Actor Joe Morton's latest role puts him at the center of the ABC thriller Scandal. He plays Rowan Pope, the commanding and sinister father of Kerry Washington's Olivia.
Morton's Hollywood resume spans four decades and includes hit films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Speed and the cult classic Brother From Another Planet.
He tells NPR's Michel Martin how he sees some of his own father in Rowan Pope. "My father was in the military; he was a captain. His service was to quote-unquote integrate the armed forces overseas," Morton says. "So a lot of what you see in Rowan I think I learned when I was a young boy growing up with my dad. That kind of strict view of life."
On why his character Rowan speaks to so many people
I think the way that [Scandal creator] Shonda [Rhimes] writes, it's very clear for me. I think Rowan has become a voice for Shonda. I think that particular character can say things that other characters in the show just are not in a situation to say. For all of the diversity in Scandal, no one else would be sitting in a room wearing a T-shirt and chains and call a Southern white Republican president a "boy." And it's those kinds of things that Rowan has the freedom to say that nobody else could say within the confines of the show. ... For the audience it's all about the shocking joy — if you will — of hearing somebody actually say those kinds of things, especially a black male on television.
On getting started in acting
I was in college. It was actually my very first day of orientation, and I had actually entered college as a psychology major and they took us around the campus to show us what our first year would be like in school — it was Hofstra University. And at the end of this tour ... they plopped us down in the theater. And I had been playing music and playing guitar and singing for a while and really enjoying that. And they put on a skit about what our first year would be like, and after the skit was over, everybody left the theater and I literally could not get up out of my seat. I just sat there staring at the stage thinking, "I've always enjoyed singing. Maybe I could be an actor." And got up out of my seat, walked to the registrar's office and changed all my majors from psychology to drama.
On how he sees his career
I think probably no differently than any other actor in that you have your so-called breakthrough performance. You're hoping for more opportunity, which is what life basically in any particular profession is about — how many opportunities do I have to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish. And for me at the time, it was fairly difficult in that for most black males at the time, the roles were either drug dealers, pimps — you know, boogeymen of some sort. And I made a very conscious decision that somebody would take that job [but] it just wouldn't be me. That my goal was to try to present as many different kinds of positive African-American images as I could. And if I did play someone who was nefarious in some way, that it would have some reason for being. That there would be something to take away. Not just some guy who comes out of the dark and kills people.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we hear from those who've made a difference through their work. And our next guest is probably best known these days as one of the toughest television dads ever - Rowan, also known as Elijah Pope, father Washington fixer Olivia Pope on the ABC hit "Scandal." In this next scene, he's giving her the business over her affair with the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")
JOE MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) You raised your skirt and opened your knees and gave it away to a man with too much power. You're not rare. You're not special. Your story's no different than a thousand other stories in this town, so you know how this goes. You could call this in your sleep. First, they'll smile, be warm, sympathetic, on your side, letting you know that they will fight for you. They will lull you into a false sense of security. And then once your belly is exposed, they will gut you like everyone you know. And they will be swift about it. And by the time you realize you should be fighting back, well, you're already bleeding to death. That is the presidency versus you.
MARTIN: And that is Joe Morton as Rowan Pope on "Scandal." And while his current role as the dangerous and eloquent master of intrigue is winning him new fans, he's been acting for more than 40 years in movies like "Speed," "Terminator 2," and "Brother From Another Planet," on television shows like "Law and Order" and "The Good Wife" and onstage in "Raisin," a role that earned him a Tony nomination. Joe Morton and the rest of the cast of "Scandal" return to television tonight. And he's with us now.
MORTON: Glad to be here. Thank you very much.
MARTIN: So what attracted you to this character?
MORTON: Well, first off, I watched the show. I watched the first season and thought after I watched it - I thought, gee, I wonder if there's a way for me to sort of get on to the show. And before I had any opportunity to talk to any of my agents or managers, I actually got a call from them saying that they wanted me to come on the show. That is, "Scandal" wanted me to come on the show. And clearly, the lure was that I was going to be Olivia's dad. And after seeing the show, I thought, well, this could be really exciting.
