Morgan Freeman become known to an entire generation of young fans thanks to The Electric Company, the groundbreaking PBS series that joined Sesame Street in telling us all that learning really is cool. Freeman helped a great deal on that front with characters like Easy Reader, Mel Mounds and rather imposing version of Count Dracula. His film career idled for several years until Street Smart, an otherwise unremarkable film juiced by his electrifying turn as a hard-nosed pimp. He received his first Oscar nomination for the part (he lost to Sean Connery), and his career never flagged after that. He’s played everything from sympathetic police detectives to Batman’s Q-branch hook up to God Himself, picking up four more Oscar nominations and one win for Million Dollar Baby in the process. His latest project, Oblivion, casts him as a mysterious rebel leader on a post-apocalyptic Earth, serving as a foe – or possible friend – to Tom Cruise’s hero. He sat down with the press at the movie’s junket to discuss the role, working with Cruise, and the life of a successful performer.
Question: What aspect of your character appealed to you the most?
Morgan Freeman: When I first read it, they talked about the mysteriousness of this group. You don’t see them right away and when they’re finally revealed, they’ve not what you think. I enjoyed that mystery immensely, that sense of not knowing who this man was right away. Also, I get to shoot .50 caliber machine guns. Those were real guns, dual .50 calibers on those tracks. It was great fun.
Q: At this stage in your career, you can pretty much pick your project. What was it about this one that made you sign on?
MF: Tom Cruise. If I was going to play a truck driver with no lines in a Tom Cruise movie, I would have taken the job. I’m a fan of his going way back, all the way back to Risky Business. He was awesome in Risky Business. Just awesome. When his parents left the house and he slid on screen in his jockey shorts… just awesome. And I don’t think there’s anything he’s done since then that I haven’t watched and appreciated. He’s born to do this. Just born to do it.
Q: Someone had said that you and Tom Cruise have been wanting to make a movie together for some time. What took so long?
MF: When we say “we want to work together,” that’s not an active thing. Were that the case, I would have been in a Mission Impossible film or the like. But when the right project comes along, everything just falls into place. It’s like dominoes. This was probably the perfect genre to be involved with Tom. I no longer resent not having to work with him before.
Q: You wear a very unique costume in this film. How much influence do you have on how the costume gets put together and how do you make it work with the character instead of overwhelming the character?
MF: A costume is always an asset. In a normal costume, you usually have a lot of say in how it looks: the color, the cut, how each piece is going to match the others, and so on. A costume is probably the second ingredient in character, with the script being the first. I’ve always found that the costume does a lot to cement the character, to put him firmly in mind. Special costumes, unusual costumes like this one, are like that. I remember going into the fitting; it took about half an hour to get into it. Then I walked around the office, showing it off. It was, shall we say, instructive for getting into the character’s mindset.
Q: Is there anything different about the younger generation of directors you’ve worked with – people like Joe Kosinski and Christopher Nolan – than the previous generation of directors, like Clint Eastwood and Rob Reiner?
MF: The two older directors you mentioned happened to have a couple of things in common, speed being one of them. I like speed. Younger directors don’t seem to embrace that so much. As they get older and more secure with what they’re doing, they don’t need to spend so much time on it. You kind of know when you’ve got it. If you’ve only done two or three movies, you don’t want to go to post and have the editor say, “why didn’t you do this or that?” It’s a learning process. Guys like Joseph and Christopher, they’re well on their way.
Q: We saw you on the red carpet during the premiere, interacting with your fans. Does that ever get old? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by that kind of attention?
MF: Humphrey Bogart, who is one of my movie heroes, once said, “I don’t owe the public anything but a good performance.” I tried to take that to heart, but I never got there. You can’t quite get away from it, and I don’t think you should. I think I owe the public more than just a good performance. I owe them just a little bit of time. I don’t do autographs, they’re a waste of time. But photographs stay. Touching someone’s hand, hugging a beautiful lady [Smiles], all of that works out very well. You have a connection there.