Reluctant Greatness

organ Freeman would much rather show you what he does best than talk about his work. Actually, he'd rather be at home with his family on his 44-acre Mississippi farm than anywhere near a journalist's tape recorder. In a recent interview, this 63-year-old no-nonsense actor tried to play down his artistry by claiming that he's simply a "technician" on a set, just like any carpenter, grip, or any other stagehand.

His blunt pragmatism didn't fool me. Yes, he is a craftsman. And, surely, practiced technique has long been one of the tools of his trade. But great acting requires more than a technical hand. Great acting, as Freeman has demonstrated time and time again, involves something more elusive—an innate talent for slipping into characters and an undeniable presence that demands our attention and commands our respect.

Underneath his humble exterior is a man proud of his journey and of his accomplishments, who views his talent as an unexplainable gift. As he tried his best to explain it to me, ever since he saw his first movie (King Kong) as a child, the movies are where he's known he belongs. It just took a while for others to realize this truth.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., Freeman grew up in Chicago and Mississippi, before joining the Air Force at 18. After serving in the military for three years, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College's theatre department. Though he long dreamed of being in the movies, Hollywood would have to wait, or rather, he would have to wait for Hollywood.

Freeman would spend the next 20 years perfecting his craft in New York theatre. He made his Broadway debut in 1968 in an all-black version of Hello Dolly! that starred Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. To help pay the bills, he had a five-year stint playing Easy Reader on the popular PBS children's series Electric Company, beginning in 1971. Freeman eventually gained renown in the 1980s for his Obie-winning stage work in Coriolanus, Mother Courage, The Gospel at Colonus, and Driving Miss Daisy.

Freeman did not land his first leading role in a film until he reached age 50, when he was cast as a shrewd, menacing pimp named Fast Black in Street Smart, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1988. The next year, he would reprise his role as Hoke Colburn in the film adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, this time for Best Actor. He was last nominated for an Academy Award for his exquisite work in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. Somehow, he has yet to go home with one of those statuettes.

His numerous film credits also include Clean and Sober, Lean on Me, Glory, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Unforgiven, The Power of One, Outbreak, Seven, Chain Reaction, Amistad, and Deep Impact. He directed the 1993 film, Bopha! and was executive producer on the NBC movie Mutiny.

Currently, Freeman stars in two theatrical releases: the Neil LaBute-directed dark comedy Nurse Betty, in which he plays a introspective hit man hunting down his final victim (Renée Zellweger), and the crime-thriller Under Suspicion, which Freeman executive produced with his co-star Gene Hackman. He also executive produced and stars in Along Came a Spider, due out next year. Freeman was also handpicked by Nelson Mandela to portray him in the upcoming biopic, Long Walk to Freedom, and he's gearing up to reteam with his Kiss the Girls co-star Ashley Judd in High Crimes.

Back Stage West: Many young aspiring actors want that taste of success right off the bat. Obviously, more often than not—

Morgan Freeman: That's not the way it happens. The complete wildness of my success didn't start happening until I was 50. It wasn't until then that I became a movie actor.

BSW: Do you think those 20 years of struggle were necessary, or would you have wanted to reach your success at an earlier age?

Freeman: It's what was necessary. I can't say no to what has already been. There's no way for me go back and second guess all of my choices, because everything was predicated on something else. I'm a fatalist, and I think what did happen was supposed to happen. So, if you were to ask me, "If I were able to do it all over again, what different moves would I make?" I can't think of any. Maybe a few ladies I wouldn't fool around with. [Laughs.]

BSW: I recently heard a radio interview you did from 1993 on National Public Radio. You were talking about growing up in the South and part of the time in Chicago. You spoke about joining the Air Force and about how you went about becoming a professional actor. I was really surprised to learn that you got your foot in the door as a dancer. Tell me about that.

Freeman: I studied dance when I was in school. As part of the curriculum for the theatre department at LACC, dance was included. My instructor for dance told me that I had a flair for dance, and that I should follow through and I should study dance with more seriousness, because actors who sang and danced were, of course, triple threats. I seemed to have a gift for it, and so I started doing it.

In 1964, I was working the World's Fair in New York as a dancer. I got a few jobs as a dancer, but I couldn't really ever qualify as a dancer, except that I had a union card.

BSW: But that is what helped get you in the door as an actor, right?

Freeman: Absolutely.

BSW: Why did you think you chose to become an actor, because, after all, it can be such a heartbreaking and difficult profession?

Freeman: Sometimes you don't choose what you do. Sometimes what you do is what chose you, and that's just me and acting. I was chosen.

BSW: What do you think led you down that path?

Freeman: Doesn't really matter. I'm sure that the first time that I went to the movies, I was so impressed that all my thinking started leaning itself in that direction. Going to the movies became the highlight of my life, and I spent as much time as possible in [movie theatres]. Also, I was bookish as a child, and I think that bore a very active imagination. Then in school, I got so much encouragement in terms of my abilities as an actor, it was like a foregone conclusion by the time I got out of high school.

BSW: So did you begin acting in high school?

Freeman: I was doing theatre in grammar school and junior high school.

BSW: Was there is a crucial lesson you learned early on in your training that you've carried with you through the years?

Freeman: I know people who say, "Well, I'm going to try acting. I'll give it five years, or something like that." OK. Bye. You might as well go on and get another job, because, generally, five years isn't going to cut it, and if you do make it in five years, you're going to have 15 minutes, and then you're going to have to start all over again.

BSW: So you'd agree that patience and self-discipline are necessities for actors?

