The menacing charm of Morgan Freeman

He was the moral pillar in Seven, the chivalrous chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. But when Fiona Morrow met one of America's leading actors, she was allowed to glimpse a more sinister side
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"I'm an easy lay." Morgan Freeman swivels in his seat and gives us the wink. He's on stage at the NFT, and the audience is lapping up his witty, flirtatious repartee; they've paid for a good time with one of Hollywood's leading actors and there's no way he's about to short change them.

"I'm an easy lay." Morgan Freeman swivels in his seat and gives us the wink. He's on stage at the NFT, and the audience is lapping up his witty, flirtatious repartee; they've paid for a good time with one of Hollywood's leading actors and there's no way he's about to short change them.

"Give me an audience and I'm going to perform - it's hopelessly wrapped up in my genes." Freeman smiles generously; it's the following afternoon and the actor is sipping coffee and munching chocolate biscuits in his Dorchester suite. He's chosen his clothes carefully - taupe silky shirt, buttoned at the collar (no tie), matching trousers and brown tweed jacket - he's dignified, but stylish. If it weren't for the gold ring in his ear and the twinklein his eyes, I might buy into this conservative exterior.

Gravitas is the quality most interviewers ascribe him, and, of course, it's the one which sticks in his throat. Still, with his deep Southern drawl underpinned by a hint of gravel, and his confident, unhurried air, Freeman effortlessly draws your attention. And he is attentive in return - at times disarmingly so - meeting my questions with a steady, penetrating gaze, rolling my name around his tongue a few times.

That he is a great actor is taken as read. Freeman wastes no time with false modesty, aware that he's part of a select group of older stars who can justly afford pride in their body of work. He tells me that he believes diversity is the key: "One of my idols is Anthony Hopkins," he says, perhaps surprisingly, "and the other one who comes to mind is Robert DeNiro - he's a little bit pigeon-holed into the wise-guy thing, but he's still one of our chameleons, and he also thrives on diversity. But Hopkins, I think, might be the paragon of it - he's all over the place."

By 63, most of us might imagine seeking a quieter life - a rest, even - but Freeman appears a man on a roll. He has two movies out in a matter of weeks - Nurse Betty and Under Suspicion - and projects in hand which will see him play a transvestite professional thief, and the political icon of our age, Nelson Mandela. "Life is cyclical," he offers philosophically. "You wax and you wane. It's great."

In Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, Freeman plays Charlie, a hit man with a heart, who falls in love with Betty (Renee Zellweger) as he criss-crosses the country on her tail. It's another terrific performance, Freeman veering from quiet consideration to steely danger in an instant as he guides his volatile protégé, Wesley (Chris Rock), in the art of professional killing. Freeman had seen LaBute's debut feature, In The Company Of Men, before he read the script for Nurse Betty, and was intrigued by how different it was: "I thought, this is bizarre, this is a departure." It certainly is - a tale of parallel lives, in which reality and fantasy, soap opera and action-thriller pair up beautifully. Nurse Betty isn't a LaBute screenplay and couldn't be more different from the director's earlier films.

If Freeman was tempted by LaBute's choice of script, he was even more interested to see how acting with Rock would work out: "I watch Chris's show, so I know he's this really bright, hot talent -- but he's a stand-up comedian, and I didn't know if he could act." He wasn't overly concerned, however: "All I'm going to do is my job," he explains matter-of-factly. "So it will fall on him to do his." Freeman pauses, smiles and continues: "Turns out, that's precisely what he's capable of - his job. He's a natural, gifted performer, he just has it in him." I get the feeling this is no faint praise; Freeman is not the type to pour oil where it's not deserved.

I ask him if he approaches things differently when he's cast opposite the likes of Christian Slater ( Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves), Brad Pitt ( Seven) and Rock - younger actors with showier parts - than when acting alongside contemporaries such as Clint Eastwood ( Unforgiven), Gene Hackman ( Under Suspicion, basically a two-hander between them both) and Anthony Hopkins ( Amistad).

He takes another biscuit, sits back and chews thoughtfully before answering. "I'll step out a little bit on a limb here, but when you're working with older, established actors, you're pretty much working with someone you idolise. I do not idolise the young actors - I certainly admire Chris, and Brad, but they are not people I would look up to. The more established actors understand what you can say by not saying anything. We have the ability to play off that part of our characterisation; Eastwood knows that - that's why he's Clint Eastwood, Hackman knows that, I know that. So we're always looking for the moments where that synergy can take place, and we can capture it."

Freeman's great gift on screen is his stillness. All hell can break loose around him, and our gaze will turn to watch him think. One critic described him as a sponge, able to soak up the screen's energy, and I wonder whether that's something he consciously strives to maintain. His brow furrows momentarily:

"I think that's innately me, and I can't really analyse myself, but I do know that what generates the most excitement in performance is the inner life. You can chew the scenery all you want, but if you're dead on the other side the audience knows it. But if you're totally alive on the inside, you don't have to do anything, because you've made the connection where it needs to be made - viscerally."

At the NFT he offered up Glory, Edward Zwick's exploration of the role of black soldiers in the American Civil War, as the film he was most proud to be a part of, and his Oscar-nominated role as the pimp in Jerry Shatzberg's Street Smart as the most enjoyable. "It was the part in which I could play a side of me which isn't usually out there," he explained.

I push him on this last comment, and catch the calculation cross his face before he moves to the edge of his seat, leans forward, stares straight at me, and gives me the works.

"That dark part of you. That part that can get killingly angry. The part of you that is charming" - his eyes subtly, but insistingly, travel around my body, as he drops his voice a notch and continues - "that likes women an awful lot, and could see how I could tell you" - he shifts closer again - "that you probably do not have to suffer the way you're suffering to make better money doing what you apparently like to do. So," he raises his eyebrows. "Can we talk?"

I am, by this time, scrunched up in the corner of my chair, subconsciously grasping for a cushion to pull in front of me. Freeman notices and is enjoying himself; on to a subject he clearly likes to talk about, he continues before the mood breaks.

"A lot of women would see that right away. And you're in business, and I have a full appreciation of that. If you walk the streets out there, making that hard living, what you need is back-up. We share - I give you the support. Unless you have steadies, regulars from whom you know what to expect, then you're dealing with a different possibility each time. You could suffer pain, mutilation - people are awfully strange. There is somewhere in me which understands that, and could literally see myself doing that."

So was it cathartic or frightening to play it out? He lets out a deep whoosh of breath. "Oh yes, it's cathartic. Oh yeah. To be menacing, to be thought of as volatile and dangerous, charming, sexy, dependable. You go out and you've got maybe six very attractive women and they all jump when you snap your fingers..."

With that last thought dangling wistfully in the air, he sighs contentedly and grins. As we say goodbye he's playing with my name again, the twinkle in his eye blazing forth.

'Nurse Betty' is released on 1 September

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