He knows what he wants. He arrives prepared, and he leaves prepared. When he's got what he wants, he's gone. I love that. I've worked with him now twice, and am gearing up to work with him again on a story about Nelson Mandela, The Human Factor. It's about a moment in his life during the 1995 World Cup championships in South Africa. It was early in his Presidency, and a very clarifying moment in South African history, when they really felt like they were going to make it, when it all looked like it was coming together. We have this terrific script, written from this guy's terrific book.

Have you met Mandela?

Oh, many times.

What were your impressions?

I can't tell you anything you don't know about him. His life is pretty much an open book, but he's...have you ever met Bill Clinton?

Yes, briefly.

He's like that. When he's in your presence, you're in his presence. When he's talking to you, he's talking only to you. It's completely disarming. When I first met him, I was meeting him as the ex-President of a country. And I'd never met the leader of a country before, except for Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. I didn't clam up on him, because you don't want to be in that position and have nothing to say--even when the fact is you don't know what to say sometimes, unless you've got a bone to pick!

Or you meet the person, and they have nothing to say.

Right, and I prefer to be with people who have something to say, which makes it easier for you to have something to say. I met the Imam, the sheik of Dubai. He's a fascinating guy. He's the leader of this state, not a country, because the United Arab Emirates are what comprise the country. Dubai is one of seven states in the Emirates. He's got the idea that you have to build, build, build because eventually, the oil is going to run out. If the oil doesn't run out, the price is going to go down so low eventually, that it might as well run out. I'm talking wishful thinking now, that eventually this country's leaders are going to understand that it isn't about money. It's about sustainability. Right now, if you mention alternative forms of energy to anyone in the government, all they'll want to talk about is what it will cost, which is stupid. It's going to cost you more to establish it, than it's going to cost you to run it. But we have to do it. Of course right now there are a lot of politicians who are in, or come from, the oil business, and the unions, and so on. So if you ask the oil industry and the auto industry to start re-cranking, and come up with a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon, or that will burn something other than oil and gasoline, you'll get an argument about what it will cost to develop that. If you have a car that can run on E-85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, do you know what the savings is on that in terms of using fossil fuels?

I can only imagine.

Just one day, one day, just look up in any major city in the world, and just look at the cars. Don't think about the airplanes, or the trains, the boats, just the cars, running up and down the road, burning gasoline and diesel fuels. With biodiesel, you can make diesel fuel out of bacon grease, for God's sake! So why aren't we doing that? They say "the cost." It's got nothing to do with the cost. It's "the cost" that's going to kill us.

And they neglect to take the most expensive factor in that equation, which is the human factor, which is a more expensive factor than money.

And we say "they," and that's a vague term just in the process of talking about it. And I prefer to use the word "we," really.

Sure. Who puts the politicians in office?

Right. We do.

The question is, why do we put the politicians in office? Where do our priorities lie?

Oh my God! Exactly.

And why do they run for office to begin with?

I know why you run for office. In politics, there is the come-on of making a change, getting things done. Unless you're in politics, you don't realize that you don't get to go in and change things, and get things done. You go in and you play the game.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Right. Do you want to get something done? Why did your people vote you in? It ain't about anything but money, on some level or other. What about something like health care? I'll tell you what the response will be to questions about health care: numbers, numbers, numbers. You want to talk about the big political issue here? Let's talk about children's health care. Which children do you think we're talking about here?

Poor people. Black people, brown people, recent immigrants.

Right, now let's look at the numbers again.

Let's talk about Hurricane Katrina.

Yes, let's.

But you know what Katrina taught me? I think that racism, as we knew it in the '60s, is not the driving force behind discrimination anymore. Now it's based on class.

Yes, been that way for years, since the early '80s.

Right. Most of the folks on the Gulf Coast that got hit, were poor whites. And they were treated as badly as the mostly-black population of the lower ninth ward in New Orleans. It said so much.

Right, we've got to stop talking about race. It's not race. It's money.

I don't know that this country has ever cared about poor people. I don't mean certain leaders haven't cared, I mean we as a country have never truly cared about those who have less than we do.

