Written by Katy Collins Tuesday, 08 December 2009 22:27
Invictus, the new film from director Clint Eastwood, features a hotly-anticipated turn from Morgan Freeman as the newly-elected South African President Nelson Mandela who understands the needs to bring the people of his country together in the wake of apartheid. Believing that the universal language of sport will help heal the racial and economic divides, Mandela rallies the South African rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship. Matt Damon takes the role of the team's real life captain Francois Pienaar, and we caught up with all Freeman, Damon and Pienaar to discuss this momentous piece of film-making.
Morgan, this must be one of the biggest roles of your career. Can you talk about the journey you've been on to play Nelson Mandela?
MORGAN FREEMAN 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 then from on it's 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 2006, I believe, we got this book proposal from [screenwriter] John Carlin and it was perfect. We bought it. We got a script written and this was the role to play to give the world an inside into who Mandela is and how he operates as a person.
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 then 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 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. 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.
And Matt, how did you approach playing such a real-life sports hero as Francois Pienaar?
MATT DAMON Well, the first thing that I did when I read the script and I said, 'I can't believe this happened. I can't believe this is true'. I immediately looked up Francois online and I said, 'Clint, this guy is huge. We've never met but I'm five ten'! He started laughing. He goes, 'Oh, hell. Don't worry about that'. I said, 'All right, I'll worry about everything else and you worry about the fact that I need to grow six inches'. I had about six months to get ready and I worked hard on the accent and on training physically to kind of build myself up to try to pull off the illusion of being this captain of the South African Rugby team. Ultimately, I just try to look at every possible pitfall. When I'm way, way out, say, six months away, I look at, 'What could possibly blow this illusion? What are those things?' Then I start thinking about ways to solve those problems before I really get into it.
I got to South Africa and the very first day Francois invited me over to his house for a gourmet dinner to meet his wife and two boys, and Morgan and I went. I just remember that I rang the doorbell and he opened the door and I looked up at him and the first thing that I said to Francois Pienaar was, 'I look much bigger on film.' He laughed, and that was it, we were off and running. He was just an invaluable resource for me the whole time. I was constantly asking questions, everything from, 'What color is your mouthpiece,' to 'What's your philosophy on captaincy and on leading a team and life in general?' He was just incredibly available and as you'll see an incredibly articulate guy.
And you had to undergo plenty of training to play such a strong athlete?
DAMON I was in the gym everyday, and Francois came to the gym with me a few times, too. This is his life and I don't want to embarrass him. If Jason Bourne gets a little flabby that's on me. But this is the fictionalisation of someone's actual life. I didn't want to let him down. It wasn't going to be for any lack of effort which really was what that team was famous for actually. Francois talked me through their training regimen. It's just unbelievable what those guys did, all of them, every single guy. That's that great thing about a great team, when every single person commits to something and sublimates their own personality for the greater good of the whole team. That's basically, again, a metaphor for the whole country.
Francois, can you explain how your relationship with Mandela developed in real life?
FRANCOIS PIENAAR He puts you at ease right away. Then he gets into your head. He really cares about you. He asks you questions in order to get to know you better. I thought [when I met him] that I was in the presence of a very, very wise person that had a sense of responsibility. He had a responsibility to heal because in South Africa we had very deep wounds, a very sad past and I got that from him. To give an example of the nature of Madiba, when [my son] was born in London the phone rang at five o'clock in the morning and it was Madiba. I thought it was a hoax caller. I thought one of the radio stations got our number and this guy is taking the mickey. My wife was talking to him. 'Hello, Madiba. Fantastic. He's well.' It was him. I was really deeply moved on that. That's the nature of this incredible leader.
How do you see that South Africa has changed in the two decades since the events of the film?
PIENAAR In South Africa we still have issues that we need to deal with. Has South Africa changed? We're a young democracy and people need to understand that. We're 14, 15 years young and the rest of the world was looking at South Africa when Madiba was released from prison. The white South Africans were nervous. 'Is he going to forgive us? Or is he coming for a revolution?' We put him in jail for 27 years. So there was that sense of fear. South Africa has moved on..We've had our third general election that was peaceful. If someone in 1994, when Madiba became president, sketched the scenario for me that in 2009 South Africa will have its third peaceful general election, that no one particular party will have an outright majority so the constitution can't be used to serve their views, that in the world's biggest financial crisis where forty banks in America went bust the South African banking system would be stable and strong, that The Lions, the biggest rugby touring team from Europe would be in South Africa, that the Confed Cup would be in South Africa, that the Indian Premiere League that had to relocate from India for security reasons would be hosted in South Africa and that in 2010 South Africa would host the World Cup I would've said to them, 'I want to smoke the stuff that you smoked. That ain't going to happen'. And it's happened. It's happening in a very, very young democracy and because we had a leader that gave us the impetus.
Can you talk about the experience of working with Clint Eastwood?
DAMON Well, Morgan and I were saying yesterday that maybe if we sit out for the next few years and let Clint get some more experience he's really going to be a good director. We're going to let him get some more films under his belt though.
FREEMAN Three more.
DAMON Three more and he'll be solid... It's an incredible [experience]. Both of us have been on probably a hundred different film sets, it doesn't get any better than the way that he runs it. Clint says, 'Look, I hire the best people that I can and I put them in a position to do their best work and I get out of the way and take credit for all their stuff.' He's got this crew that's just a top flight crew. You walk onto some movie sets and it's like walking into an emergency room and you go, 'Come on, guys. We're just making a movie here.' But that tension bleeds into the performances and into the film itself. Clint just runs an incredibly tight ship. It's very laid back but everybody, because we all have experience working on other movie sets, everyone is aware that they've been given enough space to do everything that they need to do. If you need something it's given to you. If a key of a department says, 'I need that,' or 'I'd like a jib arm for this or a techno-crane', it shows up. It's just a very easy thing. We've been entrusted to do our jobs. Then he'll come over occasionally and give a little bit of direction but it's not a lot of chatter. Just suggestion. A little suggestion here. A little suggestion there. Clint's favorite saying, after you do a take he goes, 'Well, lets move on and lets not fuck this up by thinking about it too much'. You hear it everyday on a set with him.
FREEMAN You don't really want to go to Clint and go, 'I just want to really talk a little bit about the character'. 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, Matt says it's a tight ship. I think 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'. 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?'
Matt, you've done a number of films that have a social message aspect to them; are these the projects you are particularly drawn to?
DAMON Sure. I think that actors, we react to the material that's out there. I probably just react more strongly to something that I feel will have some social value. I think that this movie is a great example. I think this movie is a wonderful message to put out. I think it's a completely nonpartisan message, incidentally. This is about healing and coming together and just an incredibly uplifting story. It's about this. It's about that I read this terrific script. It was about the greatest world leader of the past fifty years being played by Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood was directing. It was a pretty easy decision for me. If you can bring in a reading by Morgan Freeman in your classroom I have a feeling high school kids are going to be much more interested and be able to connect to these voices. That was the thing, looking at all these readings you connect to them much more than when you read them on the page when you see these actors speaking the words. There's something really very powerful about it.
Invictus opens on December 11 in the USA, and February 5, 2010 in the UK