Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Morgan Freeman started his career as an actor in the theater, and aside from a few small film roles, the occasional TV gig, and a few years as a cast member on The Electric Company, it was theater that kept him the most occupied. That all changed in 1987, however, when his performance as Fast Black in the film Street Smart earned him his first Oscar nomination, making Freeman a full-time movie star. Since then, Freeman’s stature on the big screen has only increased, but for the past few years, he’s also found an occasional home on the small screen as well, serving as the host and narrator (as well as an executive producer) of the Science Channel’s Through The Wormhole, now in its fifth season.
Through The Wormhole (2010-present)—host/narrator, executive producer
The A.V. Club: You’re certainly starting out the series of new episodes on the right foot: That clip of your voice under the influence of helium has already gone viral.
Morgan Freeman: [Laughs.] I know!
AVC: Did it take much coercing to get you to step in front of the camera and do that?
MF: Oh, no. Whenever James [Younger, also an executive producer] wants something, he just says, “We’re going to be doing this.” But I love this show, and the things we do on it are interesting to me. So… it didn’t take much. It didn’t take anything, as a matter of fact, because I’d never done it before, and I wanted to see what the effect was! [Laughs.]
AVC: Since its inception, the series has evolved considerably insofar as the subjects it’s been tackling: Season one began by talking about black holes and time travel, and now you’re asking questions like, “Is poverty genetic?” Just how big is the episode-ideas corkboard in your production office?
MF: Two walls. [Laughs.] Whatever comes to mind, you can put it up on the board and sort of let it percolate. Some things you probably will throw out out of hand, but if they’re there for a few days or a week or two, something might have come along in the interim to change your attitude about that subject. So, yeah, we have two walls, at least six and a half feet off the floor, and about 10 feet across. And they’re all full of thoughts and ideas of what to do or what to talk about.
James Younger: Season one of Wormhole was really about space and cosmology and physics, and we kind of thought the show might always be about that for a while. But then we discovered that you couldn’t really do it, because people want to ask questions about things they already kind of know about. So season two would’ve been about, like, “Are neutron stars really yellow?” And it’s like, “Who cares?” [Laughs.] But what’s fun about this show is exploring the frontiers of our knowledge, and that moves into areas that people know about—society, poverty, religion, evolution, life—and that’s where we go. We just use the same scientific methods to try and find our way through a subject.
MF: By that, he means going to the scientists and asking them to comment. [Laughs.]
AVC: Straddling the line between science and philosophy has the potential to court controversy. Have any topics been pitched then deemed too hot to handle?
MF: No, I don’t… [Hesitates.] No, we haven’t had anything rejected by us that was too hot to handle.
JY: Yeah, we thought about a show [asking] “are women smarter than men?” We’d been thinking about doing a show along those lines, about the differences between the sexes. But we started out thinking about that and ended up doing a show about sex itself. Like, “Will sex become extinct?” There are some ideas that we’d still like to explore. We’ve thought about homosexuality in the past. We haven’t found a way of doing a show that has enough real science in it. But there are definitely some areas that we still have yet to explore that we want to.
AVC: Morgan, you said in our previous chat that physics is kind of a mind-blowing concept for you. How does econophysics, which is discussed in one of the new episodes, work with you?
MF: Econophysics doesn’t work with me at all. [Laughs.] You know, this math stuff… I keep trying to convince James and the rest of the team that they really do this, and I sound like I know what I’m doing because I’m this well-trained actor. But these people we have here, who actually write the show, are the brains behind it. I can talk with a script, so if it says here, “The laws of physics could drive economics…” But we’ve spoken about that when we discuss the question in “Is Poverty Genetic?” and there are econophysicists who say that they really can. But we already know that rich people operate from a different set of rules than poor people… and birds operate from a different set of rules than dogs! It’s all a matter of where you are in life.
The Pawnbroker (1964)—“Man on street” (uncredited)
AVC: There’s a recurring rumor that, although you’re not actually credited, you’re an extra in The Pawnbroker. Is that true?
MF: Yep. That was my first movie.
AVC: How did that come about? Was there an audition, or were they just looking for extras?
MF: No, no, no. Nobody auditioned me. [Laughs.] There was an agent named Bernie Styles in New York, and I arrived in New York from San Francisco. And looking for how to get any kind of work, I heard about Bernie Styles, so I went and… well, you’d just go and sign up with them. I mean, you’d just say, “I would like to sign up with you to be an extra.” And I got called to go on this set one time, one night, up in Harlem, 119th Street. And I was in a crowd that got whittled down to the point where there was nobody in the scene but me and Rod Steiger.
The Electric Company (1971-1977)—various characters
AVC: How did you find your way into the repertoire company for The Electric Company?
MF: That one I auditioned for. They were holding auditions in 1971, and I went and just clowned my way in. [Laughs.] The character was supposed to be kind of clownish, he went berserk over the written word, so I took it to the max. And then after I got the job, I toned it way down.
