Morgan Freeman on ’60s NYC, Bigotry, and Why God Looks Like Him

Photo: Aitor Alcalde/AFP/Getty Images

In the new comedy Five Flights Up, Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton play a longtime married couple trying to sell their apartment in newly hip Williamsburg, which they've shared for 40 years. It's a smaller, quieter film than the blockbusters that have dotted Freeman's C.V. recently, and it's one that happens to mirror Freeman's own life, in a way. While his character Alex came to New York a painter in the '70s, Freeman himself moved to the city as an aspiring dancer in the '60s. We caught up with Freeman in a Soho hotel last week to talk about the film and compare the New York City of today to the one he once knew.

Do you remember your first apartment in New York?
Yeah. I came here first from Los Angeles in 1960 and I lived at Number 6 Jones Street in Greenwich Village. It was my first time here. I was in the center of things. I got a good job, but I couldn’t find theater. I didn’t know how to get involved in that.

How did you finally break in?
I left. I only stayed here five months and went to San Francisco. I got there in February, and by May I was in an armature repertory musical company. So that was the beginning and I did that for about a year, and then went to work for the Post Office because I was going to go to Paris from San Francisco. I was dancing at the time, or studying dance. And I met a guy from Paris who said, "Come to Paris. We have open studios in Amsterdam and Paris and Copenhagen, and we’re the latest thing in Europe." I said fine, so I left and I was on my way to Paris, but I stopped in New York to see friends and never left.

What was New York like when you came back? 
Exciting. The place to be. I had a way in, of course. If you go to dance class, that is the best networking system in the world. This friend of mine who was in Paris, he came to visit me, and he said, "You know, the thing I cannot get going here is what you have in the States, and that is networking." In Paris, if you hear about a job interview or audition, you don’t tell your friends. You just go. Here, if there’s a job audition, everybody knows. Did you hear? It really is a great thing. So when I got to New York, I was already in show business because I was going to dance classes, right? So even if you can’t get a job, even if you don’t get hired — when you go to auditions, you’re still going to auditions.

What would you say is the biggest difference between New York now and New York then?
How much it costs to be here. I had my first apartment when I got here in 1963. I had already signed 90 bucks a month for a studio apartment, 80 bucks a month. You could do that on unemployment.

Do you think that’s been bad for the city’s artistic life? Or do creative people always find a way?
I think you always find a way out here. You know, even if it just means tripling up, you can do it. It’s just a matter of desire.

As far as I can recall, this movie is the first time I've seen you have a romance plot onscreen. Why do you think that is?
That’s just the way the cookie crumbled. I haven’t missed it. Other people haven’t. I remember my wife saying one time, "How come you never do any love stories?" Well, you know, listen, I go to work where I’m hired. So it’s okay. I don’t think I’ve missed anything, ‘cause I got to tell you, love scenes, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

Your character in this movie is spending a lot of time reflecting on the past, and the choices that led him to where he's at. Do you find yourself doing the same thing?
Not taking stock of my choices. My choices have been pretty good, I think; I’ve been very lucky in that section of it. Most of my flashbacks are comparative flashbacks, like being on the streets and having no money, no food, no prospects, you know, shit like that. I’ve been thinking, Man, you stuck it out and here you are.

Do you feel like that now when you walk around your old neighborhood?
I do, periodically. I get that feeling when someone yells my name out, somebody I don't know from Adam. I just got back from Rome, I was working in London, New York, Los Angeles — everywhere it's "Morgan, how’re you doing?"

How do you feel about that?
I feel great about it. It happens so much that after a while it becomes just almost what you expect, but there’s nothing bad about that.

When did that start?
I was doing The Electric Company and I got a lot of pretty women.

When I told people I was doing this interview, a lot of them went, "Oh, you're interviewing God." Since you're the image so many people have of God, I'm curious what you think God looks like.
God looks like me.

In your head?
Yeah, what does he look like in your head?

Sometimes he looks like an old guy with a beard, and sometimes  just like an energy void, or like a color, like orange.
See, my idea of God is a bit more terrestrial. I am God. So it’s easy to play him. They say God is in all things. So if God is in me, then I am in God. Therefore, I am God. God does not exist without me. Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt have no other God before me." Think about that. Did you see the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston? When Moses was up on Sinai and he asked, "Who shall I say?" God says, "Tell them I am." Who are you? I am. I am. Who is God? I am. I am. The Jewish religion doesn’t allow you to acknowledge that out loud because the realization you cannot be going around in human form saying, "Oh yeah, I am God." So then who are we worshiping? We’re worshiping the greater God, the greater God, all of us together.

Does that tie into the things you’ve learned in Through the Wormhole?
I don’t think so. No, that’s been mine since way back. I don’t know if I've gotten anything from The Wormhole except a lot of satisfaction in doing it. I’ve learned an awful lot, but I can’t itemize it for you. This show that we just opened, bigotry, that was a big surprise to learn that we’re all bigots. We’re almost hardwired for it, so that gives us all a little bit of slack.