Bringing Nelson Mandela's life to the big screen would be daunting for some actors, but Morgan Freeman says it's a role he always knew he would play. "I was anointed by him, so to speak, back in the mid-90s when he was asked, 'If his book became a movie,who would he want to play him?'" Morgan says. "He said me. So I knew somewhere down the line that I would be playing Nelson Mandela."
When Morgan received the script for Invictus—a story about Mandela's effort to unite his country through rugby—he knew the day had arrived. "It was perfect," he says.
Morgan's portrayal earned him an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor. This is Morgan's fifth Oscar nomination. He received his first Oscar statuette in 2005 for his supporting role in Million Dollar Baby.
At 91 years old, Nelson Mandela remains one of the world's most influential leaders. To capture every nuance of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Morgan says he spent a lot of time with him over the years. "I had told him long ago, 'Listen, if I'm going to play you, I need to have access to you," he says. "So over the years, we became friends, and I watched him very carefully and learned how to be him a little bit."
Morgan admits spending time with Mandela was at first intimidating. "What do you say when you meet somebody like that?" he says. "All you can think of to say is, 'I'm honored to meet you, sir.' And then shut up."
When the movie was finished, Morgan watched the film with Mandela over two days at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. "He sat right next to me," Morgan says.
Morgan says he wasn't scared to show Mandela the film, but he was concerned. "If he didn't like it, I didn't think he would say anything, but if he did like it, he wouldn't be able to hide it," Morgan says. "And he wasn't able to hide it."
At first, Morgan says Mandela was hard to read. "There's that sphinx thing about him," he says. "But when I came onscreen, he leaned over and said, 'I know that fellow.' So I took that to mean he recognized himself in me, and that was a big plus."