Unlike his character in the action thriller “Red,” Oscar winner Morgan Freeman has no plans to retire anytime soon. Based on the comic book of the same name, “Red” (an acronym for “retired, extremely dangerous”) tells the story of how a group of former CIA operatives come out of retirement and join forces to stop the government assassins who are after them. As Joe Matheson, Freeman plays the most level-headed member of the crew.
Freeman’s dignified demeanor has been a driving force of many of most memorable and most critically acclaimed roles. At a New York City press conference for “Red,” Freeman revealed why he plans to do only movies for the rest of his career, what historical group he thinks should have its story told in a film, and why he wasn’t aware of “Red’s” comedic elements until he saw the final cut of the movie. After the press conference, Freeman was nice enough to stay for a few more questions, and he gave an interesting answer when I asked him what advice he would give to actors who have to do an action-heavy film when still healing from serious injuries.
Were you asked to be in the Broadway version of “Driving Miss Daisy?”
No. I got a call from [“Driving Miss Daisy” playwright] Alfred Uhry saying they wanted to do it. It was just a slight, very light feeler. Of course, I didn’t know that Vanessa [Redgrave] was going [to be in it]. But I’m very anxious to see it. That’s got to be an event.
How did you get involved in “Red”?
I love Bruce [Willis] and Helen [Mirren] and Mary-Louise [Parker] and John [Malkovich]. I mean, you can’t pass up an opportunity like that. And it’s a good Bruce Willis shoot ‘em up. So yeah, I’m game.
Did you wish that you could have done more action in “Red” or that you could have done more action films in your past?
The most action I did was in “Robin Hood: [Prince of Thieves].” I think I was 50-something years old by then, and it almost killed me, because your stunt double can only do so much. You have to be in that too — all that running and jumping and stuff. So now, I’m 73. So no.
What did you like most about working with Bruce Willis?
What I like about Bruce is pretty much what I like about working with any actor who’s dedicated to what they’re doing. He’s fun on set … When you have the same kind of approach to dealing with directors: “Do you know what you’re doing?” I ask them that, and they’ll stop and think for a minute before they ask you to do another cut or run-through.
Your character in “Red” has liver cancer. Was that a nod to your movie “The Bucket List,” which you also played someone who has a terminal disease?
I don’t think they were nodding anywhere. I think that it was just the way the character was going to develop … I don’t think one had anything to do with the other.
What’s the possibility of doing a sequel to “Lean on Me”?
None. I don’t think that is in the industry, within the confines of Warner Bros. that there is room for a comeback for a picture like that.
Do you see yourself retiring?
You’re asking me if I live until my 90s and can no longer get work, what will I do? I really hadn’t thought about. I’m like George Burns. I expect to be working well into my late 90s, because they’re going to figure out a way to use me, even just as a corpse.
Once you get too old to work, I think you’re too old to do anything. You might as well just lie down somewhere. That’s my thinking. You’ve got to be able to have a reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere and do something.
And if I don’t have work, I’m not working, I don’t know. That will tell me right away, “You are too old.” Once you get too old, you’re too old. I sound a bit fatalistic, don’t I? The people who look forward to their retirement are not nearly enjoying their life as much as I’m enjoying mine.
Do you see yourself doing more stage work?
Stage work? No. I did “Country Girl,” and that was it. That was just a test. Can I still remember lines? And can I still talk and reach the back wall without the radio mic on? That’s what all of us actors go back to Broadway for … I’m not going back on stage. I’ve done that. I can do it, so I don’t need to prove to myself that I can anymore. Really, all of my life I was after being in the movies. So that’s where I am, and that’s where I intend to stay.
Do you see yourself doing Shakespeare or playing more historical figures?
If Shakespeare happens to be a movie, I can see [myself] doing it. Historical figures? Yeah. Any day, any time, anybody.
Is there any historical figure you would like to portray?
George Washington. I’m kidding! [He laughs.] No, I don’t have anybody in mind. I have incidents in mind. There’s a lot of American history that has left out a lot of people that I think needs to be revisited. I have a film company, and I’m looking for ways to do that.
I can mention World War II. There was a tank battalion that did a lot of fighting at the end of World War II, after the invasion, and they were attached to Patton. And it was an all-black tank battalion … and they were out front and made it to V-Day, and we never got to pay them back. So that story needs to be told.
Will we see that movie soon?
Not soon, but you’re going to see it. I’ve got to write it first.
Where do you get your passion for acting?
