Morgan Freeman has been many men. He’s been the chauffeur to a cranky old white woman, a no-nonsense high school principal, a prisoner, a detective and gadget designer for Batman. He’s also been God.
And God — a role he played in the comedies “Bruce Almighty” and ”Evan Almighty” — wasn’t even a stretch for this Academy Award-winning actor, who carries enough commanding yet gentle authority to make us all believe his presence has been ordained. It’s the same reason why every movie or documentary featuring his narration also seems that much more credible. Who would know more about, say, the mating habits of penguins as depicted in “March of the Penguins,” or the mysteries of life explored in the Science Channel series “Through the Wormhole,” than the seemingly omniscient Morgan Freeman?
Okay, so Freeman, who recently celebrated his 74th birthday, may not be omniscient. But it’s more than fair to say he’s a revered movie star, one who was honored Thursday night with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award during a ceremony in L.A., which will air June 19 on TV Land.
Prior to receiving his award, Freeman spent a few minutes reflecting via telephone on his career, including the popularity of “The Shawshank Redemption,” his upcoming work in “The Dark Knight Rises” and the role that he considers his strangest to date. Yes, that would be God.
How did you find out about receiving the AFI honor and what was your reaction?
Morgan Freeman: I don’t really remember who told me . It’s all been kind of foggy in my mind because, I don’t know — this is a big to-do here. It’s not like getting an Academy Award. You’re just voted into this very unique society of people who have been honored by the American Film Institute. So the closer it gets to the moment, the more I realize what kind of company I am in. And it’s — you know, I come from humble beginnings. I guess a lot of us actors do. But from there to here is, number one, it’s been quite a trip. And number two, to sit and realize this is where you are is sobering.
Sobering because of those words “lifetime achievement”?
Freeman: Not because of the words lifetime achievement. That’s kind of scary. It’s kind of like, hey, you’ve done your thing, now sit down. And I’m not quite ready to do that. But a lot of the people I know — at least three people that I’m in close contact with, Mike Nichols, Clint Eastwood and Sidney Poitier — they didn’t sit down after they got one. So I don’t have to worry too much about it.
So when you say it’s sobering, what do you mean?
Freeman: I can remember when I first got to los Angeles . I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have any money. I was walking the streets, you know, trying to get from place to place on foot almost. Sometimes, you know, you say, how am I ever going to get from here to there? There are a lot of people still having that dream and not being able to get there. So you never know. The idea is to keep on tap dancing, though.
You were a working actor for a very long time before you started to get major film roles. Why do you think it took so long?
Freeman: Providence. Just providence — the way the crumbles fall out. You keep going. You keep working, finding work and trying to get work until basically someone says, “Hey, I like what you do.”
Are you glad that stardom happened later in your career?
Freeman: I’m glad it happened at all. There are no guarantees. Nobody says this has to be. So yeah, whenever it happens, I’m thrilled.
Looking back, what’s been the most challenging part of your career? Was it the early days, when you were struggling to get a big part?
Freeman: Not trying to break in and get a big part, just trying to break in and get a part.
I think the most challenging part was the absolute beginning. I came out of the military in 1959, came straight through to L.A. to start trying. What really happened was I got into school to study acting 101 and voice and diction, oral development and movement and all that stuff, to start preparing. And that was fine, but I only did it for about a year. And then I left town because I just didn’t feel like that was going to be where I could get it done. Too much sprawl here, and things are too far out and it was just too hard to find anything, notice. I needed a smaller venue. And I thought New York would be it.
I went to New York, stayed a few months but came back to California, to San Francisco. And that’s where I really started to have a little bit of success at getting work. Amateur theater, musical, but theater. I believe it doesn’t really matter where you work as long as you work. Keep sharpening your teeth.
Was the theater work crucial to the kind of actor you became?
Freeman: I think theater work was the primary ingredient in preparation to become successful. I was pretty successful on the stage, I was 20 years in New York so I built up quite a following among the press and all. However I always, always, always wanted to be in the movies so I still felt like I was preparing. “One of these days...”
I would imagine you still draw on that theater foundation even now.
