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FREEMAN, MORGAN – LEVITY

COURTING FREEMAN
What really attracted the much-in-demand Morgan Freeman to star in and executive produce the unusual drama, Levity, was that he was seriously ‘courted’ by writer and director Ed Solomon, who took his suggestions to heart, Freeman reveals to Andrew L. Urban from his home in Mississippi.


By an odd coincidence, I happened to see Bruce Almighty the day before previewing Levity on DVD; in the former, Morgan Freeman plays God, and in Levity he plays a mysterious minister of the cloth. When I mentioned the coincidence to Freeman during our phone interview, he chuckles and points out that in fact he made Levity before Bruce Almighty. “So it wasn’t a demotion but a promotion …”

And I suppose playing God is about as high up the metaphysical acting ladder as you can get, even if it’s in jest, and even if your co-star is Jim Carrey, who has been complaining about your work of late. In Levity, nobody complains about Freeman’s work as Miles Evans, the minister handing out his own form of sensible redemption medicine to youths who are made to listen to him. “You don’t have to give a damn, but you have to sit there for 15 minutes and listen” he tells them. The kids sit there and listen – and not simply because Miles Evans is such a forceful character, though he is that, but for the pragmatic reason that Miles Evans lets them park in his community centre car park all night, while they go nightclubbing.

"this character exists TODAY"

“Miles is a character who, in the playing, you realise, has no past and no future. Generally, when you play a character on some level you fill in the background on him, to help you with the realisation. But what if there is no background to fill in.”

To Freeman, that was the interesting part: “you just have to take it like it is…this character exists TODAY.”

But Freeman confesses that he was initially attracted to the film because “I was being courted by Ed, and actors like that. And when [writer/director Ed Solomon] took my suggestions so much to heart, I realised he was very serious about this. That was a big come-on. And it was also a chance for my production company, Revelations, to get involved with another project.”

And with that, Ed Solomon got himself a star and an executive producer. (Another executive producer of the film is Australia’s Fred Schepisi.) It would not have been hard to then entice Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst and Holly Hunter along. Morgan Freeman’s track record is – even without the Almighty – impressive to say the least.

He’s played everything from the humble Hoke Colbum, chauffeuring Miss Daisy (1989) to the Oscars, to President Tom Beck who has to help avert global catastrophe in Deep Impact (1998), to Malcolm X in Death of a Prophet (1981) and pretty well everything in between, including Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) – which was the first occasion on which I interviewed him, up in the brisk air of northern Yorkshire. 

He disliked the cold there as much as he disliked the cold of Montreal, when shooting Levity. That’s why he lives in Mississippi, where he can play with his horses, sail his yacht and fly his plane. 

"I don’t take a break . . . it’s forced on me"

He’s clearly unhappy, though, when he’s not acting. “I don’t take a break . . . it’s forced on me,” he says dryly. 

But even as he says those words, there are seven new films of his waiting in the wings in various stages of planning, pre-production and post production, including Shekhar Kapur’s Long Walk to Freedom (script by William Nicholson) in which Freeman plays Nelson Mandela - and the unconnected, Freedomland, to be directed by Michael Winterbottom and based on Richard Price’s book, a contemporary thriller. (Price wrote the screenplay for the remake of Shaft, among other things.)

Levity, the fourth Freeman-starring film completed in 2003, seems destined for the DVD shelves – and Freeman doesn’t seem perturbed. “It fits snugly into the arthouse category,” he says. Indeed, the film was screened at both the 2003 Sundance and Toronto film festivals. It’s a compassionate story, in which Billy Bob Thornton plays a muted, humourless character. Almost like a man who wasn’t there…

His life sentence for murder commuted to 19 years, Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) is freed against his will. Driven by a need for redemption, Manual returns to the locality of the crime, and is recruited to work as a helper in the local community program run by the self appointed, bejewelled and bizarre minister, Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman). Here, the introverted Manual tries to influence young Sofia (Kirsten Dunst) to change her self-destructive lifestyle and he also tentatively makes contact with the sister of the teenager he killed, Adele (Holly Hunter) and her teenage son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor), without revealing his real identity – all in pursuit of somehow redressing the wrong he did. Nobody is who they seem . . . 

“Even though the weather was awful, the cast is terrific,” says Freeman, “and Holly Hunter is one of my favourite actresses, an incredibly good actress – though I don’t get to work a scene with her.”

"As for Billy Bob Thornton"

As for Billy Bob Thornton, he was easy to work with, “despite playing Manual muted down … that was a great choice.”

By now it’s three in the afternoon in Mississippi, and Freeman has to go; the horses need attention, the yacht needs hosing down and the plane needs filling up. Someone’s gotta do it.

Levity is released on DVD on September 24, 2003.

Published September 18, 2003

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