No, for the simple reason that the country is pretty much based on the freedom to pursue your dreams. In India, if you're born into a certain caste, that's where you stay. Great Britain, same thing. Not here.

No. Here you can buy your way out.

Here you can buy your way out. You can come up with an idea that will allow you to become a king.

Well, look at you. You grew up poor, right?

Yeah, but let's redefine "poor." I think there are two kinds: there is a certain level of poverty where people tell their young: "This is where you are. This is where you are always going to be." That's a poverty of the mind, a poverty of the spirit. Then there's another kind of poverty where you just don't have a lot of money, but there's a belief system in place. And in this country, it can work very well. We've tried to shut it down among the Mexican immigrants. That's why they're here. They view this as the place where you can transcend your position in life. I don't think the country is ever really going to become socialist, however.

Of course not. This country is built on the bedrock of capitalism. For capitalism to exist, there has to be an underclass.

There must be. Right.

It will never change.

Not in our lifetime, anyway.

No, I mean it will never change.

Well, if it does change, we won't be who we are.

It's a free market economy. It's not right. It's not wrong. It just is.

Yeah, and it's proven pretty much that it works.

When you mentioned that first kind of poverty, that's what Gone Baby Gone was about, really.

Yeah, it's a mind set. I say that as long as the Greyhound bus is in business, this is the best place in the world to be. "I'm never going to make it anywhere else. I can't leave this little town." Bullshit. You can leave this little town. But what life requires in a lot of cases, and particularly in this country, is courage. Get on the bus, Gus.

As always, we digress.

Yes, we do.

Let's talk about The Bucket List.

Here was a situation where Morgan sort of gets to call the shots. It's happened before in movies, and it's such a thrill. I get a call from Rob Reiner about this story, which I'd read before. It was different before, and I'd turned it down. So Rob sends it to me and I read it, called him back and I really liked it, and loved the idea of being able to work with Rob. So I said I'd do it, but that I had someone in mind to play the other part: Jack Nicholson. So he said "Okay, we'll get Jack." Jack said "yes." Rob told me that when Jack was approached to do it, Jack said "I'll do it, but only if we can get Morgan Freeman for the other part." (laughs) Jack, you see, was on my bucket list.

Ah, so you had your own drawn up.

You always do.

How's your list coming? How far down are you?

Way down. Way down. There are still a few dreams all come true. I wish for it, it seems to happen. I learned this years ago: if you want it, you'll get it.

I've prayed at the temple of Jack Nicholson since I was eleven years-old and saw Cuckoo's Nest for the first time. He's one of my all-time heroes. Tell me about Jack.

Yeah, I've been a fan since Easy Rider, but the one that really did it for me was Five Easy Pieces. Oh, what a movie! He just knocked my socks off. So then I was like you, praying at the temple of Jack ever since. Then I had a chance to ride with him on the Warner Bros. plane with Clint, it must have been during Unforgiven. We were coming back to L.A. and he was hitching a ride. I got to jawing what a fan I was, and as actors will do, he expressed how he liked my work. Then we started talking about how if we ever get the chance...Then we started talking about not a remake, but a sequel, to The Last Detail, that would show those two sailors now, taking the same guy back to prison. But that didn't pan out.

Would you say that you and Jack have a similar process?

Yeah: hit your mark, don't bump into the furniture. (laughs)

James Cagney school of acting.

Spencer Tracy.

Fair enough.

Spencer was one of my idols as a kid. Spence, Bogie, Cagney, Robinson, Cooper. Loved Gary Cooper.

They were all less-is-more guys.


It looked like you and Jack were having a lot of fun together.

I was literally wallowing in a dream come true! You don't want to bore your fellow actor by saying 'I'm so thrilled to be here with you.' But every day, I wanted to say 'Jack, I am so fucking thrilled...!' (laughs)

What are some of the other things on your bucket list that you haven't done yet?

I have a film company, called Revelations Entertainment, and a great partner who works her brains out there. I have put on my refrigerator door, a note that reads: "Academy Award nomination or award for Best Picture." I don't care if I ever win Best Actor, but Best Picture...there are so many great stories out there to tell.