And his long-time producing partner Lori McCreary was determined to find the movie that would let him play the South African icon. "It was my dream to see him portray Mandela," she says.
But that was easier said than done. After 17 years of false starts and detours, Freeman finally portrays the leader in Invictus with his old pal Clint Eastwood at the helm.
McCreary's passion for South Africa was born when she was in college at UCLA in 1985 and saw the anti-apartheid play Bopha!, when the racist policy was still at its height. "I thought that if more people saw the play, apartheid would be abolished," she recalls, still smiling at the memory of standing ovations in London. "I thought, 'We should make this into a movie.'"
From 1996, when McCreary and Freeman started their production company, her quest was to find the right project so that he could portray Mandela. "Physically, they're the same height," she says. "When you sit with them, their face structure is very similar."
After apartheid came crashing down, McCreary raised money with a big fundraiser for Free South Africa. They sent people to the country to teach citizens how to vote. She remained committed to getting Freeman to play Mandela. But Freeman was resistant. So as an exercise, they sat down and made a list of all the possible actors who could play him. After objectively weighing the pros and cons of those who could play this wily instigator of change who was magnetic enough to inspire a nation, Freeman was able to take Mandela off the pedestal and see him as a man. Only then could he admit that his name was at the top of the Mandela list as the actor with the necessary chops, marquee clout, screen presence and gravitas to best embody him.
During their first long detour, they pursued an official Mandela biopic. McCreary tried to pack the depth and breadth of his life into one movie. A cradle-to-grave approach covering the significant events that made him who he is, from his childhood through 27 years in prison to the presidency, "was a near impossibility," McCreary says. Also, how could you find one actor to play him all the way through? Freeman is 72. And Mandela came out of prison at age 70. They optioned Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and developed it for more than seven years. "Morgan and I were more interested in his personal story," says McCreary. "For the producers we were working with, the political side was of great importance to them."
In 2006, they moved on. "I was devastated," she recalls. "I was crying, 'I'm never going to get Morgan to play Mandela,'" she recalls.
But the Hollywood cliche is often true: when one door closes, another window opens. CAA agent and philanthropist Fred Specktor sent McCreary and Freeman a book proposal for John Carlin's Playing the Enemy, which focused on one year in the life of Mandela, and his obsession with winning the rugby World Cup.
Their struggles to capture the essence of Mandela were over. This story, set in 1994-1995, the year Mandela was 75, was the perfect fit for Freeman. Carlin focused on one pivotal year that encapsulated everything. "In this one event was the heart and soul of Mandela, the small things, how he poured tea, or walks in a room," she said. "After he was in prison 27 years, he had such generosity and forgiveness and was able to take a nation from the brink of civil war to reconciliation."
When Mandela was in prison, he became aware of the power of sport, and knew how important the rugby team the Springboks were to South African whites. After he took over the presidency in 1994, he realized that he could deploy the once-banned team--so unpopular with blacks that they routinely rooted for the opposite side--to rally the country to come together. He invited Springboks captain Francois Pienaar to tea. The message: he wanted the Springboks to win the World Cup. Indeed, the team started to win games. At the final match, Mandela famously walked out onto the field wearing a green Springboks rugby shirt and cap in front of 50,000 cheering South Africans in Ellis Park Stadium.
Producer Mace Neufeld brought in South African screenwriter Anthony Peckham, who delivered a script that has been touted around town. And when Freeman submitted the screenplay to Eastwood (with whom he had worked on The Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), he quickly agreed to direct. "Morgan was jumping, his legs were off the ground he was so happy," says McCreary.
Warner Bros. president Alan Horn had long been interested in seeing the Mandela project when it was ready, and with Eastwood on board, he too signed on. McCreary and Freeman dreaded telling Mandela that they had left the autobiography behind. They met him in Johannesburg in person. He was fine with it. He knew the story they were telling.
Finally, Eastwood shot the film in Capetown and Johannesburg with thousands of digital extras and typically, came in under-budget ($60 million) and five days under schedule (49 days). The 72-year-old Freeman has been rewarded with Oscar season plaudits and nominations; an Oscar nomination looks likely. When I saw Freeman and McCreary at the Academy Governors Awards, they were beaming. For them, Invictus was well worth waiting for.
Here's AP's feature on the movie. And here's the trailer: