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Morgan Freeman's New Role: An Actor, In Extremis

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Morgan Freeman's New Role: An Actor, In Extremis

Performing Arts

Morgan Freeman's New Role: An Actor, In Extremis

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

An actor can live and die by the power of his voice. And this is one of most powerful voices in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Shawshank Redemption")

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (As Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding) I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place that you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone.

SIEGEL: Morgan Freeman in "The Shawshank Redemption." My co-host Michele Norris was in New York City earlier this week, and she had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Morgan Freeman. How was that?


Rough gig, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: When it comes to gravitas, Robert, besides you, Morgan Freeman is a sort of go-to guy in Hollywood. He's played detectives. He's played the president. He's played God - twice.

SIEGEL: I think of him as a movie actor, but he's on Broadway in "The Country Girl."

NORRIS: Yes. It's his return to the stage - a stage of any kind, really, in almost two decades. He's in this Clifford Odets play, "The Country Girl," this time directed by Mike Nichols. He portrays an actor on stage, this down-on-his-luck former stage actor named Frank Elgin. He's lost almost everything because of heavy drinking. And we had a chance to sit down and talk to him right after the matinee.

SIEGEL: And where did you interview him?

NORRIS: It was about 20 minutes after the show. We got a chance to go backstage, upstairs to his little teeny dressing room about the size of a closet. He had changed into jeans and hiking boots. And in the time that it took him to shed his costume and his makeup, he seemed to have shed also any sign of the character he had just played on stage.

Mr. FREEMAN: I'm offstage now. The moment doesn't live with me.

NORRIS: It doesn't?

Mr. FREEMAN: No. Onstage, switch on. Offstage, switch off.

NORRIS: Is it really that easy?

Mr. FREEMAN: It's a job. You have to control it. If it controls you, you - I think you can get lost.

NORRIS: Now, you return to the theater after two decades, and…

Mr. FREEMAN: Almost.

NORRIS: …and you had said that you were done with the theater. You had spent so much time in the theater - I believe you even said that on NPR at one point, that you had worked a long time in the theater to get to the coast.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: Why'd you come back to the theater.

Mr. FREEMAN: I was coerced.

NORRIS: Coerced?

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: It doesn't seem like anyone could coerce you into doing anything you didn't want to do.

Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I can be coerced. Mike Nichols called and said let's do this. And it's like, this one of the guys on your bucket list. And I've been doing movie after movie after movie after movie, you know, and it's like, take a break. Do something else. Live - see if you can live up to the challenge of the stage any more until you still have the chops, as it were. You know? Can you do eight shows without passing out. You know?

NORRIS: That's a heavy load.

Mr. FREEMAN: If you think of digging a ditch or waiting tables, it can't be that bad.

NORRIS: Do you look in characters for some bit of yourself, in every character that you play?

Mr. FREEMAN: No, I don't think you have to look for yourself. If the character resonates with you - because you've seen yourself, you don't have to look for it, it's going to be there. I remember auditioning for a movie, "Street Smart," and the character was this pimp. And I got it in the walk over. I just went in and took the role. And the director said, you've done this before. My point being, some part of my character, my personal self erupted out of there. You know? It's like, yeah. I could easily see myself as a pimp - not the kind you see on the street, but as a guy who is an enabler. You know?

NORRIS: Do you use an different toolbox as an actor…


NORRIS: …when you're on the stage and when you're working at something…

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, yeah, you have to use a different toolbox, or you'd have to use tools differently. I won't say you have to use a different toolbox. Here we sit talking into a microphone, so this is a microphone voice. And onstage, you know, you have to turn that loose, you know, in a mild bellow…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREEMAN: …in order to let everybody understand everything you say. Ideally, I like to speak in this intimacy and still be heard. That's the big trick.

NORRIS: In this case, you are an actor who's playing an actor, trying to find the essence of this character, also trying to wrestle with this demon of addiction to alcohol.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, he's not addicted to alcohol.

NORRIS: Oh, he's not addicted?

Mr. FREEMAN: No. He's not an addict at all. He's what you would call a lush.

NORRIS: And the difference is?

Mr. FREEMAN: The difference is that a lush likes to drink. He would just - he will drink as long as he could get it. An alcoholic absolutely has to have it. You can't wean him from it. He has to be detoxed.

NORRIS: It sounds like you have - you know of what you speak. Did you bring that to this part, and did this part take you to difficult places?

Mr. FREEMAN: No. I don't think parts take you to difficult places, difficult places that you've been. But they can no longer be difficult if you've been there and come out on some other side, now. I had an alcohol problem when I was in my early 30s. This was a whole thing with a career that was moving in the right direction, and then stopped moving in the right direction, and I was being - now, I felt like I was going to be trapped.

It's like being a circus roustabout, you know? You want to be an aerialist, and that's how you're going to get started, you know, just being the rope swinger or the person who's up there actually doing it. And he's like, any day now, I'm going to get my shot and then I'm going to do it, but you don't. You know? And, I don't know. You just sort of come home, and there's a cocktail, which is going to be followed by two or three more. And then one day, I sort of woke up face down on the floor, and I'm like, what the hell are you doing? So I had to quit.

NORRIS: How'd you do that?

Mr. FREEMAN: I quit.

NORRIS: You just quit?

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: You had said that you were born to be an actor.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: You knew that this real. I wonder what it was like for you growing up and going to the movie theater. What kinds of movies, what kind of actors inspired you? Made you think that is what I want to do?

Mr. FREEMAN: Every single - every one I saw, from Jimmy Wakely and those Saturday matinee oaters, to Humphrey Bogart in "High Sierra." Just name me any movie, any actor who was working - any. I was there. And I went to the movies every day, if I could.

NORRIS: What was the theater like?

Mr. FREEMAN: Neighborhood theaters, mostly in Chicago. It cost 12 cents to go to the movies. And…

NORRIS: Those were the days.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah. And I was spending a lot of time scavenging, because if you found enough bottles, a Coca-Cola bottle, you could redeem for 2 cents. Quart bottle - nickel. Then you'd go, and you'd get your movie money.

NORRIS: And that's where it all began for you.

Mr. FREEMAN: That's where it all began for me. First movie I saw that I remember was "King Kong." I was part of the entertainment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: How was that?

Mr. FREEMAN: I was terrified.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREEMAN: So, it was my first movie. It was really real for me. When those guys got on that ship and got Fay Wray, I started to duck under the seat and call up and ask my mother what was happening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: So you knew you wanted to do this. How did you know you could do it?

Mr. FREEMAN: When I was eight years old, I went on stage in a little pageant, third grade, and I played Little Boy Blue. For lack of a better word, I remember the sense of power - not power over anything, but over me, my surroundings, where I was, how planted I was. And my mother seconded that. She was always my best audience. And she used to say to me, I'm going to take you to Hollywood. So I took her to Hollywood.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: Morgan Freeman, it has been a pleasure to speak with you.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, Michele, thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Morgan Freeman returns to Broadway this Sunday, in "The Country Girl." At our Web site,, you can watch some scenes from the play and hear more of Michele's interview with Morgan Freeman, including his thoughts on being typecast as the guy with gravitas.

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