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Talking Freeman and Damon, Mandela and Eastwood -- with John Carlin, Author of Invictus Book

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John Carlin is a much accomplished journalist and author who ranked as the dean of foreign correspondents (for the UK Independent) in South Africa during the last days of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa. He was a significant witness to Mandela--and his book Playing the Enemy, about the 1995 rugby World Cup final--a moment so galvanic to the nation, involving Mandela and the team that epitomized white Afrikaaner pride--was the basis for Clint Eastwood's Invictus.

I first met John at a chefs' conference in San Sebastian, Spain some years back. He was new to the topic (he wrote mainly about politics and sport) and was wandering around a bit bemused among the molecular chefs. (He's half-Spanish, half-English though, so language wasn't a problem.)

I caught up with him via email from Barcelona, where he lives, ahead of the Oscars tomorrow. But before I get to that, I want to repeat the story he told me shortly after it happened: a pretty cool story of movie kismet.

Down in the Delta

In summer 2006, after at last finishing Playing the Enemy and sending it off to his agent, he took an assignment from the Spanish paper El Pais, where he was a correspondent, to write about extreme poverty in the Deep South--the Mississippi Delta. From his old colleague from South Africa days Bill Keller of the NY Times, he got the name of a clued-in local to help guide him around. He landed in Memphis; driving south on the highway into Mississippi he called the local to touch base. "You by chance driving such and such a car?" he was asked. Yes, said John, surprised. Why? "'Cause then I'm in the car right behind you," was the answer.

That was the first surprise, a little one. The second one, bigger, came when this guide asked John to come along that evening to meet a small plane that was arriving. The plane landed on a tiny strip; out stepped Morgan Freeman. Freeman turned out to be a business partner of the local. Together they own Madidi, a startlingly sophicated restaurant in the old bluesburg of Clarksdale. John was taken there to dine. He couldn't resist the opportunity, dear to movie-material hopefuls eternally. (Note: He already had an article in Wireless picked us as the basis for Die Hard 4) He told Freeman shamelessly: "Mr. Freeman, I've got the movie role just for you." Freeman listened--and then took over, in comprehensive detail, the spiel about the great rugby game. Gee--you know so much about it, said Carlin, surprised and impressed. Well, I just read your manuscript, courtesy of your agent, the grand actor informed him. And the ball was rolling.

Maybe we should all write for El Pais.

Red Carpet & Beyond

John attended the film's red carpet premiere in LA. Also there was Francois Pienaar, heroic captain of South Africa's great rugby triumph, played by Matt Damon. "He blubbed all the way through," said John right after. "And Mandela daughter Zindzi, who I sat next to, held my hand tight for last five minutes, lovin' the film."

I asked him now, by email, for a couple of thoughts:

- Has Mandela expressed any opinion to you regarding Invictus?

JC: Nope. Too old.

- Did you deal personally at all with Eastwood? Impression?

JC: Sure. I went on set twice and chatted to him at some length in Paris. I liked him a lot. No nonsense fellow. Utterly at peace in his own skin. Serious about his work; does not take himself seriously.

- Freeman did Mandela without accent. Damon did Pienaar with an accent. How well you think Damon got Pienaar overall?

JC: Damon did great. Got the accent bang on, which is a lot. He was deliberately under-stated, ceding the stage very properly to Freeman/Mandela, who was fabulous, despite the [non-]accent.

- You're more a soccer man than a rugby man. Going to South Africa for the World Cup? Rooting for any team, and any thoughts who'll win?

JC: Yep. Going as a journalist. Rooting for SA, until they fall in the first round. Then Spain, by far the best team. But football is a funny game....

- Any more film projects in the works? Books?

JC: None, for now.

- Have you seen District 9 , the comparitively small budget sci-fi-political thriller from South Africa that (lo and behold) is up for Best Picture tomorrow?

JC: Yes, I loved it. A brilliantly made film. Also, a great analogy of present day (repeat, present day) South Africa.

- Which leads me to a serious question for you, a veteran South Africa observer: When we spoke last (some time ago) you had little respect for former President Mbeki's leadership, but were more hopeful about Zuma. Still have that hopefulness, about him and South Africa?

JC: Hope never dies. I prefer Zuma to Mbeki, but I don't have much time for him either. Though he is an affable enough sort of chap. Not much beyond that.

- A final thought?

JC: I have season tickets to Barcelona, which trumps all. Freeman pretends to be Mandela. Messi is Messi.

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