Morgan Freeman


In his greatest roles, he has elevated an essential goodness to heroic stature with his physical grace and exquisitely modulated voice. But even for a man who was God in ‘Bruce Almighty’, playing Nelson Mandela is a weighty undertaking.

Profile by Victor Alling
Photography by Mart Engelen

At the age of 72, american actor Morgan Freeman has no intention to retire. He has no desire to slow down his work pace. “I love moviemaking,” he says. His latest movie, Invictus (2009), produced by Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment and directed by Clint Eastwood, is based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin. Matt Damon plays the role of the South-Africa rugby team captain Francois Pienaar and Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, former South African president during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where South African leaders use the World Cup for healing the nation of the post-apartheid instability and political unrest. It wasn’t easy for Freeman to take this role since he was aware of the fact that once the autobiography of Nelson Mandela came out, it was Mandela himself who wished for Freeman to be the one who would play his part eventually. Freeman prepared himself for his role in Invictus in his own way, trying to make the correct transformation. Watching footage to understand Mandela’s way was not enough for him. Freeman had requested to spent as much time as possible with Nelson Mandela personally, so whenever they were in the same part of the world, a meeting would be arranged.
The big screen has brought freeman to a wider audience: Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Million Dollar Baby and four nominations. He has long been a figure in New York theatre, appearing only in Broadway and off-Broadway plays that suited his very particular taste. As a young man, he learned to act by watching Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Sidney Poitier at the local cinema, then racing home to practice their moves in the mirror, when living in Charleston Mississippi. Although he very much wanted to act and had even been offered some scholarships to study theatre, Freeman decided to join the Air Force. But when he had the chance to train as a fighter pilot toward the end of his enlistment period, he realized he wanted nothing to do with killing people in a real-world war.
“I had this very clear epiphany,” he recalls. “I thought : You are not in love with this, you are in love with the idea of this. So off I went to Hollywood.” had freeman’s life been a movie, the years that came next would have been the part where the hero hits rock bottom. Despite steadily turning up for casting calls, Freeman couldn’t make the transition to movies. He grew disheartened, and by the late ’70s his life was in shambles. “I was depressed,” he says. “ I was doing a television show, and I hated it. So I was very upset with myself, because now I’m doing something I no longer want to be doing, just for the money, and that’s a bad place to be.”
Freeman gave up drinking after waking up facedown on the floor in the hallway of his New York apartment. Nowadays he radiates good health and he works hard at staying fit. He says he has not noticed any decrease in his energy as he has gotten older. If he isn’t working, he can be found on his boat Sojourner, which he sails around the Caribbean. “Some people feel insignificant out at sea,” he says. “I feel the most significant, like I have wings.”
Five years ago he and his best friend Bill Luckett started to take flying lessons and teamed up to buy a twin-engine Cessna 414 and a Cessna Citation jet. They fly together frequently, on fishing trips to Montana or business jaunts to New York or Los Angeles. Bill Luckett, attorney businessman and nowadays Mississippi’s Democratic candidate for governor, is the hands-on impresario of an ever-increasing network of business and charitable ventures that enmeshes Freeman in Mississippi.
Freeman is low-key about his charitable endeavors, but through his Rock River Foundation he has given millions to 4-H Clubs, Teach For America , and other educational institutions. While most of his efforts are dedicated to the Mississippi Delta region, after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 he helped the Grenada Relief Fund to rebuild the devastated Caribbean Islands. He has long encouraged people of color to accept personal responsibility for their lives. “How can we get rid of racism?”, reporter Mike Wallace once asked. “Stop talking about it,” Freeman answered. “I’m going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”
Freeman finds the mention of ones color redundant. “I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ You know what I’m saying?” His social and political views are at times surprising and he pulls no punches. He says he finds Black History Month “ridiculous”. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?”… “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,” he says, noting that there are no white or Jewish history months. while he was growing up in mississippi, his professional prospects and even his options for self-expression were limited; for a black man, defying a white person in power could have fatal consequences. A vivid measure of the distance Freeman has traveled occurred in 2000 when he took part in the tribute to Eastwood at the Kennedy Center Honors Annual Gala in Washington, D.C.
At the dinner an intermediary approached Freeman with a request from Mississippi senator (and former segregationist) Trent Lott – could Lott come to the star’s table to meet him? “I don’t see any reason why,” Freeman calmly replied. “Tell him you can’t find me.” Freeman’s ancestors worked the soil of Mississippi and his mother is buried on his land, where her modest house still stands, a reminder of where he came from. “You know, you go around the world, and you have eaten in the best restaurants and stayed in the best hotels,” he says, “but here, there is peace, quiet and solitude, and the realization that this has always represented safety.” What kind of safety? “Psychic safety. So I tell people I’m where I’m supposed to be.”