The Academy Award-winning actor explains why he never intends to write a memoir and discusses his acting influences and upcoming film, The Magic of Belle Isle.
Actor Morgan Freeman, Part 1Originally aired on June 19, 2012
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Morgan Freeman back to this program. The Oscar-winning actor has two notable films coming out next month. The latest installment of the “Batman” series – you might have heard about it. It’s called “The Dark Knight Rises,” and the new Rob Reiner project, “The Magic of Belle Isle.” Before we get to both of those and his ongoing science series, “Through the Wormhole,” here is just a small sampling of his unforgettable work.
[Montage of clips from various Morgan Freeman films]
Tavis: So, starting July 6th in select theaters and select cities, you can catch the latest project, “The Magic of Belle Isle.” The film directed by Rob Reiner and also stars Virginia Madsen. So here now, a scene from “The Magic of Belle Isle.”
Tavis: So, what’s your pocket knife look like?
Morgan Freeman: I don’t carry one. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was about to sum up your character by your pocket knife, but you don’t carry one.
Freeman: No, I don’t. I used to carry one, but I couldn’t get through the airports with it.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) So you’ve set that aside. I want to get to this movie in just a second, but I was reading something since you were last here, and you said in this interview, if you were quoted correctly, that you have no intent ever of writing a memoir or an autobiography. Do you recall saying that?
Tavis: So with all the life that you’ve lived, and I raise that because we just saw so much of your brilliant work on the screen here, just a sampling of it, so much life lived, so much story to tell, but you’ve already decided you ain’t going to write one.
Tavis: Why not?
Freeman: I just don’t have that desire. I really don’t, Tavis. You probably will. You have the same kind of stories to tell and life lived and all that, but I’ve done it. I don’t need to talk about it. (Laughter)
Tavis: But I think that the reason people do this in large measure is because their fan base wants to know so much more about them, about the choices, about the decisions, about the back story, what led to this and how did this happen.
You’re right, you’ve lived it and we’ve seen you blossom into this brilliant actor on screen, but you still keep a lot of stuff to your chest, though. You like it that way, obviously.
Freeman: Yeah, I guess, and what I haven’t talked about I don’t intend to talk about. (Laughter)
Tavis: ‘Nuff said. ‘Nuff said. When you look back on just a sampling of your stuff, and you’ve received every major award there is; the Cecil B. DeMille award, congratulations on that.
Freeman: Thank you so much.
Tavis: The AFI awards, and you’ve seen these kinds of retrospectives of your life and career. When you see those kinds of things, what runs through your mind?
Freeman: I’m a little reticent to say pride. That I was very lucky once I got started with a career. I happened to get some really good parts to play with some really good people to play with. It always, you’re not always that lucky.
Tavis: Luck has something to do with it but –
Freeman: Well –
Tavis: – your talent, your skill level –
Freeman: Denzel once said, and I’ve always remembered it, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” So yeah, I feel like that’s what happened with me. I was lucky in that when the opportunity came, I was prepared to meet it.
Tavis: Did you ever expect it to be this good, this sweet?
Freeman: Expect? I can’t say yes to that, no. You don’t really have these kinds of expectations. Desires, yeah. I wanted to be on the “Tavis Smiley Show” talking about myself and my career. I want to be up there, being lauded and applauded and given all these and on the red carpet, waving at the hordes of people. But expect? I can’t say that I did.
Tavis: I told you when you walked out because I haven’t seen you in a few months, or a little while, I guess, so not long ago, not too long ago, I was in our home state of Mississippi, where I was born, of course, and where you are from, and got a chance to hang out in your club for a couple of days.
Did some filming, as a matter of fact, in your documentary I was working on that we filmed. Cornel West and I and a few others filmed this documentary in your place. Had a good time down there.
It leads me to ask how your upbringing has informed, to the extent that it has, the kinds of acting choices that you’ve made, your upbringing specifically. How has that informed your acting choices?
Freeman: I’m not sure that my upbringing has in itself informed my acting choices.
Tavis: That’s fair.
Freeman: But in growing up, I was a child of the movies. I went to the movies every given opportunity, and that’s pretty much what has informed a lot of my choices. When I was growing up, I didn’t see me in the movies except in certain lesser roles. If it wasn’t funny, I wasn’t there.
Then Sidney Poitier came along, and he wasn’t funny. He was just good. There’s me. So that was my pattern.
Tavis: If Poitier is the first one, and you’ve said this before, if Poitier is the first one who really, the first Black actor who really turned you on in that way, did you decide when you got into acting that you wanted to be a dramatic actor?
You’ve done the funny – you’ve done it all at this point. But did you initially decide you wanted to be a dramatic actor?