My passion for acting, I was born with it. I can’t put it any other way. I’ve been an actor my entire life, from my earliest memory.
Are you the kind of actor who prefers to do things in two or three takes, or do you prefer to have as many takes as possible? And with the all-star cast of “Red,” were people nailing their scenes in only a few takes?
We thought we were. The director [Robert Schwentke] thought differently. Hence, the connection between Bruce and [me] against the director: “You want to do another take now? What for? Why are we doing another take? What went wrong? Point to it, or else I’m not going to do it.”
And we would do that, but we had a great relationship with Robert. He had a great sense of humor, but we weren’t really joking.
One of the reasons why I so enjoyed working with Clint [Eastwood] is that sometimes he’ll just say, “We’ll just do a rehearsal.” And you do a rehearsal, and he just says, “Heck, we got that. Let’s move on.” He filmed it.
That way of directing scares a lot of actors, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t scare me. You have to trust a director that he knows what he wants and he knows when he’s gotten it. I trust him implicitly. I can tell when something went wrong and what it was. You can say, “Look, can I do it one more time, if you don’t mind?” And working with Clint, he’ll say, “Well, if you’ve got enough time to waste, I guess we can do it.”
Have you been in contact with Nelson Mandela since “Invictus” was released?
I have been in contact with him since “Invictus.” I went back over there [to South Africa] for his birthday. It was on Mandela Day. It’s not a holiday; it’s a work day, which is really good.
I think that South Africa is going to realize its potential because so much of the world is pulling for them, and they’re pulling so hard for themselves. Having gotten the [rugby] World Cup in South Africa and proving to the world that they could pull something like that off, hit it first-class, just gives them more incentive to stay on the route that they’re on. I think they’re going to do well.
What do you think about “Red” having more humor than a typical action film?
I didn’t really think of this movie as having a comic approach. When I read the script and when we were working on it, I had no idea that it was going to turn out that would something that would be just a lark, so to speak, a lot of fun. So I caught a little surprise there. It was a good surprise. Better to go in and do something very straight and have it turn out funny than to go in and try to make it funny and have it turn out ridiculous.
Have you ever wanted to do more directing?
I took my shot at directing. I directed a movie. I enjoyed it a lot for a little while. And if I direct again, it will be because I have a project that I won’t trust anybody else with. But I don’t se myself becoming a director. Directors work a lot harder than actors do. And boy, I am telling you, I am lazy!
You did “The Electric Company” many decades ago. Do you still have people coming up to you who ask you about that show?
Oh, yes! Yeah, they do. They say, “I used to watch you all the time. I’d come home from school and watch ‘The Electric Company.’” “Did you learn anything?’ “Oh, yes!” “Well, give me your address, because I’m going to send you an invoice, because I need to get paid.”
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think I’m most proud of having managed it first. The most pride I have in the work I’ve done is in the movie “Glory.” It was produced by Freddie Fields, directed by Ed Zwick. It told a story that no Americans knew that anybody black fought under arms in the Civil War, but we’ve fought in every single war that this country has ever been in, including the War of 1812. I am very proud of that movie, and I want to make more like that, just to tell America’s other story.
What are some of your favorite movies that you’ve done?
You can probably name them yourself. “Street Smart,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Lean on Me,” “[The] Shawshank [Redemption]” — all of those are terrific movies, and I was in them.
Why don’t you do more comedies?
I never get called on to do comedy. What is comedy? Comedy is what’s written. It isn’t what you do.
A lot of people admire how you recovered from your 2008 car accident. What advice would you have for actors who may be in a similar situation and may have to do an action-heavy film like “Red”?
Fake it. Just fake it. This hand here still doesn’t work. [He points to his injured hand.] I have stretched nerves in this arm.
Could you have surgery to correct it?
I could have surgery but it wouldn’t do the job. It would be makeshift, and it would just be a matter of no patience. I don’t have enough patience to wait.
How much longer do you think you’ll be in recovery?
Stretched nerves, they grow at a rate of about one centimeter a month. I have a 36-inch sleeve, so we’re looking at three years. I’ve got a year to go.
For more info: “Red” website
RELATED LINKS ON echoflam.com:
Interview with Morgan Freeman for “Invictus”
“Red” Comic-Con panel
“Red” Comic-Con press conference
Interview with Bruce Willis and Karl Urban for “Red”
Interview with Helen Mirren for “Red”
Interview with Mary-Louise Parker for “Red”
Interview with John Malkovich for “Red”
Interview with Ernest Borgnine for “Red”