LOS ANGELES - Nelson Mandela made it clear that Morgan Freeman was the man he would want to play him in a film.
When it came time to play Mandela in "Invictus," Freeman told producing partner Lori McCreary that he had two men in mind to direct the film, which dramatizes Mandela's partnership with a South African rugby star (played by Matt Damon) to rally their postapartheid countrymen behind the team's underdog quest for the 1995 World Cup.
"I said, 'I can only think of two. Clint Eastwood, and then there's Clint Eastwood.' He's the best director I know," Freeman said of the filmmaker who gave him a plum role in "Unforgiven" and an Academy Award-winning part in "Million Dollar Baby."
Freeman's comment came moments before Eastwood entered the room for a joint interview, amiable banter and wisecracks ensuing as the two longtime friends and colleagues talked about their third collaboration.
"Are you supposed to be here?" Freeman demanded of Eastwood.
Informed of the compliment Freeman had just paid him as his only choice to direct "Invictus," Eastwood shot back: "That's very kind of him. He's obviously a man of very good taste and selectivity in life."
Freeman followed with a reminder that Eastwood had once "stood up in public with a microphone and called me the best actor in the world."
The exchange continues:
Eastwood: "That was right after I told Matt that he was the best actor in the world."
Freeman: "Doesn't matter. . . . You always go for the best."
Eastwood: "I do pride myself on that. I believe in surrounding myself with the very best people, and that cuts down the margin for error, and that covers my inadequacies."
Freeman: "And he says, he can stand back and let them do their thing, then take all the credit."
Their give-and-take reflects the camaraderie that Eastwood, 79, and Freeman, 72, captured on screen as hired mercenaries in 1992's Western "Unforgiven" and as ringside pals in 2004's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby." Both films dominated the Oscars, their wins including best picture and director for Eastwood.
With both movies, Eastwood came calling for Freeman. With "Invictus," Freeman was the first man on board, sending the script Eastwood's way, hoping his friend would want to direct.
Freeman had been meeting with Mandela since the 1990s with the idea of adapting the jailed-activist-turned-president's memoir "Long Walk to Freedom" for the big-screen. The actor eventually set it aside, finding Mandela's life story too expansive to fit into a film.
"How can you take all that and put it into a movie?" Freeman said. "Even if you condensed it down to a three-hour movie, how could you do it justice?"
Then journalist John Carlin told Freeman about his book, "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation," recounting the new South African president's cheerleading that united whites and blacks behind the national rugby team.
The effort defined the healing spirit Mandela brought to the nation, Freeman said.
But "Invictus" is not being embraced by all South Africans, who complain that South Africans should be starring in movies about their own stories rather than American actors. South Africans do, however, have key roles in the film, including Patrick Mofokeng as Mandela's chief bodyguard.
Eastwood sees a lot of similarities between Mandela and Freeman.
"I've always thought he was the perfect guy to be playing Nelson Mandela," Eastwood said. "Morgan has the same presence when he walks in the room as an actor that Mr. Mandela has as a politician walking into a room. . . . They both are intelligent, and they both seem to have a lovely sense of humor and a lot of life. They both get in trouble in the same way, sometimes."
"Ssh," Freeman interjected.
"Invictus" marks the first time Eastwood worked with Freeman as a director only, not as a co-star, too.
Eastwood joked that he's been trying to give up acting for the last decade, but roles keep coming along that he feels are right for him, among them the racist widower who becomes unlikely defender for his young Asian neighbors in last year's "Gran Torino."
"I read it and I liked it. I said, 'Gee, I know this guy,' " Eastwood said. "I've seen this guy many times. And sometimes, these guys will grow at an older age and become more open, and sometimes they don't. But it was fun to talk about racial relations by playing a guy who doesn't want any part of anybody and is bitter because his neighborhood has all died off."
Eastwood wants to stick solely to directing, though he doesn't rule out going in front of the camera again.
"I'm perfectly willing and happy to have him direct from here out, and if he wants to step in front of the cameras again, that's fine, and I'm hoping I can be there with him when he does," Freeman said. "But you know, I think he's hell-bent on becoming another [famed Japanese filmmaker Akira] Kurosawa, if he isn't already. I think he already is."