Freeman: I guess I’m told that I am a sound man’s joy because I do have a theater instrument. So I can speak clearly rather than having to push to project into the a radio mike.
Well, now your voice is considered so authoritative. You could say anything and people would believe you.
Freeman: [Laughs] Somebody suggested that maybe we should do a — what would you call it? You’ll come up with the word for it — we’ll just start reading the encyclopedia. Or the dictionary.
Oh, a podcast? People would listen to that.
Freeman: If they’ll buy a pet rock, they’ll listen to my voice.
You’ve been in so many great movies, but there must be some that fans approach you about more than others.
Freeman: Of course, there’s “The Shawshank Redemption.” That’s always -- that’s become sort of an iconic film. I get a lot of feedback from that. “Driving Miss Daisy.” “Glory.” Also, “Kiss the Girls.” And “Invictus.”
Are you surprised by how iconic “Shawshank Redemption” has become?
Freeman: Oh, heavens, yes.I was just talking about that with someone in London. Who knew? I knew it was a great script. But still, even with a great script you can have no idea that it’s going to become one of the world’s favorites.
What do people say to you about that movie?
Freeman: You know, all they say is one of my favorite movies is “The Shawshank Redemption,” or my favorite movie of all time is “The Shawshank Redemption.” Something like that. They don’t get into long dissertations about it.
They don’t ask you to repeat lines or anything?
Freeman: No, no.
In your position, you probably have to turn down parts, no?
Freeman: Well, yes.
Are you more selective now about what you do?
Freeman: No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been rather selective in what I do, knock wood. So I’m not any more selective -- maybe less now. On the downhill side of it all.
What’s the most unusual role you’ve ever been offered?
Oh, I thought you were saying God, then pausing to think about it.
Freeman: [Laughs] No, that’s the role. Someone wants you to play God -- imagine that. Sit and contemplate the idea of playing God, you know.
Did you have any reservations about playing that part?
Freeman: The part that I got to play was with Jim Carrey and I read the script. There were no reservations. I kind of thought someone is going to ask me to play God and I’m not going to do it, you know, unless it’s funny, unless it’s a comedy. Because then you can do it because it’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Playing God is not something I would actually do.
Why did you suspect that one day someone would ask you to do that?
Freeman: Because I’ve gotten that reputation, you know, for gravitas and some sort of dignity, that sort of thing. All that can be wrapped around authority.
How do you feel about that reputation -- is it puzzling, flattering, a combination of the two?
Freeman: Yeah, it’s a combination of a bunch of different things. It’s certainly puzzling and it’s very flattering. But in some weird way, it’s limiting, too. You can’t play a bad guy. They won’t let you. You don’t get offered bad guy parts. Or not many. I did one in “Wanted,” which was delightful.
Well, you were sort of a bad guy in “Gone Baby Gone.”
Freeman: No, not at all.
Freeman: No, I was a good guy. We were desperately trying to save that child.
That’s true. But it wasn’t just a straight good guy role. He was keeping some secrets, put it that way.
Of the characters you have played, is there one or a couple whose attitude about life most closely mirrors your own?
Freeman: I’m not sure that it doesn’t go the other way, that some of the characters I have played have influenced my attitude about life.
Which ones in particular?
Freeman: All of them. Yeah, Joe Clark [from “Lean on Me.”]. Not Hoke Coburn [from “Driving Miss Daisy”] — I just knew who he was, I didn’t think of him as an influence on my being. There were others. I think particularly Red, in “Shawshank.” There were moments in there where you think about, wow, what would I do in this situation?
Before we wrap up, I know you’re going to be shooting. “The Dark Knight Rises” soon. Whe do you start work on that?
Freeman: I don’t start until the 24th [of June].
Freeman: I’ll be going to the UK first.
Do you have any sense of how things are going with it so far? Have you been in touch with people who are on set?
Freeman: None whatsoever. I get there, get on the set and do my part. Because I know it’s all very hush-hush. They keep these things as close to the chest as possible. I don’t need to butt in. It makes it better when you see the finished product at the end of the day.
It’s also easier for you to keep secrets if you don’t know what’s going on yourself.