MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we turn to one of the biggest names in film today - Morgan Freeman. He's brought his unique blend of dignity and humor to every role he's undertaken, from children's television to Shakespearean drama; to starring in acclaimed and award-winning films like "The Shawshank Redemption," "Million Dollar Baby," "Invictus" and "The Dark Knight" trilogy.
Tomorrow, Morgan Freeman is out with his latest film, "The Magic of Belle Isle." He stars as a famed novelist whose talent has been stifled by a drinking habit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE")
MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Monte Wildhorn) Nobody cares about a writer nobody reads.
KENAN THOMPSON: (as Henry) Nobody reads you because you don't write.
FREEMAN: (as Monte Wildhorn) Drinking is a very demanding profession, and I can't hold down two jobs at once.
MARTIN: That was Morgan Freeman as Monte Wildhorn; and Kenan Thompson as his nephew, Henry. Monte becomes the live-in caretaker of a rustic cabin for the summer. The story of how he regains his passion for storytelling with the help of the family next door, is at the heart of "The Magic of Belle Isle." And Oscar winner Morgan Freeman is with us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
FREEMAN: Thank you, Michel. Nice to be here.
MARTIN: You still enjoy hearing Oscar winner next to your name? Does that still give you a little thrill?
FREEMAN: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: A little bit?
FREEMAN: A little bit of a rise. Yeah. It's better than not saying it, isn't it?
MARTIN: I was hoping so. Well, what keeps you at it? I mean, I couldn't even - it's a struggle trying to figure out which films to even mention. Your discography takes - like, three pages. How do you - what keeps you...
FREEMAN: Well, what keeps you at it is...
MARTIN: ...keeps you at it?
FREEMAN: You know, I've always had a desire to do it. I've always loved doing it, and there is absolutely no reason not to do it, you know. So if you're working, and you like what you're doing, why not do it?
MARTIN: How did you choose this role - or what attracted you to this particular role?
FREEMAN: It's really offbeat, and it was my chance to play a drunk. I was going to be paired with a terrific actress. And I liked the story. And one of my favorite directors is Mr. Reiner.
MARTIN: Yeah. Rob Reiner...
MARTIN: ...is the director. I was wondering if he was key to your decision to participate. Is he fun to work with?
FREEMAN: He's great fun to work with. Yeah.
MARTIN: How come?
FREEMAN: He's quick, and I like quickness. The reason directors are quick is because they know what they want, and they know when they've gotten it - so there's no gratuitous shooting just to see what'll happen. Nothing was going to happen, so let's move on. And we have a great rapport, you know. Rob is a hugger, and I'm a hugger. So every day, we have to have a hug. Hugs are life-starters.
MARTIN: I'm with you on that. I'm with you on that. I hope you don't mind my bringing this up, but when you talked to my colleague Michele Norris back in 2008, you actually talked to her about the fact that you, at one point, had a problem with alcohol yourself. And I wondered whether you drew on that experience in working on this role.
FREEMAN: I didn't at all, because I was not an alcoholic. I wasn't - well, I guess Monte wasn't what you would call an alcoholic. He just stayed drunk all the time; he was just - like, numbing himself. I suppose that's what I was doing when I was drinking too much. But I was working every day, sober. I was just drinking too much every night, you know.
MARTIN: OK. The difference eludes me, but...
FREEMAN: Well, the difference is getting up in the morning and starting, thinking to get that buzz going; and keeping it going all day until you pass out, at night. I didn't do that in my real life. So...
MARTIN: You were functional.
FREEMAN: Yeah. I was very functional. So I say it was a problem because it was a problem for me. It didn't affect my work or my daily life.
MARTIN: How would you describe what's going on with Monte? I mean, jst that clip that we just played, where he said, this is what I'm...
MARTIN: ...this is my job now. This is what I'm doing.
FREEMAN: Yeah. Monte was feeling sorry for himself. The first thing that happened - he was on the rise as this young ballplayer and got into a terrible accident, partially paralyzed. He had a beautiful wife that he'd just married, and she stayed with him and took care of him. And he somehow came out of the doldrums of being partially paralyzed, and became a writer. This character that he wrote about just popped up in his head, and was like salvation to him. But then his wife died of cancer, and he just went right back into the doldrums - and started drinking with some seriousness. And then he moves into Belle Isle, and he meets this great family led by Virginia Madsen and...
