LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nelson Mandela received the touch of "God" -- Hollywood-style -- when Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman prepared to play him in new movie "Invictus."
Freeman said he was asked by the 91-year-old former South African president to portray him in the Clint Eastwood-directed film that debuts on Friday and also stars Matt Damon.
"I said to him, 'If I'm going to play you, I'm going to have to have access to you. I'm going to have to be close enough to hold your hand,'" Freeman told reporters recently.
The Academy Award winner for his role in Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" has portrayed many characters over the years, a slave-turned abolitionist leader, a fictional U.S. president and even "God" in "Evan Almighty," but rarely one who is alive and important to so many people as Mandela.
The elder statesman of African politics was jailed for 27 years due to his militant work to end apartheid in South Africa before being released in 1990 and going on to become the president of his country four years later. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Invictus" tells of how Mandela brought the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship to his nation, utilizing the South African team around which to rally his countrymen and ease racial tensions between black and white citizens.
The word invictus is latin for "unconquered" or "unconquerable" and is the title of a poem by Englishman William Ernest Henley, published in 1875.
Freeman, wearing his hat as a producer, worked for years to bring the tale to the big screen.
"I didn't have any agenda as it were in playing the role other than to bring it as close to reality as I possibly could," Freeman said. "The biggest challenge I had, of course, was to sound like him."
The actor said that if he and the world leader were in the same area, he would try to meet with Mandela, share a meal, or sit backstage with him before a speech. Most importantly, he would hold Mandela's hand.
"I find that if I hold your hand, I get your energy, it transfers, and I have a sense of how you feel," he said. "That's important to me trying to become another person".
Damon portrays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the nation's mostly-white Springboks rugby team that was once reviled by the black majority. Mandela taps Pienaar in his efforts to unit the races.
The actor said he had six months to muscle up for the role in the rugged world of rugby, and people familiar with the hefty athlete may have to suspend their disbelief when watching "Invictus."
Indeed, Damon got a big surprise when he first met Pienaar at the player's home.
"I just remember I rang the doorbell and he opened the door and I looked up at him, and the first thing I ever said to Francois Pienaar in my life was, 'I look much bigger on film,'" Damon said.
Despite the obvious differences in stature and size of the actors compared to their real-life counterparts, under Eastwood's direction "Invictus" is winning strong reviews and Oscar buzz.
Todd McCarthy, film critic for showbusiness newspaper Daily Variety, sums up his review by calling the movie "a very good story very well told," and on film review website rottentomatoes.com, "Invictus" scores a 76 percent positive rating.
Editing by Jill Serjeant