The Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills: The elevator doors in the foyer – as shiny and as golden as a polished Oscar in February – abruptly splay open to reveal a towering Presidential figure in a lilac collar. Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, one the most recognisable figures in American cinema, raises his head, looks down his freckled nose and clocks every journalist as he exits the lift, each patiently awaiting their ride to suite 1202 to interview him.
The Shawshank Redemption. Million Dollar Baby. Invictus. The moment feels as though it should have been accompanied by some kind of warning; an entourage of security guards announcing the actor, a notification via the wireless emergency alert system, a little man on a soapbox with a scroll – the list goes on. Because doors don’t usually open to Morgan Freeman – and I will tell you he’s very intimidating in person when they do. So, when it comes time to sit across from the lauded actor to talk about his latest film Angel Has Fallen, it’s as daunting as you’d imagine a visit to the White House to be – and perhaps ever so fitting since Freeman plays the President of the United States in the new thrilling action must-see.
Angel Has Fallen is in Australian cinemas August 22.
Morgan Freeman Takes The Presidency
As the Speaker of the House in 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and the Vice President in 2016’s London Has Fallen, Freeman’s Allan Trumbull has finally taken on the mantle of being Commander-In-Chief in the franchise’s third instalment. After an assassination attempt on his life while on a fishing trip, Trumbull is told his closest and most trusted confidante, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (played by the prolific Gerard Butler), is the prime suspect in the deadly attack. “In this one, I’m elevated again. I’m the President, but that means I am now directly in harm’s way,” says Freeman. “This is actually the first time Gerry and I have really worked together like this. In the other films, I’ve been in a safe bunker somewhere, or in DC while he was in London. Finally, we were able to work mano a mano, which was a true pleasure for me. What I love about his portrait of Banning is that he is clearly tough and ruthless but, at the same time, he brings a deep humanity to the role, which is a combination we seek in our heroes.”
Butler’s Banning – played with grit, muscularity and emotion – is a man coming face-to-face with mounting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. And while the film is a stand-alone watch for those who haven’t seen the previous two, Angel Has Fallen delves deep into the human side of ‘Banning the action hero’. Struggling at home and in private, the secret service agent becomes a fugitive on the run and must work to clear his name while saving President Trumbull’s life from the actual terrorist at large. FBI Agent Thompson (played by Jada Pinkett Smith) is the woman on Banning’s tail – and an important casting choice considering the disproportionate ratio of men to women in top jobs in the FBI. “I just love the idea of being this tiny little woman who could command all these dudes to chase this bigger dude who has been framed to attempt to assassinate the President of the United States,” says Pinkett Smith, smiling. “I really like taking on roles that amplify and show the strength of the feminine spirit.”
For the leading man with the unparalleled charm, working with Freeman was the perfect match in 2013 – and still today, six years later. “Morgan is actually really fun and mischievous,” says Butler, his Scottish accent mild. “He knows his power and he never abuses it, but he has fun with it because everybody fusses over him and he’s kind of like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Butler’s right. Freeman doesn’t enjoy being made a fuss over. “If you were actually the President of the United States for one day, what would be the first thing you would do?” I ask Freeman. “I’d find somebody else,” he responds bluntly. “You can’t do anything in one day.”
He’s correct. America – in its current state – is a mess on almost every front. But since you play the President in this film, let’s play (hypothetical) ball for a minute, Morgan.
“But you’re Morgan Freeman. You can do anything you want,” I playfully retort.
“Ahh,” he replies, smiling and pointing his index finger. “That’s a big misconception right there.”
It’s the humble, jovial answer Butler could have predicted. “The first time I met Morgan – before this movie – he walked up to me and he wanted me to have a photo with his daughter and he introduced himself and said ‘Hi, I’m Morgan Freeman, international movie star’,” laughs Butler. “And he’s totally joking but he just knew he could say that kind of stuff because he’s one of the most down-to-earth, lovely men you could ever meet.”
Video Editor: Kimberlee Kessler
The film is high-octane from the very first scene through til the very last with 23 huge action sequences. (For context, Olympus and London had about 13 each.) Director Ric Roman Waugh and Butler, who also served as a producer on Angel Has Fallen, had 82-year-old Freeman dodging AI drones, jumping off boats and deep diving into England’s Virginia Water, also known as a holiday spot of the British Royal family since the 18th century. “We blew up a few things on the Queen’s lake,” says former stuntman-come-director Waugh, schooling an oblivious Nick Nolte (who plays Banning’s father, Clay) next to him. “I told Morgan to duck when the drones were coming around, hide when the bombs were going off…”
“Hold your breath when I was in the water,” interjects Freeman.
