June 2001By Philip Berk
Morgan Freeman, like Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along.
After a long career in the theatre, he became a movie-star at fifty two. Despite three Oscar nominations, he’s never complained about either losing or not getting nominated as he should have been for Unforgiven.
He takes both criticism and praise in stride
When once asked about his non professionalism on the set of Bonfire of the Vanities (when he arrived ill-prepared), he replies:
“You once asked me about Edith Oliver calling me the greatest actor in America.So now when July Salamon comes along and says, ‘Well, he’s not so great, after all,’ it’s sort of a relief.”
I was surprised he had remembered my question five years earlier when I had asked him if he was shocked by the New Yorker critic’s compliment.
“Not shocked,” he replied, “but pleasantly surprised. She used to make little remarks about me a lot. You just take it, and try to hold onto the parameters of your head.”
At his press conference for Along Came A Spider, on which he also serves as executive producer, he’s still holding onto those parameters.
Asked if he believes racial prejudice has denied African Americans Academy Award nominations, he stops me right there.
“Firstly I’m not an African American. It may be a politically correct term, but I’m just not willing to accept it. I don’t even know where it came from. I don’t know how it suddenly became what identifies me. I never okayed it.”
So what does he prefer?
“I don’t care; you can call me colored. You can say Black, you can say anything. The thing is there are African Americans, but they’re from places like Cameroon and Nigeria. I am more generations here than I’m able to count, so it’s a ridiculous form of identification which separates us from everybody else. I hate it.
“As for the Academy and whichever ethnic group seems to think they’re left out, I don’t subscribe to that at all. I think whoever does what it takes to get the Academy’s attention, gets the Academy’s attention. I don’t think we should be attacking them every time a year or two goes by and nobody Black, Asian or whatever gets mentioned. It’s not like equal time here.”
But in terms of racial progress, are we going forward or backward?
“Definitely forward. We are always going to go forward in the U.S. because what sets us apart from every other country is the diversity we have, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. We’re made up of so many different types of people all citizens so I don’t think any of us is going to try to rid the country of the others, unlike in some places in the world. In that way we’re way ahead of the rest of the world.”
So why is there no no interracial romance in Along Came a Spider?
“The character I play, Alex Cross, is not a romantic character. He’s too academic, too professorial. it would run counter to his true nature. He is not going to have a love relationship every time he runs into a young woman or any kind of a woman. And if he does she’d have to be in the next incarnation.”
So will there be a next incarnation?
“Based on the success of these two (Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider).I’d say yes.”
And will he play Alex Cross again?
“I’m not going to say no, and I’m not going to say yes. It will depend on the script. But I do like the character.”
Didn’t he once say he wouldn’t play the same character twice?
“What I said was I won’t take a role that suggests I am playing the same character in a different venue. When people tell me, ‘I wrote a script with you in mind, generally what they mean is, ‘I wrote a script with the last character you played in mind. So I am against that. Alex Cross happens to be a franchise character. But that’s not the reason I play him. He’s a good man to play. He has different facets to his being, and that can be exciting.”
Serving as Executive Producer, does that mean he’ll get a percentage of the gross?
“Executive Producer is merely a title. It’s not a job. Only if the film does extremely well, I don’t mean just well, I mean really well, it might mean a couple of nickels for me.”
Why does he think Hollywood took so long to discover him?
“You know, life moves along as it will. The wheel turns and you’re either on the upswing or the downswing. Working in New York I had some marvelous successes on the stage, then segued into small parts in movies . Eventually I managed to get that showcase part in Street Smart. But ever since childhood I wanted to do movies.”
Born in Memphis, Freeman was raised in Mississippi, “with occasional forays on the south side of Chicago,” as he put it.
“I spent my formative years in the South. My parents were — I can best describe them both as hustlers. They did whatever was necessary to keep body and soul together, moving where work and opportunity sent them. For a while my father was a barber, but he’s better described as a businessman. My mother taught and nursed. She was also a domestic, a housewife, with a wide range of activities. And always my best audience.”
Were those happy years?
“When you grow up in a small town, you understand better the saying, ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child.’ You can’t do anything without someone saying, ‘I’m gonna tell your Mama.’ And you will be disciplined. It’s not like living in a big city where you are completely anonymous. You have this power of anonymity, but of course you’re victimized by it.”
Was going to Southern Africa to film Bopha (which he directed) and The Power of One (in which he starred) an emotional experience for him?
“For all American Blacks, it is, but before we get there, we don’t really know what to expect. There is some apprehension because there is so much violence around, but we were delighted to discover that Zimbabwe (where we filmed) is a very settled and peaceful country. The people are very open and friendly, and going back the second time was for me a sort of homecoming. I’d go back and work there again.”