MARTIN: Is it what you thought it would be?
MORTON: More than what I thought it would be. Television has a tendency to sort up fall into the realm of procedurals. And what's great about this show is that there's lots of language, especially for this particular character. So for me, it's probably the closest I've come to what I experience when I'm on stage, in that I'm actually given speeches not just sort of short bits of this and that to say. So it's been a real joy.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of things that you say, you know, the - one of the sub-stories around "Scandal" is - there is the story about the fact of who's running it. There's the story of the fact who's starring in it. And then there's this whole social media conversation around it. And one of the conversations that emerges is how many people kind of recognized the kind of father you play from their own lives, I mean, particularly African-Americans. And I - you know I have to ask is Rowan the kind of father you had?
MORTON: I think a lot of this character is based on my father. My father was in the military. He was a captain. His service was to, quote-unquote, integrate the armed forces overseas. And so he was a huge disciplinary, and he was a painter as well. So a lot of what you see in Rowan I think I learned when I was a young boy growing up with my dad - that kind of strict view of life, you know, the thing that he says in that same speech that you just played. Later on he says, you know, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much - I think was something that my father told me when I was young. And I think probably and clearly it did resonate throughout the African-American community very strongly in terms of those are the kinds of things we heard from our parents because we knew that we had to work so much harder than the rest of the white world in America.
MARTIN: I just want to play another clip for just really - honestly, for the deliciousness of it. This is a clip from a scene that you did with Tony Goldwyn. He's President Fitzgerald Grant...
MARTIN: ...Who is your daughter's lover, who we alluded to, you know, earlier in the first clip. That is not a spoiler alert. It's kind of...
MORTON: It's already out there.
MARTIN: And let's just say you are not impressed with him.
MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) You are a boy. I'm a man. I have worked for every single thing I have ever received. I have fought and scraped and bled for every inch of ground I walk on. I was the first in my family to go to college. My daughter went to boarding school with the children of kings. I made that happen. You cried yourself to sleep because daddy hurt your feelings, because papa banged his secretary, because it hurt to have so much money. You spoiled, entitled, ungrateful, little brat.
MARTIN: OK. How do you understand your Rowan?
MORTON: I think the way that Shonda writes it's very clear for me. I think Rowan has become a voice for Shonda. I think that that particular character can say things that other characters in the show just are not in the situation to say. For all of the diversity in "Scandal," you know, no one else would be sitting in a room wearing a T-shirt and chains and call a southern, white Republican president a boy. And it's those kinds of things that Rowan has the freedom to say that nobody else could say within the confines of the show.
MARTIN: Is cathartic in some way you think for you, for the people watching it?
MORTON: Oh, I think so. Oh, I think - it's certainly cathartic for me the actor. I mean, to go through a speech like that, you know, there is a beginning, middle and end, and there better be a catharsis at the end of it otherwise I haven't done my job. And I think that for the audience it's all about the shocking joy, if you will, of hearing somebody actually say those kinds of things, especially a black male on television. You don't hear those kinds of things because we - race, as I'm sure you are aware, is a very difficult conversation to have in this country. And so I think that's what Rowan is in "Scandal" to do is to remind himself and to remind those folks who enjoy the show that, you know, things need to - still need to be worked on.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Joe Morton. He stars as Rowan Pope on the hit ABC drama "Scandal," which returns to the screen tonight. So let's go back and just talk about you. How did you get bitten with the acting bug?
MORTON: I was in college. It was actually my very first day of orientation. And I had actually entered college as a psychology major. And they took us around the campus to show us, you know, what our first year would be like in school. It was Hofstra University. And they, at the end of this tour, if you will, plopped us down in the theater. And I had been, you know, playing music and playing guitar and singing for a while and really enjoyed that. And they put on a skit about what our first year would be like. And after the skit was over, everybody left the theater, and I literally could not get up out of my seat. I just sat there staring at the stage thinking I've always enjoyed singing, maybe I could be an actor. And got up out of my seat, walked to the registrar's office and changed all my majors from psychology to drama.
MARTIN: You know, your breakthrough role came in 1984 when you starred in "The Brother From Another Planet" ...
