Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Interview — Scandal's Joe Morton: "Rowan Has No Boundaries"

Joe Morton
(photo by Bobby Quillard)
If you watch “Scandal,” then you know that Rowan/Eli Pope strikes fear in the heart of everyone who crosses him — and even if they don’t cross him, but only accidentally get in the way. His portrayer, Joe Morton, is nothing like his character. In fact, aside from the dulcet tones of his mesmerizing baritone voice, you’d be hard-pressed to find any similarities … thank God. When I spoke with Joe recently, he gave me the rundown on all things “Scandal,” as well as his new one-man show in New York City called “Turn Me Loose,” which opens in May.

Celebrity Extra: Did you know how huge “Scandal” was, and was going to be, when you signed on to play Rowan, Olivia Pope’s father, in season two?

Joe Morton: It’s interesting, I think, because the first season that it was on, I certainly had heard of it, but I didn’t really know a lot about it. I knew about Kerry Washington and that she was involved. I didn’t really sit down and pay close attention to the show until the second season. I had come out to L.A. for pilot season, and I sat down with my computer and started streaming “Scandal” on Netflix and just fell in love with it. It was an amazing show, beautifully written, beautifully shot; I loved the cast, loved what was going on. I said to myself, “I wonder if there is a way I can sort of wrangle my way into one episode of the show as a guest artist?”

Even before I had the opportunity to talk to my agents about it, I got a call from them saying that in fact “Scandal” wanted to talk to me about coming onto the show. They said they wanted me to come on as a guest artist, and I had to keep it a secret. And the secret was that in the last episode of season two, the last two lines belonged to Kerry and me, and they would reveal that I was her father. So I said, “You’ve got me.” So, I took it up and here I am.

CE: Because of the type of character you play, I have to assume that it is immensely fun for you as an actor.

JM: It’s a huge amount of fun. I mean, it’s very intense, obviously, and the scenes that they write for Kerry and me, in particular, are just wonderful. So it’s a real joy.

I’ve spent most of my career playing good guys for very deliberate reasons. When I started in this business, a lot of the opportunities for black actors, male actors in particular, were centered on playing drug addicts or drug dealers or pimps or some kind of gangster. And I just thought, that’s not how I want to begin my career. I wanted to try to put together a portfolio of diversified black male characters who didn’t necessarily go around hurting people. But when I came out to L.A. at the end of season two for “Scandal,” I was looking for a very smart, very intelligent, very devious bad guy, and this just fell into my lap. So, it’s secondary how much fun it is.

CE: So much of what Rowan does and says just makes my jaw drop. What are some scenes for you where you couldn’t believe what you were saying or doing?

JM: It was a couple of seasons ago, the scene between Tony Goldwyn (who plays President Grant) and me where I called him a boy. I mean, that was unbelievable that they created this incredible monologue where a black man in chains sitting in a captive sort of situation is telling off a Southern, white Republican president of the United States, telling him that he’s a boy. I just thought, if my father were alive and he were able to witness my doing this speech, he would be shaking his head in disbelief. How did this ever happen?

CE: After having spoken with Tony Goldwyn (who plays President Grant) a few years back, as well as Bellamy Young (Mellie Grant), I get the impression that this is a great environment, a great set to work on.

JM: It really is. Without any exaggeration, they’re the kind of group where you go to work every day looking forward to seeing your friends and doing whatever it is you have to do that day. It’s a real joy. It’s really relaxed. A lot of my scenes are very intense. But a lot of the Olivia Pope and Associates scenes, from what I gather, are a lot of talk and a lot of joking and a lot of standing around, but it really is a family. We are a group of people who are there to watch each other’s back and then to serve the material, to really get in there and do the best we can with what Shonda has given us. And so it makes it just very comfortable and a lot of fun.

CE: Now that Olivia knows the kind of man Rowan is, we haven’t had a lot of scenes with only them, just being father and daughter, with no hidden agendas. Do you miss that?

JM: I think he’s always, generally, I don’t know what the word is — nice? But he’s always loving toward her in one way or another. Even if he’s scolding her. Even if he’s in some way disappointed with some specific thing she might have done. I think that what holds all that together is this very odd and clearly unhealthy relationship between father and daughter. But there it is. It’s still there, and it’s very present, and it’s very powerful, and it’s unbreakable so far.

CE: My impression of Rowan is that he truly believes that no matter what he does or who he kills or who he ruins, that he is doing it to protect the country and that it makes it all OK. What do you think?

JM: I think you are absolutely right. I think his job is to protect the republic by any means necessary. Whatever it takes to make sure that the Republic of the United States’ protection is maintained. So, he will do whatever it takes. There’s no boundary to that. I think he’s even said that. There’s no one above him to say, “Don’t do it that way.” It’s his job to figure out how to make sure XYZ gets done, and gets done quickly and efficiently, and the result is that the country is protected.

CE: Even if that means killing the president’s son …

JM: That’s Rowan in terms of his own view of revenge. His view was you have dishonored and hurt my daughter, so this is what I do in return.

CE: And it didn’t hurt that it helped Grant get re-elected.

JM: Right. If he can do two things at once, fine. But I think there is a strain that is very personal and very dangerous.

Joe Morton (photo courtesy ABC)
CE: What scoop can you give me about “Scandal” as we start to close out the fifth season?

JM: The only thing I can tell you is that it is an election year. So, since this is Fitz’s last term in office, I think there are going to be lots of people affected by his moving out of that office and trying to determine who’s going to take his place. But, if you want to know anything else, you’re just going to have to wait and see it.

CE: Prior to researching Dick Gregory for this interview, shame on me that I had not heard of him. What an influential man he was, and still is! What had you known about him before taking on this role, and what made you decide to play him?

JM: I’d met him many years ago, so I knew who he was and I knew what he’d done. I knew about his activism in terms of the civil-rights movement. I knew about his work in terms of nutrition. He had the Bohemian diet that came out in the ’70s, I believe. I’ve seen and heard his stand-up routine. And it was all of that that attracted me to want to do the part. We are talking about things today in politics and in nutrition that he was talking about 30 and 40 years ago. So he definitely was a trendsetter. He was definitely someone enormously ahead of his time and someone who had great courage to do the kinds of things that he did.

CE: How did he get involved in the civil-rights movement?

JM: Medgar Evers was the big pull for him into the civil-rights movement. He and Medgar Evers became the best of friends. They rode the buses together, they did fundraisers together, etc. In fact, the name of the play, “Turn Me Loose,” is the last three words that Medgar Evers spoke before he died. Medgar was his idol in a lot of ways, and he felt pressed to make sure that he came up to Medgar’s measure in terms of what needed to be done with the civil-rights movement. And he continues to do it today. He still goes out on speeches and he goes to college campuses. I was just talking to him recently at BB King’s in New York, but he also goes from campus to campus talking to students and whomever wants to listen about what’s going on in the world and his point of view.

CE: What do you hope comes from this play when audiences see it; how would you like the audience to react to it, or what do you hope they take from it?

JM: I hope it reaches as many people as humanly possible. That’s the point of the play, in many ways, is that it is in some ways a call to action. A lot of what he did, a lot of what he speaks about, a lot of his humor really was basically telling the audience or asking the audience to take stock of their own situation individually and as groups, and do something about it. The woes that we find ourselves facing as individuals or as groups — whether it’s black people or Hispanics or women or whatever — it might be you need to take stock in these situations and act on it and do something to make it better. That’s on all of us. That is our obligation. And that is what he preaches, even if he’s doing a stand-up comedy routine.

CE: What is the time frame in Dick Gregory’s life that the play covers?

JM: It flips back and forth between the ’60s and present day. It’s just me on stage, playing him at different ages. When he was younger, when he broke the color line on the Jack Paar show, and then when he’s older and talking directly to the audience that’s in front of him.

CE: What else should audiences know about the play?

JM: Just that John Legend is also involved. He is one of our producers. It will be “Turn Me Loose, presented by John Legend.” So that will hopefully be really helpful. And I believe he’s, if not writing at the moment, has written a song for the play that will be introduced at the end of the play opening night.

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