Interview: Emmy Winner Joe Morton Reflects on Michael Brown and the Speech That Every Black Parent Gives Their Child

Interview: Emmy Winner Joe Morton Reflects on Michael Brown and the Speech That Every Black Parent Gives Their Child

Just this weekend veteran TV, film and stage actor Joe
Morton was awarded a Primetime Emmy for his role as Rowan Pope on the hit ABC drama
"Scandal." A day before the ceremony, we spoke about his role on the
show as the unscrupulous dad of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the former head of covert government
agency B613. 

In the brief conversation, Morton also had a chance
to reflect on other noted roles over the years, answer some of your questions sent in via social media, and also share his perspectives on
black culture on and off screen.

JAI TIGGETT: Congratulations
on your Emmy nomination. We hear that you’re the frontrunner.

JOE MORTON:
You’ve never heard me say that. You may have heard other people say that
[laughs]. It would be lovely, but who knows? The fellas I’m up against – Paul
Giamatti, Beau Bridges, Robert Morse, Dylan Baker and Reg E. Cathey – they’re all
wonderful actors. There’s just no way to predict, really.

JT: It’s hard to
believe that this would be your first Emmy. At this point in your career, how seriously
do you take these kinds of accolades?

JM: It’s exciting for the Emmys because you’re voted in by
your peers, the community of actors that surround you. And also to
get the nomination for the Critic’s Choice Award and the NAACP Award, it’s been
very exciting this entire year. Any time you’re a first-timer it’s a wonderful
thing. It makes you little crazy, but I’m enjoying it.

JT: How does the pressure
of Emmy season compare to the pressure of preparing for the role itself?

JM: It certainly makes me want to work harder. Accolades
are there to congratulate you, but also to make you understand that it’s not
over. You now have to continue trying to improve the craft and keep going. It’s
not something to rest on.

JT: How much of a
challenge was it to take on the character of Rowan and to be such a
cunning villain?

JM: It was something I was actually looking forward to.
I’ve played good guys for most of my career, and when I came out to California
I thought, "I really would like to find some wonderfully intelligent bad
guy to play."

And no sooner than I put it out there, Rowan was being
offered. At first he was certainly dark and malevolent, but it wasn’t until
season three where you actually began to hear some of the things that he had to
say, that things opened up. It wasn’t so much a challenge as it was being invited to an incredibly delicious meal. 

JT: One thing to
appreciate about the show is its social commentary. One of the lines that everyone seems to remember is where Rowan tells Olivia, "You have to be twice as good as them to
get half of what they have." How did that hit you when you first read it in the script?

JM: I
thought of all the kinds of things that black parents tell their children. That’s how it resonated with me when I first read it. It
was one of those things that I remember my mother and father telling me when I
was a kid. A lot of what Rowan says are the kinds of things that I grew up with
and I think that’s what makes him different from the other characters on the
show. I don’t know for sure, but I think he is a kind of channel for Shonda
[Rhimes] to be able to say certain things that no other character on the show
can say. 

JT: This idea of black parents having to give speeches to their children to prepare or
protect them from racial bias sounds a lot like some of the discussions
being had around the recent shooting of Michael Brown.

JM: I think the responsibility that any actor has is to
bring some truth to the work. In the case of Michael Brown, it’s a horror that
some young unarmed kid on his way to college is shot down by a policeman. And
in Ferguson as in a lot of places in America, that’s going to cause upheaval in
terms of whatever racial tensions have already existed. 

The other side of that coin however, is this insane thing
that we seem to do as a culture, which is to destroy our own neighborhoods
because we’re angry. And that is equally as horrible and untenable as the
shooting itself. Yes, the townspeople have a responsibility to make sure that
they find out the truth and get justice. But at the same time their
responsibility is also to make sure they don’t destroy what belongs to them
because they’re angry. 

JT: People are being
victimized. It’s happening in real life, we’re seeing it in the news. But there
was an
article that you wrote late last year
about trying to change the image of
black victimhood on screen. What do you feel the solution is?

