Joe Morton Interview: "Scandal" Star Says Series Finale Is "Very Surprising"
Image attributed to Benjo Arwas
Joe Morton is best known for his iconic, Emmy winning role as TV’s most hated dad, Rowan “Eli” Pope, the merciless and sinister father of Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal. The Shonda Rhimes-created political drama, also starring Kerry Washington, Bellamy Young, Tony Goldwyn, Scott Foley and Jeff Perry, will wrap its seventh and final season on April 19, 2018.
Morton’s numerous other TV appearances include Mission Impossible, Another World, Miami Vice, Equal Justice, Mercy Point, Law & Order, All My Children, Eureka, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, Proof and Grace and Frankie. Film roles include …And Justice for All, Curse of the Pink Panther, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Of Mice and Men, Miss Evers’ Boys, The Astronaut’s Wife, American Gangster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
“I got up out of that seat, and I walked to the registrar’s office and changed all my majors from psychology to drama. That’s how I became an actor.”
The New York native made his Broadway debut in Hair, appeared in Salvation and was nominated for a Tony Award for Raisin. In 2016, Morton portrayed the activist and comedian Dick Gregory in the play Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre in Manhattan.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joe, how do you feel about Scandal ending?
Joe Morton: I think it’s not a black and white sort of answer. I mean, on one level, we are going through the process of closure because we knew this was coming, so I think that was helpful. But I think that change is not necessarily an easy thing for people to go through, especially in a group or a familial kind of situation, so we’re struggling with the fact that we all know this is happening, and we all know we’re going off to different jobs or not or whatever we’re doing. But at the same time, I think there will be hopefully a real effort by all of us to stay in contact with one another, to keep the family as much together as we can even though now we won’t be seeing each other as often at work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can you say about the last episode?
Joe Morton: It’s very powerful. It’s very surprising in ways that I think the audience won’t be expecting. I know that’s very general and not very specific, but obviously, I can’t tell you a lot. I think our response to the table read was highly emotional. Part of that was the fact that it was the last script, but I think what’s in the script is very emotional. The audience should bring a large box of tissues along with their wine and popcorn.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Three Scandal necessities. I will have all of them handy because it sounds like someone dies or an important relationship might be repaired. Bellamy Young said everyone needs to live at the end because she’s pushing for Scandal: The Movie.
Joe Morton: (laughs) Yes. She has said that a couple of times.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rowan is a very complicated man. What were you told about the character at audition?
Joe Morton: Well, I didn’t audition. It was a phone call. Basically, what happened was that I came out to Los Angeles that particular year for pilot season and watched the show on my computer because I hadn’t seen Scandal up to that point. After I watched the first season, I thought, “Wow! This is really, really wonderful. Maybe there’s a way I could get on the show for a couple of episodes.” But before I had any opportunity to talk to my manager or to my agent, they called me, my manager and my agent to say that ABC’s Scandal was trying to get a hold of me because they wanted to make me an offer.
Then when Mark Fish, one of the producers, got on the phone, he said, “You know, if you accept this offer, what you need to know is that the last words at the end of season two will be, ‘Olivia.’ ‘Dad.’” He said I would be revealed as the dad, and I was the only one who knew that. None of the other members of the cast, including Kerry, knew that was going to happen. That’s really all they told me. When we got down to shoot that scene, we had no idea how to shoot it because we didn’t know exactly what the relationship between Olivia and Eli was. Did they part happily? Did they not part happily? What was it? So we had to shoot in different ways and leave it up to Shonda as to what she wanted.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re directing the episode called “People Like Me,” on April 5. Is this the first time you’ve been behind the camera on Scandal?
Joe Morton: Yes. I was sort of wanting to direct early on, but because the character had such a big load, I thought it just would be too much. Then when I found out this was going to be our last season, I threw my hat into the ring in hopes that it would be accepted.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it difficult to direct and act?
Joe Morton: Actually, it turned out I was not in that episode. I was not in the episode, which made life easy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did it feel natural to direct the cast?
Joe Morton: It did because they know who they are. Really what it’s all about is simply shaping a scene, shaping a direction, shaping what it is you need from that particular character. It’s fun. It was wonderful being on the other side of the camera. I love directing. I directed on Eureka when I was on that show. So I just had a really wonderful time. The story that I was given was terrific, and I’m anxious to see what the final cut will be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you pursue acting as a career, Joe?
Joe Morton: I entered Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, as a psychology major. The first day of orientation, they took us around the campus to show us what the campus would be like. When they took us to the theater, I watched a skit about what our first year in the university might be like. When it was over, I literally could not get up out of my seat, and I sat there thinking to myself that I had been playing guitar and writing songs and singing for quite a while, so maybe I could be an actor. I got up out of that seat, and I walked to the registrar’s office and changed all my majors from psychology to drama. That’s how I became an actor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any regrets that you did not become a psychologist?
