He has played everyone from the US President to Nelson Mandela – and his charming voice and charisma are as memorable as his roles. It’s no wonder that Oscar winner, intrepid sailor and Mandarin Oriental’s latest ‘fan’ Morgan Freeman is a Hollywood treasure
He speaks as you would imagine, with a deep, mellifluous baritone that magically transports you to a world of languid southern sunsets and long, relaxed summers. It is a voice that has mesmerised many a filmgoer, lending authority to roles as diverse as God in Bruce Almighty, Carter in The Bucket List and Nelson Mandela in Invictus, to name but a few. Indeed, Morgan Freeman has starred in more than a hundred films during the course of his incredible 43-year movie career, which has seen him join forces with acting greats – from Clint Eastwood (who has directed him three times) to Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt and Gene Hackman. There are few actors of stature who he hasn’t worked with.
A born-and-bred southern gentleman raised in the Northern District of Mississippi, Freeman caught the acting bug as a child. Hooked on westerns (matinees of which he would catch on Saturday afternoons at the local picture house), he won a statewide drama competition aged 12, going on to participate in a Nashville radio play before he had even left high school. After graduating, he changed tack and joined the United States Air Force – a move, he has said, that was designed to allow him to see more of the world and indulge his love of flying. After five years, he left the service and wholeheartedly embraced acting, spending time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, before moving to New York where he embarked on a successful career as a stage actor, performing in productions such as The Taming of the Shrew and Hello, Dolly!. While Freeman’s first film role was as early as 1971, it wasn’t until 1987 (when he was starring on stage in Driving Miss Daisy) that his film career really took off, with his first Oscar-nominated role in Street Smart opposite Christopher Reeve. It was the first of five Academy Award nominations, the second to come just two years later with the reprisal of his role as Hoke Colburn in the film version of Driving Miss Daisy, and the fourth resulting in an Oscar for his role as Eddie Dupris in Million Dollar Baby.
Tim Robbins in the highly acclaimed Shawshank Redemption, 1994
As busy now as he has ever been, Freeman has a number of movies slated for release this year, including sci-fi drama Transcendence with Johnny Depp, and Luc Besson-directed action-thriller Lucy with Scarlett Johansson. In addition to his acting work, he is also producing and voicing several TV and film projects, as well as devoting time to one of his favourite charities, the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. An actor, a producer, a keen sailor, a horse lover and an avid explorer, Morgan Freeman is a true original. Here, we meet the star.
Where are you at the moment and what are you up to?
I’m in Los Angeles where I’m working on the fifth season of Through the Wormhole, a really interesting TV documentary series looking at science – although at this precise moment, I’m sitting here eating my lunch! Later on in the year, I have several exciting projects coming up, for which I’m putting on my producing hat. There are a couple of movies and a few TV shows in the works, one of which is a great new political drama called Madam Secretary, starring Téa Leoni.
Do you enjoy producing as much as you do acting?
I like producing but acting is the quintessential me, and I’m probably better at that than I am at anything. My heart has always been in the movies.
My heart has always been in the movies
Can you explain what you love about acting?
It’s all about role playing – the same thing you do when you’re a kid, when you play with dolls or toys and make up stories. I never grew out of it.
Would you say that winning an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, co-starring Hilary Swank, has been the highlight of your career so far?
I can’t say that I’m not proud of having won an Academy Award, because I am. When you’re growing up, that’s all you think about – you just want to win one. But I’ve been nominated five times now, and probably the highlight of my career was my fifth nomination, for Invictus, the movie I did with Clint Eastwood, in which I played Nelson Mandela.
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, 2009
Where do you keep your Oscar?
I have a cabinet in my office at home that’s hidden away; no one sees it. It’s full of all the trophies that I’ve won. I have a Golden Globe and the Oscar, and a People’s Choice Award – all that kind of stuff is hidden away there.
Do you have a favourite film that you watch again and again?
I have tons of them, but one of the best movies I’ve ever seen is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Looking at it from every standpoint of film-making, it’s incredible. I also really like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a treat there.