MARTIN: And the connection does something for him. I'm just going to play a short clip from a scene where he is connecting with a girl called Finnegan. She's the - she's played by Emma Fuhrmann. She's the middle daughter of the character played by Virginia Madsen, who's a newly single mom. It's not an easy time for them, either.
FREEMAN: Not at all.
MARTIN: Yeah. And I'll just play a short clip from a scene between Monte and Finn.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE")
EMMA FUHRMANN: (as Finnegan O'Neil) You write stories?
FREEMAN: (as Monte Wildhorn) I used to.
FUHRMANN: (as Finnegan O'Neil) My favorite story is about aliens from outer space.
FREEMAN: (as Monte Wildhorn) Extraterrestrials have their place, and I've met a few, but you don't have to leave this planet to tell a good story.
FUHRMANN: (as Finnegan O'Neil) How do you make them up?
FREEMAN: (as Monte Wildhorn) Imagination - the most powerful force ever made available to humankind.
MARTIN: And you have - you know, in the film, you just have a really kind of lovely rapport with the kids, too. And I just wanted to ask you about that. Do you like working with kids?
FREEMAN: Yeah. I was a kid actor, too. You know, I wasn't professional. But I find young actors, they're total. So it's fun to be with them, because I think acting is - you know, it's something you do. It's sort of childlike. You're just pretending. You just make-believe, you know.
MARTIN: Are they intimidated by you when they first work with you, because you're so famous?
FREEMAN: I'm told that some of them are, but it doesn't take very long to disabuse them of the notion that, you know, they have to be something other than who they are, to work with famous people. You're going to be famous one day. You just watch.
MARTIN: And also, your scenes with - I hope you don't mind my mentioning that your scenes with the dog - you know, a dog figures very prominently in this film as well, as your companion. And you have these like, long dialogues with this dog. I don't know why I just thought that was so funny. And I just wondered - what was it like? I've never worked with a dog, so I was kind of wondering.
FREEMAN: Try not to.
MARTIN: Try not to.
MARTIN: Tell me about that. I mean, how do you do that? How do you get yourself ready to work with a dog?
FREEMAN: Well, you know, a dog doesn't have to talk back. You just have a monologue, so it really doesn't matter. You can be talking to the wall, to yourself, to the dog, to the chair - anything, you know. It's not hard to do that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're speaking with Oscar winner Morgan Freeman. His latest film is "The Magic of Belle Isle." I wanted to just ask you - if you don't mind - you've starred in a lot of films that tap into important moments in African-American history; the - "Amistad"; "Driving Miss Daisy," which is about the civil rights era; "Glory," of course, about the all-black regiment in the Civil War.
And I am just interested in your thoughts, if you don't mind sharing them, about where we are now. You know, the first African-American president and - on the one hand, he's there. And then on the other hand, we have kind of a lot of very - kind of racially charged episodes that are right now in the news. Do you see a film in this?
FREEMAN: Well, there's certainly a story in this. The first thing that always pops into my head regarding our president, is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him - what's his name - Donald Trump, and this whole thing that he's resurfacing. But all these people...
MARTIN: Whether he was born here. Yeah.
FREEMAN: Yeah. They just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white - very white; American, Kansas, middle of America. There is no argument about who he is, or what he is. America's first black president hasn't arisen yet. He's not America's first black president. He's America's first mixed-race president.
I told Bill Clinton that he was the first black president. Of course, he laughed. But I don't know what to say anymore about this whole situation, you know. He is being purposely, purposely thwarted by the Republican Party, who started out at the beginning of his tenure by saying, we are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that he only serves one term. That means they will not cooperate with him on anything. So to say that he's ineffective is a misappropriation of the facts.
MARTIN: Are you heartened, or disheartened, by our current circumstances?
FREEMAN: I'm disheartened. I am thoroughly upset by it. But we will prevail. I think that the public at large - watching, listening - when it comes down to it, will say well, now, wait a minute. What they're talking about is nonsense.
