DATE September 8, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Morgan Freeman discusses his life and his acting
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the new comedy "Nurse Betty," the worlds of hit men and soap operas
through a young woman who was confusing fantasy and reality. The film was
directed by Neil LaBute who also wrote and directed the independent films
the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors." "Nurse Betty" stars
Renee Zellweger, Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman. In a few minutes, we'll
an interview from our archive with Morgan Freeman. First, film critic Henry
Sheehan has a review of "Nurse Betty."
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
Watching the movies of Neil LaBute, it's easy to forget he's a young
filmmaker. LaBute constructs his films with a sure handling of cinema's raw
material. It's only when you listen to LaBute's movies that you detect a
youthfulness bordering on immaturity. Not that his dialogue is ever less
realistic when it has to be, or scalding when he wants it to be, but too
his characters, though drawn with their share of suitably rationed out ticks
and traits, are just puppets. Their mouths open and out comes wretched
hypocrisy occasionally leavened with a dollop of putrid violence.
In "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," LaBute was out to
prove the moral unworthiness of a materialistic middle class, and he brooked
no spontaneous outcry to the contrary. "Nurse Betty" is LaBute's latest and
also the first movie for which he doesn't get a screenwriting credit. The
script, by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, is fairly routine Hollywood
stuff, a comic mixture of romantic fantasy and crime thriller. Renee
Zellweger, in a beautiful performance, stars as a waitress in a small Kansas
town who has an unusual fixation on a TV soap opera called "A Reason to
Like most of the soap opera fans you meet in the movies, she herself lives
a cultural and romantic desert, saddled with an uncaring, unfaithful jerk of
husband named Del who is played by LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart.
It's symptomatic of the screenplay's weakness that there is no earthly
evidence of how Betty and Del ever got together in the first place or why
they've stayed together. In the same contrived vein, Del is visited by a
couple of hit men, played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, because Del has
stolen some dope from their Kansas City bosses. Not knowing Betty is hiding
in an adjoining room, the duo brutally murder Del.
Betty's poor, simple mind can't stand the trauma and so creates an alternate
reality. Betty believes that "A Reason to Love" is real and that she is a
character in it--Nurse Betty, the former fiancee of the soap's hero,
caring Dr. David Ravell. She hits the road on a cross-country pilgrimage to
LA, where she hopes to reunite with the one good man in her life. The
killers, meanwhile, convinced she has the dope, are on her tracks.
Having made it to Los Angeles, she looks for a job in a hospital where she
thinks Dr. Ravell works.
(Soundbite from "Nurse Betty")
Unidentified Actress: Of course, I don't know every doctor that works here.
Ms. RENEE ZELLWEGER (Betty Sizemore): But Dr. Ravell is the finest surgeon
on the staff. You must know him. He's really handsome. And he's gentle
considerate. He's being sued for sexual assault.
Unidentified Actress: What?
Ms. ZELLWEGER: Well, he didn't do it. He was set up.
Unidentified Actress: Well, I certainly would have heard about that.
Ms. ZELLWEGER: Of course, he's only here twice a week. He's also on staff
over at Loma Vista.
Unidentified Actress: I don't think I know that hospital.
Ms. ZELLWEGER: Oh, it's the one in the really pretty area with the palm
out front and the mountains in the back.
Unidentified Actress: You just described all of southern California. Well,
I'm sorry, but I can't even consider you without references and a resume.
And, frankly, I don't know how you could have forgotten them.
(End of soundbite)
SHEEHAN: Quickly, we note that Betty is only one of several characters
living under albeit less dramatic illusions. Chief among them is Freeman's
hit man, Charlie, a philosophical killer on his last job who becomes
mistakenly convinced that Betty is some sort of apotheosis; an epitome of
grace and intelligence who will be a worthy top-off to an infamous career.
The sour observation that a pathological delusion is different only in
from the normal misperceptions of humanity is right up LaBute's creative
alley. People who seem nice are creeps. People who look like creeps are
creepier. The movie's liveliest sequence is one that seems pure LaBute:
Del's murder, which follows a verbal tongue lashing by the erudite Charlie.
It's spiritual damnation followed by physical mortification--a LaBute double
But movies sometimes slip the bonds of even their most dictatorial creators.
"Nurse Betty" plays surprisingly well because of the solid cast and, in
particular, Zellweger. Seemingly an actor of pure ingenuousness, she has a
gift for making us give a character a second or third look; at delivering
lines so that we don't listen and move on, but store them for future
comparisons. Zellweger's sure, gentle hands release Betty from LaBute's
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register. On
archive edition, we have an interview with one of the stars of "Nurse
Morgan Freeman. His other films include "Seven," "Glory," "Driving Miss
Daisy," and "Unforgiven." Critics and audiences agree that he's a great
actor, but he didn't have a major screen role until 1980, when he was 50
years old. The film was "Street Smart." Pauline Kael began her review of
the movie by asking the question, `Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in
America?' A lot of other people seem to be asking the same question. I
spoke with Morgan Freeman in 1993.
I want to ask you about the film that I think first brought you a lot of
attention. And I'm thinking of "Street Smart." And it's a film--you know,
unlike "Glory," it's not a film about an important freedom struggle. It's a
film about a pimp and a prostitute and a journalist who writes a phoney
story. You played the pimp in the movie. You know, a lot of
African-American actors really feel sick that so many parts that have been
available for the past couple of decades have been pimp roles. You
transformed this pimp role into just an extraordinary performance. Did you
realize that the part had the potential to be something really special when
you read it?
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN: I guess that's the way you do it. You know, you read a
script and you're looking at the character that you're going to be playing
thinking how much difficulty or fun it's going to be. And when I read this,
just--this guy was really fun for an actor because he was mercurial, you
A character that you can play who has all these different shadings to go
through--that's the actor's forte. That's his metier. That's what he wants
to get into, and that's where you can chew, you know.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what you felt you could do to make sure
that this wasn't just a central casting type pimp role? Do you know what I
mean? Like when you thought about the role and what you wanted to do.
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, after they told me I was going to be doing the role, I
spoke to the costume designer, Jo Ynocencio--Jo Ynocencio. And I said, `I
don't want anything like crushed velvet or big collars or high heels, you
know. I want Saks Fifth Avenue.'
Mr. FREEMAN: Huh?
GROSS: Why did you want Saks and not superfly?
Mr. FREEMAN: Because I didn't want to play this kind of stereotyped guy. I
once met a pimp in Chicago, and he was--now he might not have been a pimp;
I'll take that back. But he was definitely a well-connected procurer. OK?
And I thought, now this is the guy; this is the character you want, you
A guy who looks good; dresses well; presents himself well; is laid back;
in any crowd; and has a power. There's an aura around him that turns
GROSS: Now also in your role, you had this incredible viciousness...
Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...that would just come out from out of nowhere. And it would be
scary when it did. I mean, there's this great scene where Kathy Baker, who
plays a prostitute where...
Mr. FREEMAN: Punchy.
GROSS. Yeah. And you think that she's betrayed you. So you take a knife
and you tell her what...
Mr. FREEMAN: Scissors.
GROSS: Scissors. I'm sorry. It's the scissors. That's right. And you
Mr. FREEMAN: I'm going to take one of your eyes.
Mr. FREEMAN: You just tell me which one you want to lose. Yeah.
GROSS: And then you say, `The right...'
Mr. FREEMAN: Or the left.
GROSS: ...`the left.'
Mr. FREEMAN: Which? Yeah. And, you know, the power of that scene is the
fact that Kathy believed me. So she was having to deal with making that
choice. It was; it was an extraordinary scene, but it was primarily because
you were watching this woman's reaction, you know.
GROSS: We'll get back to our 1993 interview with Morgan Freeman after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Actor and director Morgan Freeman is my guest. I'm interested in
background. You were born in Memphis...
Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...grew up in Mississippi for the first few years of your life.
Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Raised until you were six by your grandmother.
Mr. FREEMAN: My paternal grandmother, yeah.
GROSS: Your paternal grandmother. Where were your parents?
Mr. FREEMAN: They were in Chicago. And then when my paternal grandmother
died, my biological father came down and got me and my sister. I have two
brothers who were living with my maternal grandmother at the time. So, you
know, we all wound up in Chicago there for a short while.
GROSS: So when you went to live with your mother in Chicago, did you feel
welcome? Did you feel that she wanted you?
Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, that was life as it should be.
GROSS: Had she not had the money to raise you before or...
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, you know, my whole background, all the way back as far
I can count, is Mississippi. And going from Mississippi to Chicago,
New York, you name, whatever urban center migrants go to. You get in on the
bottom rung. So it's better not to be burdened with your young, if you can
leave them home and safe in some place, you know?
GROSS: So what was it like for you when you got to Chicago?
Mr. FREEMAN: Dreadful.
Mr. FREEMAN: Just awful. It was the middle of the winter. I was not
prepared in any kind of way to deal with--I mean, I came from Charleston,
Mississippi, I mean, a little town where everybody--you know, the Africans
have a say, `It takes a whole village to raise a child'?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, I came from a situation where the whole village was
raising me. And I wound up in a place where people don't even speak and
live in the same building. So it was a wrench. It was awful for a kid six
years old and, you know, protected all his life.
GROSS: Was it a very tough neighborhood?
Mr. FREEMAN: Tough neighborhood. You couldn't go out on the street, you
couldn't get to school. I went to school and quit after about a week.
GROSS: Because you were afraid?
Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, it was too awful. You had to run a gauntlet just to get
from home to--it was only--I live--at the time I lived a block from the
school, I couldn't make it.
GROSS: So how'd you learn to defend yourself?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, after a period of time, you know, it's either do or die.
You know, you can't just stay locked up in the house. You got to go out and
face it, you know? And it's an amazing thing, too, you know, as a kid you
out and you face the ones who grabbed you and threw you down and stuffed
down your clothes or beat you up and sent you home. You come out and you
them and they all laugh, you know?
GROSS: Were you really tall as a kid?
Mr. FREEMAN: No, I was very small and skinny and...
GROSS: I can't imagine you short.
Mr. FREEMAN: Ah, well, don't think short, think skinny.
GROSS: Right. OK, I can imagine you skinny, that's easy.
Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah. I was very bookish, you know, and I read all the time,
was one of those strange kids.
GROSS: What did you like to read?
Mr. FREEMAN: Everything. It didn't matter. If it was a book, I read it.
read--"Blackbeard" was my first book when I was eight years old. You know,
the hardback books of a comic book?
GROSS: Is reading bad for your image if you have to try to prove that you
defend yourself and that you can...
Mr. FREEMAN: No. No. No, reading is never bad for your image on any level
at all. What's bad for your image is not being able to stand up and fight
the situation, you know? That's really bad for your image.
Mr. FREEMAN: Particularly in any urban setting. Oh, I suppose anyplace.
You got to be able to defend yourself on some level or other.
GROSS: So did you join a gang or anything?
Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, yeah, when I--at some point we moved up to 45th and South
Parkway and I had to--well, you do that for self-protection, you know? If
you're on this turf, you're in this gang. And then you can move around.
if you go to another section of town, then, woe be unto you.
