Joe Morton expertly plays black ops agency leader Rowan on TV’s Scandal.
This season’s Scandal is already surprising and salacious, and veteran actor Joe Morton is one reason why. As Rowan, head of CIA-funded black ops agency B613, he now has a tenuous relationship with his daughter, top fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). And the ABC drama keeps unfolding in this fictitious Washington setting, which features a scheming first lady (Bellamy Young), a flawed president (Tony Goldwyn), and a host of other players with their own knotty issues.
Here we chat with Morton—who’s scarily good at being bad—about what will happen as Scandal’s third season unfolds, and the secret he kept from the show’s other players.
Last season, viewers learned—shockingly—that Rowan is Olivia’s dad. You were the only actor who knew. Was that a burden? JOE MORTON: It wasn’t a burden at all. It was actually something that helped with the character because Rowan is someone who harbors secrets anyway. I was the only actor who knew. It was terrific.
Will we see Rowan more this season? JM: I think probably what will happen over the course of the season is you’ll begin to see some more history between Rowan and Olivia. You’ll see kind of why this dysfunction has happened.
Do you think Rowan is evil? JM: In playing the villain, you never think, ‘Oh, well, I’m a terrible person.’ You think actually that whatever it is you’re doing is going to make the world a better place, and I think particularly in Rowan’s case that’s exactly what his job is. It’s to make sure that America is secure. His whole objective is to protect the republic.
Are you anything like him? JM: No. No. I mean, first of all I don’t have that kind of responsibility…That’s not my life. [Laughs]
Got it. So how much of his backstory comes from you, and how much from showrunner, Shonda Rhimes? JM: The way Shonda works, or what she says she does, is she kind of rolls the snowball together, and then rolls it down the hill, and then basically begins to write depending on what happens as the snowball is going down the hill. I’m learning who the character is, probably not at the same rate of speed as she is…but sort of learning as I go.
You’ve been acting for decades in theater—even here on Arena Stage—and also in movies like Speed and on TV. How did you start? JM: I sort of backed into it. I went to college at Hofstra University as a psychology major. First day of orientation, they took us around the campus and then they took us into the theater and showed us a skit of what life would be like our first year at school. When the skit was over I couldn’t get out of my seat. I kept sitting there thinking…maybe I could be an actor. I got up out of the theater, went to the registrar’s office, and changed all my majors from psychology to drama.
That first day? JM: That very first day… [But] I actually left college after three years because the one thing I did run into was that I would audition for a play and either I didn’t get the play because I just wasn’t right for the part or didn’t do a very good audition or I would run up against the fact that I was black and there’s really no part for me. So I quit school and decided if I had to take that kind of [race-related] abuse I’d rather get paid for it.
Ah, okay. Now back to Scandal. Do you think Rowan really loves Olivia? JM: The amount of energy put into trying to figure out how to be a different kind of father with his daughter only comes from the fact that he loves her so much. I mean he tried to, I suppose, protect her from what he does and who he is. Now that that’s fallen away, he has to figure out a way to get her to trust him and understand who he is.
So do you think Rowan, if he had to choose, would choose Olivia or the republic? JM: I’m going to guess that that would be a very difficult decision for him to make.