It's 6 p.m. and I'm sitting by the phone in a midtown Manhattan cubicle, waiting for Morgan Freeman to finish a round of golf in Chicago. Freeman is in the Windy City at the invitation of BMW, playing in the car company's golf tournament and talking sustainability and hydrogen technology with Tom Purves, chair and CEO of its North American arm. As part of the trip, he agreed to do a few interviews -- some of his first public comments on his environmental leanings. I was first in line.
Famous for roles in films like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, Freeman might not leap to the top of anyone's short list of celebrity eco-activists. And frankly, that's just the way he likes it.
But there was that March of the Penguins narration in 2005. And the same year, he was named to the board of directors of Earth Biofuels, a Dallas-based producer of biodiesel. In fact, Freeman, a onetime Air Force mechanic, remembers getting his first taste of environmental awareness back in the 1980s, when he inhaled a faceful of bus exhaust on a street corner.
As a result, he knows a thing or two about engines of change, but chooses not to toot his own horn. Maybe it's because he likes a round of golf now and then -- he has likened it to a spiritual experience -- and doesn't want to be labeled a hypocrite. Or maybe it's just who he is.
Celebrities are good at selling stuff. No argument there; no real problem either. Most people understand this. It's a celebrity's job to play the part. But when social causes are involved, the sales pitch can begin to look like finger-pointing, the stumping like pontificating. Hey, who are you to tell me?
You can relax when it comes to Morgan Freeman. Chances are, he doesn't want to tell you a damn thing. Like most of us, Freeman is living his life, working on his career, and hoping those with the power to make real change will do so.
This under-the-radar environmental approach intrigues me, which is why I sat by that phone waiting for a 10-minute interview. Maybe Freeman is the guy, I thought, who can finally give eco-celebs some credibility. If not, well, it has to be better than talking to Mel Gibson about tire recycling.
Freeman greeted me as if a close acquaintance, calling me by name -- a first for me and celebrities -- and admitting frustration with his golf game. There was tired directness in the unmistakable voice, no real surprise given the 70-year-old's long day on the links and the knowledge that he had at least a few of these calls to take.
I quickly got the idea that this is not a man who goes looking for publicity. He freely admits to having no environmental bragging rights, and you won't find him living in a tree for the sake of protest. Some might think that leaves him open for criticism, while others will find the honesty refreshing. I, for one, won't be throwing the first stone.
Grist: I know you are on the board of Earth Biofuels. Do they or you have any connection to BMW, or was this just a one-off thing?
Morgan Freeman: BMW knew I had this thing about renewable energy, about how we can start thinking about -- or not even thinking about, but actually being active in -- working on our environment. It seems like we've now just finally gotten [through] to those who can make changes, and it's now important that we make these changes.
Grist: How do you view the controversy regarding the amount of energy some biofuels take to produce, in terms of their ability to conserve energy?
Morgan Freeman: That's an empty argument, because nobody is trying to save energy. We're trying to shift our use of fuel. Forget saving energy; if we get the right kind of energy, there are endless amounts. I think we should be developing every kind of alternative fuel that is available to us. That includes hydrogen to soybeans, from solar to wind. Whatever we can find that is going to help us clean up the environment we should be working really hard on developing. That's my feeling on all of it.
Grist: Where were those feelings first developed for you?
Morgan Freeman: Well, I started some time back. I don't remember what year it was, but it was back in the '80s, and I was in New York. A bus came up and then took off, and I had to hold my breath. And I thought, you know, that's what it is. And then you start looking at places like Santiago, Los Angeles, Beijing, Singapore -- all of these places where people are literally dying from the air. Mexico City, wherever there are densities of people, we have environmental problems, and now it's pretty much global. So what are we talking here, about 25 years of concern.
Grist: Twenty-five years after that bus set the light off for you in terms of clean fuels, it's still not a problem we have solved. Does that leave you more impassioned or more frustrated?
Morgan Freeman: I'm excited about everything. I really am. I met with BMW this morning; we're working on this hydrogen-fuel thing. They've been doing that for 25 years, so it's not like they've just jumped on the bandwagon. A lot of people have been thinking about this stuff for a long time. There is a long period of development there, and that is good news.
Grist: With four decades in the entertainment industry, how do you view the negative press some celebrities have received for jumping on the eco-bandwagon? Critics admit the celebrity voice can help spread the gospel, so to speak, but is there a point where it becomes empty rhetoric, or even hurts the cause?
Morgan Freeman: We celebrities all know our trump card in this game is to pull focus. If we have an audience, and we have someone we can talk to and say, 'This is a good idea,' that's it.
I'm not a speaker, so I don't go to environmental events and get up on the podium. This is about as high as I am going to get, podium-wise ... [Celebrities] start talking about something that we find -- I don't want to say of interest, but of necessity. It's no different than pulling together to help people in catastrophic conditions. This qualifies. Our situation, with global warming and air quality and all of that, has gotten to be catastrophic. Otherwise, nobody would be paying attention.
Grist: Not being a podium kind of guy, do you find yourself speaking out more now than you have historically, given these catastrophic events?
Morgan Freeman: Well, I don't need any more press. I get enough when I work, but environmental causes is one place where you can get me to open my mouth. And put my foot in it if necessary. I think the only thing I do that gives me any bragging rights in terms of energy conservation is sailing. Just using wind power.
Grist: One of my, and I assume many others', first memories of your work was in The Electric Company. Given its title, might we see a repositioning of the show, teaching kids about the environment instead of reading?
Morgan Freeman: That. Is. A. Great idea. You want to press that?
Grist: We can work on it together?
Morgan Freeman: [Laughing.] We'll talk about it later.
Atlanta-born, New York-based writer Adam Spangler puts his academic degrees in geology and journalism to good use, reporting on environmental topics for magazines such as Vanity Fair, National Geographic Adventure, OnEarth, and the Earth Island Journal. He fills in the gaps of the lackluster media coverage of American soccer at his blog. When not writing, Adam can be found at a jazz club, in the mountains, or spending too much money on clothing and gear.