Freeman: Well, I just wanted to be an actor. It’s better to be well-rounded. Doing comedy is as easy as doing anything else. You’re dependent totally on the material. I’m not a comedian. I don’t make things funny if they’re not funny. I don’t invent funny stuff. But if the material has humor in it, then it’s easy to play it. So no, I didn’t, I don’t think I set out to be a dramatic actor. Just an actor.
Tavis: Let me ask the inverse of a question I asked earlier, which is given how late, compared to others, you got started in the business, whether or not there is something, a role, that is to say, that you wish you had had a chance to play that you know you won’t, given your chronological giftedness.
Freeman: Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. There was one in particular. I’ve always been really hot on westerns. All my life growing up, cowboy, cowboy, cowboy.
Tavis: You got a cowboy hat on in the “Belle Isle” project.
Tavis: You got the hat, at least.
Freeman: Yeah. Well, this guy (laughter) was a writer, and he wrote western things.
Freeman: Anyhoo, there came to my attention years ago a character by the name of Bass Reeves. Bass Reeves was a deputy United States marshal on the frontier in the 1870s and ’80s. That was when the United States government decided to heck with the treaties we’ve made with the Indians; we’re taking over the – we’re opening up the Oklahoma territory to settlers.
They wanted that area cleared of bad guys, so they sent a federal judge whose name was Isaac Parker, a very famous guy, the hanging judge, to the frontier, which at the time was Ft. Smith, Arkansas. He and his U.S. marshal, I think the guy’s name was Clements or something like that, hired a bunch of deputies, Black, white and Indian, and their job was to clean out Oklahoma territory, get all the bad guys out of there.
Bass Reeves was one of the best at the job. Best man hunter. He said he killed about 14 men, but he was not a killer. He was very reticent to kill people, he’d rather bring them in, hand them over. But he was really good at his job. Never heard of him, did you?
Freeman: Right. So I really wanted to do that. I wanted to play that part, but as you say, my chronological advancement is (laughter) –
Tavis: But given that you own a production company, you can always produce the project.
Tavis: And have somebody else.
Freeman: Yeah, yeah, I’ve been trying to do that for a lot of years.
Freeman: One of the hardest things about trying to do anything is getting a script. It’s really hard. So I’ve been trying to get a script written and haven’t been successful, and a lot of people have come with ideas and even with scripts, but they don’t match what I want to do.
Tavis: So you know a good script when you see one.
Tavis: So what’s making it so difficult to get the kind of script that you want?
Freeman: Most of the scripts that I’ve read are a little light. There’s not enough, what can I say, depth. You look at a project like “Deadwood,” it’s really serious, down in the mud and the dirt and stuff.
Well, that’s what life was like in those days, and that’s what I would want. What we’ve seen in much of the earlier movies about the West, it was just cleaned up. I don’t think they’ve ever, ever seen a movie, say, before the ’70s, where there was horse pucky in the streets. Lot of horses. (Laughter)
Tavis: But nothing in the streets, yeah.
Freeman: Yeah. That’s the first thing I think of. That’s unreal.
Tavis: Hadn’t even thought about that. You always give me new ways of seeing things.
Freeman: Well – (laughter).
Tavis: Every western I see from now on, I’ll be looking in the street now to see if I see some horse pucky.
Freeman: Right, because it exists. What are these horses doing?
Tavis: Yeah. As I look over your corpus, there are certain people that you’ve gone back to work with a few times. They say that life is about relationships, so I could talk about Ashley Judd, I could talk about Clint Eastwood, I could talk about –
Freeman: Rob Reiner.
Tavis: So Rob Reiner. So what is it about this relationship with Rob Reiner that made you want to go back again?
Freeman: He’s a really good director. He’s very quick, and that is a big turn-on for me, a director who knows what he’s doing and what he wants, and knows when he’s gotten what he wants.
Tavis: Is that your way of saying you’re an impatient actor? You don’t want to do two and three, four or five takes?
Freeman: No, no, no, I don’t think I’m impatient. I’m very patient as long as I agree that you haven’t gotten it the way you want it yet. But I am impatient with directors who don’t know what they want, and the way you don’t know what they want is because they want to do one more. “Let’s do one more.” So, “What for?” (Laughter) I guarantee you there’s not going to be a change.
Tavis: You’re like, “Was that in frame? Moving on.”
Freeman: Moving on. (Laughter) Right. Let’s ask the focus puller. You happy?
Tavis: So he knows what he wants, and you like that.
Freeman: I love that. I love that. Clint just refuses to do three takes on something that he’s gotten two takes on and got it in the can, and sometimes one. We’re moving. I love that (unintelligible). Let’s not dilly-dally around here; you’re just using up time and money.
Tavis: So this project, I was actually surprised to see you concede this, but you did in one conversation, that this really is the first time that you’ve played romantic love interest.
