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Actor Morgan Freeman: 'Unleashed'

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

He's been called one of the most respected figures in modern US cinema. Actor Morgan Freeman, best known for his performances in "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Shawshank Redemption" and the mystery thriller "Seven," won his first Oscar earlier this year for best supporting actor for his role in "Million Dollar Baby." The 67-year-old actor's latest film "Unleashed" opens in theaters around the country today. But the publicity for the new project is an ongoing endeavor.

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): It's like a campaign. You're up in the morning and you're talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, and you're going to do this--I'm going to do this now for the next couple of months.

GORDON: And if it's the down part of the job, all things being said, it ain't so bad.

Mr. FREEMAN: All being--things--what you said--it ain't so bad, no. Sitting here talking to you, I mean, how bad can it be, you know?

GORDON: Well, we'll see. Give it a couple of minutes, Morgan. Give it a couple of minutes. Let's talk about the new project and that's "Unleashed." It's billed as an action-drama. It's got Jet Li in it. Some people might be surprised. Though if they look at the scope of your work, they shouldn't be surprised. But why'd you decide to take on this?

Mr. FREEMAN: It's a very human story and a very interesting character to play in a unique situation. I'm a black man with a white daughter, living in Scotland, because my daughter's going to the conservatory there in Glasgow, and we meet this young--I think he's playing Vietnamese in this--and we meet this young, very damaged soul and take him in and we become family. To me, it was like really metaphorical, you know. And I notice I'm going up like my granddaughter does, who's in college, when she talks.

GORDON: Let me ask you something. At this point in time in your life, does every character you have have to speak to you?

Mr. FREEMAN: Yes. Ed, I have to be into it. I have to be able to feel that, yes, I know this person, and I don't have to strain to reach for any of the dynamics or emotional points that this character represents.

(Soundbite of "Unleashed")

Mr. FREEMAN: (As Sam) Anyway, I've been thinking, you've been cooped up in here for weeks now. Wouldn't you like to get some fresh air, stretch your legs? It's nice outside.

Mr. JET LI: It's nice in here.

Mr. FREEMAN: (As Sam) Ahh. You're afraid that if you go out, you won't be able to come back in? We'll come back, promise.

GORDON: What was it about this character, Sam, that spoke to you?

Mr. FREEMAN: Sam's very human, very deep feeling. He was not written as a blind person, and I remember thinking at some point or other, because, you know, you go over and over the script trying to find what it is in it that you need in order to make it to work. And I thought, boy, he needs to be blind. And I called Luc Besson, the producer, and said, `I want to play him blind,' and he said, `Oh, wow,' and he thought about it for a couple of weeks, and he said, `I think it's a great idea.'

GORDON: Do you often lend that kind of poetic license to the people you play...

Mr. FREEMAN: In...

GORDON: ...find nuances in those characters?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, yeah, you have to. That's your job as the actor, to understand the human part of the character, to make it real. I was thumbing through and I came across an old Woody Allen movie, and he talks almost as if it's not written, and I think a lot of his stuff is just suggested and then he goes with it, and every few words was `you know.' Now when you write stuff, you don't write `you know.'

GORDON: Right.

Mr. FREEMAN: But when you talk, people will say, `Uh, and, you know,' and...

GORDON: You know. Truly. When I was doing research for this, I came across an article and you said in the article, `I'm just hitting my real stride.' You really believe that or was that good to say at the time? I mean, do you really feel that?

Mr. FREEMAN: No, yes.


Mr. FREEMAN: Yes. In life, it doesn't really matter about your age. It has to do with your stride. Truly, it is it. You know, when I was in my 50s, I felt really powerful, really strong, really in good, vigorous, robust health and everything, and now I'm approaching 70 and I think I'm beginning to, like, sort of even flow.

GORDON: But for you, for you as an individual, that the fame that you now have, you attained it at a relatively late age.

Mr. FREEMAN: Long, slow pace. Yeah. At this level, yeah, late age, which is good, which was for me, I'm a firm believer that things happen as they should. The universe unfolds just as it's supposed to, you know. So for whatever reasons, my life going along the way it has, it's a good thing.

GORDON: Broadway.

Mr. FREEMAN: (Singing) Broadway, Broadway, everybody's happy. Yes.

GORDON: 1967, your debut with Pearl Bailey in "Hello, Dolly!"


GORDON: I suspect now that you look back on your career, that must have been the highlight for you.

Mr. FREEMAN: It was. It was. It was. And a training ground like no other. I worked on that show for 11 months with Pearl, and in that 11 months, what I watched every show was a total professional, hundred and ten percent every time out.

GORDON: Is that something that you will continue to do throughout your career...

Mr. FREEMAN: No, I don't think so. I...

GORDON: ...want to get back to it?

Mr. FREEMAN: No. I...


