Morgan Freeman on Obama, Movies and Race

Actor Morgan Freeman endorsed Barack Obama but won't join him on the campaign trail. "I'm an actor, not a politician," he explains. Yet the 70-year-old star lingers long enough on the topic to liken Obama to his generation's ideal and idealistic politician. "Remember JFK?" he asks, recalling Kennedy-era programs like Vista and the Peace Corps. Obama can offer that kind of inspirational leadership, Freeman says. As someone who has overcome racial barriers to become a major box-office draw, Freeman was asked to give his sense of race relations in America today. "I don't do race," he said.

Freeman was in Washington on Tuesday to promote a hurricane-relief program he founded--along with his new film, "The Bucket List." The elegant actor is known for playing roles of great authority, including God, and when he took the podium at the National Press Club, he told the audience how he had once sat next to Charlton Heston at a dinner event and watched the man who played Moses in the movies scribble away on 5x7 cards, which he then spoke from for 40 minutes. "How can an actor do that?" Freeman recalled wondering. "I need a script!"

Freeman rifled through several pages he'd carried to the podium. He had all this paper, all this information, he said, but he didn't think anybody really wanted him to read it, so he'd rather take questions. "Don't ask me anything I don't know," he said. The press club president, Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News, looked panicky as he motioned for people to quickly pass along their written questions. What could have been a truly awkward hour turned into a tour de force as Freeman fielded questions with disarming candor on everything from diversity in Hollywood to what Clint Eastwood is really like.

Asked how he chose the charity he was promoting, he said, "I was lassoed." He sails his boat in the Caribbean and spends a lot of time in Grenada. When the island was hit with a devastating storm, friends appealed to him to help. He called his publicist, who also happens to be his sister-in-law, and she said she'd see what she could do about it. The result was the Grenada Relief Fund, which is now part of a wider relief effort called Planet Now. What does he see for Planet Now in five years? "I don't know. It may become worldwide," he said. "It's one of those things I asked you not to ask me." Are there other causes he's involved in? "No," a response that elicited laughter if only for its unapologetic directness.

He was more at home, and equally direct, when the questions turned to his profession. What advice would he give to aspiring actors? "Act," he said. Pressed on the subject of diversity in Hollywood, he turned the question around and asked the audience to name the highest earning film of the previous weekend. "I Am Legend" stars Will Smith, "one of those hyphenated Americans," Freeman observed, as in African-American. Growing up in a small Mississippi Delta town, Freeman knew from an early age he wanted to be in the movies. He mimicked the way Gary Cooper walked, the way Spencer Tracy moved, Victor Mature's facial expressions. But when asked who had the greatest influence on him, he replied without hesitation, Sidney Poitier. "That diversity didn't exist before Sidney ascended to stardom, and the fact that he got there was enough for me to believe I could get there," Freeman said. "I told him one time he was the star that guided my ship of life."

Freeman is what's known as a Hollywood immortal: so beloved, after movies like "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Shawshank Redemption," that audiences don't want him to die even when he plays a character that deserves to come to a bad end. After focus groups rebelled, one studio remade the ending of a crime drama to allow him to live. In his upcoming movie, "The Bucket List," he and Jack Nicholson play two terminal cancer patients who determine to kick the bucket together and go out in a grand way. Rob Reiner is the director. Freeman also talked about working for director Clint Eastwood. "He's lightning fast--you do two takes and move on." His interaction with the actors is almost nil, which is fine with Freeman. "He hires an actor with the understanding you know what you're doing," he explains. "I like the hands-off approach."

Asked how he prepared when he played God ("Bruce Almighty"), Freeman was characteristically dismissive. "I'm an itinerant actor," he said. "I don't identify with the character. When the director says 'Cut,' they're gone." But on reflection, he amended his answer. "Acting is believing," he said. His next project is playing Nelson Mandela, a role that's been in his sights for 15 years. He told Mandela he needed access--"I want to be able to hold your hand"--and the two have grown close over the years. Freeman may not do race in the conventional sense, but his life and his aspirations attest to the hopes embodied in Obama's candidacy. He's been on the campaign trail in his own way a lot longer than Obama.