Morgan Freeman talks Pussy Riot, the keys to longevity, and his new National Geographic show
In Morgan Freeman’s new National Geographic show, “The Story of Us,” the Hollywood icon travels the globe interviewing a diverse multitude of people, including a few famous public figures, to shed light on the common bonds of the human experience.
Business Insider spoke to Freeman and the show’s producers, James Younger and Lori McCreary, at a hotel suite in New York City.
We discussed Freeman’s interviews with Bill Clinton and Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot for the series, his personal keys to longevity, and the show’s mission to, as Freeman put it, “reduce the amount of tension between people who don’t know each other.”
(“The Story of Us” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST on National Geographic.)
John Lynch: Mr. Freeman, your interviewing in the series is incredible and really the driving force of the show, as opposed to a voiceover narration. What made that face-to-face element the best way to tell these stories?
Morgan Freeman: Eye contact. Eye contact is part of any storytelling interview. Interviewing someone and having eye contact, you get much more information because the eyes talk, too. And going and sitting down with these people also gives it more legitimacy.
James Younger: I’ve done lots of work with documentaries where there isn’t an on-camera interviewer. As a producer, you sort of sit behind the camera lens and ask a bunch of questions, and that is an eye-to-eye conversation. But there’s something different about having Morgan on camera. Because he is Morgan, people tend to look at him and don’t think about the cameras, so it ends up becoming a very human conversation, a much stronger emotional connection. And Morgan’s so great at, you know, I guess, being an actor. He’s quite good at figuring out how to get people into these emotions.
Lori McCreary: Drawing people out too. He draws people out in a way that sometimes we don’t even know where it’s going to go, and we get more information than we expected.
Freeman: Well, actually, the secret to all of it is listening.
Lynch: Your passion to enlist in the US Air Force is a touchstone throughout the series. At one point in the show, you speak to an American drone strike officer who told you he regretted his service. Did that conversation change your perspective of the modern military at all?
Freeman: No, not at all. The military. It’s a necessary evil. I put it in those terms because we just launched our eleventh aircraft carrier. No other country in the world has more than one, and we have eleven. My feeling about the military is, as I said, it’s a necessary evil. We don’t need what we got. Personally, I think we’d do a lot better dealing with home, infrastructure, education. Look at Puerto Rico. We claim not to be able to deal with that? Horse-pucky.
Lynch: What can you tell me about the filming of your interview with Nadya from Pussy Riot? How did that come about?
Younger: I’m not quite sure how we got in touch with her. It was through a contact who knew her. What’s really interesting about her is how she’s so adaptable. She’s kind of a self-professed troublemaker. Whatever’s going wrong, she’s going to say something about it. She’s in the US now, and she’s found a whole bunch of other stuff to get engaged with. She’s a motivator of people. She’s one of these people who is a magnet, attracts other people who feel the same way.
Freeman: Yeah. It’s a certain kind of extant courage. There are people who thinkthings are wrong. And then there are people who have an absolute need to say it, to stand up and say, “That’s wrong!” She’s one of those. And I love the name. It makes a point.
Lynch: At another point in the show, a homeless man in London says he recognizes you by your voice. As a viewer, it sort of felt like a “voice of God” moment, as people have described your voice. How does it feel to know that your voice spans the globe in that way?
Freeman: I don’t think about it.
Younger: You know, what I think was interesting about that conversation was not really that it was Morgan’s voice, but that Morgan addressed him by his name. I’m sure he knew Morgan was a famous Hollywood actor, but to be spoken to made him feel human. Someone who goes around with this mess of outgrown hair and doesn’t have a name to the millions of people that have walked past him in his life, he’s just an object, an animate object. To feel human like that…
McCreary: Yeah, when Morgan called him Stuart, you saw this…
Lynch: Definitely, it was a moving moment. On another note, what can you tell me about your extended conversation with Bill Clinton for the series? What did you all take away from it?
McCreary: Well, it’s always great to talk and listen to Bill. Some days are better than others in America these days, depending on what’s going on in the news, and I think all of us just came in thinking, “Okay, we’re going to have an interview.” And then two hours later, all of us felt buoyed up. He has a historical perspective, a world perspective about what’s going on, not only here but around the world, that is so hopeful. That Martin Luther King quote…
Younger: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We started making this series before all the events of the last year, and we were making a film about tribalism, about how we all lock ourselves into different beliefs. And it was sitting down with President Clinton when he really crystallized that being about “The Story of Us,” and the story of them. And that we are always stronger when uscan expand and include them. So that was a powerful thing.
Lynch: Mr. Freeman, at 80, doing this show and going across the world in such a rapid production, you’re still spry, and you’re killing it…
McCreary and Younger: [laughs]
Lynch: … what’s your secret to longevity in your life and career?
Freeman: Discipline. Exercise, part of your discipline. How you eat, part of your discipline. I try not to overeat. One of the things that I discovered somewhere back down the line was that eating, for us particularly here, has become a habit, not necessarily a need. So if you try to keep it down to need, it’s going to be much better for you. You know there are more obese people in the US than probably anywhere else? Because we can feed them. And in the time in history when everybody had a job, an actually physical job to do — you get up in the morning, and you get your hoe or your axe or your saw, or whatever the tool it is that you’re using, and you use it. And then at noon, you stop using it and refuel, and then you use it some more, and then you go home, and you refuel. Aha! Now, let’s say you get up in the morning, and you brush your teeth, you comb your hair and put on a suit. And you go and sit down at a desk. You haven’t used up anything, comparatively.
McCreary: And you’re refueling, even though you don’t need it.
Younger: I once sat down at a bus stop in Oakland when I was about 20, and there was a guy sitting there, waiting for the bus, older man, probably 75 years old. And he just turned and looked at me and said, “You want to know what the secret to happiness in life is? … Comfortable shoes.”
Lynch: I’m 23, but I can attest to that. Well, I really found the show…
Freeman: Oh, wait a minute. There’s one more secret to longevity: Genes.
McCreary: Jeans? Oh, genes. Not Levis.
Freeman: No, not blue jeans.
Lynch: Fantastic. Well, I found the show really moving and captivating. What do each of you hope to communicate through the show, for the viewers who experience it?
Freeman: The point of the show, the point of telling people about people, is so that we can, on some level, reduce the amount of tension between people who don’t know each other.
Younger: We live in a time of increasing tribalism. We, humanity, got to where we are now because of tribalism, because we knew how to group together and do things together as communities. And now, we’re in this phase where the all tribes are bumping up against each other, and we’ve got all this tension. And so we’ve got to get over that, this phase of tribalism, without losing our local culture. So the series is really about that. How do we get to know each other so we don’t have that animosity between cultures.
McCreary: I think there’s some kind of human instinct to be with people that look like us, that like the same things as us, which is what James is talking about in terms of tribalism. And I think our show really highlights, instead of that instinct, the human spirit that is an outgrowth of these clashes we have because of our instincts. And the human spirit is what can take us out of that and into reconciliation in Rwanda, or in Bosnia. When I look at what happened in Rwanda or Bosnia, and then I think about how amazing their reconciliations are, then I look at America, and I think, okay, there’s hope, there’s definitely hope for us. If those countries can go through what they did and come out the way they did, then maybe we can also do the same.