Morgan Freeman's life was transformed at 71 when he lost the use of his left hand in a car accident
Morgan Freeman is an unnerving presence. Taller, grander than you might expect, although of course you already expect him to be grand. He has played so many movie roles rooted in dignity and gravitas. He is the voice of moral authority, and that voice alone, with all its warm gravel, seems in some way linked to the divine. No wonder he was cast as God in Bruce Almighty.
Minutes into our meeting, he is looking at me with orbital eyes that could pierce and shatter any soul. He thinks I have asked a stupid question. We are in Florida to discuss his latest film, Dolphin Tale 2, based on the real-life dolphin Winter who lives in Clearwater, Florida. Freeman plays a doctor who makes a prosthetic tail for the injured animal.
He is passionate about the natural world. Does he spend a lot of time on the ocean? “Yes.” Does he have a boat? There is a thundering pause and that’s when he looks at me. “Of course I have a boat. How can a man be on the ocean without a boat? I have a boat, a sailboat. A 42-foot wonderful boat.”
Maybe he’s angry that he can no longer sail his boat by himself. He permanently wears an arm support and has lost the use of his left hand (he is left-handed) following a car accident in 2008. He was driving home to his 126-acre ranch in Mississippi with a friend and his car flew through the air, flipped over several times and landed in a ditch. He had to be cut free.
There was no alcohol or drugs involved. It was believed he may have fallen asleep at the wheel. He was 71 at the time, and a few days later announced his divorce from his second wife of 24 years, Myrna.
He still lives on the ranch, though he thought of selling it as he can no longer ride. “I don’t ride horses for the same reason I don’t fly or sail a boat. It’s better to have two hands working than do that with one hand. I’ve had to give up some fun things.
“What happens now when I do a movie is I go on set, and all of my scenes are pretty much put together so I can get me the hell out.”
At 77, Freeman is still handsome. He received Oscar nominations for Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Shawshank Redemption (1994), and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. Other memorable performances include The Dark Knight trilogy, playing Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and narrating March of the Penguins. He has been called “the greatest actor alive” by the influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.
“On the whole, I don’t like to be directed, so I like directors who pretty much leave it to me. That’s why I like Clint Eastwood. He directs movies, but he doesn’t direct actors.”
Eastwood directed both Invictus and Million Dollar Baby, in which Freeman was the boxing trainer for Hilary Swank. He says he can’t do action movies any more because of his hand. When you see him on screen, you don’t notice the hand. He acts as if it’s normal.
“It has affected work. I won’t take jobs where I have to be physical.”
But he can do romantic movies, and he has one coming up – Ruth and Alex, with Diane Keaton. “She is a lovely lady – there’s something about her.”
He can do family films, such as Dolphin Tale, too. So, as a father of four, is he a family man? “I’m not sure fatherhood changed me. You have to be married to be a father. I sired a couple of kids without being married, but that doesn’t make you a father. It took a while for me to become a father. I was busy trying to be an actor, and the two didn’t really go together in my youth.
“But now I am in my dotage, I am a great grandfather. I have 14 grandchildren. I’m not a hands-on grandfather. I haven’t changed diapers. But when I had daughters, I changed theirs. Being hands-on makes a difference in your child’s life.”
Then he says softly, “Why did you say that stupid thing about boats?” I tell him he made me nervous. “You are just saying that.”
Surely the point of making those big staring eyes is to unnerve people? He looks all soft and cuddly, and apologises. He says it’s not the same for him to go on his boat with someone else because he’s not alone and free. “But what I think I am going to do is go with a big strong woman who can handle the work… cook. I can be the skipper and tell her what to do.”
Does he have one in mind? “I have two in mind.” He laughs, and it’s a really naughty laugh and suddenly he’s more 17 than 77.
Freeman was born in Memphis in 1937. His father was a barber and a drunk who died of cirrhosis. His mother was a seamstress. His grandmother figured large in his life and he lived with her. He always loved films; they were a big escape. As was acting. His first leading role was in a school play at nine; at 12, he won a state-wide drama competition.
But at 18, going into the Air Force seemed the easiest way out. “I fear little,” he says. “But I don’t like confrontation. It’s very difficult for me to fire somebody or chastise.”
Surely being in the military was confrontational? “When I confronted someone, they hardly knew they were confronted. It was only a cerebral confrontation.”
After four years in the military, he headed to Los Angeles, and took up acting lessons. “I have always been attracted to the movies, and I’m still fascinated by the idea of storytelling. When I grew up, I read, read, read. But movies did something else and I went, if I could, every day.
“The dream [of becoming an actor] started to percolate in my head when I was about 15 years old. Sitting here now I can say to any kid growing up, you’ll get what you want, you just have to know what that is, and I always did. And I put it before anything, everything.”
And does he… “Regret?” He finishes my sentence. “I’m not sure. Would I have done anything differently? I would have avoided a couple of women, but then my sons wouldn’t have been born.”
What makes him happy? “A good golf course. My son and I played last week and I trounced him. So that made it even better. But happiness is not an ongoing thing. I also have deep moments of ecstasy. I have a friend who can bring that on… ”
A girlfriend? Or just a friend? “Friend.” There’s a pause. And more of his gravelly, delicious laugh. Does he mean ecstatic love-making, or merely hanging out brings ecstasy? “Both.” He nods.
He’s gone from cold and fierce to warm and fuzzy.
Freeman once said that he was bored of being offered roles that were dignified and filled with gravitas. He nods. “I’m on the downside of my career. It can’t go on much longer. So I will just keep working and doing what comes my way that pleases me. If I continue to be the voice of moral authority, so be it.”
'Dolphin Tale 2’ is in cinemas from October 3.