”I never wanted to be a movie star,” insists Morgan Freeman. ”I never wanted to be a personality. Then all you do is turn yourself into what the audience wants and play it over and over. That’s what movie stars do.” Actually, some of them — Morgan Freeman, for instance — manage to be both astonishingly versatile and what audiences want. In more than 20 films over 30 years, the 63 year old three time Oscar nominee has played everything from a pimp to the president.
Which is why Freeman wasn’t all that keen on reprising his role of psychologist – detective Alex Cross (last seen rescuing Ashley Judd from a serial killer in 1997’s ”Kiss the Girls”) for the prequel, ”Along Came a Spider.” ”I had a philosophic aversion to it,” he explains. ”I didn’t want to do the same thing twice.”
Of course, there are differences. For instance, this time Freeman’s gorgeous costar is Monica Potter. Still, that’s not why he decided to do the film. Breakfasting on steak and eggs in Westwood, Calif., last month, he laid out his reasoning. ”I realized that my philosophical aversion was bulls—,” he says. ”I realized I liked Alex Cross. And the fact that he’s black is totally incidental. That’s a rare thing for a black actor to find.” Plus, he adds, paraphrasing a line from ”Driving Miss Daisy,” ”It’s lovely to be wanted.” Here he discusses other career choices.
NURSE BETTY (2000), played Charlie, a hitman on the verge of retirement whose last mission is to hunt down Renée Zellweger’s Betty: ”I saw [director] Neil LaBute’s first movie, ‘In the Company of Men,’ and I thought it sucked deeply. I mean, talk about a couple of scuzzy guys. Man, they were turds. But I was intrigued by the mind that would think this up and film it. Then I saw LaBute’s second movie, ‘Your Friends & Neighbors.’ Not any better, but still intriguing. That scene with Jason Patric in the steam room — I’ve never seen him do such good work. So then I got the script for ‘Nurse Betty,’ and I loved it and I went and met him. And it turns out he’s married, has these lovely kids. He’s just this big bear of a man. Cuddly, even. It didn’t take any persuading to convince me to do the film.”
DEEP IMPACT (1998), played President Tom Beck: ”When I was doing press for ‘Deep Impact,’ reporters would always ask me how it felt to play the first black president, and I’d tell them, ‘I’m not playing the first black president. I’m playing a president who happens to be black.’ Or they’d ask me what sort of research I did for the role. Research? What kind of research do you need to play the president? He’s a guy. Truman was a haberdasher. Eisenhower was a soldier. Reagan was an actor. Besides, we all know what presidents are like standing up there in a press conference. Hell, you don’t have to do any research to play a president.”
AMISTAD (1997), played abolitionist activist Theodore Joadson: ”Steven Spielberg is an incredibly efficient filmmaker. I think he knows in his gut how to make a film. But ‘Amistad’ was a huge disappointment at the box office. [Slavery] is subject matter that Americans don’t want to confront. Americans relate to it the way Germans relate to the Holocaust. So people just didn’t want to see it.”
SEVEN (1995), played Brad Pitt’s partner, Det. William Somerset: ”There’s all this loss and angst and death and sense of helplessness in that movie — if I saw it in the theater, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I saw [director David Fincher’s] ”Fight Club” and I didn’t like it much. It’s a great movie, well made, fabulous acting, but it just made me feel so bad. But Fincher is an extraordinarily good director.”
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994), played Ellis Boyd ”Red” Redding (a.k.a. Inmate 30265), his third Oscar nominated performance: ”That was a strange production. There were moments of extreme tension on the set. Between the producers and actors, between the director and actors, between everybody. Just this personality stuff between different groups. Very strange. Let’s stop talking about that one.”
ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991), played Azeem, Kevin Costner’s sidekick: ”The thing I remember most is being in pain. We were up in northern England in the winter, and I don’t do cold very well. Just prior to going there, my wife had bought me this shiatsu massage in New York, and they stepped on my back and pinched a nerve. And then during filming I jumped off a wall, and my knee went backward. So I remember standing in the mud in the cold with this pain running up my leg and hip. They got me an osteopath to try to work it out. He never could.”
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990), played Judge Leonard White: ”I knew that movie wasn’t going to work. I don’t think [director] Brian De Palma had a clue. It struck me that he didn’t read the book — or that he didn’t like the book. It was the one time Tom Hanks was awfully miscast. Originally they hired Alan Arkin to play my role. I thought that was perfect casting. But then they thought they had to be politically correct and make the judge black. So they fired Alan Arkin and hired me. Not a great way to get a role. I was kind of a suck a– for not turning it down, but they weren’t going to give it back to Alan anyway. I never did get around to seeing the movie.”
DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989), played Hoke Colburn, his second Oscar nominated performance: ”I saw a couple of other actors play Hoke Colburn on stage [where Freeman originated the role], and it turned me off. Some actors played him really angry. Some played him with his hat in his hand, really deferential. It’s a tricky character, right on the edge of Uncle Remus. But I knew how to play him right away. I knew when I read it. I just saw him — the dignity in the character. The only time I ever worried about it was when I was doing the show Off Broadway, and all these Southerners would come back wiping their eyes and talking about how nostalgic it made them feel. How their grandmother had a chauffeur just like that. I was like, ‘God damn it! I made these people nostalgic for the good ol’ days!’ But then I had some black friends see it, and they said, ‘Oh, my grandfather was exactly like that.’ So that made me feel okay.”
STREET SMART (1987), played a pimp named Fast Black in his breakout performance, earning him his first Oscar nomination: ”A block away from where I used to live on New York’s West Side, there were always these street girls outside, no matter what time of year. Every now and then a pimp would come along, and you’d see him chastise the girls. I saw one guy drag a girl in a hammerlock, just drag her down the street punching her face. He was real quiet about it, too. He wasn’t yelling at her at all. Just talking — as he punched her in the face. That’s the way you’ve got to play that character. That’s how I put him together.”
THE ELECTRIC COMPANY (1971?76), played Easy Reader on the PBS children’s show. ”I’ve seen reruns of it once or twice. It’s exactly like time travel. It’s 30 years old now. It was a very creative show, but man, it was a long gig. I was fried. And I hated myself for not having the courage to just walk away. But then it ended, and I had to find something else to do. Lucky for me.”