SHADOW MAN: A SIT DOWN WITH JOE MORTON

He’s the man at the center of all the mystery on ABC’s smash hit SCANDAL, playing DC fixer Olivia Pope’s father Rowan Pope to ruthless perfection. For Joe Morton, bringing artistic heft to the characters he plays, and leaving imprints we remember long after they are gone, is simply something he was born with. We catch up with Morton to find out what shifts beneath.

‘SCANDAL’ STAR: JOE MORTON

HYDROGEN MAGAZINE: You were a military kid, living in Germany and Okinawa before ending up in New York. What are your memories of that time?

JOE MORTON: In Okinawa, we lived in a small but comfortable home with a screened-in porch, across from a bamboo field. We had a garden and a banana tree in the back yard and a gardener with whom I spoke Okinawan. We also had a maid named Miyoko who I had a crush on … I was 5 or 6. I had my first dog there, a cute, friendly, brown and white mutt that I had to say goodbye to when my Dad was reassigned. I cried watching him chase the car as we left. Okinawa was my first time out of the country and my memories of those hills and that house will always be my most fond.

In Germany, we lived on the post. We had German friends, from whom I learned German, and when we ate at their house, I had wine and beer because the milk and water wasn’t any good. We were last stationed in Dachau. The ovens and showers, where they used to murder Jews, had not yet been turned into a museum, so for us kids (I was 10) it was our house of horrors. Dachau was a place of great tension and it reeked of the past.

HM: Did your family encourage your artistic aspirations?

JM: If you mean back then, in Germany or Okinawa, I didn’t have artistic aspirations; my aspirations were to be like my Dad … who was a serious officer with an equally serious job … to integrate the armed forces overseas. I saw him as a hero, a leader of men, a disciplinarian who was determined to fight for his race and his country. Unfortunately, my poor eyesight prevented me from entering the Air Force Academy as a pilot.

Fortunately, it made me realize I was following my father’s dream, not mine. I decided to study psychology; however, on my first day at university, I changed my major from psychology to drama. My grandmother was unhappy about that and withdrew her financial support, and my mother was deeply concerned. (My father had already passed away long before that time).

HM: What were some of the movies, and performances that impacted you early on?

JM: I always loved epics: Moby Dick – Gregory Peck; Lawrence of Arabia – Peter O’Toole; The Cardinal – Tom Tryon; Spartacus – Kirk Douglas; Ben Hur – Charlton Heston; 2001: A Space Odyssey – Keir Dullea. Later on, films starring Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr, Eartha Kitt, etc., made a great impression on me for both their artistic and political achievements.

HM: You were Tony-nominated as lead actor for your portrayal of Walter Lee Younger in ‘Raisin’, an adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. What was it like, slipping into the skin of that character?

JM: I was 28, out of school only 6 years, and Raisin was my third Broadway musical and my first bona-fide lead. I was over the moon with joy. Walter Lee presented a huge challenge. He is an immensely complicated man. I was 10 years his junior, and Sidney Poitier had already established the character on stage and in the movies. I gained ten pounds to help me move less like a 28 year old, and I read everything I could about Lorraine Hansberry and the times that surrounded “Raisin in the Sun.” But I think what helped the most, was 6 years of backers auditions to help raise money for the show. It was like having 6 years of rehearsal. It was the hardest job I ever had but, in many ways, it was a spring board for my career. We won a Grammy and a Tony for Best Musical.

HM: You are well known from your role on Eureka as scientist Henry Deacon. Tell me about your experience on that show, one of SYFY’s highest rated shows.

JM: Eureka was an incredible playground for me. I not only got to play Henry, a genius of a man with an extraordinary abundance of talents and skills, but I directed three episodes of the show, wrote music for the show (Gotta Say Goodbye), and produced art for the show (the artwork in the Smart house). It was, in many ways, a dream job. I got paid to do many of the things I love doing … and made some long-lasting friendships.

HM: Let’s talk Scandal. First thoughts when you read those first scripts…

JM: My first impression of the show came from watching the first season on Netflix. I was completely in awe of the writing, dazzled by the photography, and excited by the talent on the screen, especially Kerry. I had been looking for a really smart, really good, bad guy to play, and after seeing Scandal, I began musing as to how I might get on this remarkable series. Before I had the opportunity to discuss this with my agents, I got a call from them saying Scandal was interested in me.

I spoke with Mark Wilding, one of the producer-writers, who confided in me, after I agreed to come aboard, as to how that season would end … that after being introduced as this dark and nefarious character, I would be revealed as Olivia’s Dad. Now, I was really hooked. The final blow, if you will, was when I received the premier script for season three. When I read that opening monologue, I felt I’d been offered a rare opportunity … and I dug in hoping that I could meet the challenge.

