There’s a game television chat show hosts play when they have Morgan Freeman on as a guest. That voice, they say, can make anything sound interesting, and Freeman, being a good sport, obliges, reading names from the phone book or a news item about the inclusion of ‘twerking’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. Everyone laughs, the producers high five each other for their wit and originality and the presenter reminds us that Film X is in cinemas now. Go and see it.
For the last twenty years, Freeman has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of movie narration, ever since playing Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding in The Shawshank Redemption. From March of the Penguins to Million Dollar Baby, from War of the Worlds to Conan the Barbarian, directors have relied on that rich, worn bass to anchor their films, in the belief that if the voiceover sounds deep, audiences will accept it as profound.
Sure enough, in Freeman’s latest movie, Lucy, we hear him before we see him. Prehistoric jellyfish pulse across the screen as the voice of God and Visa intones: “If life begins two billion years ago…” Here we go. But then, after a few seconds Freeman is revealed to be lecturing at a podium, in a packed theatre. He is Professor Samuel Norman, a renowned evolutionary theorist. The film does not have a narrator.
I take this to be director Luc Besson’s little joke, messing with expectations of who Freeman is and what he does, and for a moment, it gives me hope that the script might give him something interesting to work with. It doesn’t last. Before long he is in extreme close-up, as usual, his wise old eyes and the constellation of moles around them filling the frame. Whatever he’s saying, it must be important.
“I’m God, I’m Mr Good. I’m almost stuck here,” Freeman tells me, when we meet at the press day for Lucy in New York. “And if I’m stuck in this place, it’s because directors and writers think of me as being this person.”
Gravitas. Dignity. Integrity. An ability to keep a straight face while – spoiler alert – Scarlett Johansson takes drugs and becomes God, as French cops and Taiwanese gangsters shoot it out in the next room. A willingness to say lines like “this knowledge, Lucy, are you sure mankind is ready for it?” Freeman has it all. But he’s also capable of much more, and it’s frustrating to find him fulfilling the same role again.
He has played so many authority figures that some internet wags have drawn up the Morgan Freeman Chain of Command. Where does Professor Norman fit? Below God (Bruce Almighty), Nelson Mandela (Invictus) and President Tom Beck (Deep Impact). Above Principal Joe Clark (Lean On Me) and Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Glory). Somewhere in the middle, then, just beneath Brigadier General Billy Ford (Outbreak), and CIA Director William Cabot (The Sum of All Fears), in a cohort of sage and weary men contemplating the end of the world.
How did it come to this? The one time he played a bad guy that was believable on the page, in Street Smart, his performance led New Yorker critic Pauline Kael to wonder: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in America today?” His character, Fast Black, was a charming, menacing pimp, ready to glass his girls with a broken bottle of chocolate milk or stab them in the eye with scissors to keep them in line.
That was in 1987. Freeman won his first Oscar nomination, and for two years, he was offered nothing but gangsters, but then, reprising a Broadway role, he played Miss Daisy’s driver, Hoke Coleburn, and was typecast, apparently forever, as a wise, dignified old friend to the white protagonist.
I ask Freeman whether he would like to play a lowlife again. “Of course! That’s variation. That’s doing different stuff, rather than going along being Mr Goodie-Goodie all the time,” he says. “I’d love to be a bad guy. I mean a super bad guy. Somebody you could really have empathy with: understanding of what they want and why they want it. I totally understood Fast Black.”
So why doesn’t he? Surely his agent could make it known that he’s searching for demanding, morally ambiguous roles. There are plenty of screenwriters and independent directors who would love to cast an actor of his stature against type. I want to press the point, but a presidential look persuades me otherwise.
God is a dapper dresser. Today he’s wearing a grey suit with a burgundy shirt. His gold hoop ear-rings and fuzzy white beard give him a rakish, almost piratical look – one he adopted, he says, after discovering that sailors wore gold to pay for the burial if they died overseas. He has a compression glove on his left hand to prevent blood from pooling there, a legacy of the car accident six years ago that cost him the use of his arm.
He used to sail himself, but has just put his forty-three foot ketch, Afrodesia, on the market. “You do not want to be out there with one hand, trying to sail,” he says. “And I’ve never been all that enamoured of riding in boats, if you see what I mean.” These days he plays golf instead, swinging and putting with his right arm.
