Every conversation you have with Morgan Freeman, the 76-year-old Oscar-winning star of films like Glory, The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en, and the Batman trilogy, is like that chaotic car chase in The French Connection wherein you assume the role of Popeye Doyle, frantic detective, and he the elements. That is to say: it’s a really entertaining and unpredictable ride.
Unlike some of his contemporaries—the Gene Hackmans and Sean Connerys of the world—Freeman is as prolific as ever, with seven movies slated for release this year. The first of which is The Lego Movie, a computer-animated adventure from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team behind Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs. It’s set in the Lego universe and follows a mini-builder (voiced by Chris Pratt) who rallies a motley crew of Lego lads, including Batman (Will Arnett), Superman (Channing Tatum), and ass-kicking Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), to stop the tyrannical Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their Lego-y world. Freeman voices the character of Vitruvius, an old wizard/guru, and one of a line of Master Builders.
The Daily Beast: You’re a Hollywood legend at this point and can probably do as you please, so what attracted you to The Lego Movie?
Freeman: Well, it’s a misapprehension that I’m at some point where I can do whatever I feel like doing. It’s not so. I’m like all other actors in that I’m always looking for work. In this case, doing something like this, I always just get a call from the studio. That’s what happened here—I just got a call from the studio. “Would you do it?”
What were your favorite childhood hobbies?
When I was a kid, I was a cowboy. I’d get up in the morning, strap on my gun, looked for all the other kids who’d strapped on their guns, and we’d play cowboys. We had cap pistols. I had a great time with mine, really.
Your character in the film is also a wizard/guru-type, and you’ve also played God. Is there a character you’re really dying to play?
There is, and has been for maybe six years now. After God, I think I should play Satan. Remember when Al Pacino played Satan in The Devil’s Advocate? Like that. I think that God and the Devil are one. They’re not one in the same, but they’re in the same body, and it depends on which one of them surfaces.
So you’re saying we all have God and Satan inside us.
Having played God, do you believe in God—or a higher power?
The highest power is the human mind. That’s where God came from, and my belief in God is my belief in myself.
Now, if you were a God—or a wizard—what would be the first actions you’d take? What do you feel really needs fixing in this crazy world?
Oh, man! One of them is the tyranny of agriculture. We’re turning everything on the planet into food for humans so we’re cutting down the rainforests, displacing all of the animals, and we’re doing all this to feed humans. That all started with the advent of agriculture. When we were hunters and gatherers, the population could only go as far as the food could go. Scientists did an experiment once and they came up with a very clear answer to this: you put five mice in a cage and you give them enough food for five mice, guess what? You’ll only have five mice. If you put enough food for ten mice, you’ll have overpopulation. And we’re already there. We have 7 billion people on this planet. It’s not that there’s not enough room on this planet for 7 billion people, it’s that the energy needs for 7 billion people are 7 billion people’s worth of energy needs, as opposed to, say, 2 billion. Imagine how much pollution would be in the air and the oceans if there were only 2 billion people putting it in? So yeah, we’re already overpopulated.
So what do we do?
My theory, personally, is that the intelligence in the universe is not human intelligence. We’re just here like everything else, and eventually, it will level itself out. The planet has more to say about it than we do. Nature will survive.
That’s a bit daunting.
Well, it is. I agree. But I feel we’ve become a parasite on this planet. That’s like saying you don’t believe in God, but yes, if this population keeps growing, we’ll just keep devouring the planet, and I don’t think it’s going to stand for that very long.
You had the luxury of playing the late, great Nelson Mandela in Invictus. What are your thoughts on his legacy?
There have been maybe one or two people with the kind of power that Mandela had, and it’s really a mental power that he had—a control over himself, and his emotions; his dedication to what he believed in. And what he believed in most was human compassion. When he went in to Robben Island, he made up his mind that he was going to survive it. He said, “They’re going to call me ‘Mister Mandela’ in there,” and sure enough, that’s what happened. The way he did that was he turned the guards from real mean people to people who were more concerned, and he did that by being concerned for them. He’d ask them about their families, their sick children, and gradually, people responded to that. That was his weapon.
It’s very hard to be righteous in a situation like that.
I think that’s why we look upon him with such reverence, because that’s not an easy thing to do. But he did it.
The Oscars are just around the corner, and I’m curious to know what some of your favorite films of the year are.
I’ve seen a few of ‘em. I was very impressed with Cate Blanchett’s movie, Blue Jasmine. Very impressed with her. I was very impressed with Joaquin Phoenix in Her. Very impressed with Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond the Pines. And then there was August: Osage County. Meryl Streep, goodness sake! She is the absolute best. You might get up to her level sometimes—Cate Blanchett does on some occasions—but she almost stands alone.
Did you ever end up seeing 12 Years A Slave? When we spoke last time you said you had no desire to see it.
I did. I thought it was very well done.
America is strange with its history. We tend to turn our backs on things like slavery, Japanese-American internment, etc., and fail to really own up to it and confront it. Why do you think it took a black British director in 2013 to finally at least come close to showing the atrocities of slavery onscreen, and how dehumanizing it was?
It’s just not pleasant. I don’t want to see it and be reminded of how mean white people can be. That doesn’t get us anywhere! That’s one of the reasons it’s not so popular. And, with 12 Years A Slave, this is also the second outing for it. It was done as a TV movie a while back, so we do it, but I don’t think they ever really catch on. And the only reason to make movies is to make money.
One thing that really bugs me at the Oscars every year is that actors of color—particularly black actors—only seem to get recognized for playing either the victim, or the helper, be it in movies like 12 Years A Slave, The Help, etc. Actors like you and Denzel are exceptions because you get recognized for playing roles that anyone could play, that white people could play. Why do you think this is?
Well, you know what I always say? If you want your story told, you have to tell it. That’s my final word on that.
I know this is a voice-only role, but in my research for the interview, I discovered that you have SEVEN movies out this year. What is your secret to staying so prolific at your age?
[Laughs] I don’t have a secret. It’s a mystery to me, too!
You’ve had such a long, impressive career. I’m sure you get asked this ad nauseam, but I’m curious what roles you’re most proud of, and what movies you’d prefer to scrub off your resume?
Most proud I’ll just name the three I did with Clint Eastwood. I enjoyed doing them, and they were great movies. I’m proud of Driving Miss Daisy. Shawshank, of course. I had one major nightmare. I’m not sure if I should say what it is…
…is it Bonfire of the Vanities?
That’s it! It was one of my favorite, favorite books, and… come on! Let’s go back and do it again, and do it right.