GROSS: Did you ever get into the kind of trouble that could have ruined
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, I was certainly headed for it. Being in these little
gangs and things, you have to sort of prove yourself to someone; generally
it's someone who calls himself a leader, you know? So I remember once I
a guy's bicycle from in front of a store, you know? The other guys said,
`We'll wait here. You go get the bicycle and you meet us around the
All right, fine. I went and I got the bicycle; and, of course, the guy came
out of the store, so I'm going down the street with his bicycle--snatched it
away from me, grabbed me by the collar, gave me one slap. It just happened
that a grownup was coming by at the time and told him to leave me alone. I
got free of that and was gone. But, you know, the lesson in this is I'm
do wrong, I'm gonna get caught. So I managed somehow or other to avoid a
of the trouble that I should have gotten into being with this gang because I
knew that if I did it, they were gonna catch me and I was gonna pay.
GROSS: Right. Now you went into the Air Force.
Mr. FREEMAN: Air Force, yeah.
GROSS: Did you think about going to college?
Mr. FREEMAN: I thought about it for a hard minute. I was in Mississippi at
the time and I knew that--well, I had--I was sort of, you could call me a
fish in a little barrel at the time because I had a good acting reputation
of high school and I was offered partial scholarships in dramatics to go to
Jackson State or Tougaloo. But I was really tired of school. I really
to get out and do some living, you know, and have some adventures and be a
fighter pilot, you know, do all the stuff I'd seen in the movies.
GROSS: Did the Air Force give you what you were hoping for?
Mr. FREEMAN: No, it gave me what I needed, but not what I thought I was
GROSS: What did you need and what were you hoping for?
Mr. FREEMAN: I thought I was hoping for a white scarf and...
GROSS: I've seen that movie.
Mr. FREEMAN: Right. And wings, an F-86 jet all my own, you know. But what
it gave me was a sense of confidence and discipline and an entree to the
world, that sort of segue from dependency on community and school and family
to being able to stand on my own and really come out and meet the world.
it also got me from Mississippi to Hollywood.
GROSS: How'd it get you to Hollywood?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, when I was discharged, I was in San Bernardino.
Mr. FREEMAN: It was just a short hop, skip and a jump--about 45 or 50
GROSS: Now how did you start auditioning or getting more training or
when you got to Hollywood?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, my first thought was, `I've got to get somewhere, I got
go and get a job,' you know? So I went to Paramount offices up on Sunset
Boulevard. And I walked in and I said, you know, `My name is Morgan Freeman
and I'm an actor and I'm looking for work.' And the lady gave me this card
fill out and says, you know, `What kind of office machines do you operate?
And how many words do you type a minute, etc., etc., etc.'
Mr. FREEMAN: And of course, your job history. And I'd just graduated--I'd
just got discharged from the service, and `I don't do any of this kind of
work, I'm an actor.' Well, that didn't get very far. And I never did
get to auditions and things like that in Hollywood. I left Los Angeles and
went, you know, to New York.
GROSS: And worked on the stage?
Mr. FREEMAN: No. No. I just came to New York to see if I couldn't find
on the stage, you know. You know, you come out from nowhere and you don't
know how to, where to, who to; you just keep running after, you know,
partially closed doors. You see somebody disappear through a door, you go
running after them and the door closes just as you get there. That sort of
always happens. I went to the Negro Actors Guild on 42nd Street, and I
climbed up these steps and there was this guy sitting there. And there were
all these sort of faded posters and things. And the whole thing could tell
you that nothing's going on here; nothing. You can't--you don't know about
agents. You don't know about casting agents. You don't know how to--so you
get a job, you know. So I got a job as a telegrapher and I stayed there
February in the dead of winter. And then I decided to leave and went to San
Francisco because I was gonna leave the country, ultimately, and go to
heck with it.
Mr. FREEMAN: But I hadn't seen San Francisco; and so I went to San
and managed, after a few months, to wind up in the little theater repertory
company there. And that was my beginning; and from that, I got into dance,
started dancing and taking dance classes and stuff; and stayed there till
and then left in September and I came back to New York as a dancer.
GROSS: What kind of dance, Broadway?
Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah. Right. Ballet. Jazz. Tap. All the stuff that
dancers have to take.