Since 2010, he has hosted a show on the Science Channel called Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, in which physicists, geneticists and neurologists grapple with questions such as Are We Born With A Divine Mind? Is Time Travel Possible? Are Elephants Self-Aware? It must have been good preparation for Lucy, an utterly daft but entertaining movie that speculates about how much brain capacity humans use and what would happen if we realised our full, godlike potential.
Does he have a view on the subject? “Absolutely not,” he says. “That theory that we only use 10% of the brain, that’s one idea… The other idea is that we use quite a bit more, we’re just not aware of it. The brain does things that it’s not telling you it’s doing. Your brain says ‘oh, look at those eyes, look at those lips, look at that mouth,’ your brain says shit like that, but it doesn’t say ‘beat, heart.’”
The line is not directed at me. I’m sharing the interview with an attractive young Russian journalist and Freeman is an incorrigible flirt. When she asks to pose for a photo with him at the end, he pulls her close and breaks into a little song: “Put your arms around me, honey, hold me tight. Huddle up and cuddle up with all your might.”
Last year, Freeman fell asleep during a promotional interview on Fox News for Now You See Me, lulled to sleep by the soothing baritone of his co-star Michael Caine, so it’s a relief to find him in high spirits. He doesn’t like being in New York much, though. “Look at this mess,” he says gesturing out of the thirty-ninth floor window of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “Wealth. That’s what everybody’s here for. Money, and get as much of it as you can.”
His home is an “oasis of beauty” in Charleston, Mississippi – a working farm where he recently took delivery of twenty-six beehives. “In the last twenty years we lost all the bees, they just died out,” he says. “So now the idea is to regenerate them, bring them back.”
He grew up nearby, in Greenwood, the self-styled ‘cotton capital of the world.’ Whenever he had twelve cents, he would watch western triple bills, then take his guns to town for games of cowboys and indians. His first lead role was in the school play, aged nine. Although there were some diversions along the way, including a stint in the Air Force, he knew that he wanted to be an actor.
Freeman earned his chops in the theatre, in San Francisco and New York, appearing in acclaimed productions of Brecht and Shakespeare, among others. For years he nursed an ambition to play King Lear, but he says he’s not interested any more – nightly theatre is too demanding.
His first on screen break was a regular gig in the Electric Company, a pre-Sesame Street television show for children. From 1971-77 he played Mel Mounds the DJ, Vincent the Vegetable Vampire and Easy Reader, who taught kids the alphabet dressed like Jimi Hendrix, in flares, lurid print shirt, waistcoat and headband.
Watching those clips – “When I itch, I scratches, and when I’m bored, I reads matches… Close cover before striking. Is that heavy?” – Freeman’s easy humour and generosity of spirit shine through so clearly that it becomes a little easier to understand how he got pigeon-holed. In person, he retains the same positive aura.
A decade ago, he told Richard Jobson that he was most proud of Glory, his favourite character was Fast Black “and everything else is just work.” He would add Mandela to that, having pursued the role for many years, and Scrap, in Million Dollar Baby, which finally won him an Oscar, but it’s striking how ambivalent he is about some of his most celebrated performances.
He refers to the Shawshank Redemption as Shemshonk or Shemsham. Driving Miss Daisy is “the big mistake” even though it won Best Picture, a snub that annoys Spike Lee to this day (his masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, was released the same year, but the Academy preferred nostalgia for the segregated south to racial tension in contemporary Brooklyn).
Casting directors are afraid to take risks. Audiences can be conservative. At test screenings for Hard Rain, people were upset that Freeman’s character, an armed robber, died at the end. The studio re-shot it, so that he got away.
Having played the Almighty, twice, Freeman would like to try his hand at the Devil, if only someone will write the part. “My idea is to play Satan as God’s other half. That takes some clever writing,” he says. “Satan is merely what you need in order to have God.”
He would relish playing an anti-hero, or a decent man corrupted and claimed by evil, like Breaking Bad’s Walter White. “That would be wonderful, it really would,” he says. “But I can’t look forward to it because I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I’m a good guy. Look at me. Don’t I look like a good guy?”