HM: You play Olivia Pope’s father Rowan Pope, a fact that came to light in last season’s cliffhanger. Rowan is duplicitous shall we say, and has a very complicated relationship with Olivia. Tell me about him.

JM: Rowan is a very complicated individual. Like his name, he is someone whose job is to protect … in this case, the Republic, which he does by any and all means necessary. Things begin to get complicated once you filter in his relationship with his daughter, whom he loves but must keep at a distance because of his work, which demands the darker side of his nature. And then there is their past: Who were they before B613, or was he always part of that organization? Who was Mom? Why does Rowan seem to object to all of Olivia’s boyfriends? The questions go on and on and on … which I think is a good thing.

HM: We get to know more about Rowan in the 3rd season as he takes center stage and it isn’t exactly a pretty picture. Be honest, is it fun playing the puppet-master?

JM: It’s more than fun … it’s scary. Scary and exhilarating, because Shonda Rhimes is the true puppet-master. She controls all of the strings, she and her troupe of masterful writers. I never know from episode to episode what strings she’s going to pull.

HM: What’s your approach to playing Rowan?

JM: My approach is to shed light on the darkness that Shonda lays out before me, by moving deftly from moment to moment. Because I can only speculate where I am going, my approach, script to script, is based on where I’ve been … that’s the only thing I know for sure. And even that might not be a true reckoning. I might discover that what I thought was, was not. It’s Shondaland, a roller coaster ride that climbs very high, plummets from those heights, and zips around corners at lightning speed! As an actor, it keeps you nimble.

HM: Does there have to be something redeeming about a character to do them justice or to connect to them in some way?

JM: Generally speaking, a character’s humanity is what makes them redeeming. It’s essential for the actor to find that humanity. My theory, about so-called villains, is that they do what they do because in their minds they are making the world, or at least their world, a better place. In my opinion, they do not see themselves as evil; or if they do, they strive to be supremely evil … the best at what they do, which in turn feeds their ego. A thief wants to be the best at filling his belly; a murderer wants to be the most efficient at avenging a wrong or dispensing with trash. Playing villains are fun because their perception of who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing is boundless.

HM: Kerry Washington plays your daughter Olivia Pope, the DC fixer. Tell me about your working relationship with Kerry and how you both developed the dynamic that plays out onscreen between you.

JM: On-screen relationships are magical. You’re never quite sure before you attempt them if they’re going to work, and when they do, you’re not sure why they work. I suppose they grow and develop out of trust of one another and faith in the unknown. Talking about it could possibly destroy it, so that’s all I’m going to say.

HM: What do you make of the die-hard Scandal fans and how live tweeting changed the game for the show?

JM: Tweeting is a brilliant stroke. It enhances the fans participation in the show. It’s an online, real-time, water cooler where the fans can not only chat among themselves about the show, but converse with the actors, producers, writers, or anyone else, before, during, and after the show. Similar to theatre, you get a ‘live’ and immediate response. Gladiators, as we call the fans and as they call themselves, are sharp, funny, and inquisitive … they’re deeply invested in the show and the characters … and live tweeting, which I was anxious about until I actually got involved, makes doing the show that much more fun.

Since I’ve joined the show and twitter, I’ve created Scandal song parodies and cartoon music videos (with the help of my muse) and tweeted Sunday Dinner recipes with accompanying suggestions for red wines. I even get dinner and wine suggestions from Gladiators. It’s a trip! I’m feeling guilty at the moment, because I’ve been doing a theatre workshop, which has occupied a great deal of my time, and haven’t been tweeting this past week. But it’s our hiatus, so I hope the Gladiators forgive me!

HM: What’s one moment professionally or personally you would relive if you could?

JM: There are many, many things I have experienced, but none I would necessarily wish to relive … simply because they existed and existed as they were. The moment happened and I will remember them as good, bad, or whatever, but that’s where they’ll remain, in my memory, as an impression or simple recollection of an encounter or a place I’ve traveled. It’s as if I were to do a character in a play in different productions, it’s the same character, the same play, but not the same experience. I wouldn’t want to relive or repeat the exact same experience.

HM: You have a body of work many would give a right arm for. What’s left on the table you want to accomplish, say in the next few years?

JM: I am a singer/songwriter and would like to eventually get into the studio and record; I’ve got an extreme cooking show that my partners and I are pitching. I directed and produced (with three other partners), a 100th Birthday celebration for Robert Johnson at the Apollo Theater that I’ve adapted for the screen. I’ve got an adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” that I would like to produce and direct for the stage; and I just completed a workshop/reading of a one-man play about Dick Gregory for the Atlantic Stage Company called “Turn Me Loose.” I have a few other projects not ready to be served, but the table is set and all the plates are full…

‘SCANDAL’ AIRS THURDAYS ON ABC, 10/9C

ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOBBY QUILLARD (www.quillardinc.com)

 

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