What you remember most about Morgan Freeman is his walk. Heading off in search of Mexican food, the 52-year-old actor's elegantly effortless gait takes him around the corner and down the street so fast that you find yourself in quick-step, hurrying just to keep pace.
If you've seen his films, you realize Freeman, who began his career in a musical theater troupe, hasn't let his dancer's training go to waste. He uses his walk as an expression of character.
"As an actor, you always look for authenticity," said Freeman, a tall, slender man with smooth hands, a graying goatee and a piercing gaze. "For me, the greatest enjoyment of doing movies is going from the page (of the script) to the visceral. It's always a challenge to take a character who may have just been sketched out in the script, and give him a history, give him flesh and bone."
In his breakthrough film, 1987's "Street Smart," Freeman plays a volatile pimp who moves with a loping, sensuous glide. For "Glory," the new Tri-Star film that co-stars Freeman as the steely sergeant of an all-black regiment in the Civil War, he leads his troops with a brusque, commanding stride.
But Freeman saved his most distinctive walk for Hoke Coleburn, his character in "Driving Miss Daisy," which Freeman originated on stage (winning an Obie) and now plays in a new Warners film adaptation. Largely set in the pre-civil rights South, "Daisy" portrays an aged black chauffeur working for a quarrelsome old Atlanta Jewish woman.
Playing a man who is stern and shrewd but unfailingly deferential, Freeman moves with his head cocked to one side, his walk a rambling, stiff-legged gait searching for level ground. As "Daisy" director Bruce Beresford put it: "He's another man when he's Hoke--he's not impersonating him."
Having spent much of his childhood in Mississippi, Freeman had a strong emotional tie to Coleburn. "I knew exactly who that character was," he said. "He was a country man, which is where that walk comes from. When you lived in the country, you plowed the fields a lot, and if you grew up in the rural South, you went barefoot a lot, all your childhood, maybe into your teens, and you hit a lot of rocks along the way."
Freeman tapped his knees. "There's a way people walk when they're barefoot. For example, you can tell the difference between the way someone from China walks--and the way someone Chinese who was born in America walks. Chinese from the old country walk flat-footed and lead with their hips. Chinese who grew up here lead with their knees--they swagger just like the rest of us do."
Freeman offered a modest shrug. "The walk's just one little part of it. I just tried to bring Hoke's character to life. I was fascinated that the white guy who wrote 'Daisy' could write that character so well. He knew the song of the South--and the song is in everything, the language, the music and the walk."
One of Freeman's favorite quotations is from Marcus Garvey. "A people without a sense of their history," the black nationalist leader once said, "is like a tree without roots."
Freeman is a student of all history, but he is particularly fascinated by the lost heroes of black American history, who've largely been passed over by Hollywood, our national myth-making machine.
"All my life I've been going to the movies," he said, sliding into a booth at a local Mexican eatery. "When I was 9, living in Chicago, you could sell a milk bottle for a nickel and a beer bottle for 2 cents, and if you sold enough to make 12 cents, you had entree into those huge movie palaces. They had velvet ropes and vaulted stairs and chandeliers and darkness.
"And for 12 cents, you could enter that magical world. I'd stay all day--you could see two features, cartoons and newsreels."
And rarely, if ever, see a black face on screen.
"All my life I've been going to the movies," he said, sitting back and sifting through his memories. "And you learn to accept life as it is. You live in a world that's dominated by a white European culture and sensibility. And the truth of black history on this continent, in this country, has been shaded out.
"It's as if almost all the contributions made by blacks and native Americans didn't exist. Either it hasn't been told or it hasn't been told accurately. In the history of America, we picked cotton, we hummed and we said, 'Oh Lord, have mercy,' a lot. The concrete contributions of black Americans have been laid aside, so that we as a people don't know who we are."
So when Freeman heard that director Ed Zwick was making "Glory," a film which stars Mathew Broderick and focuses on the dramatic role black soldiers played fighting--and dying--in the Civil War, he eagerly made himself available.
"After I read the script I immediately told my agent, 'Call 'em.' I was so enthusiastic that I bet they knew if they pushed it, they could've got me for free."
The film makers couldn't help but notice Freeman's enthusiasm. "He just walked in and said, 'You got me,' " Zwick said. "Morgan's work has so distinguished itself that when it came time to cast a part that needed a sense of command, he was the obvious choice."
The cast, which also includes Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Jihmi Kennedy, spent several weeks together before shooting began, rehearsing the film's intimate ensemble scenes. "Morgan was always there, constantly prepared with new ideas," said Zwick. "But he never approached it as being his idea--he was only concerned with whether it was a good idea."
