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December 2004
Million Dollar Baby: An Interview with Morgan Freeman

Million Dollar Baby: An Interview with Morgan Freeman

By Wilson Morales

Morgan Freeman is one of the industry's most reliable actors, a performer who carries the casual authority of a person who seems to have lived through a lifetime of pain and survived to tell the tale. In his latest film, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, he plays a character very similar those in films past; he's Scrap, a former fighter who now whiles his days away as the manager of a run down gym called the Hit Pit. In this recent interview with blackfilm.com, Freeman explains that working in Hollywood means living in a constant state of career uncertainty, and unequivocally proves that he's every bit as scrappy as the characters he plays on the silver screen.

What are the pleasures of working with Cline Eastwood a second time?

Morgan Freeman: It's a joy. It's a wondrous thing to work with Clint. You know what FOS means? Full of shit. You stood up and you said 'I'm standing up for you.' I'm standing up for you. I'm waiting for a response! Did he not say that? He said 'look at me- I'm standing up for you.' What did you think when he said that?

I think he was just joking.

MF: (laughing) No no no. I'm kidding I know you don't know me so you don't know where I'm going at any one time.

Are you and Clint friends outside of work?

MF: Yeah. It's an easy working relationship in any case. If I didn't know him from anything but his work, he's still the same guy on the set. He's really nice.

Everyone who works with him says he's easy. Does that rub off on you?

MF: It rubs off on you, I think it does. Obviously, if you're calm in your surroundings, you have a sense of security about where you are and what you're doing. Clint comes prepared. He's very prepared- he's done his homework, and you can't see it but he works hard, so I think that's the way that he's grounded and now he just knows what he's doing. He's got great back-up, people who work with him all of the time, and everybody works with him for the same reason: he expects you to your job. He's not micromanging at all.

Tim Robbins said he'd never experienced such a sensation of being put in a safe place.

MF: Yeah.

What was Hilary like?

MF: Sometimes you get into a situation- with me, it's often- where you've got a great dancing partner, someone who really can anticipate your every move, you can anticipate their every move, and you just flow together. That's Hilary.

She's a tough lady in the movie.

MF: She was a tough lady.

Many of the roles you play carry a natural wisdom or gravitas in the context of the other characters in the film. How do you make each role distinctive?

MF: Gravitas, right? We're talking about gravitas now, right? I don't know- maybe I just gravitate to gravitas. It's got to be that I accept the roles.

Is gravitas ever exhausting?

MF: Yeah. It's like a box now.

What attracted to this character?

MF: Well... what's your name?


MF: Relating to what you were saying about this gravitas thing, I think in these characters, there is a level of pain of having lived through some pain and come out the other side with your philosophy in place. Scrap, for instance, he's like all-accepting. He's not judgmental in terms of anybody else's situations or predicaments. Danger being the case in point, he says 'you're not hurting anybody,' while Frank is saying 'get him the hell out of here.'

He survived fight number 109.

MF: He survived fight number 110.

What was it like to shoot the fight scene?

MF: Hard. Have you ever thrown a punch at anybody that you weren't going to connect with? Try it sometime. You're just throwing as hard as you can through the air, and not just once but a lot of times. And when you get done, you can hardly raise your arm.

Scrap is a very perceptive observer.

MF: Yeah, but the people around him are in the game that he's been in all of his life. Yeah, he's perceptive, but he's got a lot of background. He's got a lot of input.

And he's enjoyed a thirty-year relationship with Frankie.

MF: Yeah, right, and he knows what makes Frankie tick.

You have this film and four other movies coming out. How do you work all of them into your schedule?

MF: The underlying part of your question is that I should retire?

That's just a hell of a lot of work.

MF: When was the last time you saw one of my movies? "Big Bounce". I get breaks, I don't have to take them. They come on their own. If something comes along that interests you for whatever reason, and there are at least three that I can think of, money being one, a good script being two, or an outstanding or an interesting cast being three. I want to say location but I don't think I ever went anywhere to do a movie just to be on location. You're not going to work that often- I don't care what- so there are a lot of... you probably have already spoken to people like Gene Hackman, who just keeps going because sooner or later, and you don't know whether it's going to be sooner, or later, but the phone stops ringing.

Did the phone ever stop ringing for you?

MF: Oh heavens yes. That's why I know- I thought my fifteen minutes were up in 1981." Talk a little bit more about Hilary. Did you meet for the first time on the first day of shooting? "We just met on the set. That's the way it is with Clint- when we did "Unforgiven", I'd never seen him in person, met him on the set, and practically genuflected. He said 'welcome,' and the next thing was 'we'll be working together tomorrow.' That was it. I came on set- normally you'll come on set because you're being dragged up to the director to show off the costume. This is 'do you give your blessings on this costume?' and that's often when he's working.

