Veteran actor Morgan Freeman on finding his (deep) voice, picking scripts and approaching his 100th role.
At 76, Morgan Freeman is the senior partner of the “Last Vegas” acting company. His co-stars on the bachelor party blowout comedy are Robert De Niro, 70; Michael Douglas, 69; and newbie Kevin Kline, a mere stripling of 66. He’s had an acting career spanning 50 years and more than 90 film and TV roles, but in a recent phone interview he confessed he never expected to live this long.
“When I was 9 or 10 years old, living in Chicago then, we would do silly things like jump across alleys. If there was a roof across the alley low enough that you thought you could get across. We would say, ‘OK, who’s gonna go first?’ I always had this faith in myself,” he said.
His daredevil ways led him to join the Air Force and train as a fighter pilot before launching his performing career. Freeman’s vast filmography contains plenty of hits in diverse genres, from “Seven” to “The Shawshank Redemption” to “March of the Penguins” to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, to his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby.” He also has fewer flops than the law of averages would suggest. He doesn’t rely on a sixth sense to choose his projects, he simply puts himself in the viewer’s seat and asks if he would enjoy this experience.
“What I like, that’s my only checklist. Does it engage you? Some scripts you read, you get to about page 30 and you put it down. Others are page turners. Is there a character in this that I could see me doing? Is the script worth doing?”
“Those are the criteria. After that it’s who you’re going to be working with. And how much they’re going to pay you,” he said with a million-dollar laugh.
Freeman’s resonant voice may be even more recognizable than his famous face. He began to develop his signature sound on the 1970s PBS educational series “The Electric Company,” which required a lot of audio work. “I learned what to do to get my voice to go down to where it’s supposed to be.” The key to a deeper voice is “to relax tension in the neck and shoulders,” which causes people to speak in a higher register, he said.
Freeman can speak in tones warm and honeyed, or rich with gravitas. He has been called on to play U.S. presidents and wise men so often that a silly fling like “Last Vegas” is a welcome change of pace. “I enjoy doing things off the beaten path from that gravitas thing, yes. I think this one does that, to an extent.”
The film also gives Freeman, who began in show business as a dancer, an opportunity to show that he can still boogie down. In a party scene he busts some sweet moves on the dance floor, impressing his young onlookers.
“That wasn’t choreographed,” he said. “That was just, you know, fly.”
Freeman had never acted with his “Last Vegas” co-stars before, but they share an easy camaraderie onscreen that stems from long offscreen friendships. Freeman and Kline both acted Shakespearean roles in New York City’s Public Theater in the ’80s, he has played several times in Douglas’ celebrity golf tournament, and he has worked with De Niro on charitable events.
The film industry, long considered an ageist business, seems to have turned a corner, as Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and others remain steadily employed. What changed, Freeman said, is “baby boomers. They’ve aged. It’s a matter of where your audience is. You have a much older audience now. There are more people who are over 50 than there were 20, 30 years ago.”
Freeman’s next film pairs him up with another ’70s icon. In “Life Itself,” Freeman and Diane Keaton, 67, star as a long-married New York couple whose decision to move out of their apartment triggers a comedy of errors.
Freeman isn’t planning a celebration when he films his 100th role, shrugging “it’s no big deal.” When it’s time to kick back between projects, however, he knows his plans, and Las Vegas is not on his list.
“I’ve got a 45-foot ketch in the Caribbean. I’ll just point it out to sea and I’m gone.”
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186