LOS ANGELES — Not long ago, Morgan Freeman attended a screening in South Africa of “Invictus,” the Clint Eastwood-directed historical drama that has earned Freeman a lead actor Oscar nomination.
Present in the audience was a VIP guest, a friend of Freeman’s since the early ‘90s. It was Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who upended history by leading his country out of the apartheid wilderness and onto democracy’s bumpy path.
Years ago, Mandela said that if anyone ever were to play him in a movie, he hoped it would be Freeman. But what would the politician, known by the grandfatherly moniker “Madiba,” actually make of his Hollywood double in “Invictus”?
“You know, the South Africans themselves really responded well to the film, and so did he,” Freeman says, referring to Mandela. “He smiled a lot. Once when I came onscreen, he leaned over and he said, ‘I know that fellow.’”
Freeman chuckles softly. “I took that two ways.”
There always have been at least two ways to take Morgan Freeman. You could think of him, most obviously, as a paradigm of the versatile studio pro. An actor capable of transitioning from a vicious black pimp (“Street Smart”) to a persnickety white woman’s genteel chauffeur (“Driving Miss Daisy” — for which he was also nominated), a stoic Civil War soldier (“Glory”) and a prisoner with the hard-earned acuity of an Old Testament wise man (“The Shawshank Redemption,” another Oscar nod).
In “Invictus,” he portrays Mandela at a crucial moment in his tenure as South Africa’s first elected black president. Almost exactly 20 years ago, on Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela, then 71, walked out of prison as a free man after 27 years. But his greatest challenge lay ahead: uniting the country’s white minority with its soon to be empowered black majority.
Adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation,” the movie centers on Mandela’s attempt to rally his country behind a powerful but controversial national symbol, the nearly all-white South African rugby team, known as the Springboks, in the months leading up to the 1995 rugby World Cup tournament in South Africa.
Freeman’s performance in “Invictus,” like Mandela’s as president, consists of more than just gentlemanly charisma and a gravitas-laden voice. He had to tap into Madiba’s mixture of almost superhuman forebearance and shrewd, tough-minded political calculation that allowed him to make peace with the white majority that had imprisoned him on Robben Island.
Freeman’s Mandela possesses a sly humor and an iron will, camouflaged by his disarming smile and cordial bearing. One scene has him daintily sipping tea while exhorting the Springbok captain, played by Matt Damon (who was nominated for supporting actor). But other scenes depict him quietly kicking tail, urging blacks and whites to support the team in the interest of national solidarity.
“People like Mandela, like Gandhi, knew at some point they’re going to stick with this thing until they get it done,” Freeman says.
Freeman launched his career as a stage and television performer, sculpting his technique on and off Broadway in shows as varied as Peter Shaffer’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and an all-black version of “Hello, Dolly!” Asked if he ever thinks of returning to the stage, he replies, “Not!” — three times. “My entire career ‘before lights’ has been in a focus toward being in movies. So I’m in the movies. I’m where I want to be. I love the stage, but I’ve done that. I don’t have anything to prove.”
As a screen actor, Freeman’s commanding presence can make you suspect he’s really the leading man even when he’s ostensibly playing a sidekick role, like Clint Eastwood’s partner in crime or Brad Pitt’s partner in law enforcement. Not that Freeman would upstage a colleague. Good acting, he likes to say, is all about trust — in the director, the designers, above all in your fellow performers.
“All we do as actors,” he says, “is watch each other’s backs.”
Freeman once joked that critics have described him as “dignified” so often that he might as well have the word plastered on his behind. But there’s a deeper essence beyond the calm self-possession that he brings to so many roles. What other Hollywood star would you cast both as president of the United States (“Deep Impact”) and God (“Bruce Almighty”)? Sean Penn? Jack Black?
Eastwood says he always had Freeman in mind to play Mandela. “He has a charisma that you’d like to see in the Oval Office or in any major job like that,” says Eastwood, who co-starred with Freeman while directing him twice previously, in the Oscar-winning revisionist Western “Unforgiven” (1992) and the existential boxing saga “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), which earned Freeman the Academy Award for supporting actor.
Freeman, for his part, suggests why Eastwood is his kind of director, a guy who trusts in his script and his actors. He believes that great directors need many of the same qualities as great political leaders, including the ability to build a great team of talented, dedicated people to assist you. “The director, as far as I’m concerned, is like the captain of the ship,” Freeman says. “He doesn’t steer the ship, he doesn’t fire the boiler, he doesn’t pull the lines in. Just make the ship ready.”
Freeman likewise appreciates screenwriters who don’t spell out characters’ emotional reactions with a bright red pen.
“Clear writing is the kind of writing that you can supply an awful lot of (information) in between the lines,” he says. “I remember reading the script for ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ There was so much in the dialogue just between the lines. Let me know what I’m saying by what I’m saying. You don’t need to tell me to cock an eyebrow.”
Lori McCreary, Freeman’s longtime production partner and the producer of “Invictus,” says she’d been envisioning Freeman playing Mandela for years. They’d first ventured together into South African politics with Freeman’s directorial debut, “Bopha!” (1993), which was shot in neighboring Zimbabwe and starred Danny Glover as a South African policeman trying to reconcile his professional and personal duties.
Since then, she says, Freeman kept up with a country close to his heart.
“He’s deeply interested in and also deeply educated about South Africa and its politics,” McCreary says. “There’s hardly a question I can ask him about that he doesn’t (speak) out not only his opinion but also the opinions of other people.”
After God, the U.S. president and Mandela, does Freeman have any other towering figures in mind to play?
“No. Do you remember Charlton Heston? He got epic? Well, after epic where do you go? I don’t want to be epic.”