Ever since performing in a school play at age eight, Morgan Freeman always knew he loved acting. But though he has won an Oscar and been cast as God, he said his journey to Hollywood wasn’t easy.
The Academy Award-winning actor reminisced about the unlikely experiences and roles that have shaped him and his career before a crowd of over 1,500 at Woolsey Hall on Tuesday. While Freeman said that lucky encounters have factored into his success, he advised students to persevere when it comes to reaching their goals.
“I’ve always given a lot of credit and credence to providence in my life,” said Freeman. “I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how hard it would be, but I kind of knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Known for his deep, calm speaking voice and versatility as an actor, Freeman has acted in films such as “Invictus,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Million Dollar Baby,” for which he won the Academy Award in 2005.
But Freeman said he was not always so successful. Though he began pursuing a career in acting in 1959, he said his real break did not come until spring of 1987, when his first major film, “Street Smart,” hit theaters during the same month that he began starring in “Driving Miss Daisy” on Broadway.
Freeman said that the contrast between the terrifying pimp he played on the big screen and the kindly chauffeur he portrayed on the stage finally convinced Hollywood directors that he had serious potential as an actor.
James Bundy, dean of Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, praised the actor’s ability to “delve to the core of a character and infuse it with a quiet dignity.”
Freeman, 74, grew up watching movies and discovered early that he was a natural performer.
“My teachers gave me all kinds of kudos and breaks in school because I was so good on stage,” he said.
After high school, Freeman said he joined the military to get out of Mississippi, where his family lived at the time. While Freeman said he thought he wanted to be a fighter pilot, sitting in the nose of a fighter plane four years later, he realized he only wanted “to pretend to fly planes and kill people.”
“I realized then that something was missing,” he said, pausing. “No camera.”
Leaving the military with 175 dollars in his pocket and moving to Los Angeles, Freeman’s career finally began to creep along after a few months of poverty and hunger. He moved from a San Francisco musical comedy group, from which he was fired, to New York, where he studied ballet, tap and jazz. After landing his first off-Broadway and, later, Broadway roles, he played “Easy Reader” on the children’s television show “The Electric Company” in the early ’70s.
Freeman described the ’70s as a time of change in Hollywood, especially for black actors, with more roles open to actors of different races. After the success of “Street Smart” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” Freeman said the roles started pouring in, some of which he described as “black” roles and some as simply “roles.”
When asked to describe his experience as a black actor today, Freeman said Hollywood has come to the conclusion that the only color that matters is green.
“You make movies that make money,” he said. “[It doesn’t matter] what color you are … We’re riding a high wave of inclusivity.”
Before Freeman became part of the Hollywood in-crowd, he said he made it through initial struggles by staying optimistic. The surest way to fail is to give up, Freeman said, encouraging the audience members to stick with their goals.
Four students interviewed said they appreciated Freeman’s direct sense of humor and inspirational message.
“You could see both the actor and the person,” Mike Zhang ’12 said. “Sometimes you worry about the real person being not at all like the person you admire on TV, but he didn’t let me down.”
Hitoshi Kawashima ’15 said that while Freeman’s storytelling was somewhat scattered, the actor had many words of wisdom.
Freeman is currently filming “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.