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Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman Talk About ‘Invictus’

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in ‘Invictus.’

© Warner Bros Pictures

Morgan Freeman reunites with Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) to bring the true story of how Nelson Mandela used sports to help unite South Africa by getting behind the country’s rugby team and cheering it through to the 1995 World Cup Championship. Freeman, who has long wanted to bring Mandela’s story to the big screen, stars in Invictus as the universally respected leader. Matt Damon co-stars as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the 1995 South African rugby team.

Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman Invictus Press Conference

Morgan, I understand since 1993 you felt you were the perfect person to play Nelson Mandela and it’s taken this long to find the right way to do it. Can you talk about that journey?

Morgan Freeman: “Nobody else is gonna get a chance to talk. This started out with Madiba naming me as his heir apparent, so to speak, when he was asked during the press conference at the publication of his book, Long Walk to Freedom. ‘Mr. Mandela, if your book becomes a movie, who would you like to play you?’ He said, ‘Morgan Freeman.’ So, from then on, it’s like, ‘Okay, so Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line.'”


”We spent a lot of time, Lori (McCreary) and I, my producing partner at Revelations. We were trying all this time to develop Long Walk to Freedom into a script. Couldn’t happen. Then, in ’06 I believe, we got this book proposal from John Carlin and it was perfect. We bought it. We got a script written. And, this was the role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates. It was perfect.”

Matt, can you talk about having a real life sports hero who’s unknown maybe outside of South Africa – at least in America – and taking on the challenge of doing that role?

Matt Damon: “Well, the first thing I did when I read the script was I called Clint and I said, ‘I can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe this is true.’ And he said, ‘I couldn’t either, but this is true.’ So, I went immediately and looked up Francois [Pienaar] online and I said, ‘Clint, this guy is huge. We’ve never met, but I’m 5’10.’ I told him on the phone and he started laughing and he said, ‘Oh hell, don’t worry about that.’ I said, ‘All right.’ He said, ‘You go worry about everything else.’ And I said, ‘All right, I’ll worry about everything else. You worry about the fact that I need to grow 6 inches to play the guy.'”

“I had about six months to get ready. I worked hard on the accent and on training physically to build myself up to try to pull off the illusion of being the captain of a South African rugby team. Ultimately, I just try to look at every possible pitfall. When I’m way, way out, say six months away, I look at what could possibly blow this illusion? What are the things? And then, I start thinking about ways to solve those problems before I really get into it. So, I kind of made my little checklist of things I had to do and just planned it out and then I got to South Africa. The very first day, Francois invited me over to his house for a gourmet dinner that he was cooking. He invited me to meet his wife and two boys. Morgan and I went. I just remember I rang the doorbell and he opened the door and I looked up at him, and the first thing I ever said to Francois Pienaar in my life was, ‘I look much bigger on film.’ And he laughed and laughed, and he gave me a big hug and then took me into his house and that was it. We were off and running.”

“He was just an invaluable resource for me the whole time. I was constantly asking him questions – everything from what color is your mouth piece to what’s your philosophy on the captaincy and on leading a team and life in general. He just was incredibly available and a very articulate guy, and he was incredibly helpful to me.”

In doing your research for it, did that include the accent?

Matt Damon: “Yeah, well Francois’ accent has changed quite a bit because he went and played in England for so many years. Everybody – all of his closest friends and his wife – everybody says, ‘Well, you know, his accent has changed quite a bit.’ And, listening to any existing interviews from that day, you can hear how it’s changed. But there was a good key to that. Tim and I, the dialect coach, talked a lot about [how] a lot of people, when they do a South African accent, really overdo it and end up making somebody sound like Frankenstein. It’s actually a quite beautiful accent. We talked about smoothing it out, because Francois speaks quite smoothly, and borrowing some of that and trying to make it so that it’s subtle, so that it’s not so over the top where you’re just like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s a little big.'”

You’ve always described acting as playing, which is nice to hear. When you play Nelson Mandela, does it become more than that?

Morgan Freeman: “No. It might have become more than that were I…was I…?”

Matt Damon: “…were I.”

Morgan Freeman: “…were I?”

Matt Damon: “I think.”

Morgan Freeman: “Were I is plural. I never could figure that one out… Were I playing or working with someone other than Clint Eastwood. He is so enabling. He is so out of your way as an actor and he likes to watch actors play. I don’t think I do anything other than that when I’m working. I’m just playing. Work is something else. Work is maybe what you do.”

Matt Damon and the real Francois Pienaar

Matt Damon and the real Francois Pienaar.

© Warner Bros Pictures

Matt Damon: “Sure. I was not that young. I was 19. I was in college.”

What do you remember about him coming to Boston? And what was it about the character of Francois and his upbringing that you think would have allowed him to even become Mandela’s partner in this unique time in their history?