Horses are a great love of yours. When did you first discover your passion for riding?
As a child I loved western movies and that started my passion for horses. That was way back. The first time I rode a horse was when I was eight years old. She was an old plough horse, and when I sat on her, I couldn’t hold her with my legs as she was so big. My legs stuck out either side!
You are also known for your love of sailing. How did you get into it?
I’ve always been interested in the sea. I was an avid reader as a child and a young man, and I was fascinated by books about the sea. Then, one day, when I was 30 years old, a man gave me a boat. It was in a reservoir in Vermont and I learned to sail it. Then I was hooked on sailing. That was in 1967 and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Did you ever have lessons or did you just pick it up as you went along?
A friend and I sort of learned together and taught each other, although there was a lot of reading involved.
Have you had any particularly memorable sailing trips?
There’s one trip that sticks in my mind. In 1979, I owned a 30-foot sloop that I sailed to Bermuda with my then wife-to-be, Myrna. On the way home, we hit a bad storm. It was October and the trip took seven days to get back to New York. As we approached the city, we could see it covered in snow. I think it was the first time it had snowed in October in 100 years.
Is there anywhere else you would like to explore on your boat?
I’d like to sail the South Seas into Indonesian waters. I wouldn’t fly to get there – if I’m going to be there on my boat, I’m going to sail there.
Do you like travelling when you work, or is it just necessary?
I’ve always liked travelling. I’m my mother’s child – she would go anywhere at the drop of a hat.
Do you have a favourite place that you have visited?
On breaks between filming, I usually go home to Mississippi. I have a boat in the British Virgin Islands, which is where I’ve been going every year for over 20 years. I love everything about those islands. The whole area is gorgeous and hasn’t been overly built on. It has old-world charm.
How did you discover the British Virgin Islands?
I was getting a bit fed up in New York, so one day I just sailed to the Caribbean where I hung out in Marigot Bay, St Lucia with a friend who I’d met in France. We were talking and he said you can’t go any further south until you visit the British Virgin Islands. So I did, and he was right. After that, I didn’t sail south for years.
You have spent a lot of time in the Caribbean. How did you get involved with setting up the Grenada Relief Fund?
I used to hang out in Grenada a lot, meet friends there and sail, so I know the island well. When Hurricane Ivan swept through in 2004, it devastated the island. Grenada is so far off the normal storm track that they never expected to get hit so badly. They weren’t prepared to weather a major hurricane, so they suffered some incredible damage. After the hurricane hit, a friend of mine called me and said the people of Grenada needed help. So I spoke to my then publicist Donna Lee and said we had to do something. She was the one who put together the whole Grenada Relief Fund. She also helped organise the cookbook I did – Morgan Freeman and Friends: Caribbean Cooking for a Cause, which features recipes from friends of mine, Caribbean islanders and people with island connections, like Michael Douglas. Michael has a house in Bermuda and his chef at the time was a Bermudian, so he helped us out. All the proceeds of the book go to the fund.
You also support the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Can you tell me a little about that?
St Jude is an incredible children’s hospital at the cutting edge of cancer research. Any child can go to St Jude, whether you have money or none. It has the world’s best survival rates for aggressive cancers. Whenever I am asked to do something for them, I get involved.
When it comes to vacations, do you like relaxing or being busy?
I go on vacation strictly to relax – to kick back with a good book and do nothing else but read, sleep and eat.
Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental?
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London is outstanding.
What do you like most about the hotel?
There are some terrific restaurants there, but mainly it’s the service and the people I love – the overall experience and how you’re treated. I go to Bar Boulud for dinner. I have my favourite table in the corner, which is very quiet, and I just enjoy the food and the atmosphere. When I stay in London, I feel that I’m really being taken care of.
Are there any other Mandarin Oriental hotels that you have visited?
I’ve also stayed at Mandarin Oriental, New York, which is a great place, too.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group thanked Morgan Freeman for his participation in their Fan Advertising Campaign with a donation to Morgan’s chosen charity, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital