This Friday sees the release of the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus, inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela, but filtered through a very specific incident during his time as President of South Africa. Based directly on the book, “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin, the film deals with Mandela’s role in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and how his support of a politically unpopular team helped strengthen his nation.
Morgan Freeman stars as Mandela, a role he was appointed to by the man himself nearly 15 years earlier when the South African President was asked at a press conference about his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom” and who he would like to play him, should the book be turned into a film.
“He said ‘Morgan Freeman,'” says the actor, “So from then on it was, okay, Morgan Freeman is going to be Mandela somewhere down the line.”
The road to Invictus began with Freeman and his producing partner, Noreen Gale, trying to adapt Mandela’s book into a more conventional biopic, but the sheer scope of Mandela’s life couldn’t fit comfortably into a two-hour frame. It wasn’t for more than a decade before Freeman found the story he was looking to tell in Carlin’s book.
“This was the role to play to give the world an insight into who Mandela is and how he operates,” says Freeman, “It was perfect.”
Freeman, who had first met with Mandela soon after the President’s statement, spent more than a decade learning the part.
“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 get close enough to hold your hand.’ Over the years, while we were trying to develop ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ that is 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, dinner or sit with him while he was waiting to go on stage for whatever. During that time, I would sit and hold Madiba’s hand. Now that’s not for camaraderie. I find that if I hold your hand, I get your energy. It transfers. I get a sense of how you feel. That’s important to me in trying to become another person.”
Gale recalls flying out to meet with Mandela shortly before beginning Invictus to get the President’s blessing at telling an alternate story, rather than adapting his book. When she and Freeman told Mandela that they had found the perfect story, Mandela knowingly smiled and said, “The 1995 World Cup.”
As popular as football in the United States, rugby is represented in South Africa by a team called the Springboks. Post-apartheid, many South Africans still looked on the team as a symbol of the period and made the effort to boycott Springbok games. Mandela instead looked on the conflict as a chance for resolution and wound up backing the Springbok team.
Captain of the Springboks in 1995 was Francois Pienaar, played in the film by Matt Damon, who went through quite a few physical challenges in bringing Pienaar to life.
“They say that NFL stands for ‘not for long’ and Rugby is very, very similar,” says Pienaar, “It’s a very, very complex sport and it’s a very physical sport. I’ve broken my nose 14 times. I’ve had over 400 stitches in my face. I’ve broken my jaw. I can’t lift my elbow higher than [my chest].”
Fortunately, Pienaar and Damon became fast friends and found themselves both sharing gym time and even participating in a 100k bike ride as the actor worked out every single day to prepare for the role, one he claims represents the most physically fit he’s ever been for a movie.
“I was in better shape for this movie [than ‘Bourne’]. I was in the gym every day… This is [Francois’] life. I don’t want to embarrass him. If Jason Bourne looks a little flabby, that’s on me.”
Also a challenge for Damon was capturing Francois’ accent, having to the balance the sound against archival footage and the ever-developing accent Pienaar has today.
“A lot of people,” says Damon, “when they do the South African accent, overdo it and end up sounding like Frankenstein. It’s actually quite a beautiful accent.”
Both Damon and Freeman were given an enormous amount of freedom by Eastwood. Freeman, who says that he’s always viewed acting as a form of playing, claims that Eastwood’s response to actors comes from the understanding and trust that they’re prepared to do what they need to with the roles.
“You don’t really go to Clint and say, ‘I’d like to talk a little bit about the character,'” says Freeman, then channeling Eastwood with the mock response, “‘Why?'”
“You walk on some sets,” Damon adds, “and it’s like walking into an emergency room. That tension bleeds into the performances and into the film itself. Clint just runs an incredibly tight ship. It’s very laid back. But everyone, because they have experience working on [his] other movies’ sets, everyone is aware that they have enough space to do everything they need to do. [Clint’s] favorite saying is, after we’d do a take, ‘let’s move on and let’s not f**k this up by thinking about it too much…'”
Four premieres are being hosted in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and, on December 16th (South Africa’s Reconciliation Day) in Soweto. Buses are taking thousands of people from the townships to give them all a chance to see the film for free.
Beyond the festivities, the trip is special for Freeman because it gives him a chance to fly his brand-new personal plane; the actor and his co-pilot made the trip together as a three-day flight from the United States.
Invictus opens this Friday, December 11th, both in the United States and in South Africa. As Gale points out, because of the time difference, people in South Africa will actually have the first chance to see it.