MARTIN: ...Which is a film that people still talk about. I don't know. Do people still talk to you about that?
MORTON: It's still my favorite film. I mean, I think - I love John Sayles, and I love the way he writes. And that film in particular, in terms of its particular social commentary, is about, you know, an African-American who has tremendous talents and no place to channel them, which was the metaphor of the film.
MARTIN: Just to clarify for people who haven't seen it, you played an alien who crash landed in New York City - I mean, an extra terrestrial.
MORTON: And who has no - and who has no...
MORTON: ...Facility for speech and can heal by touch and can also fix anything electronic by touch.
MARTIN: And you received a tremendous amount of praise from critics for that. And as I said, it's still kind of a cult favorite, would you say?
MORTON: It is. In my mind, there is one review that I will never forget. And the film came out - and I forget which reviewer it was. It was one of the big ones - basically said that he was appalled that the industry allowed John Sayles to bring his homemade films across the water from Jersey to New York.
MARTIN: Oh, my. Ouch.
MORTON: But still, it was, you know, I think for the average person, you know, it really sort of struck home in terms of who this guy was. And that's the beauty of film I think is that in many cases, despite what the critics say, people will go and see it if they think it's something that interests them.
MARTIN: Now, you know, you are an actor that everybody has seen in something. You've been in television, often in guest roles, since the '70s. You know these are - you've been in "Sanford and Son." You've been in "MASH." I mean, you know, you've had meaty roles. You've made a strong impression. But is this what you hoped for? I mean, did you - you know, after that breakthrough role that you would have more leading roles or something? Like, you know what I mean? I'm just wondering how you think about your career?
MORTON: I think probably no differently than any other actor in that, you know, you have a so-called breakthrough performance. You're hoping for more opportunity. And for me, at the time, it was fairly difficult in that for most black males at the time, you know, the roles were either, you know, drug dealers, pimps, you know, bogeyman of some sort. And I made a very conscious decision that somebody would take that job, it just wouldn't be me. That my goal was to try to present as many different kinds of positive African-American images as I could. And if I did play someone who was nefarious in some way, that it would have some reason for being, that there would be something to take away not just some guy who comes out of the dark and kills people.
MARTIN: What do you think is the message of your career, looping back to the whole question of wisdom? I mean, do you have some wisdom that you could impart drawing on your career? I mean, one of the things I've noticed is the versatility. I mean, you've worked across genre. I mean, you've done everything. You've done theater and movies and television and - what do you think? Yeah.
MORTON: Well, theater is where I started. And so that was extremely helpful in that what I learned after a while was that if I could do a show on Broadway or off-Broadway eight times a week for six months and keep that character fresh, then I was capable of doing anything. And "Rasin," which was a musical version of "Raisin in the Sun," I did that show for two and a half years. And at a point, you know, you think how am I going to sort of keep this fresh so the audience doesn't think, oh, he's walking through it 'cause he's been doing it for two and half years. But it was a real lesson in terms of how to do other kinds of things - how to prepare, which is the other part of the equation. You know, people keep saying, you know, that so-and-so was lucky. And my definition of luck is opportunity meeting preparedness. So it's being prepared for an eventuality that I think has kept me going is that something comes up and, so far - knock wood - I've been prepared to take on the challenge.
MARTIN: So what can we look forward to for your Rowan this season? Can you give us any hints?
MARTIN: Or then you'd have to kill us, right?
MORTON: Exactly. No, I mean, I think what you'll see is - I mean, clearly, given the last confrontation between Fitz and Rowan, there is probably some retribution on its way from both corners, if you will, with Olivia being in the middle of all of that. So Shonda has, at this point, pushed things to the limit, I mean, as she always does. Just when you think, you know, you couldn't go any further, Shonda will find a way to sort of push it even further. So what's coming up I think is really exciting and will keep, literally, will keep people on the edge of their seats.
MARTIN: Award-winning actor Joe Morton is one of the stars of "Scandal," which returns to the airwaves tonight. And we were actually able to catch up with him in Washington, D.C., no doubt on a secret mission. So thank you so much for joining us.
MORTON: You're welcome. Thank you very much for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.