Image: Bobby Quillard
Any “Scandal” fan can attest that Joe Morton is reason enough to tune in to the hit Shonda Rhimes drama. The actor steals scenes as Rowan Pope, father to our favorite crisis-fixer, Olivia, and head of B613 — the super secret organization tasked with upholding the republic through any means necessary, legal or not. After a brief ousting last season almost left him powerless, Rowan maneuvered his way back to a prime string-pulling position as the president’s close confidante. HuffPost Entertainment got on the phone with Morton, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor for his role in the series, to talk about Papa Pope, whether or not the skilled manipulator is a sociopath and diversity on television.
How do you think Rowan managed to get the president back on his side, even after Fitz saw how manipulative he can be?
One of the things that Rowan does is use people’s emotions to get them to do what he wants them to do. By managing to get Fitz to believe that Jake was responsible for Jerry’s death as well as Harrison’s death, he uses Fitz’s jealousy to do all the things Fitz does to Jake, and put myself, Rowan, on top. The thing that’s interesting about Rowan is that he is this amazing chess player. He always is several moves ahead and makes contingencies for “What if things go wrong?”
His manipulative ways have led a lot of fans to theorize that he’s a sociopath. Would you use that characterization?
Well, no. [Laughs] The only reason I say that is that you can’t, as an actor, play a character from a negative point of view. So my point of view about Rowan is that he does what he says he does which is to protect the republic and his daughter. And he does whatever is necessary to accomplish both those things, even if they are in conflict.
Do you think he truly believes that the only way to keep the republic safe is if he’s in charge of B613?
Well, what’s that famous saying about power? The more you have, the more you want, the more you want to get. So that’s, I think, the idea. It’s kind of like any other profession. When you start to move up and things are always working, your ego takes over. You believe that without you, these things can’t happen.
Sometimes it seems like Rowan is just pretending to love Olivia for his own personal gain. Do you think he values her love as much as his power?
Yes, I think he does. I don’t think he ever pretends to love his daughter. I think anything he says to her about how he cares for her is the truth. The only thing he ever manipulates is [who did what]. But he puts it out in such a way that people believe it because he’s using their emotions. Like Olivia, for instance, convincing her that she was somehow indirectly responsible for Jerry’s death. That was an interesting thing to do, because I could put it on: “You lured this guy, Jake, who’s in love with you, and who knew you wanted Fitz to be president and so would do anything in the world to do that. And then what he did was set up a situation where you and Fitz could never be together.” Which is what I did. But to say it that way about somebody else is very believable.
After Rowan put Maya in the hole but told Fitz she was dead, you told TheWrap you were interested in exploring why he didn’t kill her. Now that Khandi Alexander, who plays Maya, is officially returning to the show, do you have more of an answer to that question?
Not yet, no. [Laughs] I wish I did. When I showed up at the table read I thought: Oh, maybe we can get closer to why she’s still alive. But, we’ll see. I’m not sure where we’re going.
How far ahead do the actors usually know what’s coming in the season?
Not a lot at all. Literally, we don’t find out what’s coming until we sit down at the table read. All of us who are in danger of being killed in the show walk in thinking [that could happen]. It keeps tension very high, which is great.
After “12 Years a Slave” came out, you wrote an article arguing that it’s not productive for African-Americans to continue to be portrayed only as victims. Do you think that TV more than film is taking the lead in that direction?
Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why people are saying that this is the golden age of television. There’s certainly more diversity on television than there is in motion pictures these days. The argument for “12 Years a Slave,” was that — yes, its a beautiful film. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted. It’s a real story, and these stories should be told. The problem is if they’re the only stories being told then it makes Americans of African descent — it puts them into that victim category. And that was my problem with the movie. I thought: If I were a young man and that’s the only thing I ever saw when I went to the movies, and last year most of those films — whether it was “12 Years” or whether it was “Mandela” or “The Butler” — they were all the same topic. It was either slavery or segregation. So in my opinion it would be a lot better for the culture — meaning the culture of America — if there was more diversity in terms of storyline. In terms of the kind of content that you see about Americans of African descent on the screen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Images Getty unless otherwise noted.