Matt Damon: “Well, that second question is probably better for Francois. Yeah, I remember the Boston visit. I remember the whole world tour. I remember he just went all over the place. In fact, in my high school, we had the Free Nelson Mandela ribbons. Remember the black ribbon with the writing? Kids were wearing those before they knew who he was. In fact, I have an old scrapbook that I was looking through. This is the photo album that my mother put together for me to go to college. She gave me a photo album of pictures from my whole childhood that progressed. And, I saw recently that the Free Nelson Mandela ribbon was in there from 1986 or 1988, probably 1988 when I graduated high school and all the kids were wearing those ribbons. So I remember. It was very big. My freshman year at Harvard in Fall of ’88, I remember the Divest Now marches and everything that was going on. College campuses are usually the places where a lot of that stuff is cooking and people are talking about that stuff. So yeah, it was a very, very big deal, the Boston visit, and really that whole kind of coming out tour that he did.”

Matt, you became good friends with Francois. What did you pay attention to and incorporate into your performance from your observations of him?

Matt Damon: “There are the more obvious physical things that I have to do to try to pull off that magic trick, and then, just talking to him philosophically about certain things, you know, leadership. That’s really, if you look at the structure of the script, it’s the greatest world leader of our time appealing to this other type of leader and forging a bond with him and basically saying, ‘I need to use you to do this,’ and the guy saying, ‘I understand exactly why,’ and his team exceeding its expectations. They’ve been asked to exceed their expectations, and it’s a metaphor for what the country needs to do because everybody is expecting them to not be able to heal. Those were the things. It was Francois’ integrity and leadership. But those were the kind of things that I needed to get across with the role, and then the obvious kind of attendant physical things – lifting weights and stuff.”

At The Bourne Ultimatum junket you talked about that fight scene. If you compare that to the rugby scenes in Invictus, how did you go into that knowing what you had just gone through? Were you in better condition?

Matt Damon: “Oh no, I was in better shape for this movie. I mean, I was in the gym every day and with Francois who came with me to the gym a few times. This is his life. I don’t want to embarrass him. I can’t. If Jason Bourne looks a little flabby, that’s on me. (Laughing) This is the fictionalization of somebody’s actual life. I didn’t want to let him down. It wasn’t going to be for any lack of effort, which really was what that team was famous for, actually. They were known for going the extra mile and for knowing themselves well enough to say, ‘Okay, we might not be the most talented team…,’ and the line is even in the movie. The coach says, ‘We might not be the most talented team, but we’re going to be the fittest.'”

“Francois talked me through their training regimen. It was just unbelievable what those guys did, all of them, every single guy. It’s that great thing about a great team. It’s like when every single person commits to something and sublimates their own personality for the greater good of the whole team. And that’s basically, again, the metaphor for that whole country.”

Was this before or after The Informant!?

Matt Damon: “After. So, I had a good time putting the weight on and then a tough time reshaping the weight.”

How much did each of you know about the sport of rugby and do you still know the rules?

Morgan Freeman: “Nothing. I know American football. I know just a little bit about soccer. I know baseball. I know basketball. But rugby is a foreign language.”

Matt Damon: “And you know golf.”

Morgan Freeman: “I know golf.”

Matt Damon: “Same. I’m with Morgan. I knew a little bit about rugby but very, very little. But I do think it helps, in terms of an American audience, the game is enough like football in the sense that it’s a battle for field position and you score by running across, running into what looks like an end zone and putting the ball down. I think in terms of the nuance of the game, obviously Americans won’t get that stuff, but in terms of the peanut butter and jelly version of what you need to know, I think it’s pretty clear.”

Matt, will you explain to us why this is an important film?

Matt Damon: “I’d say the film is telling a story that I think is a wonderful thing to remind everybody of, in South Africa and all over the world. If we listen to the better angels of our nature, there are creative and good solutions to serious problems. It’s just an incredibly uplifting movie, and from the moment I read it, I was excited about just being a part of the ensemble that told this story. I think it’s a good thing to put out there, particularly now. There’s not a lot of good news, so this is a nice thing to put out for the holidays.”

Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in Invictus

Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in ‘Invictus.’

© Warner Bros Pictures

Morgan Freeman: “When he said that he would prefer that I be the one to play him in 1990 or whenever that was, I had to start then preparing myself to do it. So, I met him not long after that and I said to him, ‘If I’m going to play you, I’m going to have to have access to you. I’m going to have to be close enough to hold your hand.’ And, over the years, while we were trying to develop Long Walk to Freedom, that is what happened. Whenever we were in proximity, like a city away for instance, I would know about it and I would go to him and have lunch, have dinner, or sit with him while he’s waiting to go on stage for whatever. And during that time, I would sit and hold Madiba’s hand. Now, that’s not for camaraderie. I find that if I hold your hand, I get your energy. It transfers, and I have a sense of how you feel. That’s important to me trying to become another person.”

“I have a lot of pressure to bring a character like that to life in any kind of real sense. The danger, of course, is always at caricature, sort of indicating what the person is like. [Singing] ‘I’m Superman!’ The biggest challenge I had, of course, was to sound like him. Everything else is kind of easy to do – to walk like him. He has a few tics and things that I noticed and I picked those up. I didn’t have any agenda, as it were, in playing the role other than to bring it as close to reality as I possibly could. The agenda is incorporated in the script and all I had to do was learn my lines.”

