William Ernest Henley's enduring poem Invictus – famed for providing solace and inspiration to South African president Nelson Mandela during his long incarceration before the fall of apartheid – culminates with the lines “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
It would be hard to find two actors more capable of personifying those sentiments on screen than Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, who play, respectively, Mandela and South African Springok rugby team captain Francois Pienaar, whose unlikely real-life alliance to unite their black and white countrymen together during the 'Boks bid to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in the early post-apartheid era forms the basis of the film Invictus, directed by Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood.
"The film is telling a story which I think is a wonderful thing to remind everybody, inside Africa and all over the world, that if we listen to the better angels of our nature they're up there creating good solutions to serious problems," says Damon. "It's just incredibly uplifting, and from the moment I read it I was excited about just being a part of the ensemble. I think it's a good thing to put out there, particularly now when there's not a lot of good news."
The two leading men told Fandango about embodying the real-life players in the high stakes match to unify South Africa, and shed a little light on the no-muss, no-fuss approach of their iconic director.
Freeman: This started out with Madiba [Nelson Mandela] naming me as his heir apparent, so to speak. When he was asked at the press conference of the publication of his book Long Walk To Freedom, 'Mr. Mandela, if your book becomes a movie, who would you like to play you?' He said 'Morgan Freeman.' So from then on it's like, 'Okay, Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line.' So we spent a lot of time – Lori [McCreary], my producing partner at Revelations – trying all this time to develop Long Walk To Freedom into a script. It couldn't happen. Then in '06, I believe, we got this book proposal from John Carlin and it was perfect. We bought it. We got a script written and this was the role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates as a person.
Damon: I immediately looked up Francois online and I called up Clint and said, 'Clint, this guy is huge. We've never met, but I'm 5'10".' He started laughing. He goes, 'Oh, hell. Don't worry about that. You go worry about everything else.' I said, 'All right, I'll worry about everything else, and you worry about the fact that I need to grow six inches!' I had about six months to get ready and I worked hard on the accent and on training physically to kind of build myself up to try to pull off the illusion of being this captain of the South African Rugby team…I got to South Africa and the very first day Francois invited me over to his house for a gourmet dinner that he was cooking. He invited me to meet his wife and two boys and Morgan and I went. I just remember that I rang the doorbell and he opened the door and I looked up at him and the first thing that I ever said to Francois Pienaar in my life was, 'I look much bigger on film.' He laughed and laughed and gave me a big hug. He took me into his house and that was it, we were off and running. He was just an invaluable resource for me the whole time. I was constantly asking questions, everything from, 'What color is your mouthpiece?' to 'What's your philosophy on captaincy and on leading a team and life in general?' He was just incredibly available and an incredibly articulate guy.
Freeman: When Madiba said that he'd prefer that I be the one to play him, whatever that was, I had to start then preparing myself to do it. I met him not long after that and I said to him, 'If I'm going to play you I'm going to have to have access to you. I'm going to have to be able to get close enough to you to hold your hand.' Over the years, while we were trying to develop A Long Walk To Freedom, that's what happened. Whenever we were in proximity, like a city away for instance, I would know about it and I would go to him and have lunch and have dinner or sit with him while he's waiting to go onstage for whatever. During that time I would sit and hold Madiba's hand. Now that's called camaraderie. I find that if I hold your hand I get your energy. It's transferred. I have a sense of how you feel and that's important to me in trying to become another person. I had a lot of pressure to bring a character like that to life in any kind of real sense. So the biggest challenge that I had was to sound like him. Everything else was kind of easy, to walk like him. We had to fix some things that I noticed and I had to pick those up. I didn't have any agenda as it were in playing the role. The agenda is incorporated into the script and all I had to do was learn my lines.
Damon: There were a lot of the more physical things that I had to do to try and pull off that magic trick and then just talking to him kind of philosophically about certain things, leadership. If you really look at the structure of the script there's the greatest world leader of our time appealing to this other type of leader and forging a bond with him. Basically he was saying, 'I need to use you to do this,' and the guy saying, 'I understand exactly why,' and this team exceeding it's expectations. It has to exceed their expectations. It's a metaphor for what the country needed to do. Everyone was expecting it to not be able to heal. So, those were the things. It was Francois's integrity and leadership. Those are the kinds of things that I needed to get to deal with the role and then the obvious kind of physical things. I was in the gym every day and with Francois. He came to the gym with me a few times, too. This is his life and I don't want to embarrass him. If Jason Bourne gets a little flabby, that's on me. [Laughs] But this is the fictionization of someone's actual life: I didn't want to let him down. It wasn't going to be for any lack of effort, which really was what that team was famous for actually. They were known for going the extra mile and for knowing themselves well enough to say, 'Okay. We might not be the most talented team' – and that line is even in the movie! The coach goes, 'We might not be the most talented team but we're going to be the fittest.' Francois talked me through their training regimen. It's just unbelievable what those guys did – all of them, every single guy. That's that great thing about a great team, when every single person commits to something and sublimates their own personality for the greater good of the whole team. That's basically, again, a metaphor for the whole country.
Freeman: Clint is so enabling. He is so out of your way as an actor and he likes to watch actors play. I don't think that I do anything other than that. I'm just playing. Work is something else. You don't really want to go to Clint and go, 'I just want to really talk a little bit about the character.' 'Why?' He expects you to know what you're doing and he's going to take two giant steps back and let you do it. I just have such deep appreciation for that part of him. The other part is that I think it's a well-oiled machine. Try to imagine yourself as a captain of a ship that really runs well. You don't do anything. You just get credit for the fact that it runs well. The engine room does their job. Steering does their job. The deck crew does their job. It's all done and done well. You say, 'Well, Captain, you run a very nice ship.' 'Thank you very much.' So that's what Clint says that he does and it's wonderful. Everybody who works with him has this very same reaction to him. 'Can I stay with you?'
Damon: It doesn't get any better than the way that he runs it, and as Morgan was saying, he kind of enables and allows things to happen. Clint says, 'Look, I hire the best people that I can and I put them in a position to do their best work and I get out of the way and take credit for all their stuff.' He's got this crew that's just a top-flight crew. And every key and every person working under that key for every department. You walk onto some movie sets and it's like walking into an emergency room, and you go, 'Come on, guys. We're just making a movie here.' But that tension bleeds into the performances and into the film itself. Clint just runs an incredibly tight ship. It's very laid back but everybody, because we all have experience working on other movie sets, everyone is aware that they've been given enough space to do everything that they need to do. If you need something, it's given to you. If a key of a department says, 'I need that,' or 'I'd like a jib arm for this or a techno-crane,' it shows up. It's just a very easy thing. We've been entrusted to do our jobs. Then he'll come over occasionally and give a little bit of direction, but it's not a lot of chatter – Just suggestion. A little suggestion here, a little suggestion there. Clint's favorite saying, after you do a take, he goes, 'Well, let's move on and let's not *@#$ this up by thinking about it too much.' You hear it every day on a set with him.
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