Joe Morton: Not at all. It was one of those moments, and I think we all go through that. There are several moments in all of our lives where something occurs to us that on the surface could even seem like a whim, but there’s something about whatever that thing might be that you feel there’s a real connection, which is what I felt. So despite the fact that my mother and my grandmother thought that I had lost my mind, it felt right. It felt like I had found something that actually had some real meaning to it, especially once I started class. I loved learning the craft.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your new project is God Friended Me. Would you describe it as a religious series?
Joe Morton: I think it’s an interesting conversation. I think that the world in general goes through, “Is there or is there not a God, and what does that actually mean? Do we live our lives in fear of that God? Do we live our lives loving that God? Is it fate? Is there a book that’s written somewhere that says that no matter what you do, these things are going to happen, or as the Catholics believe, is there some free will involved?” I think it’s just an enormous conversation having little to do with religion and more do with faith.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You play a reverend?
Joe Morton: Yes, of an Episcopal Church.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a religious person, Joe?
Joe Morton: Not at all, no (laughs). I mean, there was a point in my life where I think I was. When I was a kid, I went to a Catholic military school and went through the throes of, “Do I want to become a priest?” I’d go out into the woods on the property and build kneelers and all that kind of thing. There was something very dramatic, if you will, very theatrical about the Catholic Church in those days. The mass was done in Latin, and I was an altar boy and got involved with that. So from that point of view, religion, at that point in my life, was really important.
Later on, I directed Jesus Christ Superstar, and I began to read the Bible more in terms of what I wanted to get out of the show. I began to form my own opinions about religion and about the existence of God. So it’s something that’s been part of my life, if you will, for most of my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Shonda Rhimes has said that Trump’s win influenced the plot and made it more difficult for her to write. Do you recall an instance over the season that the lines between fiction and real world events became somewhat blurred?
Joe Morton: I think there’s been several times where that’s happened. One in particular that comes to mind is when Courtney Vance came on the show. You probably remember the episode where his son was killed by a policeman, and he sat out on the street with a shotgun across his lap next to his son, and that happened closely after what happened in Ferguson. So I think there’s been lots of moments like that in our show where Shonda decides that we need to talk about x, y or z.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On the Twitter video, you’re in character as Rowan Pope making a speech on Trump’s inauguration day, saying he should be a president for all the people.
Joe Morton: Yeah. That speech was kind of a parody, if you will, of the speech I had given as Rowan. I just changed the words. I think what I said in that video was what I was feeling at the time. My fear was then, and it has more or less come to pass, that the president that has been elected is someone who is not looking at 300 million people. He’s only looking at his base. He’s only looking at the folks who voted for him. He’s only looking at the people who agree with his opinions or his so-called policies. That was my fear, that we would have in the White House a very divisive, racist gentleman, if you will, who is putting this country in great jeopardy. Eli might talk to him. Rowan might have him assassinated. But that’s the difference between the real world and television.
One of the interesting things that happened last summer, for instance, was when Gregg Henry, the gentleman who plays Doyle on Scandal, played Julius Caesar in the park in New York, and there was a great deal of consternation about the way Julius Caesar was being played. It was a modern production, and Julius Caesar was dressed in a blue suit and wearing a very long, red tie. So clearly they were talking about Trump. In the play, as you recall, Caesar is assassinated, and everyone took umbrage with that saying, “Why would you do that? Why would you talk about the assassination of a president?” It just said to me that they didn’t know the play because what the play talks about is the fact that that kind of aggressiveness, that kind of violence, especially when it comes to politics, does not work. All it creates is more chaos. So they kind of missed the point.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think it’s the personal responsibility of an artist to use their celebrity or platform to be outspoken about political or social injustices?
Joe Morton: I don’t think it’s a responsibility. I think every artist has to make their own decisions as to what they do or not do, say or not say. I wouldn’t condemn anyone for deciding not to say anything or even not to do anything because maybe they do it in their art. Maybe that’s how they express how they feel in the character they play or in the point of view of one particular character. I think that artists are like every other citizen. They will speak or they won’t. They will become active in their politics, or they won’t, and I think that has to be looked at without either condemnation or judgment of any kind.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Other than embarking on a new series, what else is going on?
Joe Morton: I may end up doing some Shakespeare this summer. There are a couple of things that have been offered that I’d love to do, but I just haven’t made a decision. Before I came back this season, I had gone into the studio to begin recording an album. So that’s still in the works.
I’ve been singing since I was a kid, and actually, when I came out of school, I pursued a recording career for a little while. I just hated the music business so much that I just thought it would be far more interesting and life-affirming to be an actor.
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