Without question, Morgan Freeman is one of the greatest actors of our time. From his Academy Award-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby to his much-beloved role of “Crazy Joe” Clark in Lean on Me, Freeman’s extensive body of work has garnered box office success and critical acclaim. With his newest film, “Invictus,” opening this weekend, audiences will witness the stunning transformation of Freeman into beloved, South African leader, Nelson Mandela.
“Invictus,” executive-produced by Morgan Freeman’s imprint, Revelations Entertainment and directed by Clint Eastwood, centers on the year following Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa. Madiba (as Mandela is affectionately known) sees an opportunity to unite his bitterly divided country behind it’s rugby team, the Springboks, and enlists team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to aid him by leading the team to the World Cup Finals. A moving account of reconciliation and true leadership, “Invictus” will inspire American audiences to find common ground despite conflicting political and social viewpoints.
During a recent sit down with Morgan Freeman, I quickly learned that he’s not your average Hollywood star – he doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight.
Congratulations are in order, Mr. Freeman. You just received a “Best Actor” award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, for your role as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus.”
Yes, and thank you, thank you! Actually, the film received several awards including “Best Director” (Clint Eastwood) and is recognized as one of the “Top Ten Films” of 2009. I’m very pleased.
You’ve worked diligently over the years to portray Nelson Mandela on the silver screen. Could you talk about the journey to producing and starring in Invictus?
In the early 1990s, Madiba (Nelson Mandela) released his autobiography, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom.’ During a press conference, he was asked, ‘If your book is made into a movie, who’d you like to portray you?’ He said, ‘Morgan Freeman.’ Essentially, naming me his heir apparent, so to speak. From then on, I warmly accepted that Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line.
My producing partner Lori (McCreary) and I spent considerable time trying to adapt ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ into a script. Unfortunately, it was impossible to present the complete story into the time frame of a feature film. It would be too long. Then, in 2006, we got this book proposal from John Carlin and it was perfect! We bought the rights to that book, ‘Playing the Enemy,’ got a script written and put the team together. For us, this was THE film to give the world insight into who Mandela is, and how he operates.
How did you go about preparing yourself for this iconic role?
Actually, I started preparing myself way back in the 1990s after Madiba said he’d prefer I be the one to portray him in film. I had to start preparing myself, then, to do it. I met him not long after that, and I said to him, ‘If I’m going to play you, I’m going to have to have access to you. I’m going to have to get close enough to hold your hand.’ Over the years, while we were trying to develop ‘A Long Walk to Freedom,’ that is what happened.
Whenever Mandela and I would be in proximity to each other, I would dine with him and sit with him as he prepared to speak on various stages around the world. Now, when I’d physically hold his hand, that wasn’t just for camaraderie. I find that if I hold your hand I get your energy – it transfers. I get a sense of what you feel. That’s important in trying to become another person on camera. The danger, of course, is always caricature. So, the biggest challenge I had was to sound like him. Everything else became easy to do – to walk like him, use the same speech pattern, and mirror his physical nuances. My only concern was to make it as authentic a portrayal as possible.
In the past, you’ve described your acting as “playing.” When portraying Nelson Mandela, did it become more than that for you?
No. I don’t think I do anything other than playing. Work is something else – maybe what you journalists do (laughs).
You expressly wanted film maestro, Clint Eastwood, to direct this film. Why?
He is so enabling as a director – to let things happen. Clint expects you to know what you’re doing, and he’s going to take two giant steps backward and let you do it. You’re entrusted and provided with everything you need, tangibly, to do the best job possible. I have such deep appreciation for that part of him.
Likewise, his production set is a well-oiled machine. Everyone that works with him agrees. Try to imagine yourself as the captain of a ship that runs well – you don’t do anything, but you get credit for the fact that it runs well (laughs)! That’s what Clint says he does, in terms of making sure every part of the set runs well. For me, it’s the ideal environment to work in as an actor.
You’ve also been quite vocal about the screenwriter of ‘Invictus,’ Anthony Peckham, who was born and raised in South Africa. What are your thoughts on his screenplay?
In a project like this, the directors and producers get so much of the attention and credit. People should know about the young, unassuming man that actually wrote this script. With no words on the page, nothing happens in filmmaking. My hat goes off to Tony Peck. Being from South Africa and growing up in the age of apartheid, he was able to incorporate the subtle and overt themes of that time. He deserves kudos from all of us – he really nailed that script.
Invictus is in theaters across the US and in South Africa. For more about the movie, visit www.invictusmovie.co.uk.