Which he will. He’s slated to play Nelson Mandela in Shakhur Kapur’s film of Long Walk to Freedom next year.
I remind him that in 1994 at a stopover at Ilha do Sal, I mistook Nelson Mandela for him. Both were in Southern Africa at the time. Soon after I told him he was the only actor who could play the role.
He didn’t remember.
Did he enjoy directing Bopha?
“It felt fine.”
Were there any problems?
“You know the story of the king who says, ‘You must never give an order that’s going to be refused.’”
So he knew which orders to give?
“A good director gives an actor an arena in which to work; he watches what he does, and then he figures out how best to cover it.”
Why did he want to direct?
“I needed a challenge, and a number of directors have told me, ‘You should direct,’ because I’m one of those actors who sidles up to the director and quietly tells him, ‘Why don’t you try this or do it that way?’ They’d say to me, ‘You’ve got good instincts, you’d be good at it. Why don’t you try it?”
Is that what happened with Clint Eastwood?
“Not that I remember.”
Would he like to work with him again?
“As soon as he asks me.”
What was so special about him?
“Working with Clint was delightful, one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. But then again, I never thought the movie (Unforgiven) was going to be anything. You can’t have that much fun and then make a good movie. But he did. He was a lesson in everything. I might have learned as much from Clint in fourteen weeks as I have learned in the entire twenty years I’ve been working.”
Driving Miss Daisy is the film he’ll always be identified with. It was shot in his birthplace, Memphis, Tenn.
How has the South changed?
“In ways that would amaze you. The South is moving in large strides to overcome its past. I happen to think the South is a much nicer place to live in, always has been. It offers a safe and sheltered life. In New York, nobody cares about you. Parents are afraid of their children. Kids rampaging through subways and streets — you don’t get stuff like that in the South. You’d never find a black kid running around like that.”
He and his wife live in Clarksdale Mississippi?
“Yes, and we’ve opened a restaurant there called Madidi.”
What does he say to people who complain that films like Driving Miss Daisy and Glory portray Blacks “in distant historical contexts or in submissive roles that don’t threaten white audiences?”
“I can’t believe they’ve seen these films. The young are always more brash, more rebellious. When you’re older and you see who has the power, you have to decide whether to be an overt rebel or a guerrilla. And most of us choose to be guerrillas. You make whatever mark you can without being eliminated on the spot… I’ve always had a lot of guerrilla in me.”
Which does he prefer, working in film or the theatre?
“I find them equally rewarding and satisfying on different levels. In the theatre the actor is the power. No matter what has gone on during rehearsal, when the lights go up and you are on stage, you are in control. And when you get a thunderous reaction when it’s over, there’s nothing to compare to it.
“Film, on the other hand, is a totally collaborative effort. A lot of people, director, cinematographer, lighting crew are working to make one moment happen. It’s all got to come together. You happen to be the center of attention as the actor, but you’re certainly not the end-all here. And I find that very exciting.”
Did he have any formal training?
“Not really. I’ve always treated every job as an (acting) exercise. I’ve been called an intuitive actor. I feel like all I really do is the lines. I don’t have an intellectual approach. I just sort of go at it and let it happen. Someone else might answer that differently for me, but that’s the best I can do.”
And winning the Oscar, is that still an important goal?
“It would be a great honor if it were bestowed upon me, but I have this ambivalent feeling about it. History shows that certain actors who got it were off and running, but for others it became an albatross. Also I don’t see how you can in a real sense choose one of five; the criteria is flawed. So if I win I’m gonna feel guilty. And if I don’t, I’m gonna feel like a loser. And I don’t want to feel like that either.”
Most of his films reflect positive values. Is that by choice?
“I try not to do anything that offends me. I think we have to be careful about what we present.”
Should movies be instructive?
“I don’t think we have anything to do with that. We just tell stories. I don’t know what there is to learn from every movie that is made, if there is anything to lean. We don’t go to them for instruction. We go for entertainment, and that is really all our job is. Hopefully we do no harm.”
Does he worry about violence on TV?
“It’s fine as long as we cartoonize it, as long as it’s unreal, but when violence becomes real, I think we make a mistake.”
Does he still enjoy sailing?
“I haven’t seen my boat in I can’t tell you how long, but I am going sailing as soon as I’m done with my next project.”
Why the urge to sail?
“I think it came from my early desire to fly, to be a bird. I joined the Air Force to fly, but I didn’t like the mechanics of it. Being in an airplane doesn’t thrill me. Now if I could just spread my own wings and take to the wind, that would be it. That’s what happens when you hoist sail.”