In Focus

For Morgan Freeman, the Satisfaction of a Job Well Done

A grocery cashier (Paz Vega) and an actor (Morgan Freeman) strike up a friendship in
A grocery cashier (Paz Vega) and an actor (Morgan Freeman) strike up a friendship in "10 Items or Less." (Thinkfilm)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Write
Friday, December 1, 2006

In Brad Silberling's whimsical, road-tripping buddy movie "10 Items or Less," Morgan Freeman plays a swaggering, commitment-phobic actor researching a role at a down-at-the-heels market on the outskirts of Los Angeles. When he gets stranded at the store, the express-line cashier, played by Paz Vega ("Spanglish"), agrees to drive him home, though with a few stops along the way. (See review on Page 36.)

Toward the beginning of the movie, Freeman's character (who remains nameless throughout) tells the man who's driving him to the store why he's considering the movie: "If it flies, fine, and if it doesn't, it won't even count." But the audience soon realizes that although Freeman's character wants to believe that line, it's more like a mantra, and the happy-go-lucky enthusiasm masks a deep fear of failure. For him, clearly, everything counts.

Talking by phone recently from New York, Freeman, on the other hand, claims he truly believes in that "if it flies, fine" philosophy. "There aren't many movies that you go into knowing they're going to be hits. What you know in most cases is you're going to get paid. After that, it's out of your hands."

He continues, "I have done a few movies that, if it goes, great, but if it doesn't, well, it's below the radar." Freeman says part of his attitude comes from relinquishing control of the film after the cameras stop rolling. "You don't know whether your best scene is going to be on the [cutting room] floor or on the screen."

Some of his movies have been below the radar, but Freeman also earned three Oscar nominations -- for "Street Smart" (1987), "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) -- before winning the award for Best Supporting Actor for 2004's "Million Dollar Baby." Moreover, he has been averaging about two films a year for more than 25 years. Silberling, who wrote and directed "10 Items" (no relation to the TBS show), says the biggest difference between Freeman and his character is that "Morgan does not suddenly allow himself to stretch into four years without working."

Silberling himself, however, knows just what that's like. After directing "City of Angels" (with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage) in 1998, the director says, "it took me a good three years and change" to start shooting his next movie, "Moonlight Mile," which starred Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal.

"When I met Dustin Hoffman, he himself had been away from the screen for probably a similar amount of time," Silberling says, "and in his case because he was being very picky. So the sense of pleasure that we had [in] starting to finally make the movie was like a reminder that we had been dying for a drink of water and didn't know that we hadn't actually gotten to practice our crafts." He adds, "The first day shooting on that movie, [Hoffman] looked at me and Jake and said, 'Oh, my God, I forgot how good this feels.' "

(Between "Moonlight Mile" and "10 Items," Silberling directed 2004's "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events," which won a Best Makeup Oscar and scooped up other art-related awards and nominations.)

Along the way, Silberling says he has realized that "you want to be selective and you want to only do good work, but you also have to make sure that you do work, and you don't find yourself hiding away for fear of picking a failure."

Rather than cast Hoffman (which would be "too close to home," Silberling says), the director chose Freeman, whom he calls one of "these wonderful icons." "I grew up watching 'The Electric Company' and remember Morgan dancing and singing and doing all these wonderful things that most of the younger people today don't have any recollection that he did. He's the least neurotic artist I've ever worked with. He just makes his choices, and he read it, and he responded, and that was it."

In fact, "it" meant a lot more than Freeman's commitment to playing the lead. His production company, Revelations Entertainment, joined forces with computer processor giant Intel to sell the movie online. Freeman says, "One of the salient things about this is it's going to be offered in broadband two weeks after it opens in theaters," through ClickStar ( http://www.cstar.com/). In both an effort to pull in a large audience and protect the film from piracy, Freeman and his partners hope to usher in a new era for filmmakers and audiences.

Although the business venture is cutting edge, Freeman's lifestyle remains down-to-earth. Born in Memphis, he now resides in a small town in Georgia, far from Los Angeles and the cloistered life of his "10 Items" character. "I don't live in Hollywood or Brentwood or anyplace like that," he says. "So I can take my clothes to the cleaners, go buy my own toothpaste and stuff."

Despite all the contrasts between Freeman and his character, Silberling says the movie brings out "all these colors that traditionally he's not called upon to put on display."

While the actor exudes a cool, calm manner in real life, Silberling says, "the audience so associates him with this kind of weight and gravitas . . . but I just had this sense that there was something playful and something very connecting. He has such looseness in him that it's really a joy to watch."

Freeman says the role, quite frankly, was a relief: "I don't know if you know that I complain so much about all the gravitas that comes my way. I was looking for something light, comical, and this was just like heaven sent," he says, that familiar voice rising with joy. "Everybody who was on the movie was on it for the same purpose. It wasn't just a job, it was an undertaking-- without the gravitas."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company