Q&A: Morgan Freeman on Dogs, Diane Keaton and His Narrating Superpower

Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman stars with Diane Keaton in “5 Flights Up.” FOCUS WORLD/LASCAUX FILMS

"I'm...functional," Morgan Freeman says when I find him seated at a table in Manhattan's Crosby Street Hotel, in SoHo, and ask how he's doing. It's his second or third interview of the day, and it's not yet noon. But for 77-year-old Freeman, "functional" turns out to be sharper, funnier and more coolly dignified than actors half his age.

The occasion is a brief slew of press for 5 Flights Up, the new romantic comedy starring Freeman and Diane Keaton as an aging New York couple looking to sell their beloved apartment of 40 years. It's a warm, small-scale love story based on the Jill Ciment novel Heroic Measures, and while obviously a lighter feature for the actor known for stints in Shawshank State Prison (The Shawshank Redemption) and the Civil War (Glory), it brings Freeman to unexplored terrain: the gentrified Brooklyn of 2015.

"It's cool now—filled with hipsters and moms pushing baby strollers that cost as much as Chevys," Freeman muses in his distinctive narrative voice-over. So it begins. The chaos that's unleashed when longtime painter Alex (Freeman) and his wife, Ruth (Diane Keaton), open up their abode to hordes of neurotic New York real estate nuts will be amusingly familiar to anyone crazy enough to buy property in this city.

Freeman talked to Newsweek about Keaton, New York's changing landscape and being asked to narrate pretty much everything. (Yes, his voice is that smooth in person.)

This is an unusual film for you. What drew you to it?

Well, I thought it was a terrific little script. A wonderful little story. A great opportunity to dance with one of your bucket-list actresses. And she [Keaton] is really high on my bucket list.

You had never worked with her before?

I had never worked with her before. So when this story came to us, it was a short question: Who? Who are we gonna dance with? Who would we like to dance with? There are three or four at the top of my bucket list, and she's way up there.

Who else?

Meryl Streep.

You'd met Diane before?

Yeah. 2008. I was doing [the play] Country Girl with Frances McDormand, and she came backstage and I met her. You meet people that you practically know because you've watched all their work. So I just told her how much I loved her and wanted her. And she says, "Well, I want you, too." So first opportunity that came along, I called and said, "Read this for me, please." She called and said, "I like it. Let's do it."

This movie is so much about Brooklyn and how it's changed. Are you attuned to the gentrification there?

Ah, well, I'm not really—no. Because I don't live here. I come and visit. I used to live here. I lived here until 1989. I spent more time in the Bronx than in Brooklyn. And I don't know if the Bronx has done that much changing. All of the boroughs have to take some of the weight off of Manhattan. People [are] still coming here to live, and they can't afford it. Young people are coming here for work. And a lot of them come because of show business, because of the financial area, and just cannot afford it. My granddaughter's coming here to work. And she just graduated from the University of Florida. And she had offers in Atlanta and in New York. I said, "Well, when you decide, think about cost of living."

Do you worry about displacement and people being priced out?

No. It's gonna happen. They need to worry about it. Where you're gonna go, what you're gonna do. I watched that whole gentrification thing happen in my neighborhood. I lived on the Upper West Side when I was here. And it was sad. Sad. People were literally jumping out of windows. Old people. "Where am I gonna go?" They found a woman dead in the subway once. She was worth $200,000 and had no idea. Because her husband died and she didn't know where the money was. Shit like that. Who takes care of these people once the caretaker is gone? That's New York, though. Hey, you're on your own.

You also narrate the film. Do you ever get tired of narrating movies?

No.

You're very in-demand as a narrator.

Well! But we only do a few. I get lots and lots and lots of requests.

How do you decide which you're willing to take on?

Money, money, money, moo-ooney! [Laughs.] No, it's mostly subject matter, what do you want me to talk about. After I did March of the Penguins, I had a lot of requests to do wildlife stuff. Which I really do like. I have done a couple for IMAX, and something else.

When did you first realize your voice was so suited to narration?

It's not I who realized it. It was someone else.

Who was it?

This all got started after The Shawshank Redemption. I became in-demand after that. Like I said, it's not that I realized it. Because you can realize anything you want! That still doesn't make you get work. If someone else realizes it...

What were some other challenges that arose while making the movie?

Well. I'll tell you if you don't tell anybody else. [Mock whispers] We had a male dog playing a female.

Were there, uh, complications in the filming?

No! No. We managed to keep things undercover, as it were.

The dog is a pretty emotionally draining part of the film. Are you a dog person?

Well...no. I was. Like everybody, I had my own dogs. Up until the last one. Which was a wonderful animal. A malamute that I raised in an apartment in New York. She was wonderful, very smart dog. After her I was on the boat. I was at sea most of the time. So that was not conducive to having my size dog. I'm not one who wants a lapdog. I want something that'll eat something. "Sic 'em!"

You play an interracial couple in the film.

No, we don't. We are an interracial couple in the film.

Which is something that was very seldom shown in films when your career began.

Yeah. The first one I think I can remember was One Potato, Two Potato. Waaay back. There was one called The World, the Flesh and the Devil with Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer and Inger Stevens. But nowadays nobody gets a twist in their knickers about interracial [couples].

The film touches on racism, but only in the form of flashbacks.

Precisely. And 40 years ago, it raised eyebrows in certain areas. But nowhere now. I live in Mississippi. And no eyebrows are raised there with interracial couples.

Is it hard to capture the intimacy of an older couple that's been together for 40-something years with someone you've never worked with before?

Depends on who you're working with.

With Diane Keaton?

None. No stress. When you're working with somebody you really, really like, and you find that in person rather than seeing them on the screen, that chemistry is still there.... It's so easy. There's nothing to it. No stress, no effort. You don't need to put on any special—you don't need a special mindset to make this work. It works on its own.

Have you had any real estate disasters of your own [like in the film's plot]?

Well, you can call it a disaster if you want to. The building that I lived in on the Upper West Side went co-op at a time when I didn't have any money. And couldn't borrow any money. If you don't have any job and you don't have any money, who do you go to to borrow from? I had well-to-do friends, but if you're not a good risk, they're not gonna do it. So I couldn't buy the apartment till I was making some money some years later. From $78,000, which I would've paid as an inside price when they first went co-op, I had to go up to $235,000 when I was finally able to buy the apartment. So that's a disaster.

What's the next project for you?

Next project will be Going in Style, a remake. Do you remember that? You seem a little young.

I don't think I've seen it.

It was Lee Strasberg, George Burns and I think—what's his name from the Jackie Gleason show? I'm doing it with Alan Arkin and Michael Caine.

Anything else?

Well, after that, if we go along with the idea, I'll go to Europe and do a spy movie. What you don't know and I didn't know is that there were black agents with the CIA during the Cold War. I said, "This is ridiculous. I'm not gonna be doing this." And then they sent me all this research. [I said,] "Wow, I didn't know that!" But that's why it's the CIA—you're not supposed to know.

Q&A: Morgan Freeman on Dogs, Diane Keaton and His Narrating Superpower | Culture