Freeman: Yeah, of this nature.
Tavis: Pseudo, semi.
Freeman: Semi, semi, yeah. I used to be asked a lot why didn’t I do more. I couldn’t tell you, really. I don’t know why.
Tavis: So what attracted you to this script, the “Belle Isle” project?
Freeman: It’s something I haven’t done before. This guy, interestingly enough, when I got a call from Rob, the character wasn’t written to be played by a Black person. Not that that matters in any case, ever. Rob hadn’t thought of it, and then he called the office about something and (unintelligible) said he just adores working with you.
He said he thought, wait a minute – right. I like working with him too. Would you do this? Sent the script, and I said absolutely.
Tavis: That easy.
Freeman: That easy.
Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the fact – or actually, a two-part question – what do you make of it, and what should we make of the fact that even though it wasn’t written for an African American, you, with ease, just fall into the part, and it works?
Freeman: I’m not professionally Black. (Laughter) I love the way you laugh.
Tavis: That’s a great line. I suspect that’s going to be on Twitter and on Facebook in about 30 seconds.
Tavis: “I am not professionally Black.”
Freeman: I am not. Somebody once said to me after I’d done “Deep Impact,” “What is it like to play a Black president,” and I said, “I didn’t play a Black president. I played a president. I just happened to be Black. There’s a difference.
I could have played Black president somehow. I don’t quite know how, but there’s a way to do that. Then there was just, “You play the president.”
Tavis: And yet, while you did that with such ease, there’s been such – I don’t want to say great debate, I don’t want to overstate it, but I’ve seen more than one article by a variety of critics taking “Streetcar” on Broadway now, staring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker, taking that production to task because there’s certain lines that Stanley Kowalski and Blanche – you know the work, obviously.
Freeman: Yeah, I know the work, Morgan Freeman.
Tavis: There’s a controversy about that. Does it really work when they’re playing the part and saying this particular line, this particular scene? That debate continues, so it’s not always so easy to just make the switch-out without creating some sort of controversy.
Freeman: Well, no, there isn’t. They did “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” didn’t seem to create all that controversy. It seemed to me that that’s a harder one to swallow, to make an all-Black cast out of. So I don’t understand about “Streetcar” at all. Doesn’t make any sense to me. But people are always – someone’s always going to come down on the side of the fence.
Tavis: Yeah, and if you’re going to be in this business, as you well know, art is subjective, so people have a right to say that.
Tavis: You ever get tired of taking race questions, hearing race questions, at this point in your career?
Freeman: I think they’re boring. When President Obama was elected, I had that moment that so many Americans did of wow, look at where we are. Race seems to me to be less and less a subject worth discussing amongst ourselves. What are we talking about?
Tavis: It’s one thing to be tired of being asked about it; it’s another thing to argue that it’s less and less worth of discussion, given that the divide still exists. Those are two different things though, yes?
Freeman: Well, yeah. You look at a situation like this kid in Virginia was shot by this vigilante without much to-do from the police, and then these questions start up again. It’s hold on; let’s look at this a little more carefully here. There’s something wrong.
Yeah, there these things are, but I think they’re always going to be. We’re always going to be able to ask a question like that about something.
Tavis: Speaking of Obama, you have not held your tongue over the last couple of years when asked various questions about him and about race and about the Tea Party, and you’ve gotten yourself in a bit of hot water here and there.
Freeman: No I haven’t.
Tavis: You don’t care about that?
Freeman: Hot water with who? (Laughter)
Tavis: With the people who didn’t agree with what you said.
Freeman: I don’t care.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s what I thought. (Laughter) That’s why – I thought that might be the response.
Tavis: Some professionals, professional Blacks, professional whites, particularly in this business, want to hold their tongue for fear that it might hurt their box office. There are athletes now who don’t have anything to say about anything of consequence because managers and agents say stay out of that. You know those types of people.
Freeman: Yeah. Well, I don’t have anybody telling me what to say. I have people who would suggest, maybe, that I shouldn’t do this, that or the other, but that’s strictly up to me.
I think that we did a really good thing when we elected Barack Obama. I read his books, they read his books. He is absolutely and totally qualified for the job. He’s proven himself to be not only qualified for the job, but very good at it.
The things that he’s managed to get accomplished in the face of so much push-back is amazing, and I think – this is Morgan Freeman’s personal thought – we’re going to be in a lot of trouble if we don’t reelect him, because the people on the other side of the fence scare me.
Tavis: On that note, we’ll stop the conversation for tonight. Morgan Freeman has not one but two projects coming out – one big budget, one not so big. We’ll talk more about both those projects and so much more tomorrow night.
A life this well-lived makes it difficult to squeeze conversation into 30 minutes, but we’ll continue with this tomorrow night. Until then, keep the faith.
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