Morgan Freeman to play Mandela in new movie

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Morgan Freeman looks like he was born to play Nelson Mandela on the big screen. And after five years of false starts and at least one abandoned project, it seems next to certain that he will – in a dramatic retelling of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa, emerging from the dark decades of apartheid, hosted and won.

According to Variety, Hollywood's newspaper of record, Warner Brothers is about to give The Human Factor its blessing. Clint Eastwood is set to direct it and Matt Damon to co-star as the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar. A completed script for the film is based on a forthcoming book by John Carlin, a former foreign correspondent for The Independent who has covered South Africa extensively over the past two decades.

Freeman is similar in height and build to Mandela and, at 70, is approaching the age Mandela was when he was released from prison, in 1990, and took over as South Africa's first post-apartheid president in 1994.

He had wanted to adapt Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, and had the Indian director Shekhar Kapur lined up to direct. After that fell through, he stumbled on the Carlin book, to be called The Human Factor: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed The World, through a felicitous series of coincidences.

Early in summer last year, Carlin was on assignment in Mississippi for the Spanish newspaper El Pais and happened to run into Freeman in a town called Clarksville. Introducing himself, Carlin said: "Mr Freeman, I think I have a movie for you." His book, at that stage, was no more than a proposal and a publishing contract – Carlin had several more months of research before he was even ready to start writing.

He went on: "It's about an event that distils the essence of Mandela's genius and the essence of the South African miracle."

Freeman looked at him and asked: "You don't mean the rugby game, do you?" Carlin was so stunned he almost fell out of his chair. "There are no secrets in Hollywood," Freeman went on. "I have read your proposal."

Carlin's New York agent, Anne Edelstein, had circulated Carlin's 12-page book proposal around Hollywood several months earlier, on the off-chance it might capture someone's imagination.

After the meeting with Carlin, Freeman's production company, Revelations, bought the rights and hired a screenwriter. Freeman also met Mandela to get his blessing for the project.

The script, by the South African writer Tony Peckham, is now complete and has apparently impressed everyone who has read it. "Usually when you read a Hollywood adaptation you think – what a bunch of hollow, shallow crap," Carlin said. "But this screenplay is really bloody good."

Carlin said he has not stopped thinking about Hollywood since starting to write the book, which is still not quite finished but is not due to hit bookstores until next year. "This story is really the ultimate feel-good redemption movie," he said. "If the 1994 democratic elections were the consummation of the process [of shedding apartheid], the 1995 World Cup was the apotheosis of the process."

All the signs, meanwhile, are that the film could turn into a top-drawer prestige production. The last two films pairing Eastwood and Freeman – the 1991 western Unforgiven and the 2004 boxing drama Million Dollar Baby – both won best picture at the Oscars.

Eastwood has not confirmed his participation, and the casting of Damon is still subject to negotiation. However, Variety rarely reports impending film deals unless they are close to certain.