Thursday, March 04, 2010

Morgan Freeman - The Great Pretender

[This article was originally written for HORIZONS magazine].
With a name like ‘Freeman’, and now practically the same age as Mandela was in 1995, Academy Award Winner Morgan Freeman was destined to play the great man. He’s also played God and Batman’s mechanic, but he doesn’t do accents, and rugby’s not really his game – golf is. Memphis-born Morgan Freeman’s interest in politics comes to some extent from living in the American south. Following a stint as a mechanic in the Air Force, Freeman began his career in the 60’s on the stages of New York City. He visited South Africa and Zimbabwe for the first time in the early 90’s filming The Power of One. After Long Walk to Freedom [Mandela’s life story} proved to be too long for a feature film, Freeman came across a four page treatment written by South African screenwriter, Anthony Peckman. Freeman sent the script to Eastwood and rest is history.

Text and Photographs by Nick van der Leek

People are saying you were born to play Nelson Mandela. What do you think about that?
Madiba was once asked who he would want to play him in a movie and he said ‘Morgan Freeman’. When I first met him years ago, I told him I was honored that he had mentioned me to portray him. I was born to act, not sure I was born to play Madiba. But since I did, maybe I was. I don’t foresee me doing it again.

Was it intimidating playing him?
The most intimidating part was in the contemplating of playing him. The biggest problem I foresaw was sounding like him. I don’t do accents. The only accents I can do are southern accents. I’m from Memphis after all.

Was Nelson Mandela’s South African accent difficult?
That was one of my main concerns – getting his accent and the rhythm of how he talks. I’ve heard him speak often, and as we got closer to filming I watched some tapes…and then suddenly I had it. I wanted to avoid acting like him; I needed to be him and that was the biggest challenge.

Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda la Grange says of INVICTUS and Morgan Freeman’s performance: I know the house so well and they recreated it to perfection. The environment even felt the same. And then I heard Morgan Freeman speak – I didn’t see who it was at first – and I thought, ‘Now how did Mr. Mandela get here?’ I see Madiba almost every day, and that was the closest anyone could ever come to speaking and behaving like him.

Eastwood on Freeman: Morgan is great. I could not imagine anyone else in the role of Mandela. They have the same stature and the same kind of charismatic nature. Morgan also has a similar vocal quality, and he worked very hard to capture Mandela’s inflections. I think he did it quite well.

You’ve been president twice and God twice; how are these roles different?
I’m not quite sure there is a difference between the two.

With INVICTUS [Latin for ‘unconquered’] you’re involved in making a movie about reconciliation. Is this something you’ve encountered – does this resonate with you personally?
Good question. Interesting. I came to that conclusion in my early years. Growing up in the South it was very prevalent, and I’ve always found discrimination distasteful. I was not a campaigner or a protestor. I found myself needing, as it were, to break loose from such constraints. In my case I was a second class citizen, and I wasn’t cut out to do that.

Did you have a revelation about yourself, playing Madiba?
No. Well, truthfully it may be too soon to tell. I suppose if there was one realization it was that I could do – I could pull off – an accent after all.

How did you prepare for your role as the South African president?
You have to do as much research as possible. How do you research playing God? When you meet Mandela you know you are in the presence of greatness, but it is something that just emanates from him. He moves people for the better; that is his calling in life. Some call it the Madiba magic. I’m not sure the magic can be explained. But to play this role I said I would require access. And since 1997 I was able to spend a lot of time with him. [The producer, Lori McCreary commented that herself and Mr. Freeman had visited Mandela – who they described as ‘in high spirits’ – 20 minutes prior to the interview].

How did you go about your research?
I went to see him. I said to him, ‘Madiba, we’ve been working for a long time on this other project [The Long Walk to Freedom], but we’ve just read something [John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy] that we think might get to the core of who you are…’ And Madiba said, ‘Ah, the World Cup.’ Then I knew we were heading in the right direction.’

Was this an easy project?
The entire project was like magnets coming together – right people, right time, right place, right issue. Everything just clicked into place, which doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, it’s like destiny.

And Clint Eastwood – what is it like working with him?
He’s quick; if he’s got it in one take, he’s moving on. I just love that. I also appreciate his quietude, which represents strength and control.

Are you a rugby fan?
Yes. But I’m not particularly into sport. I’m not a rugby fan as such, but I’m not a football fan or a basketball fan. I’m really a golf fan. I like to swing a stick every once in a while.

What sort of changes have you witnessed since you were here doing Power of One?
I came here, and I was in Zimbabwe in 1991 and 1992. The change in South Africa since then – there isn’t really a word to describe it. ‘Dramatic’ has to serve. Amazing change. The country has seen itself in a totally different light. I was here again for Mandela’s 80th birthday; that was 11 years ago. The place was crackling with the electricity of promise. It’s still here, but not as strong in its newness. This country has so much to offer the continent, the world, but especially the continent.

What attracted you to this particular story?
This is an important story about a world-shaking event that too few people know about. I cannot think of any moment in history when a nation coalesced so suddenly and so completely. I was proud to have the opportunity to tell this story. And when you have the chance to tell it with Clint Eastwood’s’s something you just have to do.

Where have you traveled in South Africa and Africa?
I’ve been to Alexandria. What a turn off. It’s not a great place for someone of my persuasion. I’ve been to Zimbabwe. I remember once, we had been driving and police stopped us and at one point it appeared we would be arrested and thrown in jail. I recall abject fear. There is a place near here that I like; Sun City.

What sort of legacy would you like to leave?
[Chuckles]. I just want to be liked. Have you thought about that? [No]. So you surmise that I have. Well look, I have thought about it, to be honest, but I haven’t come up with anything. I suppose what I’d want to appear on my…what is it…an epitaph? I like the idea of: ‘Morgan Freeman. The Great Pretender.’

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people, in a way that little else does – Nelson Mandela

Author’s note: Freeman’s performance in INVICTUS has already been slated for a Best Actor nomination. He has won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but this could be his first Award for Best Actor. Invictus has also received 3 Golden Globe nominations for best actor [Morgan Freeman], best director [Clint Eastwood] and best supporting actor [Matt Damon].

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