“Yes, when I threw you off the boat and into the water!” continues Waugh. “From my action background, I wanted the action to have a very realistic sense to it and not be mindless but to actually engage the audience in an emotional way. The way you do that is to put the actors in the action and make them an integral part of it so that you’re feeling the emotional parts of it that they’re feeling as things are happening. Fortunately for me, Morgan and Gerry were up to the task every day and made it all worthwhile.”
Exuding wisdom, warmth and intelligence, Freeman is very presidential in manner – but unlike Butler, he’s not known for his action films. “He did better than me,” admits Butler. “I have to say, at times I was shown up by Morgan and had to ask him to slow down. When I was running up the stairs with him, because he has long legs, I kept clipping his heels. I was trying to be the tough running guy and I was like, ‘Let’s slow this down a little bit because I also don’t want to trip you up running at this speed.’ I had to push him under the water and dive deep and there was some pressure!’”
Butler completely lights up when I talk about the ambitious nature of those action sequences – or his dog, Shushka, who joins us for a visit after the interview. In person, Gerry – as his friends call him – is as inquisitive about me as I am about his movie, and publicists are having a hard time keeping Butler on time since he loves to have a relaxed chat with journalists in between interviews. The 49-year-old is currently in production for his new film Greenland, also directed by Waugh, and admits playing both the producer and actor is hard. “It’s always very consuming when you make these movies,” he admits. “When you’re doing both [filming and producing], they are like, 16-hour days sometimes because you’re jumping from set to set, first unit to second unit. You’re sometimes working on the script and then you’re doing choreography. It doesn’t feel long because you’re in it. For sure you take some of the stuff home with you at night because no matter what you get, you go, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got that tomorrow’ and ‘I haven’t worked enough on this’ and ‘I still really need to finish this scene’.”
Piper Perabo who plays Banning’s wife Leah in the film smiles as she reflects on her time working with Butler and his “rough and tumble charm.” “It’s really fun working with Gerry. He’s very gregarious and very generous with everybody on set but then he’s also able to hone in and focus and he knows what he needs to get done,” she says – and yes, sitting across from her is every bit like speaking to a grown-up-done-good Violet Sanford. “The thing that is so great about coming into this franchise is he’s kind of an expert at it. He knows what it needs. He’s the kind of actor that is sort of loose and impulsive in a way that makes it exciting. He knows the world really well.”
Interestingly, Waugh made the 2015 documentary That Which I Love Destroys Me, a deep dive into the psychological affects war has on returned serviceman, namely PTSD. For the director, the biggest takeaway was not the cases of classic shellshock but rather the idea that these men become addicted to the intensity of war and its associated adrenaline. You see this in Butler’s Banning.
Early on, Waugh met with a man who is in many ways was the real-life version of Mike Banning: the film’s security and technical advisor, Mickey Nelson, a 28-year veteran of the Secret Service who served under four presidents, most recently President Obama.
“Mickey is a very dear friend of mine now. I was surprised to learn how humble nad human he was and he really appreciated that we were showing the addictions to the adrenaline and the addiction to the sense of duty and honour of protecting men and women that you love like your own family,” explains Waugh. “I think that was what was so great about the Banning and Trumbull relationship – these two men truly love each other as a father and son figure beyond world leader and protector and Micky brought that to everybody on the set. We wanted to give you the big action spectacle but humanise the people and show the complexities that they deal with on a daily basis.”
Part of humanising said complexities however came down to Perabo’s Leah. Watching the film, she is the heart of it and shows the very real toll partners and families of service men and women endure every day. “That’s exactly what attracted me to the role,” admits Perabo. “So often in action movies, you don’t see that psychological drama that someone goes through in this type of event. To be able to do the scenes when the service member comes home – and you’re navigating a marriage through that – I think that’s really real and interesting to try and explore. I talked to wives of service members and first responders to prepare for the role.”
For Butler, who has worked with the Secret Service on Olympus and London, the biggest thing he learnt from having Nelson around was the protocol followed when something went wrong. Speaking of the hospital scene in the film, Butler said he learnt when it was the right time “to bring [Presidential helicopter] Marine One in, when it’s not used or when you have to use emergency exits.” “Depending on the level of emergency and who you tell and when you stay silent [are things I learned], he says. “You need the help of as many people as possible but in a situation like this, when you don’t know who to trust, you also have to keep it as quiet as possible.”
If Butler did have to evacuate Freeman in the next room of the Four Seasons right at this second, we’re not entirely sure how he’d go about it. One things for certain though: Freeman wouldn’t be riding the main elevator to the lobby.
Angel Has Fallen is in Australian cinemas August 22.