In an audio recording obtained by The Blast, actor Morgan Freeman is heard making several comments to a female reporter about her appearance during a roundtable interview in 2016 promoting the film "Ben Hur."
A reporter from The Blast, who was freelancing at the time, was there and captured the audio as part of an article she was writing about the film. After news broke today that several women accused Freeman of sexual conduct, the reporter recalls the questionable exchange.
In a hotel room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, which was repurposed into a mini-conference room, several reporters sat around a large, round table covered with a white tablecloth. With cell phones set to record, they sat and waited for Morgan Freeman.
Everyone had gathered on the hot summer day for a press junket to interview the stars of the 2016 remake of "Ben-Hur" (BTW, the movie turned out to be a total flop.) The room was a bit tense. A bossy female reporter in her 50s or 60s had already steamrolled the others into agreeing to let her go first. Freeman walked in, burped loudly and blamed it on the guacamole. The entrance, albeit a distasteful one, seemed put the room at ease.
Despite strong-arming her way into the first question of the session, things didn't go as planned. The bossy reporter started her schtick but got completely ignored by the Oscar-winner as he cut her off to comment on the appearance of Taylor Ferber, a reporter from another outlet.
"Now that is what I would call ... strategic," Freeman said. He was gesturing to the patches of skin showing through Ferber's ripped denim jeans.
She playfully responded, "So, you're not a fan? You don't have the same pair?"
"Have you lost your mind?" he asked her. The intention of Freeman's comment was clear to those in the room, between his tone and his suggestively cocked eyebrows. He was definitely a fan.
Everyone laughed, myself included.
The exchange awkwardly continued for a few seconds and ended with the 78-year-old telling the room it was "a private conversation."
For her part, the reporter, a fellow freelancer, played along and laughed with the rest of the room. She was wearing a popular style of ripped jeans, a ruffled millennial pink off-the-shoulder top and a pair of neutral heels. She looked like most girls her age in L.A.
The roundtable interview went on. We went around the room asking questions about the film, I got to ask mine and a few people later, it was time for Ferber, the reporter in the ripped jeans. She started her question but immediately got cut off.
"I can't hear a word you're saying," Freeman told her. The actor could clearly hear her but was insinuating that her appearance was too distracting.
"You can't hear me? Are you distracted?" she joked and then pressed on to her question.
The objectification of the reporter felt obvious to me but we all laughed along; that's how you behave in the presence of someone like Morgan Freeman. Fame and power are intimidating, you want people like Morgan Freeman to like you, you want to keep your job and you want to cover more films. You don't speak up (right, Billy Bush?).
People tend to kiss up to celebrities at events like these. Reporters are rarely even honest about whether they liked the film they're there to talk about. It's all about keeping the celebrities talking to get a good sound bite and do your job. So if anyone had an issue with Freeman's focus on Ferber's appearance it's not shocking that no one piped up.
I brushed the exchange off as just another older guy being a creep. However, from Ferber's perspective, she didn't see any problem with the exchange. She told The Blast today that she "did not feel at all uncomfortable." She even grabbed a quick video about her jeans when the interview was wrapping up.
"It was a totally innocent, hilarious, and a great personal moment that lightened the environment, which can often times be awkward or stiff," she explained. "It wasn't at all 'creepy' or too much, and felt like a comment my grandparents would make — they actually agreed when they watched the video, which they got a kick out of."
There was someone else in the room who did have an issue with the comments. Do you remember the bossy lady from the beginning of the story? She marched right up to the people in charge of the press junket and alerted them to what she interpreted as a big problem.
But it wasn't Morgan Freeman's behavior she took issue with — she told them that Ferber was dressed inappropriately and distracting. She wanted the production company to say something to the reporter about her outfit. Overhearing this, I immediately gave Ferber a heads up. It was unbelievable believe to me that someone blamed her and not Freeman for his comments.
Ferber, who was not offended by Freeman, was actually offended by the other reporter shaming her appearance.
"I did, however, feel extremely uncomfortable, and honestly a little discouraged, when I learned a fellow female colleague shamed my outfit behind my back afterward," she said. Ferber later wrote about the style-shaming on her blog.
Today, Freeman was accused by eight women of inappropriate sexual behavior in a report from CNN; one story sounded eerily similar to my experience at the "Ben-Hur" junket.
The actor has apologized, saying in a statement to The Blast, “Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.”