Most people know the award-winning actor for his soulful voice and searing onscreen portrayals, but for as long as he has been famous, Morgan Freeman has been working behind the scenes to promote childhood education and racial equality. In 2008, for instance, he footed the bill for a high school prom in Mississippi so long as the students agreed to end the tradition of separate celebrations for blacks and whites. In recognition of his off-screen work, Freeman was presented with the Key of Knowledge Award from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week. Here, the actor shares some secrets for success.
Treat everyone like a Mister
The most important thing I have learned from Nelson Mandela is that compassion works wonders. I think about the stories of his involvement with his guards when he was in prison. When he first went to prison he said to himself, "They will call me Mister." And that's what they called him – Mr. Mandela. How did he do that? You look at these guards – you're incarcerated, but they're not that much better off. The guard comes to work and he would say, "How is your mother? I hear she's not well. How are your children?" Those [small acts of compassion] have the power to turn people's heads around.
Teach your children well
In this business you can get pigeonholed. I'm pigeonholed. After movies like Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, I get to play these nice guy roles. My opinion is that as well as entertaining, we are also educating our children through movies. Children don't listen to what you say, they watch what you do. When I was going to the movies as a child the motto was generally that crime did not pay. Now it does, so what do we expect our children to walk away with?
Google as character reference
I don't look for genuine people [in Hollywood]. Genuine people will generally announce themselves one way or another and assholes will too. You'll see it. If you're meeting with a director you already know, then you already know what you're dealing with and if you don't, maybe you'll do a little Googling.
Nothing is something
When I'm at home I get up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee and I take half an hour to drink that cup of coffee before I get on the treadmill. If there's nothing to do, I'm a huge believer in doing nothing.
There no such thing as bomb-proof
Of course I still worry about box office success. If you have that, then your phone will continue to ring. You can't have more than two or three crashes before it will stop ringing. [Being famous and successful] has nothing to do with anything. Think of the number of people you know of who have won an Oscar and then you don't hear much from them again.
Never act your age
Age is a state of mind. I must be at least 30 by now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.