In Rob Reiner’s new comedy-drama, The Magic of Belle Isle, Morgan Freeman plays Monte Wildhorn, a famous Western novelist in the third act of his life whose glory days are now behind him. For Monte, long confined to a wheelchair and recently widowed, nothing is left except long bleak days and battling alcoholism as he housesits a lakeside cabin in Belle Isle for the summer. Everything changes when he meets his next door neighbors, Mrs. O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters. For more on the film, here’s the trailer.
At the film’s press day, we sat down with Freeman and Madsen to talk about bringing The Magic of Belle Isle to the screen. Freeman told us what it was like to play a romantic lead, how he drew upon his real life experiences to portray a wheelchair-bound character, why stories about storytelling are important because imagination is an essential ingredient in life, and how he deals with celebrity. Madsen revealed how she bonded with the young actresses who played her daughters, her thoughts on Sideways being turned into a play, and what it was like dancing with Freeman. Freeman also discussed his charitable work and his upcoming role in The Dark Knight Rises.
Question: What were the scenes that were fun to play in this movie?
Morgan Freeman: Every single one.
Virginia Madsen: Every single one. All of it.
Freeman: Except maybe a few with the dog. Sometimes the dog was not as cooperative as you would like for him to be.
We heard about the dog auditions and that there was lots of peanut butter.
Freeman: (laughs) Right. Exactly.
You haven’t been in a lot of romantic, sexy comedies. What was it like taking on this role?
Freeman: No, I’ve not. Even through my good-looking youth, I wasn’t called on for any romantic parts, which is okay. What I was called on to do, I enjoyed doing. The funny thing about life is that if you live long enough, I think, you’ll get every wish you ever had. It’ll all come true.
Was that a wish of yours to do a romantic role?
Freeman: Not really. Not until I came in contact with Virginia.
Being in the wheelchair for this role, and having been in a bad car accident in 2008, did you use any of that experience for this film?
Freeman: All of that.
How did you incorporate that into your character?
Freeman: See, my fingers don’t work. So I don’t use this arm to do much with because I don’t have any feeling back here. I’m always afraid that if I try too hard, I’m going to damage it, more even than was done. I’m very protective of it. Playing this character who is paralyzed on this side of his body was very easy. All I had to do was just relax this hand more and try not to let my arm do the things that it would normally do. Sometimes you’re talking and oops, nevermind.
Your relationship with the kids in the movie was very believable. How did your family relationships at home add to that or make it easier to connect the generations?
Freeman: I’m always asked that question and I don’t know if there is a correlation there really. We’re acting. We’re pretending. There’s no real basis in reality. They still come off pretty close to being like television families.
The girls were saying on set that both of you were very maternal and paternal off-camera.
Madsen: Oh yeah, we definitely were, and I mean, I think we have good parenting skills.
Freeman: I don’t.
Madsen: But when they wanted to ride around in your wheelchair and they wanted you to tell stories, you were very easy around them and very, very open and affectionate. I was very bonded to them. It was very nice of their mothers to give me that space to mother their children. I think one of the things when you’re casting children is you’re also casting their parents, so we were fortunate we had nice ones on this and very natural, good children. Look at the place they had to film. This is where they were spending their summer. They’d work a little bit, and they didn’t have to have schooling because it was summer, and so they’d run around the yard and throw stones in the lake and go swimming. It was such a wonderful place. Then, to keep them centered and focused, I had a room made on the set which you see in the movie where they’re doing art. That was a room that I asked them to give me and to not make it a storage space. I didn’t want anyone hanging out in there. I didn’t want the sound cart in there and no make-up, no touch-ups to go on in there. When they were in that room, I wanted that to be our home. That’s the real O’Neil house. The whole crew really respected that. And then, the girls stayed in when it wasn’t playtime. It gave them a place to be quiet and to draw and to make necklaces and to listen to music and read. This was the kind of example. And Maddy too, our teenager, I have to say she was like a big sister and the three of them became like sisters. They really liked each other. Maddy would play with them and never get impatient with them. They’re three very distinct ages and yet they all had things in common. That was just wonderful. I don’t know whether that was a stroke of luck. It was certainly good casting.
Freeman: It was a stroke of casting.
Madsen: Yeah, excellent casting.
One of the favorite parts in this movie is when the kids are showing you how to use the phone. How are you with technology?
Freeman: Hey, I’m… (pulls out his cell phone)
Madsen: He’s got a holster.
Freeman: And, I have an iPad. I do. I don’t have much on there. I don’t do much with it, but it’s a great calendar.
Why are stories about storytelling important?
Madsen: Well it’s the same thing.
Freeman: What is outstanding about this film in terms of storytelling is that it reminds us. It’s just a reminder that imagination is a really important ingredient in life. And, if you’re going to be a storyteller, it’s of ultimate importance.
Your character refuses to deal with fame. How do you deal with fame in real life?
Freeman: I try to avoid it. You know what I mean? If I stay at home, I’m not famous. I’m only famous when I’m out in the streets, so I don’t go out on the streets much.
What happens if you go out?
Freeman: Then I have to deal with being famous. Sometimes I have to tell people I don’t do autographs, thank you very much. At certain places, I refuse to have my photograph taken. Don’t point a camera at me in an airport, bus station, train station, restaurant, any place where there’s a crowd of people.
Madsen: Because then the line will flow out the door. It will be out of control.
Freeman: It’s like there’s nobody here but me at this very second. Wait a minute. It always happens. I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing.
Madsen: But you’re so gracious.