MARTIN: What lesson, if any, do you draw from your own career? I mean, just looking again, and refreshing myself on your really remarkable body of work - I mean, you've had a number of roles where your own racial identity was central. And you've had a number of roles, powerful roles, where it was really...
MARTIN: Yeah. So I'm just wondering, what do you draw from your own career, in terms of the arc of the racial story of this country?
FREEMAN: I'm not sure that I draw anything from my career in that - I'm just lucky. But when Barack was elected president, a good portion of the country broke into tears because it was proof that we are really Americans, and that we are who we say we are. And I thought at the time, OK. We can pretty much stop talking about race here in this country, and concentrate on growth. Well, it didn't turn out that way, quite.
MARTIN: Well, on a happier note, I do want to mention that the Ford's Theatre Society recently awarded you the Lincoln Medal of Honor. That's an award that goes to people whom the society feels embody the values of Abraham Lincoln. You were recognized for your work promoting education. We didn't even mention all of the documentaries that you've narrated, and a lot of the wonderful educational films that you've narrated. But again, that would take all day - and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
I just wanted to ask - you know, you've won a lot of awards. And I just wondered, does this have any special resonance for you? Or what do you think about it?
FREEMAN: I don't think about it. If your life turns out to be good, and you have a tremendous amount of luck in your life, it's a good thing to turn around and make it work for others. If you've got money you don't need, spend it. And spend it, if you can, on good things. None of us really get here on our own, so I just don't want to put too much importance to what I'm doing philanthropically. It's important, I suppose, to people who are on the receiving end of it; and you want it to be. But I don't want to get too many pats on the back for it. I'm doing what I think is the right thing to do.
MARTIN: We talked about the fact that you're interested in education. You've narrated several films. I think a lot of people remember "March of the Penguins," which was a favorite from 2005. In June, you came out with a third season of the Science Channel series "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman." I'll just play a short clip from that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THROUGH THE WORMHOLE WITH MORGAN FREEMAN")
FREEMAN: New science reveals strange paths that may finally answer the question: Is time travel possible? And if so, how will we do it? Space, time, life itself - the secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
MARTIN: Well, you've already played God, so I guess it would be logical that then you would want to investigate the cosmos further, but from a different angle.
FREEMAN: Why not?
MARTIN: Why not? I was curious why you were attracted to this project. I'm sure a lot of people want you to narrate things.
FREEMAN: I - you know, like a lot of young people, I grew up with science fiction, the movies, books. And they always leave you with the question, could we? Can we? Will we? And we have scientists working very diligently on answering these questions. You know, there are all kinds of theories that have been put forth. And a lot of them have been proven, particularly by the new technology that we've developed.
We are now looking to see if there are other inhabitable planets anywhere in our galaxy. So we say, oh, my goodness; we think we've found another Earth-like planet. We will start trying to figure out how to get there. And I have this strong belief that whatever we think we can do, whatever we can dream, we can do.
MARTIN: You want to go?
FREEMAN: If we figure out how to live forever, yes.
MARTIN: Otherwise, you've got other things, huh?
FREEMAN: Otherwise, I just don't think I'd get there.
MARTIN: Yeah. Before we let you go - and you've been dropping some knowledge along the way, here - just wanted to ask specifically, if you have any wisdom to share. I don't know when we'll next get a chance to speak.
FREEMAN: Well, I'm only 75 years old. I wouldn't call myself wise yet.
MARTIN: I didn't say lifetime achievement. I just said, you've got some wisdom; drop some knowledge. Come on.
FREEMAN: No. The thing - the only thing I say that I think is a nice - a wisdom thing - and I say it to young people - is about success. You're going to make it if you hold to your course. Keep going. The surest way to fail at anything is to quit. Very often, you know, you stop walking because you say well, I'm tired of climbing this hill. I'm never going to get to the top.
And you're only two steps from the top, you know.
MARTIN: Don't quit.
FREEMAN: Don't quit.
MARTIN: Morgan Freeman is an Oscar-winning actor. His latest film is "The Magic of Belle Isle." It opens in theaters tomorrow. If you want to learn more, go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE. Morgan Freeman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FREEMAN: Nice to be here with you, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.