Morgan Freeman goes in search of God
Sue de Groot spoke to Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman about 'The Story of God', his new six-part documentary series that seeks to understand humanity's search for a higher meaning
When Morgan Freeman steps on to the stage to introduce the premiere screening of his new six-part film, the first instalment of which is about to be shown in the Frederick P. Rose Hall of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle opposite Central Park in New York, the audience gives out a sound, a mix between a mmmm and an oooh, the sound of a collective smile. This is swiftly followed by respectful silence.
Freeman has that effect on humans. People still talk about how convincing he was as a benevolent God in the 2003 film Bruce Almighty. (Some people still think he is God.) Academy Award winner, Golden Globe winner, second on the list of top-grossing actors of all time, permanent fixture on the Forbes list of Most Trustworthy Celebrities, an intellectual equally fascinated by the frontiers of science as he is by human behaviour - if Hollywood had to put forward a candidate for a god election, Freeman would most likely be it.
This project, probably the most ambitious and demanding of Freeman's career (and he is 78), has taken him to more than 30 cities around the globe, on a journey of more than 100,000 miles. The series is called The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, which could be interpreted to mean the story of God and Morgan Freeman and what they did together, or the story of how God behaves when around Morgan Freeman. It is neither of these, of course. To avoid confusion, the title really should be The Story of God, with Morgan Freeman as producer, investigator and narrator, but that would be clumsy, and Freeman is the very opposite of clumsy.
When you are Morgan Freeman, it is difficult to announce a series called The Story of God with Morgan Freeman (watch the trailer below) without sounding as though you are talking of yourself in the third person, so he inserts a comma into the title when he says it on stage, with a pause that elicits a laugh. "I hope you enjoy the story of God, with me," he says.
But that came later. A few hours earlier, Freeman is holding court in a suite on the 43rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel next door to Jazz at Lincoln. Through the glass wall the sky is freshly minted and across the road, way down below, the trees of Central Park are flexing gaudy branches off which the sun has melted a light snow that fell overnight. Debutante daffodils have appeared in yellow flounces and hyperactive squirrels run hither and thither in aimless joy.
There is no looking out the window, however, for what are the beauties of nature when Morgan Freeman is sitting, tall and lean and relaxed in soft casuals, on a couch in the same room?
Next to him are Lori McCreary and James Younger, partners in the triumvirate that created The Story of God. They must be used to the look that numbs the face of anyone who meets Freeman in the flesh. It's a bit like walking past the Empire State building for the first time. You can't stop staring at it. There's a strange dissonance when you have seen something on screen so often you feel you know it and then find yourself actually standing next to it. It is hyperreal, and yet you can't quite believe it exists in such close physical proximity. You look away to make sure you aren't about to fall over, then look up again quickly to make sure it's still there.
One might eventually grow weary of staring at the Empire State building because it does not speak. It is unlikely anyone would tire of hearing Morgan Freeman's voice, which is like a warm spring issuing from the loamy depths of the earth. Not that he gushes, by any means. He defers to his partners most of the time, but chips in when something moves or excites him, his voice rising with a childlike inflection (his face, too, is freckled and youthful beneath a halo of white hair).
One of the things he wants to talk about is the genesis of the project, which seeks to understand how religion has evolved and how it in turn has shaped the evolution of society.
"It began on a trip some six or seven years ago to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and we were looking at these frescoes and Lori was saying, but some of those icons look like Jesus stuff - when this was a mosque, did they cover these over? And our guide said no, no, no, Jesus is a well-known prophet in Islamic religious tradition. Well, holy cow. So that idea was festering in our heads, and then we did Through the Wormhole [a science documentary that explored mysteries such as the origins of life] where we were asking some of the same questions about creation and life after death et cetera... which segued into The Story of God."
The first question almost everyone asks when they hear about The Story of God with Morgan Freeman is: "I wonder what he found? What was his conclusion?"
The point, however, was not to find God but to find out why and how people search for a higher meaning or purpose in their lives.
Freeman says: "The purpose of religion in the story of humanity is, in a word, cohesion." He emphasises this last in his baritone drawl, turning it into three words: co-heasy-on. "Religion holds the human race together."
Younger, who wrote, directed and co-produced the films with Freeman and McCreary, has a slightly different view.
"We visited the site of the oldest known temple in the world, these T-shaped stones that were definitely a religious site in pre-settlement times, 11,000 years ago. The kind of consensus is that, in this case at least, people had some kind of spiritual or religious life before they came together in large communities."