The cast also spent a great deal of time in less esoteric pursuits, learning how to drill and march and shoot weapons like real Civil War soldiers. "Morgan exercised an astonishing moral authority," Zwick said. "You have to remember, we were out there with hundreds of extras, who didn't always know exactly what we were doing. And he not only acted the part of a Sergeant Major, but set an example.
"When it was cold, he was on the set. When it rained, he was the first one out marching. Everything he does is informed with a sense of real experience, not fatuous experience. I remember talking with Glenn Caron (who directed Freeman in "Clean and Sober") who said, 'If there's such a thing as an actor's director, then Morgan is a director's actor.' "
Freeman was born in Memphis, Tenn., at John Castle Hospital, where his parents worked. At 6, after his parents split up, he moved to Chicago, a traumatic journey for a child of the rural South.
"It was the winter of 1943, the winter of my discontent, one of many," he said quietly. "Coming from the South, I had never experienced anything like that. I was shy and frightened. And the weather could be so malevolent and attack you with such ferocity. Sometimes you would turn a corner and you couldn't even breathe. You had to go back to where you came from so you could take a breath."
Freeman shuttled back and forth between Chicago and Mississippi until 11, when the family settled in Greenwood, a hamlet near Mississippi's Delta country. "I did a lot better down there. Chicago had been a jungle and I was ill prepared for it."
Freeman flashed a sly grin. "I wasn't a jungle denizen. I was very socially unsophisticated--I didn't know what to do with myself."
That is, until he discovered acting. Freeman's seventh-grade English teacher--a tall, elegant man named Mr. Johnson--convinced him to appear in a play which was performed at a local theater tournament. His school went all the way to the national finals, where Freeman was named the best actor.
Instead of pursuing the theater, Freeman finished high school and joined the Air Force. After his discharge, he took acting and dance classes and bounced around the country, ending up in 1966 as a lowly understudy in a bus-and-truck company production of "The Royal Hunt of the Sun."
"One night I finally went on, as an Inca general and I actually got to say words on stage," he said with an enthusiastic wave. "And I had this thunderclap of realization that I'd been misdirected, doing dance all these years. My real purpose was acting."
A year later Freeman had opened a play on the New York stage and was on his way to a steady career in the theater. He also served a five-year stint as Easy Reader on PBS' Electric Company. He worked in films--he had a small part in "Brubaker"--but he also turned down roles in scripts he found objectionable, like the infamous "White Dog," the Samuel Fuller movie about a dog trained to kill blacks.
When he finally won critical laurels in "Street Smart," he was just opening off-Broadway in "Driving Miss Daisy."
"I had the film critics talking about this incredible pimp and I had the theater critics talking about this old Southerner," he said. "So I was looking good."
Afterward came a starring role as tough-guy school principal Joe Clark in "Lean on Me." Though many black actors have complained of the sparsity of black roles, Freeman insists he works as much as he wants. He heatedly took issue with black critics who dismiss films like "Glory" and "Daisy" because they portray blacks in distant historical events or submissive roles, guaranteed not to threaten white moviegoers.
"I can't believe they've seen 'Glory,' " he said. "This is a movie which shows black men killing white men in wholesale numbers. You can't get much more threatening than that. You've never seen that before in Hollywood." He laughed. "And you may never see it again."
Freeman spread his hands, palms down, on the table. "I'm 52," he said. "The young are always more brash, more rebellious. When you're older, and you see who has the power, you have to decide whether to be an overt rebel or a guerrilla. And most of us choose to be guerrillas. You make whatever mark you can without being eliminated on the spot."
A thin smile spread across his face. "I hope I've always had a lot of guerrilla in me."
Freeman says he isn't waiting for the next great part to fall into his lap. With his take from "Lean on Me," he bought a 38-foot ketch, the latest trophy of a 20-year sailing career. After he finished shooting "Daisy," he and his wife left for Bermuda, and then headed to the Caribbean.
When he finishes promoting his new films, he is off for Trinidad--and beyond. His boat is named the Sojourner, which neatly captures the spirit of his seagoing voyages.
"It's just you and the water and the wind," he said, his voice lowered to a soft purr. "Some people feel insignificant out at sea. I feel the most significant, like I have wings. I fly like all the other sea birds."
On his way out of the restaurant, Freeman tells a story about his favorite bird, the albatross, who spends months at sea on end.
"They learn to fly by jumping off a cliff and being lifted by the wind. That's like sailing. You learn the power of the wind and how it can sustain you. Eventually you know you can jump off the cliff and go anywhere you want."
This formidable man beamed with delight, covering ground with his long, easy strides. "Anywhere," he repeated with an actor's flourish. "Wherever there's water, you have a home."