“People sometimes ask me what the biggest perk of being president is. No. 1 is the plane. ”
Morgan Freeman began acting in grade school plays at age nine. By the time he was in high school he was on the radio in Memphis. He turned down an acting scholarship to Jackson State University in Mississippi to join the Air Force, but after his military service he began a slow, steady climb to show business prominence, initially as a dancer and later as an actor in touring companies. By 1967, he was appearing off-Broadway and the following year he made it to the bright lights in the all-black version of Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.
By the early 1970s, Freeman had migrated to a television soap opera and the PBS children's program The Electric Company, where he played such characters as Easy Reader and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire. In 1978 he earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of an enraged drunk in The Mighty Gents.
His breakout film role was as a violent pimp opposite Christopher Reeve in 1987's Street Smart. The performance garnered him his first Academy Award nomination. Two years later, Freeman reprised his stage role as the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy for the film version with Jessica Tandy. The performance brought Freeman a Golden Globe Award and his second Oscar nomination and made him a household name. He has appeared in more than 50 films, including Glory; Lean On Me; Clint Eastwood's masterful Unforgiven; The Shawshank Redemption; and Million Dollar Baby, which won Freeman an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2004. Many Hollywood observers deemed the award long overdue.
Freeman's latest film, Invictus, is set for release in December. Based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, it tells the story of how former South African president Nelson Mandela used his country's victory in the 1995 World Cup rugby championship to help unify the racially bifurcated nation. Freeman plays Mandela and Matt Damon costars as captain of the rugby team. Eastwood directed the film.
Freeman says he thinks the best way to end racism is to stop talking about it, but he has been known to take a stand on racial issues. In 1997, he offered to pick up the tab for an integrated high school prom in Charleston, Miss., where proms had remained segregated for years. In 2008, the school board there finally accepted his offer and the result was chronicled in the acclaimed HBO documentary Prom Night in Mississippi.
Off-screen, Freeman maintains a variety of professional and personal interests, including his Hollywood-based Revelations Entertainment production company; partnerships in several aircraft; two blues clubs in Memphis and Clarksdale, Miss.; and a restaurant in Clarksdale. Freeman is also an environmentalist and serves on the board of Earth Biofuels, a biodiesel company.
You spent a good deal of time stage acting before you broke into film. Do you think that is a strong prerequisite for being a film actor?
I think that is a prerequisite for being a strong actor. Stage is such intense preparation compared to film. There really isn't a lot of rehearsal time spent on movies. With stage you spend a month rehearsing and talking. Once you have done that for a number of years, you are much better prepared as an actor.
Do you ever think about going back on stage?
I toyed with the idea for years and then last year I went back on stage [on Broadway] to do [Odets'] The Country Girl with Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher. I hadn't been on stage in what, 18 years, because I always wanted to be in the movies. That was my whole thrust. Even the 20 years I was on stage I kept thinking of it as preparatory. So now I've gotten the stage out of my system [laughs]. It's a lot of work.
Your new movie marks your third collaboration with Clint Eastwood. Over the years you have praised his economical style of directing. What is it about Eastwood that allows him to do this so well?
He's got a lot of experience, not only as an actor but as a director. I think his first directing effort was Play Misty for Me years and years ago . He said it was Sergio Leone [the Italian director of a genre of 1960s films starring Eastwood that have come to be called "spaghetti Westerns"] who gave him practically all he needed in terms of instruction on how to direct. He really liked working with Leone. He [Eastwood] just doesn't waste any time. None. If he knows he has it [the shot or the scene], he's moving on.
A lot of times directors want you to do it again and again. They say, "Let's do it again just to see what will happen." Actors after a while get insecure. They ask, "Why do you want to do it again? Am I screwing it up?" You don't get that from Clint. He gets actors who are very good and then he pretty much just steps out of the way. That is very encouraging.
You have a long-standing friendship with Nelson Mandela, whom you play in Invictus. What is it that makes him such a charismatic figure?
I think he has always spoken the truth and stood up to authority. That's why he spent 27 years in prison. And those of us who don't have the moral courage to do it revere those who exhibit the courage.
In several of your films you have played the Almighty. How do you prepare yourself to play God?
If nobody knows what the character looks or sounds like, I just read the script and don't do any research [laughs].
Why did you decide to go into the Air Force after high school instead of acting?
I wanted to be a jet pilot and fly F-86s. I was an electronics technician. I worked on [ground-based early warning] radar.
When did you decide to get your pilot's license?
I have a business partner who had a [Piper] Seneca and we started flying around. One day he wanted to go up and take pictures of the [Mississippi] river and he said, "Here, hold the plane while I take some pictures." He told me how to bank it over and hold it in a bank so he could take photographs out the window. And I did and I said, "This isn't super hard. It's hard to hold altitude but the rest of it is OK." And he said, "I can't teach you how to fly-you have to get a flight instructor." So in July 2002 I got a flight instructor and that October I got my license.
What planes do you own now?
Right now we have a [Cessna] Citation II and a Cessna 414.
You have a new jet on order, an Emivest Aerospace SJ30. When did you become interested in the SJ30?
When I started flying from my home, from Mississippi to California, I first used the Cessna 414 and that was a nine-hour flight-about four hours a leg and then an hour for fuel to land and take off. I needed something quicker so we got the Citation II, but again we are talking a long time flying. So I started looking around. This is when they were coming out with the Eclipse and the [Cessna Citation] Mustang and the Embraer [Phenom 100]. I got very interested in the Eclipse there for a minute. And then I read about the SJ30 and I said, "Here's the airplane."
What attracted you to it?
Distance and speed, primarily. It could go coast-to-coast nonstop, it has a 550-mile-per-hour speed-it flies at Mach 0.83 max, cruises at Mach 0.79. The Citation II cruises at maybe 0.60. So the SJ30 is quite a bit faster and you can go quite a bit farther in it. It sips fuel and has sea-level cabin pressure to 41,000 feet so you are a lot fresher when you hit the ground after a long flight.
You have a production company, clubs and a restaurant, and you do commercials. You're an open-ocean sailor, an accomplished equestrian and a pilot, and you do a lot of films. Most people would find this schedule exhausting. How do you maintain your energy?
It is not a question of energy; it is a question of time. For a while, I actually had a lot of time. If I did four movies a year-and I don't do that often-but if I did four a year, they were quick movies. And you have time off in between for the most part. So when I am home I have time to ride my horses. In the winters is when I went to the boat and got my sailing in. So it is really a question of having the time to do it, rather than the energy. The energy is always there. You gotta keep moving, gotta keep on dancing.
NAME: Morgan Porterfield Freeman, Jr.
OCCUPATION: Actor. Also, film producer and club and restaurant owner.
EDUCATION: Attended Los Angeles Community College.
TRANSPORTATION: Emivest SJ30, Cessna Citation II, Cessna 414, BMW 7 series.