Peter Morgan owes his writing career to an attack of stage fright.
He was appearing in a University of Leeds production of "Love's Labour's Lost" when he suddenly realized he couldn't go on and give his speech as the king. "I sat backstage and said, 'I never want to do this again,'" Morgan recalls.
Instead he turned to writing; his first play was called "Gross." "It's 'Gross' not in terms of amounts of money, but as in 'Ew,'" he clarifies. It won him an award and an agent — "a friend of a friend of a friend who came to see it," he says — and he has been a writer ever since.
But not just any writer. Morgan is known as an actor's writer, penning scripts that have won performers all kinds of awards, sometimes more than one in a year, as in 2006, when Helen Mirren (for "The Queen") and Forest Whitaker (for "The Last King of Scotland") both took home Oscars. Morgan is known for specializing in true-life stories, such as "Frost/Nixon" (both the play and film) and the Tony Blair trilogy — "The Deal," "The Queen" and "The Special Relationship" — which starred his muse Michael Sheen as the former British prime minister.
But Morgan says it's merely a coincidence that many of his scripts center on real-life events. Exhibit 1: his new Warner Bros. film "Hereafter," based on an original idea and directed by Clint Eastwood. Telling the stories of three people haunted by death, "Hereafter" seeks to answer no less a question than what happens after we expire. While Morgan admits he's surprised that a studio would back a film dealing with faith and religion, he notes, "I think the rules for Clint and the rules for Hollywood are two totally different things."
He penned the script on spec in a short time and set it aside. Then a friend passed away, and the questions Morgan asked himself made him want to revisit it. He sent the first draft to his agent for feedback. "Then my agent sent it to Kathleen Kennedy without telling me," he says, "and she sent it to Steven Spielberg, and he sent it to Clint. The next thing I know, they're making it, and they don't want to change it."
Morgan was caught off-guard when he learned they were going to shoot the first draft: "I got a message saying, 'Clint likes it the way it is; he doesn't want to change it.' I got pretty upset. There were so many things I wanted to do. They said, 'Yeah, but he really likes first instincts, and it's no coincidence that this is a first draft. He responds to the roughness and how unworked it is and how authentic it is, rather than artificial. And that's what he has a nose for.'"
Morgan, 47, says that instinct extends to casting. For the roles of twin brothers being raised by a drug-addicted single mother in England, Eastwood insisted on finding actual twins from the same social background as the characters. Several people auditioned who might have been better actors than the boys he eventually cast, Frankie and George McLaren, Morgan says, but Eastwood wanted actors without training or experience. "It's a very interesting experience working with Clint," he adds. "I've never come across anything like it, and I doubt I ever will again."
Waiting for Sheen
Though Morgan says he never writes with actors in mind, he has incorporated Tony Blair into three scripts — and isn't ruling out a fourth. His collaboration with Sheen also includes "Frost/Nixon," with the actor portraying talk-show host David Frost. Morgan first met Sheen after writing "The Deal" for British television.
"I was broke and was dying for the film to start shooting, because I get the check on the first day of principal photography," he says. "We had to delay shooting because the casting director said, 'There's only one person who can play Tony Blair, and we have to wait nine months because he's on stage.' I said, 'Who is it?' She said, 'Michael Sheen.' I said, 'Who the f--- is Michael Sheen?' I mean, one would wait for Daniel Day-Lewis. We'll all not do anything for nine months because it's him. But Michael Sheen? We're waiting nine months for someone who is, to me at least, a total unknown. And then I met him, and we seem to have barely made a move without one another since."
Morgan is currently writing what should be another great role for an actor. It's a Freddie Mercury biopic, with Sacha Baron Cohen set to play the British rock star. In addition, he's working on a script for director Fernando Meirelles ("City of God"). "It juggles several different languages and storylines," Morgan says. "It's very ambitious and interesting. It will either be fantastic or it will fail spectacularly. But at least it will be an interesting failure."