Did he okay your holey socks?

MF: He okays everything.

How much input did you have into your appearance?

MF: You have almost total input. The costume designer comes with some choices for you, and if you don't like any of the choices, he'll go get some more- he or she- will go get more until you're satisfied with what represents your character.

Even the hair?

MF: The hair is totally me. I decide, between me and my daughter, we decide- I tell her what I want.

Both you and Clint are musically inclined. Have you played together?

MF: No. The only thing we've done is recorded a solo, a welcome for his restaurant in Carmel, and he recorded one for Madidi, in Clarksdale, for me. It was a good exchange.

What did you think of the script when you first read it?

MF: What did I think of it? 'Can I do this?' 'Who do I have to pay?'

What was it about the script that you found appealing?

MF: Everything. I mean, it's extremely well written. You know, if you've got a really good script you don't have to put anything in it but dialogue, and there's very little else in that script. You get scripts with all kinds of directions written about them- 'he said with a gleam in his eye.'(rolls his eyes)

Did you get nervous about the work because the script was so good?

MF: No, at this stage, if you've got a really good one, then you just go and... there is a relish, like just after a good meal, you know. You just eat.

How did you think Hilary looked?

MF: She looked great. She was constantly working- she was never still. She was either jumping rope, hitting the bags, hitting the speed bag, shadowboxing...

Why in 1981 did you think your career was over?

MF: Good question. I wasn't getting any work. My career sort of really cranked into gear in late 1967, so from 1967 to 1980 it was like a slow, gradual, incline, you know with things moving along steadily. And then I did this TV movie, and the movie we wrapped in December of 1980, and then December 1981 came, and then like September of 1982 came, December of 1982 came, and September of 1983 came, and by that time, I was thinking I should probably go get a hack license, because I was living in New York at the time. If I could get a hack license, I could drive a limousine- I like driving- and try to get a limousine job. But every time I would get up in the morning to go, I would talk myself out of it for one more day. And then I went to audition for Paul Newman for "Harry and Sons", and he gave me a job.

When did Miss Daisy happen on stage?

MF: In 1987.

"Street Smart" was the same year, right?

MF: It was the same time. It was a great year. 1987 was a great year, 1967 was a great year, 1957 was a great year, 1997 was a great year. 1977 was a great year.

How tough is it to move to something like "Batman Begins" after the intense drama of a project like this one? MF: Nothing's difficult. You know, one gives you a certain amount of artistic satisfaction, and one gives you great financial satisfaction. What's difficult?

Have you figured out why those slow years happened?

MF: Why? It's just one of those things, one of those crazy things. It happens to every actor.

What was it like to play Nelson Mandela for "Long Walk to Freedom"?

MF: Talk about it? I'm getting into a little bit of trouble now because he's not all that well any more. He's got a really bad leg so he can't move around, and for active people, when you stop moving around, you stop moving around, and it all just starts going into the toilet, so I'm a little worried about him. What I'd hoped, what we'd all hoped, was that we would have already done this film a couple of years ago, but it was really difficult to get a proper script in hand, and there's no point in doing this one unless the script is outstanding. We're going to meet the producer in Dubai next week and he's got another script, but playing Mandela is going to require or what I want it to require is me being able to spend personal time with him, just to be with him, just to talk about the weather, to talk so sometimes I can ask him a personal, emotional question. Not what did you do, but how did you feel when you learned this, or when this happened. What we're trying to do in this rendition, and you've seen movies about Nelson Mandela, but you've seen movies about the incidents around Nelson Mandela. What we're going to do is a movie about him. His father dying, he was next, he was the oldest, he had obligations, they were ancient obligations. He couldn't fulfill them. His son died in a car accident. He couldn't go to the funeral because of his familial obligations, he couldn't do it. The stuff that he sacrificed- where do you go with that?

Is the Winnie factor going to be a script problem?

MF: No. I read a script where the Winnie factor was very well done- very well done. Winnie had reasons for what she did.

Are you cognizant of a role's Oscar potential when you pick it to play?

MF: I don't. I can't. If my agent says, "I think you should take this role. I think this is Oscar-worthy," and it's like you can't [predict that]. No, I take the role because it's worthy in and of itself, so it's got nothing to do with it, and then if it does, then fine. No problem. I can deal with it.

How about for the other cast members?

MF: Oh yeah, absolutely. I can think about it in any terms at all, except for me. Yeah, absolutely. And with fingers crossed. The director, certainly Hilary, but I don't think I would have a chance- oh yes I would! I was going to say I wouldn't have a chance because I saw "Ray" and I'm telling you, if Jamie Foxx is not a shoo-in, there ain't no justice. I'm voting for him.

Thanks, Morgan. MF: Great to see you. Thank you very much for an interesting- thanks for standing with me.

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