Listen: Morgan Freeman reveals key to acting

Morgan Freeman is listening.

That's the trademark of the three-time Oscar nominee, whose latest project is "The Sum of All Fears," opening Friday. Since his 1987 breakthrough role as a pimp in "Street Smart" (a performance that prompted New Yorker critic Pauline Kael to ask rhetorically, "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?"), he's brought intelligence and style to dozens of movies, including "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Shawshank Redemption," and, earlier this year, "High Crimes." At the moment, he's on the phone from Los Angeles, listening to a question about his acting technique.

"I read somewhere, and I think it might have been the book 'An Actor Prepares,' that one of the keys to acting is reacting, and in order to react, you have to listen," says Freeman, 65, whose silk-with-a-touch-of-smoke voice is unmistakable, even on the phone. "The big danger in acting is to wait for your line. That's what I never do. I always listen, no matter how many times we do it."

Watch Freeman in any of his roles and you'll see him listening. He's one of those rare actors who's able to raise the level of the performances around him simply by his attentiveness and generosity. (Ashley Judd, for example, seems to perform better with Freeman than with other co-stars.) And, if you watch him carefully, you'll see something else — unlike many actors, he thinks in character. But to hear Freeman tell it, there's nothing to it.

"It's kind of hard to explain, because I don't do anything," he says of his approach. "The characters leap off the page; they just come up off the page. If you can see them, there's nothing to playing them. If you can read the script and you see the inside of a character, you know what is motivating the character. After that, all you need is the costumes."

For "The Sum of All Fears," that meant elegant suits. Freeman plays CIA Director William Cabot, who must mentor the young Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) through a terrorist crisis. It's Freeman's first time in a Tom Clancy movie, but he's in familiar territory. "I'm a fan of (Clancy's) books, and a fan of the movies that were made from his books — all produced by Mace Neufeld, one of our top-notch producers. I just felt like I was in good hands all the way, and I read the script and it was just terrific, offering me a wonderful part to play. It's all about the part."

Freeman, a native of Tennessee, came late to movies. After an early stint in the Air Force, he studied acting at Los Angeles City College, making his Broadway debut in the 1968 revival of "Hello Dolly." After years of stage and television work (most famously as "Easy Reader" on "The Electric Company" in the '70s), movie work began to trickle in.

"I was on the stage a long time," said Freeman, "all the time trying to get into the movies. My whole life has been me aiming to get into the movies. I just got into the movies, I was 20 years doing plays. I'm perfectly happy to stay with the movies." Although he won't rule out more stage work ("maybe a play might come along"), he's quite happy to stick with film for now — particularly since critical acclaim for "Street Smart" (for which he received his first Oscar nomination) brought a steady stream of work.

But he has mixed feelings about Kael's famous comment. "It doesn't change anything, it only changes something if I start believing my press. You can't be the greatest anything in acting, because you're too dependent on other people." With a chuckle, though, he will acknowledge that "it was an excellent thing to read."

Although Freeman didn't attend this year's Oscar ceremony — he was watching at home with Phil Alden Robinson, director of "The Sum of All Fears" — its historic import for African-American actors resonated with him. "It's a seminal moment for the industry itself," he said. Halle Berry's reaction "was just a tearjerker. I cried right along with her. The whole world did."

While Freeman has played characters ranging from pimps to cops to U.S. presidents, there's one man he'd most like to play — if only he could get somebody to write it. "There is a character I've been trying to develop a script for: Bass Reeves, a deputy United States marshal back in the 1870s in Oklahoma territory. (Judge Isaac Parker) hired all these deputy marshals — blacks, whites, Indians — and Bass Reeves was one of the best he had.

"Americans don't know about him. Americans' standard feeling is that only whites settled this country and did all the fighting and all the building and inventing and creating, and so we've all grown up with misinformation about who we are. I see opportunities and reasons to change that."

As for upcoming projects, Freeman recently finished shooting "Dreamcatcher," a Stephen King adaptation due in theaters in early 2003, in which the actor plays an alien hunter. Otherwise, says Freeman, "I'm looking for work."

Directors, are you listening?