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

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BY JAI TIGGETT AUGUST 19, 2014
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AI 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.

“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.”

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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