One American film critic has called him the "greatest actor in America today". High praise indeed, particularly when you note that the accolade doesn't come prefaced with the qualifier "black". But with three Oscar nominations under his belt, Morgan Freeman, now approaching his 60th birthday, is that rare thing - a quality act and Hollywood star. From his marvellous performance as Red Redding in The Shawshank Redemption to chauffeur Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy through to the seen-it- all-before cop in Seven alongside Brad Pitt, Freeman has garnered nothing but praise from critics and audiences alike.
How then does one ask someone of his stature whatever possessed him to go within a hundred miles of his latest project, a big-screen version of Moll Flanders so comprehensively dire it could almost convince me that our own home-grown telly adaptation (starring Alex Kingston) should be filed immediately under chef d'uvre. So, I say, somewhat obliquely, isn't this part, erm, something of a departure for you? "I wouldn't call it that," he replies. "I don't have a normal set of parameters for the work that I do. I like things that are off the beaten path and Moll was definitely that. The general consensus seems to be that black people didn't show up until around slavery time in the 1800s. Pen Densham [the film's writer/director] knows better."
It was after they had worked together on Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves that Densham offered Freeman the part of Hubbie, servant and friend to Moll. But opting to play the archetypal black factotum is not something we've come to expect of Freeman. "If a good slave part comes along, I'll play it," he says casually. Yet, while he has little time for political correctness, it's not something he can completely ignore. "You do have to worry about it," he says, "because it gets to be an extreme situation when it gets out of hand. I think it's all been overblown. Sexual harassment, racial what-have-you - it's getting a bit tricky just to negotiate."
He's equally ambivalent about positive discrimination. "A lot of people have been held below their potential because of institutionalised racism. But the danger of affirmative action is that, too often, you tend to promote mediocrity."
Those in the black American community who have tried to exert pressure upon him by reminding him of where his priorities should lie have been given short shrift. "Very early on in my career it was tried by those who had set themselves up as spokespersons. They said, `This is what you should be doing and this is what you should look like.' But I'm responsible only to myself and my values. Not to anyone else's idea of me as some sort of icon or totem."
Born in Memphis and raised partly in Mississippi and Chicago, Morgan was brought up, along with four brothers and a sister, by both his mother, a "domestic", and grandmother, a seamstress. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to presume it was a childhood marked by poverty. "There was a short period in the tenement in Chicago, when I was about nine, when food was sometimes hard to come by. But, by and large, we had food. Although we had to struggle for everything. I had a paper round and I worked in grocery stores, whatever, to get money. Neither my grandmother nor mother could afford to give me $15 to have for the week."
A child at a time when segregation was still compulsory, Freeman attended an all-black High School where the staff were united on one principle. "You were taught that you must excel. Now, of course, not everybody got that message, but that was the message. I have friends from then who are wildly successful and some who are the opposite. But my mind never lent itself to hooliganism - I was never that way. I was bookish and had a library card at the age of eight."
Desperate to fly, he joined the US Air Force after school, at a time when black pilots were almost unheard of. He didn't win his wings, however, and enrolled instead at Los Angeles City College. "When I first went to California," he recalls, "you could name the black actors who were in work there. As there was no television, there was no huge demand for talent. And, in films, there was only the one star - Sidney Poitier."
Fittingly, it was Poitier's autobiography that convinced Freeman that he could succeed. "It became very clear to me that it was possible to do it. You just had to knuckle down and try to stay with it. If you say institutionalised racism will keep you from doing something, you won't try. There's a danger of assigning all of your failures to racism. That's too easy - it's the perfect scapegoat. But it's not easy for anyone - no matter what colour they are."
His big break came when he landed the role of Easy Rider in the children's TV show, The Electric Company. Unfortunately, along with increased success, came a greater fondness for alcohol. "I wasn't alcoholic - I just found myself losing control of it, so I quit. When you're younger and you have wild success, there is an awful lot of temptation in the world. But I didn't have to go anywhere and check myself in - I just didn't drink any more."
That shows some willpower. Yes, he says, he's never been short of that.
When he's not filming, his great passion is sailing his Shannon 43 or riding his horses. He maintains that every morning he still wakes up amazed that he cracked it. "I'm very thankful." If he has any gripe, it's that he has become a victim of his own popularity.
"I am apparently well liked by the audience," he complains, "so it's difficult to kill me off. And they don't want me to be a bad guy either. So, in the middle of filming Chain Reaction, for example, we had to change the approach and the attitude of the villain, so I could come out smelling OK in the end."
Perhaps also that's connected to his emerging role as a late-blooming sex symbol? "Hey, this sex symbol business is not what it's all cracked up to be," he laughs. "It's reassuring, however, that I'm not allowing myself to go to pot and it keeps me from allowing that"n
`Moll Flanders' goes on general release tomorrow
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies