Morgan Freeman is Mandela

Morgan Freeman on playing Nelson Mandela in Invictus.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Morgan Freeman is Mandela

By far the biggest surprise I’ve had in Hollywood has been interviewing Morgan Freeman. No one is more the polar opposite of his screen presence. On screen, Morgan Freeman is never sarcastic and playful. In interviews, that’s all he is. Even in a press conference for Invictus, where he plays Nelson Mandela, Freeman didn’t take himself too seriously.


Q: How would you compare Clint Eastwood today with the Clint Eastwood who directed you in Unforgiven? 

Morgan Freeman: You don’t really want to go to Clint and say, “I’d just like to talk a little bit about the character.” He expects you to know what you’re doing and he’s going to take two giant steps back and let you do it. I just have such deep appreciation for that part of him. I think it’s a well oiled machine. Try to imagine yourself as the captain of a ship that really runs well. You don’t do anything. You just get credit for the fact that it runs well. The engine room does their job, the steering does their job, the deck crew do their job. It’s all done and done well. “Well Captain, you run a very nice ship.” “Thank you very much.” So that’s what Clint says he does and it’s wonderful. And everybody who works with him has this very same reaction to him. “Can I stay with you?” 

Q: You’ve always described acting as playing, which is nice to hear. I was wondering, when you play Nelson Mandela, does it become more than that? 

Morgan Freeman: No. It might have become more than that were I playing or working with someone other than Clint Eastwood. He is so enabling. He is so out of your way as an actor and he likes to watch actors play. I don’t think I do anything other than that when I’m working. I’m just playing. Work is something else. Work is maybe what you do. 

Q: Is it true you’ve been considering playing Mandela since 1993? What took until now to find the right opportunity? 

Morgan Freeman: This started out with Madiba naming me as his heir apparent so to speak when he was asked during the press conference at the publication of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, “Mr. Mandela, if your book becomes a movie, who would you like to play you?” He said, “Morgan Freeman.” So, from then on, it’s like okay so Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line. We spent a lot of time, Lori [McCreary] and I, my producing partner at Revelations. We were trying all this time to develop Long Walk to Freedom into a script. Couldn’t happen. Then, in ’06 I believe, we got this book proposal from John Carlin and it was perfect. We bought it. We got a script written. And, this was the role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates. It was perfect. 

Q: Morgan, If you’d been contemplating this since 1993, what was the most important thing you wanted to get across in portraying Nelson Mandela? 

Morgan Freeman: When he said that he would prefer that I be the one to play him in 1990 or whenever that was, I had to start then preparing myself to do it. So, 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 be close enough to hold your hand.” And, over the years, while we were trying to develop Long Walk to Freedom, that is what happened. Whenever we were in proximity, like a city away for instance, I would know about it and I would go to him and have lunch, have dinner, or sit with him while he’s waiting to go on stage for whatever, and during that time, I would sit and hold Madiba’s hand. Now that’s not for camaraderie. I find that if I hold your hand, I get your energy, it transfers, and I have a sense of how you feel. That’s important to me trying to become another person. I have a lot of pressure to bring a character like that to life in any kind of real sense. The danger, of course, is always at caricature, sort of indicating what the person is like. The biggest challenge I had, of course, was to sound like him. Everything else is kind of easy to do: to walk like him, he has a few tics and things that I noticed and I picked those up. I didn’t have any agenda as it were in playing the role other than to bring it as close to reality as I possibly could. The agenda is incorporated in the script and all I had to do was learn my lines. 

Q: How much did you know about the sport of rugby and do you still know the rules? 

Morgan Freeman: Nothing. I know American football. I know just a little bit about soccer. I know baseball. I know basketball. But rugby is foreign language. I know golf. 


Morgan Freeman: Before you go, let me just say this. In a movie like this, in a project like this, actors, directors, producers, we all get so much attention and so much credit but I want you to see, whatever happened to Tony, I want you to see the young, unassuming man who actually wrote this script. Because no word on the page, nothing happens. Tony Peckham, that is the man who gets kudos from all of us. Thank you all so much.