When Joe Morton calls me, I’m expecting to hear the deep baritone that has come to define his character, Rowan Pope, on the widely successful ABC/Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal, in which he plays Olivia Pope’s (played by Kerry Washington) father. So, I am surprised by the much younger- and sweeter-sounding person on the other line. Morton pleasantly impresses me further with the efficacy, logic, and directness with which he answers each question I send his way, from his feelings about #OscarSoWhite to what he expects to achieve through his future projects. Below, a condensed version of our conversation:
Scandal is coming back on February 11. What can you tell us about future episodes? Joe Morton: Obviously, you know I can’t tell you a lot. But, what I will say is you have to remember that this is a Presidential election year. This is Fitz’s last term so people are […] figuring out in all kinds of ways what to do with that.
Why do you think the show is so succesful? JM: I think one of the reasons why it’s so successful is that it’s wonderfully written. It’s a very smart show, despite these kind of soap-opera tendencies. It’s still a very smart show, certainly a very sexy show, and one of the things I think it has going for it, which people seem to be commenting about all the time, is diversity. And that’s not just in terms of black and white but in terms of gay and straight and women roles and, after all, it’s a woman who leads this show—[the same woman who] leads How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy. So, it is something that Shonda [Rhimes, the show’s creator], does.
Speaking of diversity: There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominations. How do you feel about it all? JM: I think that it’s too late to call for a boycott during the awards season. I think the damage has already been done. I think that it’s also insulting to Chris Rock, who is hosting the show this year, and I’m sure he will take full advantage of the fact that diversity is a problem in terms of the nominations and will use the stage to make those statements in [whatever] way he wants to make them.
I also think that the implication is on membership. Remember, it is the membership who votes in these nominees. If the membership itself is more diversified, which I think [they’re] trying to make happen, the nominations [will be too].
The last two points are: One, if you are a film buff or somebody who likes to go to the movies and you are black, brown, Hispanic, or whatever it may be, and you don't like the kind of movie that’s coming out that has an all-white cast, if that’s your problem, don’t spend the money to see the movie. That’s where the boycott needs to take sort of shape and have an organization. If you boycott the box office, then you are hurting the one thing that particular studio doesn't want to be hurt: more money in its pocket.
Finally, the last thing is: The only way that all of this will happen with any sort of surety is if and when we get someone of color in the position to green light films.
Joe Morton in Scandal.
That makes sense. In addition to the return of Scandal, we can expect to see you in HBO and Steven Spielberg’s All The Waywith Bryan Cranston. How did you land the role and what can we expect from the film? JM: All The Way was on Broadway not last year but the year before. I had seen the play and I was really struck by it. It was well-written [and] well done. Bryan plays the same character; he plays LBJ in the play as he does in the movie. I was really taken by the way he did it, his work was wonderful. Fortunately, I just got a call saying, ‘Would you be interested in playing Roy Wilkins in the film?’ I said yes and that was all that there was to it.
You’re also starring in a play, Turn Me Loose. JM: Yes, which is a play about Dick Gregory. It’s about his life, his accomplishments and basically the conflict is that he went from someone who was relatively poor, who sort of made his name as a comedian, and suddenly he was being offered lots and lots of money and, at the same time, was being invited down South during the civil rights movement. The play becomes the conflict within a man who has to decide whether or not he’s going to become a very famous, very rich comedian or he’s going to become an activist.
It must be nice to play a real person with whom you can consult when you're curious about certain aspects of the role. JM: [That’s] what’s great about it, I can go to the source. I can actually call Dick up and say, ‘Hey, listen, I have a question,’ and he’ll answer it for me. But I did tell him right away that I’ve never played a standup comedian. Standup comedians… That’s a hard job!