JM: We have to present more stories that are not about
victims. Don Cheadle is doing a story about Miles Davis. I have an idea about
Eugene Jacques Bullard, who was the first black combat aviator, and flew for
France. So there are all these stories that present a different perspective on
our history. Unfortunately what’s happened is that, from a commercial
standpoint the industry believes that the only thing they can sell is
segregation and the victimization of black people. 

But I think because of television, maybe that might change.
Because you don’t see as much of that on TV as you used to. When I started,
black people were either victims or they were the perpetrators; they were the
boogie men who jumped out of the bushes and did terrible things to you. So many
of those things on television have changed. Not that we shouldn’t see our
history in terms of slavery. Just like the Jews in this country who don’t want
anyone to forget what happened in the Holocaust, I think we should never allow
the country to forget what happened over 400 years of slavery. But at the same
time, that’s not our only legacy and we should be aware of that.

JT: We have a few
questions from readers – Any advice for young actors?

JM: My advice for young actors is always the same – One, if
you’re starting out, go to a place where you’re actually going to get trained. I
would recommend going to college if you can, because not only will you get a
degree in the arts but you’ll also get a more well-rounded education and learn
other things. The more well-rounded and intelligent the actor, the better the
actor.

Two, I would say that because of the media most young
actors want to run right out and be on TV or be in the movies. The advice I
give my son, who is also an actor, is that the first thing you need to do is
theater. Do at least a year or two of theater so that you really begin to learn
how to hone the craft. Because if you can do a single character eight times a
week for a number of months and keep that character fresh, at that point you
can do anything. If a young actor goes from school right into television or
film, I guarantee you, they are going to learn a lot of bad habits that are
going to be very difficult to break.

JT: What can you
share about your experience working with John Sayles early on in your career?

JM: "Brother From Another Planet" was our first
film. I got a call from my agent saying that John was looking for a rubber-faced
kind of actor to play this part. When I read the script, I thought he wrote
this incredible sort of social commentary on what it meant to be black and have
talent and have no place to channel any of that talent.

And then when he and I met for an interview, because the
character didn’t speak I thought for sure we would do some kind of improv. We
didn’t. I just told him some stories about my life. I was an army brat, and so
basically I was trying to let him know that in many ways I was a "brother
from another planet." Because we spent most of our time in Europe, when I
came back to this country I didn’t know any of the things the kids here knew. I
wasn’t a basketball player, I didn’t speak like they spoke. I didn’t have any of
the same cultural background even though we had the same cultural fight. And I
think that finally is why John hired me, because I could identify that way.

JT: Another "Scandal" question – Which of your co-stars would you like to have more scenes with?

JM: Hard to say. On one hand, I’d love to investigate the
relationship between Maya [Lewis/Khandi Alexander] and Rowan and find out just why he won’t kill her.
Because they seem to hate each other so much, but he seems clearly bent against
destroying her. It would be interesting to have more scenes with Tony
[Goldwyn/Pres. Fitz Grant], because in terms of power on the show I suppose
those two males have the greatest power. And I’m sure that at some point the
proverbial s— will hit the fan once he finds out Rowan killed his son, so it
will be interesting to see how that plays out. And I’d love to have more scenes
with Jeff [Perry/Cyrus Beene]. I love working with Jeff.

JT: "Scandal" has brought on a new generation of fans. But you had another big moment in TV history as Byron Douglas
III from "A Different World," when your character was left at the altar in his last
episode.

JM: [laughs] Yes.

JT: Did you ever work up any scenarios as to what you think happened to
that character, and whether he saw a happy ending?

JM: The poor guy probably just went off and
finished his career. I’ve never thought about it until you asked me this
question, but he probably didn’t trust love a lot after that point. Probably
became a big political power because that’s all he could depend on, and maybe
eventually as he got older he mellowed and found something that he could
appreciate other than politics. A lot of people on Twitter think Byron became
Rowan. Maybe in some ways, figuratively, that’s what happened.

JT: You’ll soon be
co-starring in a new TNT drama with Jennifer Beals and Matthew Modine,
"Proof." What can you share about the show?
 