Freeman: Oh, absolutely. Patience and discipline. Discipline, in that whatever work or walk of life you enter into as a professional, you have to prepare yourself for it. You have to study and learn. Acting looks easy, and I have to say that the actual acting, itself, is easy. Making films is what's difficult and what takes work.

BSW: If acting is so easy, why, then, do actors sometimes attach so much misery to their work? They think they have to suffer or dig incredibly deep to reach certain characters.

Freeman: I think what is meant by that is that life is struggle. You have trouble depicting it if you haven't struggled, because you don't know what it is. It's like playing a drunk. If you've never been drunk, it's very difficult for you to know what it is—to know what you're doing. With any experience you want to make, it's difficult if you don't have some kind of a connection to it. Pain is evoked in acting through what we call sense memory. So if you've got no sense of pain—you have no memory of it—it's hard to find out what that really does to you, whether you're in pain for the loss of a loved one or from having a nail driven through your hand.

I think acting is strictly intending. You don't have to do it to be it, but you have to have some connection to it.

BSW: Are there roles that you feel the most connected to?

Freeman: Oh, sure. There are some that you shrug into like an old pair of shoes or an old coat of your own. I've had lots of those. You are very, very unlucky if you only get one or two in your career. I have had a number of them.

BSW: I found your recent casting in Nurse Betty to be a surprising choice. You rarely play comedy, albeit dark comedy in this case. Were you surprised that Neil LaBute, the director, thought you were right for this part?

Freeman: No. There are people who don't feel that they're pushing the envelope when they hire me. People sitting on the sidelines, who see me [in a film], sometimes think, Wow, that was such a strange bit of casting. But, to me, it's not. My character in Nurse Betty is nowhere near comedic. There's nothing funny about what he says or does. The situation, of course, is a bit ludicrous and, certainly, it's funny. But I don't have to think comedy. It's not a departure at all.

BSW: What does it take for you to get excited about acting these days?

Freeman: Good scripts. They're always hard to find.

BSW: Is that partly why you've become more involved in the making of your more recent films, as an executive producer?

Freeman: No. That's not why. A good script is equally hard to find no matter what you're doing. It's more serendipity than any kind of planned move on my part. I'm just taking advantage of opportunities.

BSW: I understand that you almost left acting at one point in the early 1980s.

Freeman: Almost left me. That's what happened.

BSW: What happened?

Freeman: It was because of a lot of things. It happens to all of us. Every one of us, I'm sure, could give you these stories of riding high one day, and all of a sudden it just seems like the door slams shut and the phone doesn't ring anymore. Your agent can't explain it to you, and you don't know what happened. There's just no more work for you. It happens to a lot of actors. A lot of guys can sit down and tell you about the time when things were going along just swimmingly and then, boom, the door closed. You don't know why. For me, it lasted a couple years, and that's a long time when you've been working steadily.

BSW: What got you through that period?

Freeman: Well, I had been working, and if you're working, you'll always have an income. So the first year, I had enough residuals to pay the rent. The second year, not quite enough. My landlord, by that time, was aware that I had ups and downs. He didn't put me out.

BSW: Do you ever see yourself leaving acting by choice?

Freeman: No.

BSW: Do you consider what you do to be an art?

Freeman: No.

BSW: Why not?

Freeman: Anything you do artistically has to do with creating something out of nothing. You see bits of glass, and you make a stained glass window out of it. You see junk, and you create some kind of sculpture. You get paint, and you make a picture. You get a blank piece of paper, and you create a story. We don't do anything like that. Movies, themselves, are an art form, but it takes a whole crowd of people to do it, and all of these people are technicians. The writer is the sole creator.

BSW: So the actor is a technician?

Freeman: Yeah. Absolutely.

BSW: So what, then, is the actor's job?

Freeman: Channeling.

BSW: And that's easy?

Freeman: For some. Brain surgery would be difficult for me, because that's not something I'm drawn to doing, but acting is just something I do.

BSW: What does acting fulfill in you?

Freeman: That's not the explainable part of life. I don't know of any person who has a gift that they can explain what it means when they're able to exercise that or make a living at it.

BSW: What do you enjoy about what you get to do for a living?

Freeman: There are different aspects to the enjoyment. I get paid well. I live well as a result of that. Before being paid at all, it was just the realization that I was no longer in a small town in Mississippi, but I was in a large town somewhere actually doing it with other people who come from other small towns in order to do it. Every plateau is a step up, no matter how small or incremental. It's all movement. So each one is a mark of success and recognition.

BSW: If you could tell someone getting into this business as an actor a piece of advice, what would it be?

Freeman: Prepare.

BSW: Do you see actors on sets who are not prepared?

Freeman: A few. Not very many, because you don't last very long. This business is really professional, and because it pays well and because there are so many people waiting, scrambling at the door, if a person comes in unprepared, they're just shown out the back door.

BSW: Do you see yourself returning to the stage any time in the future?

Freeman: I do not see myself not doing theatre.

BSW: Is it too much work for the small amount of money you'd get paid?

Freeman: That, plus the fact that I didn't set out to become a stage actor. I set out to be a movie actor. And, yes, an actor is an actor is an actor, and you have many venues. I did radio, stage, television—none of them were ever as fulfilling to me as movies. It has been my dream since childhood. The first thing I saw was not a play; it was a movie. I didn't spend my whole childhood going to plays; it was spent going to the movies. My desire, when I got out of the service, was to be in the movies. I mean, I wound up in New York, but I first came to Hollywood. That is what I meant to do. But I respect my 20 years in the theatre. I call that preparation. BSW