Back during Unforgiven you said that Clint Eastwood ran a very good set, a comfortable set. Can you can amplify on that? And Matt, how was your experience working on an Eastwood film?

Matt Damon: “Morgan and I were saying yesterday maybe if we sit out like for the next few years and let Clint get some more experience, he’s really going to be a good director. (Laughing) We’re going to let him get some more films under his belt.”

Morgan Freeman: “I think about three more.”

Matt Damon: “Three more, he’ll be solid. It’s incredible. Both of us having been on, between us, probably 100 different film sets, it doesn’t get any better than the way that he runs it. As Morgan was saying earlier about him enabling and allowing things to happen, Clint says, ‘Look, I hire the best people I can and I put them in a position to do their best work and I get out of the way and take credit for all their stuff.’ (Laughing) He’s got this crew that just is the top flight crew, and every key and every person working under that key for every department.”

“You walk on some movie sets and it’s like walking into an emergency room and you’re like, ‘We’re just making a movie here.’ But that tension bleeds into the performances and into the film itself. Clint just runs an incredibly tight ship. It’s very laid back but everybody, because we all have experience working on other movie sets, everyone is aware that they’ve been given enough space to do everything they need to do. And if you need something, it’s given to you. If the key of a department says, ‘I need this,’ or the camera department says, ‘I’d like a jib arm for this or a little techno crane,’ it shows up.”

“It’s just very easy. We’ve been entrusted to do our jobs. And then, he’ll come over occasionally and give a little bit of direction. But it’s not a lot of chatter. It’s just a suggestion, a little suggestion here, a little suggestion there, and anybody who doesn’t want to hear a swear word cover their ears for a second. Clint’s favorite saying is, after you do a take he goes, ‘Well let’s move on and let’s not f–k this up by thinking about it to much.’ You hear it every day on a set with him.”

Morgan Freeman: “You don’t really want to go to Clint and say, ‘I’d just like to talk a little bit about the character.’ [Mimicking Clint’s voice] ‘Why?’ He expects you to know what you’re doing and he’s going to take two giant steps back and let you do it. I just have such deep appreciation for that part of him. And, the other part is – Matt says it’s a tight ship, I think it’s a well oiled machine. Try to imagine yourself as the captain of a ship that really runs well. You don’t do anything. You just get credit for the fact that it runs well. The engine room does their job, the steering does their job, the deck crew do their job. It’s all done and done well. ‘Well Captain, you run a very nice ship.’ ‘Thank you very much.’ So that’s what Clint says he does, and it’s wonderful. And everybody who works with him has this very same reaction to him. ‘Can I stay with you?'”

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in ‘Invictus.’

© Warner Bros Pictures

Matt, you do a number of films that have some kind of social consciousness to them such as this film and Green Zone that’s coming up and you also have The People Speak on TV next week. Can you talk about doing films that have some kind of social value and what that means to you? Also, can you talk about The People Speak and your involvement in that?

Matt Damon: “Sure. I think actors, we react to the material that’s out there and I probably just react more strongly to things that I feel will have some social value. I think this movie is a great example. I think this is a really wonderful message to put out. It’s a completely non-partisan message, incidentally. This is about healing and coming together and it’s an incredibly uplifting story. I think that’s why it appealed to me. It wasn’t that I went and said, ‘I want to make a movie that’s about this.’ It’s that I read this terrific script and it was about the greatest world leader of the past 50 years and he was being played by Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood was directing. It was a pretty easy decision for me.”

“And The People Speak, I’m really proud of. It came out really well. It’s going to air on The History Channel on the 13th, and that we just stumbled on a way to tell history that I think is great because it’s factual. It’s just the actual documents. It’s the speeches and diaries and journal entries, all of these great speeches. In fact, there was the anniversary of John Brown’s execution I saw a couple days ago and The Times did a whole thing. We have that David Strathairn reading John Brown in The People Speak, the last thing he said on the public record before they executed him. He was just 150 years ahead of his time. It’s just incredible to read his words. There’s a whole movement to pardon him that I saw in the paper the other day.”

Morgan Freeman: “Not too late, they say.”

Matt Damon: “Yeah, exactly. It’s never too late. Because look, I mean, he ends up getting arrested by Robert E. Lee who leads the Secession force two years later over this issue of slavery, and John Brown predicted [it]. He said, ‘This is only going to be solved with blood. This is the only way. This is a slave nation and we can’t permit it anymore.’ So there are these great inspirational speeches and we hope to turn them into – you know, have a website where teachers are going to be able to access them. If you’re teaching about Frederick Douglass and you can bring a reading by Morgan Freeman into your classroom, I have a feeling high school kids are going to be much more interested and be able to connect to these voices. And that was the thing, looking at all of these readings, you connect to them much more than when you read them on the page, when you see these actors speaking the words. There’s just something very powerful about it.”

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December 17, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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