AVC: Did you enjoy the opportunity to do sketch comedy?
MF: Yes, I did. I enjoyed it immensely for the years I was there.
AVC: Do you have a favorite character of the bunch that you played?
MF: No. I mean, my central character was Easy Reader. I had another one who was a disc jockey named Mel Mounds. [Instantly slips into his Mel Mounds voice.] I enjoyed Mel because I had an FM voice for Mel Mounds. [Laughs.]
Street Smart (1987)—“Fast Black”
AVC: In the wake of The Electric Company, you found considerable success on the stage, including earning a trio of Obie Awards (for Coriolanus, The Gospel At Colonus, and Driving Miss Daisy). Did you always have a desire to do more work in front of the camera, or were you happy sticking with the stage?
MF: No. From early childhood, my thrust was to get into the movies. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like your first big break of note, movie-wise, was playing Walter in Brubaker.
MF: No, that wasn’t my first big break. My first big break was playing Fast Black in Street Smart.
AVC: Well, I knew that you’d gotten an Oscar nod for that, certainly. It just seemed like getting a memorable part in a Robert Redford movie would be a pretty big deal.
MF: Well, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. [Laughs.] But to tell you the truth, it was a role that I fought not to get. In the script, this guy that I played weighed about 240 pounds, and he could tear a toilet off a wall! Bob Rafelson was the original director, and he asked me to play the role, and I said, “Man, no! That’s not… I can’t even pretend to be somebody who can do stuff like that! No, thank you.” But, you know, it finally happened.
AVC: How did they finally sway you?
AVC: You’ve ventured behind the camera once, to direct Bopha! in 1993, but you haven’t really directed since then. Do you have a desire to return to it?
MF: Well, I wouldn’t call it a desire. I’m willing. But not with what I’m dealing with right now.
AVC: Did you enjoy the experience the first time around?
MF: I did. I really enjoyed the pre-production and production. Post-production was sort of messy.
Unforgiven (1992)—“Ned Logan”
AVC: Your first film with Clint Eastwood was Unforgiven. Was that also when you first met him?
MF: Yep, that was the first time I met him.
AVC: How did you enjoy him as a director?
MF: Perfect. As a matter of fact, I think he may be my favorite director of all… and I have some that I like a lot!
AVC: And you actually stuck around for about a week after the film wrapped so that you could be a real cowboy for a while?
MF: Yeah, and I did it even while we were shooting. If I didn’t have to work that day, I would just come to the set and be a cowboy and help the wranglers.
AVC: So what’s your equestrian background?
MF: Broomsticks. [Laughs.] When I was a kid, I’m telling you, man, I was a cowboy. I had a cap pistol, and I’d get up in the morning and strap it on before I got ready. But I actually started riding horses at about the age of 19.
AVC: How was it to take that knowledge and use it in front of the camera for the first time? Was it intimidating?
MF: Nah. If you’re comfortable on a horse, you’re comfortable on a horse. It’s like being on a motorbike.
Nurse Betty (2000)—“Charlie”
MF: Well, I was working with Chris Rock on that one, who’s a very funny guy. And Neil LaBute, I think he’s one of these kind of… one-offs. He’s different than most people you’ll run into. But a really wonderful person. Sort of a teddy bear. [Laughs.] And easy to work with. So we got on really well.
Batman Begins (2005) / The Dark Knight (2008) / The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—“Lucius Fox”
AVC: Did you enjoy getting to work in the superhero genre?
MF: Well, there was nothing to that, because I wasn’t the superhero. I was just a regular guy who was trying to help the superhero stay alive. [Laughs.] It was a fun role… but there was nothing heroic about my part!
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—“Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding”
MF: Well, when I got the script for Shawshank, nobody said anything about it. Just, “Read the script.” So I read it. Then I called my agent and said, “I don’t care which role it is, I’ll do it. I want it.” And then I said, “What role do they want?” He said, “They want you to do Red.” I said, “You’re kidding! That’s the movie!” [Laughs.] But, no, they weren’t kidding. And the rest, as they say, is history.
AVC: The film has gone on to be viewed as a classic, but it wasn’t a huge commercial success when it was originally released.
MF: You know why?
MF: Because nobody could say “Shawshank Redemption.” Marketing only really works with word of mouth. It’s like, now you can see how things… well, as you said earlier, they go viral. That’s word of mouth. I tell my friend and you tell your friend, and you say, “I saw this movie, it was really terrific, it had so-and-so and so-and-so in it, and it was called… Shank… Shad… Sham… Well, it was something like that.” [Laughs.] You do that, and I’ll forget all about it! That’s why it didn’t do well.
AVC: Was it gratifying to see it finally finding an audience over the years?
MF: In a way, yeah. I mean, I didn’t have a back end. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you find that to be the film quoted back to you the most?
MF: Yeah. Oh, yeah. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” I hear that all over the place!