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Morgan Freeman Finds Redemption in Professionalism

"I hope they're not rewriting this scene," Morgan Freeman said, looking uneasily over at a script conference on the far side of the big set.

You think that's what might be going on?

"It very well might."

Is that the writer with his portable computer over there? What's his name?

"Joe? Chris? Don't know. He's not the writer."

So you're sitting here right now with a total command of this scene as it existed 10 minutes ago...

"As written last night."

And they're about to tell you that you've got to start all over again.

"I wouldn't go that far. They'll say 'we'll just substitute'.... 'this will be just a couple of additions'.... When the dust settles, my part will probably stay as it is."

Freeman is not complaining. He seems entertained. There is the sense that he enjoys the process of movie acting as much as it is possible for any man to enjoy his work, and here he is again, supplying the older, authoritative anchor for a younger star.

In "Shawshank Redemption," he was opposite Tim Robbins. In "Robin Hood," it was Kevin Costner. In "Clean and Sober," Michael Keaton. In "Glory," Matthew Broderick. In "The Power of One," Stephen Dorff. In "Seven," Brad Pitt. And now in the new picture, "Chain Reaction," Keanu Reeves is his co-star. You get the feeling that every month he picks up GQ and sees his co-stars on the cover.

This time he's playing the shadowy head of a foundation that is allegedly dedicated to finding sources for low-cost energy. But as he solemnly tells me that, I think I see something in his eye.

Let me guess, I said. Because free energy would totally upset the applecart, the energy people probably have created a front to sponsor this research so that they can find out who's doing it and kill them. And you're really the bad guy, right?

"I'm not the bad guy. I'm part of this whole deal but I'm not a bad guy. I'm an operative."

So your allegiance might be able to change? You could be the bad guy who has a change of heart?

"My allegiance is stable. My allegiance actually is to the government. It's just that the government is a shadow government, and sometimes, when things have to be done, I'm the one who's called in."

Actors say it's always more fun to play the villain.

"Oh, yeah, villains have more range of emotion. A good guy is kinda like a straight shooter; he's straight ahead. The villain is constantly weaving back and forth across the line, as the need arises, and with this character here that I'm playing, sometimes I'm a very sincere, earnest person. All the time I'm very sincere and earnest but there comes a time when I just shade the eyes, and then you don't know what you're dealing with. I like that. Most actors do."

You were the good guy in "Seven," although there were a lot of dark corners in your character. Were you surprised by how amazingly successful "Seven" was at the box office?

"I'm still surprised. I mean, it's doing extremely well worldwide, and who would have thought it?"

When I saw it, I liked it, but I thought, man, this is dark, and perverted--I wonder if audiences will accept it."

Freeman laughed. "Yeah! I thought it might go down as one of those film noirs that a lot of aficionados might like, but I never imagined it would really go over."

I wonder why it did.

"You never know why. Why did 'Dumb and Dumber' go over bigger than 'The Shawshank Redemption?' Who knows?"

With "Shawshank," it seemed like they pulled it out of theaters for the video release just when it was beginning to broaden out into a wider audience."


If it had been left to sit in theaters, the word of mouth would have continued to build.

"I get a lot of people saying it's the best they've seen and tops in their choice of movies and stuff. And I'm a little, I don't know, taken aback. That's not the right term, you know, but, boy, the movie's a good film. I hear everybody saying it, you know, Why didn't it do better? I mean, it did well...but the conventional wisdom now is, if it doesn't do $30 million in two weeks, it's not ever going to do it."

And few movies aimed at adult audiences open that strongly, because it's the teenagers who have time on their hands and can drop everything when a movie opens. Grown-ups need a little more time to make their plans...

Morgan Freeman, who is the very embodiment of a grown-up, nodded. We looked around the big bright set, which looked like a command post for a multinational anti-James Bond operation. This is a subterranean bunker, right?

"Yeah," Freeman said. "It's supposed to be outside Chicago, near the Argonne lab."

But there are a lot of scenes on the city streets, too?

"A great many scenes, all of which seemed to need to be shot when it was 16 degrees below zero. I know any Chicagoan worth his salt would take that in stride."

When I'm out in the cold a long time, my tongue gets thick and I can't talk plainly. How does an actor deal with that?

"Your lips get numb. You don't deal with it. When that happens you're way beyond anything. I didn't suffer until I got home. When I really felt the cold was when I was getting back into a very warm van, getting rid of the shivers, going back out and trying to do the scene. Mostly I didn't have to do any talking, just stand."

You had to be a subject of a shot.

"And you had to look like you were sort of just casually there. A number of men standing around with frozen feet and numbed hands and frostbitten noses and stuff. After it was over, I took to my bed for four days. My whole head just turned to mucus. What I wound up doing was getting a vaporizer with the Vicks, two humidifiers and of course I already called the doctor, for antibiotics, I had a temperature of 102 or something like that. I was sick. I don't do cold weather much; I just don't do it. When I lived here as a kid, when I was between the ages of like, I don't know, 7 and 12, the same thing. I was constantly getting sick."

That's why you left.

Freeman smiled. "That's why I was willing to leave. Cause at 12, you don't do it on your own."

Just the way he said that line, That's why I was willing to leave, the emphasis on the willing, was like a little lesson in acting. It took what we were saying and implied the whole back story, and it showed that he was listening. It's what an actor does.


Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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