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Morgan Freeman: "Which me?"

Morgan Freeman was tired. He said he hadn't been able to sleep all night. It was the end of the afternoon, and he was relaxed and unwound and in a stream-of-consciousness mood. We set in a Chicago hotel room with a coffee pot. I had come to talk about his new thriller, "Along Came A Spider," but the conversation poked into this corner and that, and took us to places I might not have asked about. Listen to him as he speaks:

"Have you ever been in jail? I have. I was a kid. I was in the Air Force and I'd gone with a friend of mine to Los Angeles. When we left the base, he left his Class-A pass sitting on the table. We were hitchhiking because he was out of money. I had a little money but I didn't want to take the bus and leave him. The police stopped us on the freeway. He asked both of us for ID and I had mine and my friend didn't have his. The cop said, 'Well, we're gonna have to call the shore patrol because we don't know if you're AWOL.' He told me, 'You got money--you take a bus.' I said, 'I'm with him.' So I went to jail for four days.

"You have to go out and dig ditches for them; pick and shovel. It's not my kind of work. I am not doing this I have a reputation for being kind of cocky. I told the guard I had to go to the infirmary. When I was 12 years old I fell off a tree and I cut my foot something awful. The tendon was cut and the toe of my left foot drew up, and I had this awful corn. So they saw that and sent me back to my cell. I called the sergeant and said, 'Do you need help? Because I can type.' So these guys come back all sweaty and dusty, handling pick axes, and I'm sittin' up drinking coffee and typing. Charmed life."

So you can use that jail time when you play Nelson Mandela?

"Oh, absolutely. Yet, if you ask, what kind of research do you do for your roles? I say I don't do research; it's on the page. But in reality you're always doing research. You're always studying people."

The Mandela picture, which will film next year, has the potential to be great, he said. He and producer Anant Singh and director Shekhar Kapur agreed that it would focus on Mandela himself, not on South African history. That means a lot of scenes in prison.

"I've been in three prisons. One was Kingston Prison in Toronto and one was in Mansfield, Ohio, where we did 'The Shawshank Redemption.' Prison is full of people with very strange societal needs, and that's scary. When we were doing 'Brubaker' we were in a prison for the criminally insane. They said, don't talk to the inmates. Well, what do you do if a guy accused of butchering his family comes up and speaks to you? You don't refuse to talk to him. Richard Pryor tells a joke about how he's in prison with this guy who killed everybody in his family. He says, 'Why did you kill 'em all?' And the guy says, 'They was home'."

In "Along Came A Spider," you're back again as the forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross.

"As franchises go, he's one of the better ones. He's almost magical in his abilities. He's very like Sherlock Holmes. One of my joys was Jeremy Brett doing Sherlock Holmes. I'm drawn to that sort of cerebral detective. So if I'm going to have opportunities like this and I'm going to succumb, this is the best one."

The movie is filled with loopholes, some of which are closed, and others I'm not so sure about. Are you confident that if we study this movie carefully enough, all of our questions are answered?

"No, I'm not at all. Because when script changes are being made for whatever reason--studio, director, what have you--it creates problems in the fabric of the grand structure. You've got a series of pieces that hold together. You know it's a circle. But the little spokes that should tie it all together don't always exist.

"We had two or three phone calls in the movie--you didn't see them, because they cut them out. The kidnapper realizes there's been a major change in his situation and he calls Alex and asks a question, 'Where's Jezzy?' And Alex says, 'Something's wrong, isn't there?' And the two of them become this other entity in the structure of the maze."

The kidnapper and the detective are trying to figure out the third side of the triangle together. Would it have been better with those calls in there?

"I think so. If we could have gotten it structured the way I wanted to structure it. Because at the beginning, the kidnapper is looking for a playmate, you know. This is not a game, but Cross understands his need. Then they realize the game has more than two players."

I write this Movie Answer Man column where people send me questions. Somebody observed that you almost always play a loner, a self-contained person. You rarely, if ever, play a family man with a wife and kids. Although in "Nurse Betty," as it turned out, you were a family man.

"Well, I have a kid anyway. But I'm smiling at that question, because there is a really deep part of me that's like that, you know -- single and alone. The character in 'Lean on Me' had a wife and kids. You just never saw them. 'Driving Miss Daisy'--in the end you just saw his granddaughter. I shouldn't actually come off very well as a father figure. I can, because it's only acting, but my kids all grew up on the periphery of my life. The mothers had control of them, and I was always gone one way or another..."

I want to ask you about Neil LaBute's "Nurse Betty." Certain movies, as time goes by, enlarge themselves in the mind while others evaporate. "Nurse Betty" had mixed success. Some of the reviews seemed unreasonably hostile toward it. I liked it, but now I find it continuing to grow and expand in my memory.

"Might turn out to be like 'The Shawshank Redemption,' you know. Have you ever met Neil LaBute? I'm like everybody else who works with him--I'm totally in love. He's got this really strange mindset that is so much fun. I mean, he has a total sense of humor. It may not always be apparent, but even in 'In the Company of Men,' it was there; it had to do with a man's take on what other men do."

The role in "Nurse Betty" was a departure from your usual roles: He was complicated, tender, but mean.

"It was a departure. Aside from 'Street Smart' [his first major role, for which he got a 1988 Oscar nomination as a vicious pimp] I really haven't had much of an occasion to do anything with that kind of approach. It's much more dramatic playing an evil guy. Playing a good guy is like room tone. The other kind of role provides all of the fireworks, the drama, you know. I watch 'Spider' and I think I could have upped the ante a little bit more, maybe."

You're lucky that after 'Street Smart' you didn't get typecast.

" It's not luck. I really had to work at that. People saw that movie, and it was like I must have really come off the street. People say I don't like to repeat roles. 'No,' I say, 'I don't like to do the same character in different venues.' They say, 'I wrote this with you in mind.' Oh, yeah? Which me?"

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