In “RED,” Summit Entertainment’s Friday opening star-studded action film, Morgan Freeman plays Joe Matheson, a retired government killer who has decided to spend his twilight years in an assisted living facility, using his natural charm to inoffensively ogle the young, nubile nursing staff. That is, until circumstances force him to ply his trade once more after the powers-that-be decide that the world would be a safer place with Joe and several of his former colleagues – among them Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren) – no longer in it.
Freeman is a uniquely talented actor, boasting an impressive range that has allowed him to take on a great variety of roles over the course of his nearly 50-year career. In person, the 73-year-old Academy Award winner is relaxed and soft-spoken, but there’s an intense, vital energy to him that is impossible to miss. The themes in “RED” of retirement and being unable to break from doing what you know ring true with Freeman, as he told a room full of journalists in New York City at a recent press junket for the film.
“See, I’m like George Burns. I expect to be working well into my late 90s,” he said, adding, “Because they’re going to figure out a way to use me – even just as a corpse.”
Freeman didn’t let it drop there – this is clearly something he’s given a little bit of thought to. “I mean, once you get too old to work, I think you’re too old to do anything. So you might as well just lie down somewhere. That’s my thinking. You’ve gotta be able to have a reason to get up in the morning, to go somewhere and do something,” he said. “The people who look forward to their retirement are clearly not enjoying their lives as much as I’m enjoying mine.”
Having said that, Freeman admits that at this point in his career there are some roles that are probably beyond him, including anything involving heavy action. “I haven’t done a lot of action. The most action I did was in [“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”], I was 50-something, and it almost killed me. Your stunt double can only do so much – you have to be in there to do all of that running and jumping and stuff. So now I’m 73, so…” – a pregnant pause – “…nah.”
Okay, no action, and no theater either – several years ago, Freeman performed on Broadway in Mike Nichols’ “The Country Girl,” an experience he described as a “test.” He asked himself at the time, “Can I still remember lines and can I still talk and reach the back wall without the radio mic on? That’s what all of us actors actually go back to Broadway for.”
“[I’m] not going back on stage,” he said with finality. “I can do it, so I don’t need to prove to myself that I can anymore. Really, all my life, I was after being in the movies. So that’s where I am and that’s where I intend to stay.”
Of course, “RED” happens to be fairly heavy on the action. Freeman acknowledged this, pointing out that he wasn’t alone on the set: between himself, Willis, Mirren and Malkovich, the film’s key action-oriented stars are all in the over-50 range. This abundance of respected veteran performers created an unusual actor-director dynamic during production.
When one journalist asked if having such an all-star cast on set meant that scenes were nailed in one take, Freeman replied, “We thought we were!” to laughter from the press. “The director thought differently!” he continued to more laughter. “Hence the connection between Bruce and I against [director Robert Schwentke],” he continued, acting out a typical moment from the shooting of the film with himself and Bruce asking, “You want to do another take now? What for? Why are we doing another take? What went wrong? Point to it, otherwise I’m not gonna do it.”
In the end, it was all in good fun, veteran actors giving their upstart young director a hard time. “We had a nice relationship with Robert, actually,” Freeman said. “He had a great sense of humor – but we weren’t really joking.” Compare that to, say, Clint Eastwood, a director Freeman worked with on “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and, most recently, “Invictus.”
“One of the reasons I so, so enjoy working with Clint is that sometimes he’ll say ‘Well we’ll just do a rehearsal.’ And you do the rehearsal and he says, ‘Well we got that, let’s move on.’ He filmed it,” Freeman said. “You have to trust a director, that he knows what he wants and he knows when he’s gotten it. So I trust [Eastwood] implicitly. Everything I’ve seen him do works.”
Getting back to “RED,” Freeman admits that the tone of the film – it’s really an action/comedy – took him by surprise based on the opinion he’d developed after reading the script. “I didn’t really think of this movie as having a comic approach when I read the script or when we were working on it,” he said. “I had no idea that it was going to turn out to be something that was just a lark, so to speak. So I caught a little surprise there. It was a good surprise. Better to go in and do something straight and heavy and have it turn out funny than to go in and try to make it funny and have it turn out ridiculous.”
“RED” opens in theaters October 15.