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FREEMAN, MORGAN: ALONG CAME A SPIDER / NURSE BETTY

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Morgan Freeman pops up in two vastly different roles in vastly different films released this month (August 2001) in Australia; Along Came a Spider and Nurse Betty. But thatís typical of this charismatic and engaging actor. But it can be dangerous, as he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

The last time I interviewed you was in the wilds of wet and cold Yorkshire when you were making Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.
Ahh yes. And it was miserable. I loathe cold weather and as you say, it was misty and damp and I didnít like the experience at all. I enjoyed working with Kevin (Costner) but the experience of [actually making] the movie was awful.

Well, weíre now at Sydneyís Park Hyatt looking out at the Opera House - a long way from Yorkshire and Robin Hood and we are now talking about two of your latest films, Nurse Betty and Along Came A Spider . It really shows the extraordinary diversity of work that you have done.
Let me knock on wood. It doesnít have to be that way; you know my first major outing was Street Smart and I had tonnes of scripts after that, but the same character. People must think youíre not an actor, youíre this person they saw in the film.

Well, especially so now when youíre a Ďbig starí and people are attracted by the star persona.
Itís a very dangerous place to be for an actor, too. I remember pointing out this very phenomenon to myself and realising it and saying to my agent ĎI donít want to be a starí and his response, obviously, was ĎWhat do you mean by that?í But once you get to that position, the character goes right out the window, and they want you to be the attraction - and that is a YOU, not whatever character you are playing. So youíve got to kind of fight off that whole syndrome.

Did you have that fight with your agent about Nurse Betty, for example? Your character isnít exactly a goodie.
Oh no, no, he brought that to me.

So he understands . . .
Oh yes, indeedy. He knows. Weíve been together for a long time, almost 35 years, so heís aware of my tastes and my desires and my fears, you know.

What are those fears?

Well thereís fear of being bracketed and right now I am bracketed. I have people talk to me constantly in these interviews about my dignity and grace [grimaces]. OK fine, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Iím beginning to think itís not such a good thing if thatís all youíre getting. ĎWell, yeah, but if you play a bad guy with a certain amount of dignity about himí well gosh, ok, fine, but the problem with that is, and can be, and was, I did a movie in which I played a bad guy and the studio tested it, you know they test market things and they asked an audience to critique it and hey, sure, change that and change that and change that. They did! And so my character was supposed to die at the end of the movie cause heís a bad guy, heís trying to rob people and thereís shooting and people get killed. So they say itís not a good idea, we donít want him to die. So not only did I not die, but, I was also able to steal some money. Is the work worth that ? What kind of message are you sending to young people who are going to the movies?

I guess thatís one of the things that would exercise your mind as an actor with a high profile. Will kids who associate with you because you are a heroic figure, black or white, be influenced by your characters. Is that an issue?
Of course itís an issue. Youíve always got to take it into consideration, what message youíre sending. Yes weíre in the business of entertainment, by all means, but there is something to be said for fables. Esop had a good thing going there, so did Uncle Remus. In all stories you tell, somehow there is a moral one way or another that gets over. I remember growing up - and the moral of every crime story -the first books I read were comic books, by eight I was into no pictures - crime does not pay. Thatís the first thing you want to instil in children. So itís not going to be helpful to you to go through life lying, itís not going to be helpful to you to go through life stealing, itís not going to be helpful to you to go through life being counter to societyís needs and wishes. Thatís the moral lesson we have to teach. The best teacher, the most listened to, the most watched, the most adhered to I think is movies and television. And the biggest lesson if you are a parent you know this going in, children donít listen to what you say, children watch what you do.

There must be also a tremendous amount of satisfaction now from your success, looking back. The young Morgan Freeman from Memphis didnít set out to be a movie star.

I canít really claim Memphis as home. I grew up in Greenwood Mississippi. But, yes go on with that thought: I grew up in this little small town and this little State; some people like to call it backwoods but it produced me so it canít be that backwoods. [grins] Yeah, I think that I know I am different but not very much different from anyone else who has established a goal and who then through perseverance achieved it. Thatís how you get to the top of the mountain - you climb.

