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Freeman finds inner Mandela

Actor studied accent, mannerisms for 'Invictus' role

Morgan Freeman had a calming effect on Matt Damon while shooting “Invictus,” though Freeman had no idea at the time.

Whenever Damon would feel a “crushing pressure” to get the facts of the film’s true story right, he’d look over at Freeman, imagine the stress he must be feeling while portraying Nelson Mandela and immediately relax.

“Well, that’s something,” Freeman says, laughing, when told of his co-star’s comments. “Before we started shooting I was indeed under a bit of a strain. I don’t do accents, and I was going to have to do my best to sound like Mandela. But I did my homework and crammed. By the time we started shooting, things had fallen into place and I felt comfortable.”

“Invictus” tells the story of South African President Mandela’s attempt to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring his divided nation together. Freeman and his producing partner, Lori McCreary, bought the rights to John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation” after reading a 12-page treatment. Once a second-draft screenplay was complete, Freeman brought the project to Clint Eastwood.

“It’s a great story, really inspiring, and Morgan’s just perfect for Mandela both physically and spiritually,” says Eastwood, who directed Freeman in “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

Freeman met Mandela several times over the years and had long been trying to make a movie based on Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Preparing for what Freeman says is the only role that has ever “intimidated” him, the 72-year-old actor studied footage and listened to Mandela’s voice as much as he could.

“I kept hitting rewind,” Freeman says. “I didn’t get a dialect coach because I had to find him, not a dialect. Once I found Mandela, I got in a groove and I stayed there.”

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