Morgan Freeman says he’s developed an easy friendship with South African hero Nelson Mandela over the years, but admits he was at a bit of a loss over what to say when he first met the revered leader many years ago.
Their introduction came soon after Mandela released his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.
At the time, Mandela said that if his story were ever to be turned into a movie, he would want Freeman to portray him. Freeman said there was no question that he would accept the role, but it would take some 15 years and a different book for the Oscar-winning actor to portray Mandela.
Invictus hits theatres this weekend.
“Madiba wants you to play him, so I wanted to play him,” Freeman says of the request, referring to Mandela by his nickname.
But when he got together with Mandela to discuss the possible project and get to know the iconic figure, he wasn’t sure where to start.
“I first thought, when you’re going to talk with somebody of this stature you have to talk about world politics and ‘What do you think of this and that?’,” Freeman says during a recent stop in the Toronto area to promote, Prom Night in Mississippi, a Canadian documentary about racism in his southern hometown.
“(But) it’s not fun. Let’s talk about women!… Let’s talk about sports,” Freeman says, chuckling over their preferred talking points.
Freeman bought the rights to Mandela’s autobiography and worked on developing a script while cultivating a relationship with the world leader.
“If I’m going to play you I need to get to you close. So, over the years, he and I spent a lot of time together,” notes Freeman, dressed casually in a blue sweatshirt and jeans while reclining on a sofa.
The 72-year-old actor says that “a lot of time and effort” was spent trying to turn Long Walk to Freedom into a viable script, to no avail.
“It’s almost impossible to do, we haven’t done it yet, and then this script (for ’Invictus’) came along — a perfect movie, a perfect movie, a perfect script,” says Freeman, whose elegant charisma has infused a slew of authoritative roles including the U.S. president in “Deep Impact” and God in “Bruce Almighty.”
“Invictus” illustrates South Africa’s remarkable transformation under Mandela’s leadership while profiling the galvanizing World Cup triumph of the national rugby team, the Springboks.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film begins in 1990 with Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years. He takes office in 1994 and vows to unify a sharply divided South Africa, epitomized in many ways by the underdog team.
“It’s an incident that really dramatizes Mandela’s ability to co-ordinate things, people, events, himself,” says Freeman.
“He can practically see ahead of today. In practical terms, he is very persuasive in his arguments for things. His very existence helps that persuasiveness. His existence as a man, his success as a man. Having become president after 27 years (in prison) sounds like a phenomenon but in his case it really isn’t, it is the natural continuation of his life.”
A beefed up Matt Damon plays the Springbok’s team captain, Francois Pienaar. Freeman says he, Eastwood and Damon spent time with the 91-year-old Mandela together for short periods of time and the main characteristic he gleaned for his performance was “quietude.”
“He’s quiet. His soul is quiet. You get that. Hold his hand,” he says, noting he often took Mandela’s hand when they got together.
Already, Oscar buzz is growing over Freeman’s performance. He’s already been named best actor by the National Board Of Review (an accolade shared with George Clooney for “Up In the Air”), but he dismisses all talk of possible awards.
“I will come off good in it because it was directed by my favourite director and was very well put together,” says Freeman. “I had a lot of fun working with (Eastwood) and with Matt Damon and the rest of the cast, it was a great cast.”
Still, he concedes to having developed “a winning partnership” with Eastwood, with whom he also worked on the Oscar-winning films “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
“You don’t know what is it about you and anybody when the chemistry is right, when your whatever-it-is-that-is-you matches so well with whatever-it-is-that-is-them,” he says of their chemistry.
“Whatever it is, it brings your two souls together and they function well together. And whatever it is, let it be.”
“Invictus” is released across Canada on Friday.