Freeman: Well I try to be. I know people are saying they like you. I’m not being insulted or pushed around or anything. People are coming up because they like me. Nevertheless, I can’t be everybody’s….none of us can. I hate saying no to people. “Would you sign this?” “No, I’m sorry. I won’t.”
We recently interviewed Woody Allen and he mentioned how celebrity helps him get a good table at a famous restaurant. Does that work for you?
Freeman: Oh that sort of thing happens all the time.
What about using your celebrity for a good cause or a charity?
Freeman: If you get called on to help somebody pull focus to some good cause, that’s good use of your fame. I don’t try to avoid that. As a matter of fact, I’m going to Destin, Florida. I’m leaving tonight to take part in a golf fundraiser. This is for the kids of military. A lot of these children are suffering. Either their family is not doing well because they don’t make a lot of money or somebody’s been wounded. Anyway, the kid is having a rough time of it and these people started a fund to help relieve their problems.
Madsen: He plays golf with one hand which is really awesome. He plays a mean game of golf. Everyone who went to play with him on the set came back with a very long face the next day. “What’s the matter with you?” “I played golf with Morgan.” Every single one of them.
Freeman: I’m not that good really, but the fact that I can even hit the ball with one hand intimidates a lot of people.
So many people approach you to do charitable work. How do you decide?
Freeman: Do I have time? Can I get to the venue? Easy enough? By easy enough, I mean how much is it going to cost me? It’s like I’m coming back here on the 29th of July just to take part in the fundraiser for Oceana, which I think is one of the most important undertakings that we have today. If we don’t save the oceans, if we don’t do something about what we’re doing to the oceans, as well as the planet at large, we’re going to be really sorry.
You were born in Tennessee and you now live in Mississippi. Why did you choose Mississippi?
Freeman: It’s home. That’s where I grew up. I was only born in Tennessee. I grew up in Mississippi. Most of my formative years were in Mississippi. I graduated from high school in Mississippi.
Is it more relaxed for you when you’re in Mississippi than when you’re out in L.A. or New York or Chicago?
Freeman: Much more relaxed. I have a nice home. It’s really an oasis. It’s paradise.
We could all come visit if you like?
Freeman: You’re just not allowed to wear a lot of clothes.
Can you be specific?
Freeman: (laughs) I don’t need to be specific.
Virginia, I just saw Sideways, the play. Did you know it’s a play?
Madsen: I’ve heard and I can’t imagine it. I look highly skeptical because Rex (novelist Rex Pickett) finally got to take over and rewrite everything.
When I heard they’d made Sideways into a play, I said how could they do that?
Freeman: And they did it?
It’s brilliant. It really is.
Freeman: Listen, you can make anything into a play for the simple reason that the human mind is one of the best writers in the business. So, if you’ve got a writer who’s clever enough to give you enough clues, you will fill out every blank spot in a play, every single one. I did a play off Broadway where I’m very often driving a car and there is nothing that even indicated car except me and the passenger. So what do you think the audience did? They put a car around us. There’s all kind of things. I saw Lion King. How clever! How easily she (Julie Taymor) put me completely on the South African plain, on the Serengeti Plain, with lions and cheetahs and hyenas and a wildebeest stampede and pulled it off on stage.
We’ll see you again this summer in The Dark Knight Rises. How do you feel about the conclusion of your time with Batman?
Freeman: I feel fine. I know it’s a conclusion and I’m alright with that. It was a great stroke of fortune to be hired to play the role, and that he continued to write that character in, the more positive it is for me. It’s just great good fortune. If it’s ending now and it is ending now, that’s cool.
Does it feel like one big movie for you?
Freeman: No. Not at all. You have to go three different times, three different locations. It’s the same people pretty much except the bad guys always change.
Rob (Reiner) mentioned you both have been looking for projects to work together on again. What is it about Rob that makes you want to work with him?
Freeman: Rob’s a teddy bear. He’s hell delicious. He’s a really good director. He’s very quick which I really, really like. He’s just a great person. He’s a great soul. In the movie business, I would call him a movie mom. The only person I hold in equal esteem is Clint Eastwood. Now I have worked with a lot of terrific directors, and I don’t mean to be putting any of them below their own station, but these two, I relish working with them.
Has Tyler Perry reached out to you about the new Alex Cross he’s doing?
Freeman: Why would he reach out to me?
I was just wondering.
Some of us were hoping to see at least one more with you. What are your thoughts about that movie?
Freeman: That’s wonderful of you to say, but I don’t have any thoughts about it at all. I’m like you — very curious about the outcome — but other than that, I don’t have any thoughts about it really.
Morgan, in your body of work, which is extraordinary, is there one film that has always stayed with you long after the shoot was over?
Freeman: No. I’m not that kind of actor. Done is done. I walk away. I mean, I’ve just never been the kind of actor that things have stayed with. I’ve never needed to carry a character off stage.
Of all the roles you’ve played, is there one character that you look back on that really resonated with you?
Freeman: All of them. Most of them I should say. I did Othello once and that didn’t resonate at all. It was my worst experience on stage ever.
Where did you do that?
Freeman: In Dallas, Texas in 1983. If you don’t believe yourself, forget about trying to convince anybody else about your character, and I didn’t believe myself once. So, if you ever hear of someone looking for an Othello, count me out.
Virginia, how is Morgan’s dancing?
Madsen: Lovely. How could you lose, dancing in the moonlight with this man?
The Magic of Belle Isle opens in theaters on July 6th.