Hear Morgan Freeman's name and you immediately think worldly wisdom and genial gravitas. He's certainly earned that reputation. But over a four-decade acting career, Freeman has also taken some less expected routes, beginning with his first notable film role, as a pimp in 1987's "Street Smart" (one of those Oscar-nominated instances), and more recently offering a wry sendup of his own saintly image in last winter's breakout "The Lego Movie."
At 77, Freeman still works at a feverish pace, seemingly appearing in every third film Hollywood cranks out. He continues that trend July 25 with a turn in Luc Besson's "Lucy," his third release in 2014 (so far). Freeman plays a professor who specializes in unlocking the brain's unused capacity, offering counsel to a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) who has become the victim of one such experiment.
It's become so common to see you on the big screen that one of the first questions that springs to mind is "How did he find time to do another movie?" So how do you find the time?
It's an illusion. I worked on "Lucy" for one week. I've done that on a number of films. They pay you by the week. In that way you can do a lot of movies in one year, and it looks like you're working all the time.
But still, you must hear from friends and family that you should take a vacation.
People do say, "Take a break." And I don't need a break. I get breaks. My agent says, "There's nothing until late August or September." And then I can go relax and play golf. If you love what you do it doesn't cost you anything to do it. The cost is not doing it. It's not like playing football, where you can hurt yourself. One of the great things about acting is it's make believe. You don't have to cut your tongue out to be a mute.
Your voice is among your defining traits, yet it was surprising to realize your recent turn in "Lego" [as the wizard Vitruvius] was actually your first animated role. How did that feel, doing that for the first time so deep in your career?
Well, I get there [to the dubbing booth], and there are these young writer-directors and a hotshot young lady, the producer I guess, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, is that it?" I thought there would be other actors and we would interact, not just me. I was really thrown.
And then you develop a character in which you kind of send up your own image.
It didn't hit me like that right away. It took time. I wasn't sure it was all a sendup until the very end of when we were doing it.
One of the things you're skewering is the whole "wise man" thing that's almost become like a brand — when a movie needs gravitas, bring in Freeman. Does that all get tiresome?
There are two ways for me to look at this. I try to be on the positive side. There are venerable actors who were in this situation for years. Spencer Tracy comes to mind. If I think of myself as being one of those, having stepped into those sized shoes, then it's not so bad. Of course, you don't want to be in a mold, but it is what it is. If you go out on a good note, no worries.
What role would you play if you could shake it?
My first outing, "Street Smart," got me three or four scripts right away playing the same kind of bad guy. At the time I didn't like it, but now I would. I did a movie with Bob Hoskins and they asked him what is it about playing bad guys. And he said, "Bad guys let it all hang out." And it's true — in "Street Smart" I could be easygoing in one scene and murderous in the next. But I'm so far into … goodness nobody would imagine trying to drag me out of it.
Are you specifically trying to get yourself out of it?
[laughs] No. Everything has me in the same general mold. [Offers an over-the-top version of his own sage baritone.] "Control. Wisdom." But it's OK. Because I'm so anxious to work and it's that habitual that the stuff that comes my way happens to be this.
One of the things that people underestimate about you is your comedic talent. We saw it a bit in movies like "The Bucket List."
Oh, yes. Love doing comedy. But the best part about comedy is it doesn't require comedic acting. If the situation is funny it will come off that way. People say the funniest thing in "Last Vegas" was me jumping out the window. That wasn't funny to do. But it plays funny.
At the other end of the spectrum, you also were associated with maybe the biggest blockbuster franchise of the modern era with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight." Are movies like that enjoyable, given how large they are?
You're a foot soldier there. But something like that can be that rewarding — as a good product but also financially. Those things don't come at you very often. Unless you're Tom Cruise. He keeps doing them. Boy, he must have the staying power of Job.
A lot of actors would say they'd want your talent and career. What actor would you want to trade places with?
Brad Pitt. I would probably want to do "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."I'd get to work with Angelina [again].
You're staying busy in other ways in the meantime, producing the new CBS drama "Madam Secretary," about a fictional secretary of State. What brought that about?
I just thought it was an idea whose time has come. We have had three outstanding, memorable secretaries of State, all women. So the idea of having a show that surrounds that makes sense. And we have a wonderful lady, Téa Leoni, who plays her. And she doesn't look like Hillary [Rodham Clinton]. If we had an actor who even made you think of Hillary we'd be in trouble with audiences.
Finally, there's Broadway. So many Hollywood actors say it's where their heart truly lies. You last did it in 2008, opposite Frances McDormand in Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl." Would you want to go back?
When I went back there were times I said to myself, "Why am I doing this?'" One night I forgot all my lines and started babbling. Fortunately the scene was one in which I'm supposed to babble. I started telling Frances, in the scene, "I'm lost and don't know what the ... I'm doing." I'm saying all this on stage. But afterwards I thought, "Who needs that?" [Laughs] On a movie they'd just say "cut" and we'd do it again.