Interview: Morgan Freeman on Narrating Born to be Wild


When Morgan Freeman talks, people listen. And for the new 3D IMAX film Born to Be Wild, it may be crucial to the survival of two species that people listen to Freeman closer than ever.

The Oscar-winning actor lends his authoritative tones to the film’s narration as it chronicles two very different animal rescue outposts: Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s preserve in Kenya that’s dedicated to rescuing orphaned baby elephants, rehabilitating them and eventually reintroducing them to the wild; and Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas’ operation to do the same for orangutans a continent away in Borneo. The eye-opening film makes tremendous use of the IMAX and 3D formats while also opening minds to the challenges faced by the too-endangered animals and their caregivers.

Freeman gave the lowdown on why he had to be involved and–if you stick around–a couple of choice thoughts about The Dark Knight Rises as well. You’ve done other wildlife documentaries, such as “March of the Penguins.” Do you gravitate towards these kinds of nature films?
Morgan Freeman:
Yes and no: you get calls to do narrations, lots of them, and then once in a while a project comes along that, to use an overused word, resonates. When that happens, then there you are. You’re hooked and you go with it. It’s what it’s about, what good is it, what use is it to anybody. This particular project I think is extremely important and well worth doing because, number one, it highlights a couple of ladies whose courage and dedication really should be trumpeted. It also highlights the danger of what we’re doing as humans in terms of the rest of the life forms on the planet. We’re not aware, as people, of what we’re doing. We’re just blithely going along eliminating habitats, killing off other creatures in order for us to have more room to grow more food for more of us. There is an inherent danger in there that we need to somehow publicize, bring to light. If we continue the way that we’re going, eliminating habitats, eliminating other forms of life we’re going to be eliminating ourselves. We’re just going to pay the price for that. People think that we’re dominant. So were the dinosaurs.

CS: Has doing these films changed your opinions about animals in captivity, about working with animals in, say, a film?
No. I long ago lost my childhood fascination with zoos. Game preserves are bad enough. Zoos are inhuman. They’re really not for the animals. They’re there for us to gawk at them: a tiger cooped up in a cage. There’s nothing good about that. To answer your question I could say, well, yes, but it wasn’t doing stuff like this. I don’t know what it was, but it was years ago that I stopped thinking that it was a good thing to cage critters.

CS: Have you ever had your own personal experience with a wild animal, specifically in a conservation situation?
No, no – I’m an actor. That’s really all I do. I’ve not gone to the jungles, to Borneo, to Kenya, to any place and been involved personally in this, though friends of mine have. But this is always by invitation, going to observe the gorillas. I’ve been to the Galapagos – this is a place where those creatures are ultimately protected. You’re not allowed to do anything there. You can go and you can look around, but don’t deal with them and they don’t deal with you either. So that’s perfect.

CS: What did you learn about elephants and orangutans by doing this film?
Well, the only thing I learned about orangutans I learned a long time ago, and that is that we are pushing them out of their homes…we’re just destroying their habitats. There are few of them left, few of them. That’s about all the useful information that I have about orangutans.

CS: What do you think of the film after having seen it?
I think everything about this film is outstanding. I think the photography was just really, really beautiful. I think that putting it in IMAX and in 3D was inspired. I think the story of these ladies is so important to the rest of us. The reason I think their story is important is because it brings to light the necessity, I think, the absolute necessity of preservation of other forms of life, of their habitat for heaven’s sake. What are we doing? We’re turning everything on the planet to food for humans. That can’t be good. In the long run it’s going to be detrimental to us. We better realize that.

CS: What issues or causes are very personal to you?
Well, this is one. I read this guy named Daniel Quinn. He wrote three books. “Ishmael,” “The Story of B” and “My Ishmael.” In these books he introduces the term “the tyranny of agriculture.” Think about that: “the tyranny of agriculture.” That means what he says, that we’re turning everything on the planet into food for humans. We’re cutting down the rainforests, the lawns of the planet. We’re destroying them in order to grow foods for humans. Forget the other creatures that live there and what they need. We need to think about that.

CS: You mentioned your disenchantment for zoos, does that include working with animals in films? You have “Dolphin Tale” coming up and I imagine that’ll be using a trained dolphin to hit it’s mark.
No. That animal that we use is the animal who’s tail was amputated and the prosthetic tail was created for. The creatures in this movie are all rescued. They’re not captured – they’ve been rescued. They all have something wrong with them. There’s a set of otters in there, one of whose hindquarters are paralyzed. You can go there and visit them. It helps pay for food, upkeep, keeping their environment clean and stuff like that. But nobody went out and captured them and brought them back to do this.

CS: How long did this take you to record, when did you do it and do you approach narration in the same way as you would speaking in a film?
Speaking in a film, no. When you’re acting in a film you have to memorize. When you’re narrating you’re just sitting in the studio with your glasses on and reading. It took me maybe an hour, an hour and a half to do. I’d like to say that it’s really difficult work, but it isn’t.

CS: Do you plan to visit the two national parks mentioned in the movie at any time in the future?
I don’t have any plans to visit – the first opportunity I get, however, I’m there! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It’s a very interesting place. It’s on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, but it’s a place where when it rains in the mountains of Angola, maybe two or three hundred miles away, that water filters all the way down into Botswana, into this lowland. It creates an oasis and it happens, I think, annually. If you had a high view you could see hordes of animals coming to this water. It’s an amazing sight. It’s an amazing place because of the diversity of critters there. Wherever there is food there are creatures.

CS: What’s your favorite animal?
My favorite animal? I guess I had a dog. I’ve had a lot of dogs, but I had one dog who was a Malamute, one of the smartest creatures on the entire planet. Then I have horses. I love horses. I used to ride a broomstick as a kid, so when I was able to get horses I got a good stock. Some people collect cars or airplanes. I collect horses.

CS: IMAX and 3D here is amazing. Onscreen you’ve done movies like “Dark Knight” that had IMAX sequences. Will there be more of that, and is there a difference in acting for something that huge?
No, no, no. That’s strictly up to the operators. They still have the same job, to capture whatever is going on, but you don’t have to do anything different as an actor. Ask the orangutans!

CS: What are you most excited about for “The Dark Knight Rises,” for you and the film?
The most exciting thing about it is watching the openings, I’m telling you. Doing it, it’s fun to work with Chris Nolan. He’s really a terrific writer, a terrific director. One of those highlights of your career.

CS: Is there interesting stuff planned for you as Lucius Fox in the film?
Oh, yeah – really good stuff!

Born to Be Wild is now playing in IMAX theaters.