By Amy Moeller | September 23, 2015 | People
Actor Joe Morton on what's in store for Scandal, meeting the actual President, and playing Olivia Pope's dad.
Joe Morton has been shaking audiences to their core on Thursday nights as the callous father of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) on Shonda Rhimes' Scandal. This summer, he portrayed a do-good doctor on TNT's Proof, which premiered back in June. In anticipation of this Thursday's return of Scandal (September 24), we chat with the veteran actor about balancing two opposite roles, the time he met the actual President (not Fitzgerald Grant), and what to expect from this season of Scandal.
Just as you discovered and became captivated with Scandal, someone reached out to you about making a few appearances on the show. Tell us about how you landed your role.
Joe Morton: My manager called and said, “Someone would like to talk to you from Scandal. They’d like for you to come on the show as a guest.” And I thought, “Terrific.” One of the producers, Mark Wilding, [called and] we had a conversation about the show, and I told him how much I enjoyed it. [...] It was the end of season two—and he said the very last two sets of lines of the very last episode would be, “Hello, Olivia.” And she would say, “Hello, dad.” And that would be how the season ended. I said, “That’s it. You got me. I’m doing it.”
You read that final episode of season two for a live audience before it aired.
JM: It was amazing. We did an event at the Television Academy out here in Los Angeles and did kind of a facsimile of a table read. All the actors were up on stage and we read the scripts. [...] When we got to those last two lines, the audience erupted. I mean, they jumped up, screamed and carried on, and it was terrific.
It’s amazing just to see the way viewers respond on Twitter every week.
JM: I think Scandal, if not the first, may certainly have been one of the first to come up with that idea. And I think it’s brilliant, to actually have a media whereby the audience can respond to things live. It’s the closest that screen actors will get to being on stage, which is why I enjoy it. We can shoot the show, the show goes on the air, and then the audience responds to it immediately and we get to respond to them.
Is playing such a ruthless guy proving challenging or fun?
JM: It’s a lot of fun. Most of my career has been spent playing good guys. When I first started in this business, a lot of the characters that were being offered to black men in particular were drug dealers, and pimps and boogeymen of all sorts and my response was: I’ll try to put together a body of work of black men who are not boogeymen. Not that I was completely adverse to it if there was something that made sense story-wise, or that was important to the story in terms of character development. But if not, I wasn’t interested. Then this came along, actually at a time when I was looking to do a very smart, very intelligent, bad guy. And this fit the bill perfectly.
Rowan, your character, is terrifying. Even just hearing your voice, I’m a bit thrown off. It’s hard to disassociate. Do you find that people cross the street when they see you coming now?
JM: No, I think what’s lovely about this character is he is the flame to everybody else’s moth, if you will. If [people] recognize me, they like to engage. They all say exactly what you just said. I went to the Williamstown Town Theater Festival [with] my girlfriend to see some plays and they have a cabaret on the weekends. So, we went to the cabaret and this woman came across the club before the show started and said, “When you walked in the building I looked at you and I thought: I hate that man. I don’t even know who he is but I hate him.” And then she realized who I was and came over to talk to me. I think that on one level [the audience] really loves despising Rowan, but on the other hand, they are fascinated by him. And when they get a chance to meet me, they’re hoping I’m not the person I play and they’re looking to engage.
There were times in the beginning when Rowan could garner some sympathy—there was a sense that he was really doing what he thought best—but he seems to be getting crueler now.
JM: Look [at] what happens. Rowan tells Olivia, “If you think the world is terrible with me in it, think about what might happen [without me].” And as soon as he’s gone, what happens to her? She gets kidnapped. And she keeps going down hill from there. More and more terrible things keep happening to her because I think on one level, as you say, as much as he is despicable, on the other hand, the two entities that he loves and cherishes are the Republic—the country—and his daughter.
Your own father was in the Army.
JM: He was in the artillery. His job was to integrate the armed forces overseas. He was one of a number of officers who were posted to units across Europe and across the country, where they would show up racially unannounced in order to integrate the armed forces. [...] Unsung Hollywood is doing a documentary on me and, because of that, I’ve been going through a lot of old photographs. I found two photos: one from when we were stationed in Massachusetts and one I believe we were stationed in Okinawa, but it’s interesting. One photograph is me [as a kid] as part of a baseball team called the Dodgers, and I’m the only black kid on the team, and the other photograph is of a group of white officers at some sort of social gathering, all in uniform and my father is the only black person in the photograph. And that really was essentially our situation.
Do you find that a military background has been helpful when playing your role on Scandal?
JM: Absolutely. My father’s job was enormously difficult. He had to deal with kind of the dual personality, if you will, of American democracy. On one hand, American democracy [says] everyone is equal before the law, and on the other hand—and we’re talking about the 1950s—it certainly was not true, in this country, in terms of racial inequality and certainly was not true in the armed forces in terms of racial inequality. And so it was a very difficult line to walk because on one hand you had to make sure you were a positive force within all of that, in terms of integration, and yet, at the same time, you had to defend and protect yourself because there were lots of people out to get you because they didn’t want integration of any sort.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Scandal, owns Thursday nights. What’s it like to work with her?