Mr. FREEMAN: No, no, no. I spent 20 years on the stage trying to get into movies, and so every play was going to send me to the coast.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. FREEMAN: So now I'm in the movies, I'm quite content.

GORDON: I know, though, one of the ways that you give back and people can reach out and see and touch is the love you have for the blues and wanting to keep it alive. Now you do a lot to make that happen. One of the things that I know you're involved in is a festival.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, I have a blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and we hold Clarksdale up as being the ground zero for the blues. You know, that's the fable of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) Now two and two is four, four and two is six. You gonna keep on monkeyin' round here friend-boy, you gonna get your business all in a trick. But I'm cryin', baby. Honey, don't you want to go...

Mr. FREEMAN: And there, we have maybe three or four festivals right around that area from the King Biscuit in Arkansas right on into Clarksdale, and they go on mostly in the summer and around September. And also, what we have to give thanks for is the fact that now there is a music trail that people have discovered and are using, and they start in Nashville. They go to Memphis, Clarksdale and New Orleans, or they'll start in New Orleans and go the...

GORDON: Work their way back, yeah.

Mr. FREEMAN: their way back. And we are actually still considered the center of that, you know, and people come from everywhere. It's amazing.

GORDON: Morgan, I'm curious. You talk about people coming from everywhere, and one of the things that I've noted in my years of interviewing, when I talk to musicians about the blues and about jazz, American jazz, some African-American musicians are disappointed in that we have, to a great degree, let that legacy go. When you go to many blues clubs, when you go to many jazz clubs, ofttimes that audience will be white or European. Are you disappointed that African-Americans are not holding on to a legacy that really is ours?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, no. I think it does behoove us, not just African-Americans but Americans, because it is America's own music. You go from the blues all the way up into rock 'n' roll, and I spoke to a jazz musician in Los Angeles just last week, just saying hello, and he said, `How is your blues club going?' and I said, `It's going wonderfully well.' He said, `You know, no blues, no jazz.' The fact that the music does evolve--we have to accept that. What we need to hold on to is just what you said, however, the knowledge that this is important music, and the blues is actually our classic music.

GORDON: I told you off-mike, I'll tell you in front of everyone, congratulations. I've not seen you obviously since the Oscars, but so well-deserved.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, thank you so much. It's wonderful to hear from so many people that they think it was well-deserved.

GORDON: I'm curious, watching it, and I have been to the event and watching it on TV, and often you don't always get the energy in the theater by watching it on TV, but it seemed to me almost palpable when your name was called, the applause and the genuine, I think, outpouring of gratitude. Did you feel that from your peers?

Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, yeah, that's one of the things that I feel like I'm blessed with, that I'm well-thought-of, and, you know, you can take that with you throughout life if you know you're well-thought-of.

GORDON: Do you consider yourself, whatever this phrase means, an actor's actor?

Mr. FREEMAN: Yes. I think all of us who feel that we draw from each other, that's what that term means to me. Onstage, I get from you, and if I get from you, I can give to you, you know. So acting is about trust, really.

GORDON: You said during the acceptance speech for the Oscar, `I want to thank everybody and anybody who ever had anything...

(Soundbite from Oscars)

Mr. FREEMAN: ...ever had anything at all to do with the making of this picture, but I especially want to thank Clint Eastwood for giving me the opportunity to work with him again and to work with Hilary Swank. This was a labor of love.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of "Million Dollar Baby")

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: You have big holes in your socks.

Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, they're not that big.

Mr. EASTWOOD: Didn't I give you money for some new ones?

Mr. FREEMAN: These are my sleeping socks. My feet like a little air at night.

Mr. EASTWOOD: How come you're wearing them in the daytime then?

Mr. FREEMAN: Because my daytime socks got too many holes in them.

GORDON: It seems again, in just standing from afar, there was a genuine friendship and respect that you have with and for Clint Eastwood.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah. Professionally, he's a gem. He's a polished diamond. He makes work easy and fun. He's a class act, you know, and an enormous amount of talent.

GORDON: Well, perhaps that's why you like him so much, because he mirrors exactly what you are: a class act, a man with an enormous amount of talent. Morgan Freeman, congratulations once again on the Oscar. Well-deserved, long time coming. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. FREEMAN: It's my pleasure, indeed.

GORDON: Morgan Freeman's new movie "Unleashed" opens in theaters today.

Coming up, the military announces widespread base closings across the country. What will it mean? And speed and death in Los Angeles caught on tape.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Gordon
Hard hitting, intelligent, honest, and no-nonsense describe Ed Gordon's style and approach to reporting that have made the Emmy Award-winning broadcaster one of the most respected journalists in the business today. Known for his informative on-air interaction with newsmakers, from world leaders to celebrities, the name Ed Gordon has become synonymous with the "big" interview.