Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

From director Clint Eastwood, Invictus tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to help unite their country.

This is the third time Morgan Freeman has joined forces with Eastwood on a movie. Nelson Mandela is a ‘role’ the actor has been longing to play for years, and finally the right project came along.

Can you talk about the journey you’ve been on to play Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar(Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

This started out with Madiba [Nelson Mandela] naming me as his heir apparent, so to speak. When he was asked at the press conference of the publication of his book, Long Walk To Freedom; ‘Mr. Mandela, if your book becomes a movie who would you like to play you?’ He said, ‘Morgan Freeman.’ So from then on it was like, ‘Okay, Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line.’

So we spent a lot of time, Lori [McCreary], my producing partner at Revelations, we were trying all this time to develop Long Walk To Freedom into a script. It couldn’t happen. Then in ’06, I believe, we got this book proposal from John Carlin called Playing the Enemy and it was perfect. We bought it. We got a script written and this was the role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates as a person.

You always describe acting as playing. When you play Nelson Mandela does it become more than that?

No. It might of become more than that were I working with someone other than Clint Eastwood. He is so enabling. He is so out of your way as an actor and he likes to watch actors play. I don’t think that I do anything other than that. I’m just playing. Work is something else. Work to me is what you do.

How much did you know about the rules of rugby?

I know American football. I know just a little bit about soccer. I know baseball. I know basketball but rugby is a foreign language.

How did you go about preparing for the role of Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

How did I go about preparing? Well, when he said that he’d prefer that I be the one to play him, I had to start preparing myself to do it. I met him not long after that and I said to him, ‘If I’m going to play you I’m going to have to have access to you. I’m going to have to be able to get close enough to you to hold your hand.’

Over the years, while we were trying to develop A Long Walk To Freedom that’s what happened. Whenever we were in proximity, like a city away for instance, I would know about it and I would go to him and have lunch, and have dinner, or sit with him while he’s waiting to go onstage for whatever. During that time I would sit and hold Madiba’s hand. Now that’s called camaraderie.

I find that if I hold your hand I get your energy. It’s transferred. I have a sense of how you feel and that’s important to me in trying to become another person. I had a lot of pressure to bring a character like that to life in any kind of real sense.

The biggest challenge that I had was to sound like him. Everything else was kind of easy, to walk like him. I didn’t have any agenda as it were in playing the role. The agenda is incorporated into the script and all I had to do was learn my lines.

You’ve worked with Clint Eastwood three times now, what is that experience like?

Francois Pienaar, the real life rugby captain, and Director Clint Eastwood © Warner Bros & Spyglass

You don’t really want to go to Clint and go, ‘I just want to really talk a little bit about the character.’ ‘Why?’ He expects you to know what you’re doing and he’s going to take two giant steps back and let you do it. I just have such deep appreciation for that part of him.

The other part is that it’s a well oiled machine. Try to imagine yourself as a captain of a ship that really runs well. You don’t do anything. You just get credit for the fact that it runs well. The engine room does their job. Steering does their job. The deck crew does their job. It’s all done and done well.

You say, ‘Well, Captain, you run a very nice ship.’ ‘Thank you very much.’ So that’s what Clint says that he does and it’s wonderful. Everybody who works with him has this very same reaction to him. ‘Can I stay with you?’

Why is this an important story to tell now?

This is an important story about a world-shaking event that too few people know about. I cannot think of any moment in history when a nation coalesced so suddenly and so completely. I was so proud to have the opportunity to tell this story.

When you have the chance to tell it with Clint Eastwood’s abilities, it’s something you just have to do.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane