From July 14, 2000 interview published by The Guardian.
On Friday July 14, Morgan Freeman was interviewed by Richard Jobson in front of a packed audience in London’s National Film Theatre. The event followed a screening of his latest movie, the taut psychological thriller Under Suspicion, in which he stars with Gene Hackman
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. [soundclip2] 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. . .
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?
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.
RJ: Yeah. You mentioned Shawshank –
MF: Shemshonk. Shemsham.
RJ: Tell us about your relationship with Tim Robbins and how you bonded with him. In those lonely prison cells.
MF: Shawshank was one of those situations where I was first hired and they ran a whole bunch of possibilities past me: Who do you wanna work with? Tim Robbins. So it was me and Tim. He is another one of those actors, who, I think he is just transcendent in his work. When he got his teeth into something he is totally watchable. Absolutely engrossing, to me. And we, I think actors who have characters who they totally understand help each other understand even more and I think that was what was happening with us. The deeper we got, the more we shot, the more we understood each other. The bonding was just the normal character thing. Of course we’re close friends now. It’s a transcendent moment for us as actors that the movie comes out and becomes what it has become. One of the most watched, one of the most rented videos, I guess in the world.
RJ: How does Frank Darabont stand up against the very eclectic bag of people you’ve worked with?
MF: Frank. I have a problem with writer/directors, personal. I can’t work well with both of them on the set, if both of them are giving instructions. Writers tend to be in love with what they wrote. You can’t always translate the words into the meaning, sometimes the meaning is better served without the words, difficult to make a writer to try to understand that. It gets, sometimes, tense.
RJ: He speaks very highly of you. He was in town recently!
MF: And I think highly of him too – he directed that movie! I didn’t direct the movie. He wrote it, he directed it, it’s his movie, his mark and it’s a great film.
RJ: It connected you with people that movie, didn’t it?
MF: Oh, absolutely.
RJ: What do you think was the heartbeat of that movie that connected to people in such a general way?
MF: The development, the relationship of those two men. What happened at the end took everybody all the way through that movie. That he got out and he somehow remembered that there was help somewhere, I mean Red. And ultimately the two of them came together. Like old lovers. The rejoining of two people who cared a lot about each other. A lot of movie say they love that movie and I know why, because it’s about love.
RJ: You are drawn to a certain kind of actor aren’t you? We’ve seen it tonight with Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman is of course, the star, but you don’t think of him as a sort of star, you think of him as an actor. Is that something that you would like to be regarded as?
MF: Oh yes, absolutely. I know for a fact, I know, that when you get the sobriquet, ‘star’, that label is put on you so that the audience will come to see you. You. An actor thinks the audience is coming to see what you’re doing. Am I making sense there? In other words, I don’t like to think of myself as a personality. I can’t wear a nose ring, dreadlocks, or any of that – because my next character has to be able to fit what’s on the page – rather than have the page fit what I’m walking around with.
RJ: I think that’s very well explained.
RJ: I think even worthy of an Oscar nomination, I think.
MF: No one mentioned that I got my third Oscar nomination for Shawshank.
RJ: We did skip by that didn’t we?
MF: Oh, it’s alright, it’s okay.