- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With his role as former South African President Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman has taken on perhaps the biggest role of his career.

Mr. Freeman was in town Monday night for a special screening of the film, which he also produced, followed by a question-and-answer session hosted by the Glover Park Group and moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews at the National Geographic Museum.

Based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation” by John Carlin, “Invictus,” which opens nationally Dec. 11, tells the story of how Mr. Mandela willed the scrappy but underrated South African rugby team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup for a nation still nursing the raw wounds of apartheid.

For inspiration, Mr. Mandela gives a copy of the poem “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”) to the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, portrayed by Matt Damon. Mr. Mandela tells the rugby player that he clung to the words of the 1875 work by William Ernest Henley while a prisoner on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activism.

As a black American who grew up in the segregated South, Mr. Freeman told the audience, he had tried to bring Mr. Mandela’s story to the big screen for some time, but “you can’t tell Mandela’s whole story in a movie.”

“Invictus” offers a snapshot of Mr. Mandela’s “clever and courageous” personality and a portrait of “where his heart is in a smaller story,” the actor explained.

Mr. Freeman told the audience that he “crammed,” sometimes “all day,” watching interviews and news footage in his efforts to duplicate Mr. Mandela’s distinctive accent, gait and mannerisms.

He says he has not seen the finished film and has no plans to do so in the near future because he finds watching himself on the big screen unsettling. According to Mr. Freeman, Mr. Mandela, who is 92, also has not yet seen the film but has been invited to a screening when the film makes its South African debut.

Mr. Freeman says he “begged” Mr. Eastwood to take on this project as the director. This is the third time the two men have collaborated, having previously worked together on 1992’s “Unforgiven” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” (Mr. Mr. Freeman won his Oscar for his role in the latter.)

Asked by an audience member what his favorite film was, he answered, “Glory,” the inspirational 1989 Civil War tale, because “it was an American story that had not been told.”

His favorite role, he said, much to the audience’s amusement, was his Oscar-nominated turn as Fast Black, a pimp in the 1987 flick “Street Smart.”

“Invictus” (which means “unconquered” in Latin) is already gaining Oscar buzz, but Mr. Freeman says he tries to keep his expectations low.

Chris vs. Chris

“I’m a soft-spoken Chris tonight,” announced Chris Matthews, the usually rough and gruff host of the political talk show “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” to an audience of journalists, government officials and other notables gathered for the “Invictus” screening and discussion.

One of the high-powered journos in the room was “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, who told us that he conducted one of Mr. Freeman’s first mainstream interviews when he was a correspondent for ABC News and Mr. Freeman was a rising star.

Now - not to reignite the simmering feud between Fox News Channel and MSNBC - but … from our vantage point, Mr. Matthews clearly ignored Mr. Wallace’s raised hand when he opened the discussion with Mr. Freeman to questions from the audience.

“I don’t want to go there,” Mr. Wallace told us afterward when asked about the apparent snub by Mr. Matthews.

But did you take it personally? we asked, going there - alone, if necessary.

“No, we’re friends,” Mr. Wallace replied, trying to tamp down our suspicions.

Perhaps Mr. Matthews was trying to prevent Mr. Wallace from stealing the show, which he did one year ago in the same room after a screening of “Frost/Nixon,” the Oscar-nominated docudrama about David Frost’s famous interview series with the late President Nixon.

At that screening’s question-and-answer session, Mr. Wallace got riled up and raised his voice in indignation when the panelists likened President George W. Bush to Nixon, who resigned the presidency in a cloud of shame amid the Watergate scandal.

To contact Stephanie Green or Elizabeth Glover, e-mail [email protected]

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