Were there any role models in your childhood? Did you look up to anyone?
Oh yeah, anyone who was acting was a role model. My favourites . . . I donít have enough fingers and toes to count them off. When I think about it now I always leave out some Ė Gary Cooper and Glen Ford and Bogart and Tracey. That whole pantheon of actors that we always see all the time and Tyrone Power and many B movie actors, like Gerald Moore. I saw Gerald Moore more than anybody else. I went to my little western - I really liked cowboys. So aside from Glen Ford and Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper there was Jimmy Wakeley and Bill Elyard and Johnnie MacBrown, Charles Starrod. I ate em up.

With a conscious knowledge that this was what you wanted to do from childhood?
I donít think it was conscious at the time. It didnít start becoming conscious until I was the age of about 13 or 14, because I had teachers by then who were telling me I really did have a serious talent. Nobody was thinking movies; (we were) thinking stage.

But youíve done it all youíve done stage, television, movies . . .
I started off doing stage (I thought it was always going to be) I did stage forever. I really thought I was relegated to the stage because the mantra in New York for all actors is that this one [movie role] takes you to the coast. So youíre always looking for the job thatís going to get Hollywoods attention. Some producer or directorís going to come and see you on the stage and tap you for the next big movie, right.
I had quite a following amongst my fellow actors, you know people who really supported me and told me - you know we all go and see each others work saying, oh man, this is the one, this has got to take you. But it didnít ever happen . . . until Driving Miss Daisy, actually. But, no thatís not so, it didnít even happen with Driving Miss Daisy. It happened before, because I did Street Smart just off on itís own. I auditioned for the roleÖ

You had already done the (stage) play of Driving Miss Daisy.
By the time I did the movie, yeah.

But it wasnít directly responsible for your break into the movies.
No, I had broken into movies just prior to that. We opened Driving Miss Daisy in April of 1987 we had shot this movie Street Smart in 1986, it came out in April 1987. So you talk about providential happenstance: I play this incredibly evil but well defined character [in Street Smart] while Iím getting absolutely sterling reviews for this old man on stage. You couldnít ask for better press! [laughs]

What appeals now, what challenges?
Now itís just to keep going. Itís not so much that I have a special something to do or special kind of role that I want to play. There are projects that I have that I want to do.

Now for a complete change of subject: you wear two attractive small gold earrings, do they have any significance beyond the fact that you just like them?
No. When I was a kid I always wanted to have an earring and a tattoo because pirates had them. I read Moby Dick and I was fascinated by the sea and things maritime; then in 1963 I moved into an artistsí compound on the North East side of New York and I met a jazz musician - he had a little gold earring. I said, there it is right thereÖ got to have one of those. Then I got married in 1967, and one night this whole thing about my earring rose in my head and my wife said, ĎI can do it for youÖí so she punctured my ear with a needle and thread and there I was off and running. So I only had the one, and people would say, Ďwell, you know if you wear a gold earring in your left ear it means that your gayÖí So, anyway, my second wife and I, we were in the Caribbean, sailing around and looking in a jewellery shop onetime, and she saw these ear things - one was a boat one was a little dolphin or something. She says Ďlook, lets buy these and you get your other ear piercedÖí

You still like them?
Yeah I do Did you know that men wore all this stuff before women did? High shoes, lipstick, powder. Henry the 14th or 16th one of those was a short guy and he wore high heeled shoes and because they had all kinds of diseases - they didnít bathe for a month or so - and they would wear powder to cover up the blotches on their skin. And lipstick, men were the peacocks and you remember the 70s when hair got to be the thing . . . it was like hair.

So now, letís talk about Nurse Betty Ė which is so different to everything else. I wanted to ask you about working with writer/director Neil Labute. What attracted you to the film, why did you say yes to something so unusual?
Iím attracted to it because of that very fact. Itís very unusual, itís very comedic. Iíd seen two of his movies already - Iíd seen In The Company Of Men, and itís such a bizarre story and so well done, and then Your Friends and Neighbours. I thought, who is this guy? I never thought of him being misogynistic I just thought his head was over there somewhere, he had some courage and something different to say. So when I read Nurse Betty this was truly bizarre. My character Charlie was right up there, this guy who was kind of easy going a hit man who thought of himself only as a professional. Not in any kind of criminal terms although he lived in the underworld he functioned with those people but his is not a criminal mind.

And, of course, Renee Zellwegger turns in a wonderful performance as the most unlikely heroine.
When did she not? Thatís the door Ö. weíre going to have coffee nowÖÖ

Published August 16, 2001

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Freeman in Along Came a Spider


Freeman in Nurse Betty

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