LOS ANGELES—Audiences can be forgiven for confusing Morgan Freeman with a certain retired world leader. Last year, Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman went to Freeman’s hometown of Charleston, Mississippi, and shot a documentary about how the actor paid for the high school’s first integrated prom in order to bring the races together. At the same time, Freeman was flying to South Africa to follow up on a prediction made by Nelson Mandela. When asked who should play him if a movie was made of his life, Mandela said it should be Freeman. Freeman eventually fulfilled Mandela’s request by playing him in the movie Invictus, which tells the story of how Mandela used the 1995 rugby World Cup final to help heal the wounds suffered during apartheid. (The Clint Eastwood–directed movie is currently playing in Vancouver.)
Watch the trailer for Invictus.
Invictus producer Lori McCreary, who has worked with Freeman since the early 1990s, says in an L.A. hotel room that when Saltzman approached them about shooting the events, Freeman had concerns. “Morgan is a man who has moral convictions, and he doesn’t speak about them much but he does things about them, things like Prom Night in Mississippi, which was only videotaped and shown as a documentary because he [Saltzman] approached us and said that people should see it. I think that was the right thing. Morgan, on his own, would never have said, ”˜We should videotape this.’ I wanted to do it because he had said to me in the past, ”˜Many people ask me why I still live in Mississippi, and I tell them that I live there because bringing my friends to Mississippi shows them a different world, and they think, “Maybe we can do something about it.” ’ ”
Freeman says that there has been an inevitability about his taking on the role of Mandela ever since Mandela’s announcement.
“When he was asked during the press conference for his book Long Walk to Freedom, ”˜Who would you want to play you?’ he said, ”˜Morgan Freeman.’ From then on it was like, ”˜Okay, I will be playing Mandela somewhere down the line.’ ”
He says he and McCreary initially wanted to be involved with Mandela in the filming of his autobiography, but when that fell through, they found another way of bringing him to the big screen. “So Lori and I spent a lot of time trying to develop the book into a script, but it didn’t happen,” he explains. “However, I would have lunch or dinner with him during that time, and I would hold his hand. It was not for camaraderie. I find if I hold someone’s hand, their energy is transferred to me and I have a sense of how they feel. Then, in 2006, we got this book proposal from [Invictus author] John Carlin, and we bought it and got a script written because it was the right role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates.”