JM: She’s terrific. I’ve only been with the show as a guest artist since the end of season two [...] but, from what I can see and what I can feel, certainly she’s been, one, very generous with me in terms of the kinds of material that she’s written for me; two, she expects the highest quality from all of us; and three, she’s a great boss. She’s generous, she’s fun, she’s receptive, she’s amazing. I would do almost anything that she would ask me to do in terms of the character and in terms of the work, because she’s just that kind of person.
You have had a number of powerful monologues on the show. How do you prepare for those?
JM: From an acting standpoint, there are two things that I have to make sure that I always do in terms of those monologues. One is to make sure I know what I want so I’m not just spouting words—there has to be an action: What do I want? Who am I talking to and what do I want from this person? And the words themselves will tell me to what extent I’m willing to go to get what I want. And then added to that is the history of the character—what I know I’ve done in the past, and what I believe that means for me in the future. Obviously, that’s kind of tricky for us because we, the actors, don’t know what that future’s going to hold because we never know what’s going to happen in the next episode until we sit down for the table read. I’m literally living from episode to episode, so I have to be very much in the moment of whatever that episode is…
Do you have a favorite episode or a scene?
JM: The one that comes to mind quickest is the speech with Fitz when I call him a boy. That one was very powerful both in what the character had to say and in the imagery of the character while he was saying it. When I first read it and realized [Rowan] was sitting without a shirt and tie, chained to a steel chair, and says the things he says, again [the question is:] What was it I wanted? And what Rowan needed to do was tell the absolute truth about who he thought Fitz was and how Fitz operated, because for all intents and purposes, Fitz could be about to kill him. So it was basically being put in the situation where you’re telling—as opposed to a boldfaced lie—a boldfaced truth, an absolute truth, and that’s what was most exciting about that speech.
What can you tell us about this next season?
JM: What Shonda is great at doing is always switching things up. I think what you’ll see again is that—because, remember that at the end of last season, Mellie was thrown out of the White House, Olivia ended up in the White House residence, Cyrus is fired, Maya is released from prison, and I’m put in prison—so the only thing that I could suggest is that because of those circumstances, alliances I think will begin to shift.
Let’s talk about Proof, a new TNT series in which you play Dr. Richmond, a nice doctor.
JM: Proof is a beautifully written series [...] about a woman [Jennifer Beals as Dr. Carolyn Tyler] and a man [Matthew Modine as Ivan Turing] who are compelled for very different reasons to discover what life after death may hold. Matthew’s character is enormously interested because he’s terminally ill, and Jennifer’s character needs to know because she’s just lost her son and she’s had a near death experience herself. Dr. Richmond of course doesn’t know anything about them and their situations until the finale of that season and his point of view, as a scientist, is, What kind of hubris does it even take to believe that you could pierce that veil? It’s an enormously complicated set of relationships, and I love the way that [creator] Rob Bragin builds to that point. It’s a beautifully orchestrated, lovely series.
The transition from one character to another must be interesting.
JM: To play Richmond as opposed to Rowan—they are almost literally diametrically opposed. Rowan is probably as dark as you can get, whereas Richmond is a healer, he’s a brain surgeon, he deals with enormous amounts of delicacies and precision in terms of savings someone’s life, not precision in terms of taking or controlling someone’s life. So they are opposite, and that was the beauty of trying to go from one character to the other.
You’ve spent some time in DC recently. You participated in the President’s initiative for mentoring at the Screen Actor’s Guild and the American Film Institute and you starred in the DC production of Raisin before it hit Broadway.
JM: I got a chance to meet President Obama briefly, which was lovely. Unlike the other gentlemen who showed up, I did not wear a suit. I wore a jacket, but underneath the jacket [I was wearing] a T-shirt with the image of President Obama as a superhero. So when I got to meet him [...], he looked at the gentleman to my left and he said it was a very good looking T-shirt.
You also attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner a few years ago. How did you like it?
JM: I’d never been to anything quite like [it] before so it was interesting to see who showed up and I got to meet some people from CNN, which was lovely—I actually did a spot on CNN while I was there. And then at one point the First Lady and I sort of caught each other’s eye and she made a gesture, she mouthed how much she loved the character and hoped that I would not be killed off. So I mouthed back, “Write a letter to Shonda.”
Last question: What are you watching now?
JM: I’m a real kind of political and news geek, so most of the time my TV is on, I’m watching CNN—although the other night, the hotel TV was on the fritz so I decided to go to Netflix and I watched Dear White People, which I loved. It’s wonderful. It’s an interesting combination of dark comedy and ultimately a real statement about the confusion and convolution, if you will, of race relations [...]. It’s really an interesting point of view of the racial condition of America from a kind of millennial point of view.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA ABC