By MILAN PAURICH
The mellifluous voice on the other end -- smooth as silk, but tempered with the weight of authority -- was instantly recognizable. After all, it's not every day that you get a phone call from a world-famous actor like Morgan Freeman.
"Where are you from?" Freeman asked, sequestered in a Los Angeles hotel room doing promotional chores for his latest film "The Sum of All Fears." When I told the three-time Academy Award nominee that I was from Ohio, he briefly reminisced about movies he had shot in the Buckeye State, including "The Shawshank Redemption" (Mansfield) and "Brubaker" (Lancaster).
In "Fears," the latest big-screen Tom Clancy adventure, Freeman plays CIA deputy director William Cabot, who mentors agency analyst Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck). After starring as the U.S. president in 1998's "Deep Impact," did Freeman feel like he was being demoted? "No, not really because we have to keep grips on the fact that we're all just playing roles. In my next movie I might actually be playing a White House janitor, so you never know," he said with a laugh.
"Fears," which was shot between February and May of last year, inherited some inadvertent post-9/11 resonance because the plot pivots on a terrorist group's plans to attack a major American city. "The events of last September definitely give it a new immediacy, but it's still just meant to entertain. We have to keep that in mind," Freeman said diplomatically.
Along with 1992 Best Picture winner "Unforgiven" and the Civil War epic "Glory," Freeman considers "Fears" to be one of "the best experiences I've had making a film." The actor credits "Fears" producer Mace Neufeld for handpicking a dream cast that includes such revered character actors as Alan Bates, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber and Philip Baker Hall.
"I'm still awestruck to be working alongside performers that I've admired for a long period of time," Freeman admitted, "so I have to keep pinching myself."
Sticking with movies
Although Freeman won an Obie and was nominated for a Tony award, the actor expresses no desire to return to the stage. "The whole thrust of my life was to get into the movies and I've still only been here a short time," he remarked.
Freeman, who made his directorial debut with 1992's South African drama "Bopha!" starring Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard, said he has no immediate plans to direct again. "I loved the experience, but as a director you have to be there a whole year or more from pre- to post-production, and I get bored easily," Freeman confessed.
Revelations Entertainment, Freeman's production company, is at work transforming the award-winning documentary "Colors Straight Up" into a film at MGM.
"It's about inner-city kids and the two men who attempted to get them off the streets and out of gang situations. We're working on a script, but we don't need to rush it," he added.
Freeman still bristles over the cursory release of "Under Suspicion," his company's first project in which he starred opposite his "Unforgiven" buddy Gene Hackman. "Lions Gate bought it more for the video market than for theatrical release.You always have things to overcome, but if it gets too easy, you start getting suspicious," Freeman opined sagely.
As one of the most respected black actors in Hollywood, does Freeman attribute any special significance to the outcome of this year's Oscar ceremony? "Absolutely. For one thing, there was real history with Halle Berry, since no black actress had ever won the Best Actress award. She's broken some kind of barrier, both for her and the industry. I think that something will definitely come of it," he said. "Overall, the lesson is not so much where we are, but where we're headed."
There's no mystery where Freeman is headed, having already completed three films since wrapping "Fears":
U"Dreamcatcher," a Stephen King adaptation by director Lawrence ("The Big Chill") Kasdan.
U"Levity," costarring Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst.
UThe animated "Tusker" for which he and Jodie Foster, among others, provide character voices.
And about his inimitable voice?
"I have to thank my college voice coach, Robert Whitton, for that. He placed this on me," Freeman said generously, giving credence to his reputation as one of the most gentlemanly actors in his profession.