JM: Jennifer plays a brilliant surgeon who is not very good
with people and is asked by Matthew Modine, who is a wealthy man who’s dying,
to go off and prove whether or not there’s life after death. Of course she
refuses at first, but she’s intrigued by it because she has a near-death
experience herself. I play her boss, the administrator of the hospital. As a
scientist I say there’s no way scientifically to prove what this man wants to
prove. At the same time, [Modine’s character] promises her that if he’s satisfied with what she
finds, he will give her all of his billions of dollars; and I’m hoping some of
that will come to the hospital.

JT: What else are
you working on next?
 

JM: I’m doing a one-man play about Dick Gregory called "Turn
Me Loose," and we’re hoping that will happen sometime next year. "Turn
me loose" are the last words spoken by Medgar Evers, who was Dick’s best
friend and the one who got him involved in Civil Rights activism. It’s a
beautiful play and I’m really excited to do it. The conflict in the piece is
that here’s a man who could have been enormously wealthy as a comedian and sort
of gave all of that up to become an activist.

JT: So you’ll be performing
comedy in the show as well?

JM: Yes, and that was the big challenge for me. I’ve never
done stand-up, and stand-up is very difficult. I’m at least helped, in this
case, by the fact that the material is brilliant. And then shuffled in is what
Dick is doing now, which is a lot of lectures having to do with either
nutrition or politics. So there is this wonderful mix between who he was as a
comedian and who he is now as an activist and lecturer trying to meld those
things together. And I think it makes for a brilliant play. 

JT: Is that a
struggle you identified with, having to choose between art and activism?
 

JM: I certainly identified with the idea of somebody who
wants to be famous and yet realizes there is a calling to do something more
important, and then having to struggle with, "Can I do both?" I think
he felt that at a certain point he had to choose to do one and not the other, and
became an activist. And I think it was cemented in the fact that he lost his
friend Medgar Evers. 

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Comments

Ed Adams

Great read and good questions. I think the conversation about more positive stories is a catch 22. African Americans seem to be over the biopics as the numbers show. I think its time to convince Hollywood its time for a new narrative.

Ms. YES

Great interview! Loved it. I totally agree with Mr. Morton. Luis Gossett Jr and surprisingly Nick Cannon has brought up the same topic of the victimization of black people. They desire to movies when we were Kings and Queens. The Throwback question was a nice touch! #YesShowTV

Mike

The stores and other small businesses in Ferguson were looted or burned. That is in a response to what happened to Michael Brown. What I am trying to say is that it was a emotional reaction to nthe killing of Michael Brown. The way the media decribes it; it looks as if they are crinimals, but they are not. As for Mr. Morton, it was a nice interview. I espaically liked Byron Douglas III question in "A Different World" and where he thinks Byron would be at this moment in his life. If you ask, I think Byron would be President Obama.

Guest

Jai, Thanks for a great article/interview. You asked some really interesting questions that drew out a lot of information, from Mr. Morton, helping to fill-in his backstory and things I didn't know about him. Great piece!

Joe

these are some truly thoughtful sentiments.

Barbara

Those stores in the Ferguson Black community are probably owned by Asians or others. They charge exhorbitant prices for stank poor quality foods and products. I'm glad they burned them out.

D.C. Kirkwood

Great article. Great job, Jai. You asked a lot of well rounded questions. He is wonderful. I don't watch Scandal but he has such a hypnotic voice just like James Earl Jones. He always sticks out in any movie he's in. Congrats to him on finally winning and Emmy.

AC

"But at the same time their responsibility is also to make sure they don't destroy what belongs to them because they're angry."

I love Joe Morton… but the stores don't "belong" to the community. So this line of reasoning doesn't make sense to me. I don't think these people burned down their own homes and apartments, they marched downtown. That in itself is a statement on how they feel outside of the economy and not having a role in local commerce other than buyers; or juridical proceedings other than the departed or the defendant.

I agree with him on the "black victim" films; but the civil rights movement was a long struggle and is still happening now, so that's why those stories still resonate. An alternative would be writing about contemporary civil rights struggles, like FRUITVALLE STATION. But that also involved black victim hood, because we are still being victimized. How about transforming other genres like Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy, Comic/Graphic Novel, Comedy? Our actors with clout like Morton should back those kinds of independent projects too.

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