"Before we had cohesion," adds McCreary with a wink at Freeman.
Younger continues: "The idea is that maybe they needed that cohesion, maybe religion and morality gave people enough control of themselves to co-operate and to be together."
Freeman nods thoughtfully. "Maybe it helped us live in larger groups. Though we have tried killing each other on many occasions, and we're still trying."
McCreary points out that it is not religion that divides but the uses to which religion is put. There is a sense that these are the sort of conversations the three of them have had many times over the two-plus years it took to make The Story of God. And they have spoken to many others along the way. The list of subjects who give their views on all manner of things spiritual includes anthropologists, archaeologists, professors of divinity, theology, neurology and a host of scientific disciplines, as well as religious leaders of the five major faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity) and those who deal in robotics, cloning and artificial intelligence.
"I call myself a lifelong student of religion," says Freeman. "But I haven't landed on any conclusions. I can relate to the big questions that most of us ask ourselves: Why am I here? What's my purpose? How did we get here? Those questions resonate with me. And while science has produced answers to many of the big questions, it doesn't offer answers for everything."
"Every place we went on the planet people were asking those same questions," says McCreary. "They might be answering them from a different perspective, but perhaps that's the essence of being human, to be on a quest."
The quest to make a series of films about religion that would enthral believers and atheists alike was no small undertaking, but based on the first episode (which can be seen on DStv on April 6, 2016), the team from Revelations Entertainment has succeeded. (This is the name of the production company founded by Freeman and McCreary, chosen for their desire to reveal truth and not for the apocalyptic finale of the New Testament.)
Apart from high-art production values, punchy editing and a heavenly host of scenic locations that include Rome, Guatemala, Israel, India, Egypt, Mexico and New Zealand, it is the presence of Morgan Freeman that makes it work. Having him at the helm opened some difficult doors and allowed them access to sacred places that might not otherwise have admitted a film crew.
But perhaps the biggest asset was Freeman's inability to be an egomaniactor. It is clear in this hotel room that he prefers to listen while others speak, sometimes commenting thoughtfully, but never taking over.
"Morgan has an earnest and unique curiosity about people and ideas," says McCreary. "Most of us know that he has a great voice and a powerful delivery, but he is also one of the most sincere people I know."
The fifth episode of The Story of God looks at the concept of evil. "We interviewed a psychopathic killer," says Younger. "Looking at his brain, he has no empathy and is off the bottom of the chart in what we would consider morality, but talk to a neuroscientist and he'll say, well, that's just the spectrum, he's just on this side of the spectrum, but we all have selfish impulses, we all have lack of empathy at times, it's part of the human condition."
"Morgan," adds McCreary, "is completely on the other side of the spectrum."
Freeman prefers to speak of the beauties they witnessed, his elegant hands building steeples in the air. "We went to the Holy Sepulchre... they built this GIANT church... and look at some of those 14th-century cathedrals... Gee WHIZ!" He is also animated on the subject of things he learned.
"Nothing at all changed me spiritually," he says thoughtfully, separating spiritually into five slow beats of a bass drum, "but there was enlightenment about different aspects of different religions, what we learned about Hinduism and reincarnation for instance . I always thought that reincarnation was part of Hindu belief, but it's not an end unto itself. No, I don't wanna come back here. I wanna get it done. There's a shortcut, however - if I'm Hindu, and you tell me I'm terminally ill, I don't wanna die here, I wanna go to Varanasi and die and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges, and I don't have to come back. I'm DONE."
"Done" continues to reverberate through the room, the afterburn of Freeman's resonance. He will not, however, be tempted into saying anything in Nelson Mandela's voice, which he mastered to play Madiba in Invictus in 2009. "I tried it a while ago," he says with a grin. "It didn't come out right anymore."
Having played both God and Mandela, are there any characters of significance left to portray?
"That," he says, "is why we now make documentaries."
Freeman still makes fiction films quite prolifically too, because work is what he does. After the interview, 43 floors down on the street outside the Mandarin Oriental, a bus is turning from Broadway onto Columbus Circle. Resplendent on its flanks is an advertisement for the action film London Has Fallen. Morgan Freeman's face stares out with grave two-dimensionality from the bus, and then the bus is gone, taking him with it, leaving behind a strange emptiness in which the only thing to do is wonder what it means.
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman starts on April 3, 2016, at 8.05pm on National Geographic Channel (DStv channel 181).