In Bruce Almighty he wears a smart white suit and gets to be God. His celebrated roles in The Shawshank Redemption and his omniscient narration in March of the Penguins add to the perception that Morgan Freeman is a different class of actor, an actor whom the public instinctively warms to as a good man, possibly even a holy man. No wonder that when Nelson Mandela was asked who should represent him in the movies, the first name on his lips was the Tennessee-born veteran who at the age of 68 seems at the peak of his game.
He won a best supporting Oscar in Million Dollar Baby. But now he wants a break from being good. His latest film, Lucky Number Slevin, features him as a blackhearted gangster in a showdown with an equally blackhearted gangster foe played by Ben Kingsley. There is, it's evident, a thirst for playing bad in him. And the ultimate bad guy is high on his list.
Freeman hasn't seen Lucky Number Slevin. He has a thing about this. "I haven't seen Shawshank Redemption either," he tells me. He's well known in the industry for refusing to view the final cut of his movies (except, he tells me, Million Dollar Baby, which he has seen in its complete form). It's almost a superstitious thing, as if to see himself dissembling, acting, taking up a role, is in some way to invite disaster on himself. "I find it difficult to watch myself," he admits when I ask him. "I find it boring."
Still, this good guy thing seems to bother him, reading between the lines. He's making movies and then reacting to the general public ideal when they walk up to him on the streets. They have almost without exception seen him being dignified and humane in a dozen or more movies, or have been soothed by his remarkable speaking voice as he talks about penguins on their long and urgent trek to reproduce on plains of windswept ice.
Does he get annoyed by people thinking he is a good guy and somehow better than other people? There's a wince. "I know better," he says in a resigned way.
But some people see you as sympathetic, I persist. "I think I'm a sympathetic person even if I play a bad guy," he counters. "Whatever character you play, you come off better if you admire the character you are playing."
That careworn, lived-in face with all its scarring and skin blemishes. That extraordinarily evocative voice, like honey and molasses and mint juleps on the porch by the river. When Freeman plays the bad guy it has a weird kind of fascination, as if you can't quite believe he's actually doing it, as if it's a beloved relative behaving badly.
But, underneath it all, you get his sense of fun. It's almost a sense of mischief. He's one of those actors who learns the scripts and turns up on the day. He's about as far away from Method as its possible to be. He's the sort who can play anything and goes home to his wife for a quiet dinner at the end of the day.
"I was talking to Bob Hoskins when we were making Unleashed together," he recalls. "We were talking about the joy of doing bad guys. And he confirmed exactly what I was thinking. With bad guys you get to let it all out. All those dark places in your psyche? You can let 'em go. When you play good guys, it's kind of boring. It's one note."
He's talked in the past of how he in some ways regrets Driving Miss Daisy, another Oscar-nominated performance that he called "a big mistake" - his all-knowing chauffeur another favourite of the people who come up to him on the streets and mistake him for his characters.
On the whole he's delicate and cautious about badmouthing his directors and his films. He's a proud man, eager to talk of his Oscar nominations and what he has achieved. But this stage-trained actor who started out with Shakespeare and Brecht clearly feels there's a certain vulgarity in the movies, and specifically about having to sell them. He is loved, but he wants to be respected.
I suspect he identifies with his character in Lucky Number Slevin. Did he research the role in any way? "I never find that way into a character," he says. "I read the script. And reading the script is like when you read a book and find the character within that is you. Your sympathies have to lie somewhere. So you watch and see that character's emotions and motivations. This is a very clever man. Arrogant. Arrogant about his success. And he exercises a lot of control. You could overlay this on the corporate structure."
The director, the Brit Paul McGuigan, who also made the equally visceral Gangster No 1, has picked out a scene towards the end as a particular favourite. Without wishing to give too much away, the two men, both hellbent on destroying the other, are in a room together and are being "encouraged" towards a more truthful state of mind by Bruce Willis (like Freeman, a late addition to the casting).
Was Freeman intimidated by Kingsley at all, or rather the somewhat obvious revisit to his Sexy Beast persona? What was it like being in the room with that level of hissing, spitting evil? "Oh, heavens, no, we're actors," he smiles. "We're pretenders, we know we're pretenders. What scares me is actors who forget they are pretending."
I asked him about his long-trailed project concerning Nelson Mandela, and dramatising the autobiography of the man. It was first mentioned as long back as 2002 with Shekhar Kapur pencilled in as the man to direct. "Shekhar has gone on to other projects and he's no longer associated," Freeman confirms. "But the film is still in the pipeline somewhere.
"The biggest problem with major works is that it takes years of hard work to get the script. The book it is adapted from is 700 pages and we're now onto the fourth draft. But we have a young South African writer-director on board now who we feel can handle it."
Was it true that Mandela asked for him? "Well, he didn't ask for me but when he was asked whom he would like to play the role, he did use my name, yeah." Had they ever met? "Yes, I met him on a number of occasions and I told him I was thrilled he wanted me to be him."
He must have taken the opportunity to study him a little, I venture. "The first thing you notice about him is his dedication to his country and the depth of his character, his soul, and that he offers so much of himself. The negative side is the heaviest part, the sense of loss - his mom is dead, his children. Nobody knows this side of him."
Well, I say, he's been the voice of God on so many occasions. He's going to be God again when the sequel to Bruce Almighty starts principal photography in a few weeks. When his voiceover takes us into War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise there is the sense of an all-seeing eye, a fatalistic and slightly sad one, casting its sweep across the lot of humanity.
Has he ever thought of playing the Devil? For the first time in the interview, Freeman seems to wake up. An energy comes into his voice that is quite different. It's about time, I carry on, he put on the horns and tail. He seems gripped by the idea.
"I had a fantasy, to tell you the truth. That I should do it. If I could interest the right people." I think he'd make a good Devil, I say. "Who do you think God is," he whispers. "Think about it and tell me who you think the Devil is." He pauses. The same, I venture, weakly, not sure where this is going. "Both sides of the same person," he nods, "they have to be."
It seems he had some kind of revelation one morning in his house in Mississippi. "It occurred to me about three days ago. I was washing my face. I had this whole dialogue with myself."
What did he say? There's a pause as the Destroyer of Worlds comes into view. His voice takes on a devilish hue - hubris, pride, power. "You people - talking about the world at large - you astound me sometimes how ignorant you are about yourselves. Don't you know who I really am?" He lowers his voice to a hush, conspiratorially. "And it's the Devil talking."
Perhaps it's a reaction to the idea of having to be God again - divinity beckons mere weeks away, and the thought is probably exhausting. It's a money gig; Bruce Almighty is the most successful film he's ever been in (he has bitterly observed elsewhere that Dumb and Dumber made three times what The Shawshank Redemption grossed, both made in the same year). He'd rather be working on his pet projects with his own Santa Monica production company, including a low-budget feature for Broadband with Paz Vega.
So he'll be God yet again, I say. "All the more reason to be the Devil!' he persists, thoroughly caught up in the idea. Would he change his appearance to be Old Nick? "You wouldn't be able to tell them apart but for the costumes, which would be my idea."
And the Devil would have to be charming. "Extraordinarily charming," he agrees. Well-dressed and wearing Prada? "Why don't you write it?" he suddenly asks, with sly gentility, as we end our conversation on the faintest whiff of sulphur.
'Lucky Number Slevin' opens on 24 FebruaryReuse content