Mr. FREEMAN: But that was my intro into the theater because the most
incredible and effective networking is among dancers.
GROSS: Do you think that there are any advantages and disadvantages of
really made it as an actor, of really getting the kudos and the attention
the roles when you reach the age of 50 as opposed to when you were still in
Mr. FREEMAN: I think if I had really hit it in my 20s, I would have burned
out; I would have drug myself right into oblivion. You know, I don't think
would have had enough discipline, enough smarts to control it, you know?
you start making money and getting a lot of press, I think you need either
someone around you who has a head much leveler than yours or you need some
agent experience, you know, something to make you know that this is all
here today and gone tomorrow, you know? It's transitory.
GROSS: Morgan Freeman, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FREEMAN: Terry, it was a pleasure.
GROSS: Morgan Freeman, recorded in 1993. He's one of the stars of the new
film, "Nurse Betty." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Thelonious Monk and the jazz piano recordings of his
Prestige record years
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk made a set of brilliant recordings
for the Blue Note label in the late 1940s and early '50s. He made another
set of classic records for the Riverside label starting in 1955. In
he cut a few sessions for Prestige Records. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
the Prestige sides aren't quite as strong as what Monk recorded just before
after, but they're worth your attention anyway. Kevin reviews a new
collection of those sides.
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Nowadays, Thelonious Monk is on everyone's list of jazz greats and has been
since he died in 1982. When he was alive, though, some jazz musicians and
listeners didn't get him at all. They might concede he'd written a few good
tunes, notably, the ballad "`Round Midnight," which Monk himself had grown
tired of. But his piano playing left them thinking he was all thumbs. In a
way, you couldn't blame them. Monk played the most advanced harmonies any
jazz musician ever concocted. But he loved to make them sound like the
fumbling of an amateur pianist wearing mittens.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: It was as if Monk put forth his piano playing as an ear-training
exercise and test case for listeners. Whether you heard it as brilliant or
bull said more about you than him. He cultivated the funkiness that stemmed
from his clusterlike chords and hesitating rhythm. For evidence, listen to
him on his first studio session in 1944, led by his early booster,
Coleman Hawkins. Back then, Monk sounded more conventional than he did a
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: This music comes from a new three-CD set of recordings Monk made
for the Prestige label between 1952 and '54. Also included is that earlier
Coleman Hawkins session, not recorded for Prestige, but never mind, and a
date led by Miles Davis. As every Monk fan knows, the trumpeter asked the
pianist not to play behind his solos on that occasion.
The side folk on Monk's own trio, quartet and quintet sessions include Frank
Foster and the young Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Monk's ideal
accompanist, Art Blakey on drums, and the pioneering jazz French horn
Julius Watkins. He was hastily added to one date when a trumpeter failed to
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Monk's Prestige recordings were all available on CD already in
scatter-shot volumes. But it's good to have them collected in an orderly
fashion. That said, you might fairly object to yet another box set
that Miles Davis tape. Monk's Prestige sides are not as ground-breaking as
his earlier Blue Note stuff, nor as varied or well recorded as his Riverside
LPs just ahead. But they do contain first recordings of some of his
including "Blue Monk," "Bye-Ya" and this one, "Trinkle, Tinkle" where
Monk's harmonies are made even more piquant by an out-of-tune piano. The
drummer is Max Roach; the vocalist is Monk.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Throughout his career, Thelonious Monk avoided easy solutions
he often paid for it with a lack of commercial success which was chronic
during his Prestige years. Monk's case reminds us that art which seems
difficult at first can yield the greatest pleasures in the long run. As
himself said in 1959, `Don't play what the public wants; play what you want
and let the public pick up on what you're doing, even if it does take them
or 20 years.' That prophecy was almost exactly on the mark. Twenty-three
years later, he was a posthumous hero.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige
Recordings." I'm Terry Gross.
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