It seems like he has always been there, this man whose presence is as inescapable as heat on the sun. He taught the children of the 1970s how to read, pronouncing letters until they formed words until they became sentences; they called him "Easy Reader," because he made learning such a pleasurable endeavor. When he moved out of The Electric Company, he dropped his boxes on the stage, then the big screen, taking small parts in such films as Brubaker and That Was Then...This Is Now; he stalked the perimeter, noticeable but never in the way--at least not until 1987, when he showed up as a wronged pimp named Fast Black in 1987's Street Smart, leaking rage the way a boxer drips sweat. From then on, he was everywhere: You'd go see his movie and end up watching his trailers. No one in Hollywood works as hard as he.
But Morgan Freeman will tell you that what he does is not hard work. It may be demanding, yeah, but never difficult. Maybe it was 20 years ago, when he still had a little left to learn, but not now, not after Driving Miss Daisy and Glory and The Shawshank Redemption and Amistad and Lean on Me and Se7en and dozens of other movies, some of which he's proud of and some of which he forgot the moment he left the set.
"It's always a challenge," Freeman says, his warm voice so familiar it's as though a member of the family's on the other end of the phone line. "It's just not as intimidating. I suppose as you go along and do more stuff and get wiser and more capable, it just becomes a learning experience. It's like performing an operation--you get more out of it. It gets that much easier. I never thought acting was difficult. It never was. It's a technical exercise. Creativity starts on the blank page, and you never have it afterward. You have people come together, brainstorming and talking about how to bring it alive. We're the channelers."
Yes, he is told, but a thousand people can read a writer's words a thousand different ways. Isn't that a creative act?
"If you got one person who can read it a thousand different ways," he says, chuckling slightly, "then it's creative."
Freeman had hinted at the beginning of this interview that he's tired--"wore out," actually--from a Sunday afternoon spent talking about a film that hasn't even opened yet, Under Suspicion, which co-stars Gene Hackman. A few minutes after this conversation ends, he will board a plane and go to France to promote Nurse Betty, in which he plays a kindly killer in love with a woman (played by Renée Zellweger) with whom he's never exchanged a single word. It is not easy for Freeman to keep the two films straight, if only because he's completed several others in recent months--some to pay the bills, some because they felt right and necessary.
But that is the beauty of Morgan Freeman: Even when wading in shit (Chain Reaction, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hard Rain), he lets none get on him. He never acts like a role's beneath him; he never sleepwalks, never winks, never smirks, never lets on that he's taken a part for the paycheck, even if it's the awful truth. He's a journeyman, craftsman, and movie star--a man who doesn't open a picture, but keeps a movie in theaters long after the pretty faces have faded. Without Freeman, Se7en would have been the world's most grisly fashion shoot; without Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption would have had heart, but no soul; without Freeman (as the president of the United States, no less), Deep Impact would have made none at all. He can turn garbage into gold and gold into platinum, and all he has to do is walk on screen, open his mouth, and be.
For a man who insists his is not an art but a craft, Freeman likes to talk about acting, insisting a character must become the man who plays him, not the other way around. Only once, he says, has he ever taken a role home with him: Hoak, from Driving Miss Daisy. He doesn't know why, and insists it happened only for a split second--"a short moment when I realized when I was out of control," he says, sounding not at all proud of it, perhaps because the role soon enough became one held up for vilification by black filmmakers who detested the shuffling chauffeur.
"You can never turn yourself into the character," he says. "But in my mind I turn myself into the character, and I am successful till I go see it. When you see it, there's no getting away from it: That's you up there."
Toward the end of the conversation, he is asked how he chooses his roles, since he's offered dozens a year. He lives the actor's dream, being able to take his pick. But the question is withdrawn, and Freeman knows why.
"Because the answer is the same every time?" he responds, chuckling. "You don't ever want to say this is a rent-payer. But a movie like Nurse Betty is a one-offer. It's very seldom you get a movie that's this off the beaten path. I was so intrigued. I am a big fan of Pulp Fiction, and I thought this was one of those, and the people who did it thought so. That's what you beat the bushes to find--something that's rewarding to do. It doesn't matter if you're the anchor or just a bit player. You want to have an interesting role. Don't get me wrong: I like being the anchor. I like being the driving force--what actor doesn't? But when you can be the integral force of such a wonderful ensemble, yeah, your star rises."
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.