The Actor Muses on the Advancements of Television, the Fallbacks of Hollywood, and the Supremacy of New York
“I love New York,” proclaims Joe Morton when discussing his native city over the phone. “I think it’s probably if not the best city in the world, among the best cities in the world.” Morton delivers his ode to Gotham with the same flair that has come to define Rowan Pope, his character on the ABC/Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal.
Having spent almost his entire life in New York, Morton is well-versed in the city’s artistic personality—a fact that becomes apparent when the 69-year-old actor shares his outlook on the shifting nature of the city’s creative scene, the demands of the current political climate, and the stories that Hollywood tells about African Americans.
Gearing up for the November premiere of Justice League, in which he plays Dr. Silas Stone, while trying to bring Turn Me Loose, the off-Broadway play he starred in as comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, to Broadway, Morton sets some time aside to discuss his New Yorkness, the entertainment industry, and his work.
You’ve been playing Rowan Pope for five seasons now. Does the character still excite you as much as it did in the beginning?
Absolutely. Rowan is a tremendous character who is enormously complicated. I love his relationship with Olivia [his daughter, played by Kerry Washington]. It’s all very juicy kind of material. He’s one of those characters that does and says the kinds of things that many other people would like to do and say, but he actually does them.
When Scandal first premiered, it was revolutionary in that it cast an African- American woman, Kerry Washington, as the lead. Six seasons later, does that matter even more given the political climate we’re in?
I think television has sort of come to a place where they are purposely trying to paint worlds that are similar to the world that you will see when you walk outside your door. Whereas I think that Hollywood films are still kind of stuck in the star system so that [they’re] being made for and around the stars.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s like two different parties of government. I think that television is more liberal. It’s also less expensive than film. That is, the risk is less expensive. Even if you’re spending a couple of million dollars per episode, that [might] total up to a $100 million for your season. For film, they spend $100 million to make the film and have to hope over a weekend that they make most of that money back and they have to hope that, when it goes to Europe, they make some of that money back again.
It seems like the two most successful film genres today are comic book adaptations and stories chronicling real-life experiences, like coming-of-age stories.
I think movies like Batman and Justice League are tent-poles: they are huge films that usually come out around the summertime [and] are aimed at people who are into comic books, kids who would go back to see the movie over and over and over again. I think movies like Moonlight are unusual. I think Moonlight was pretty unusual in that it was fairly straight, and I mean that in terms of it wasn’t about racism, it wasn’t about equality, it wasn’t about slavery, it was about coming of age and homosexuality, which the African-American community by large doesn’t like talking about. They don’t like that subject, and yet that film did really well because it surprised people. I understand you need to tell stories about slavery, about equal rights and the civil rights movement but, if that’s all I see, then I begin to think that’s all Hollywood knows how to sell. When I see movies like Moonlight or Lion, those movies excite me because they’re different, because they do something else, and I would think that’s important.
You’re a born and bred New Yorker. How has the city changed throughout the years?
I guess New York is always changing. It’s like going to any other large city: they’re always building something, tearing something apart. It seems that the big idea, supposedly, is trying to make Times Square more of a walking mall. Trying to get traffic to go around it instead of going through it. I think all that stuff is great, it just makes the city a lot more a able and warm and welcoming.
In terms of theater specifically, has anything changed at all?
The one thing that New York has over almost any other city is theater. What’s great is that there are more and more African Americans on Broadway and the greatest change, I think, is that you have more and more film stars or television stars going on Broadway. On one hand, [that’s] terrific [because] it brings people to the theater. On the other hand, I keep thinking that there are people who have spent their lives trying to get to Broadway who don’t do lm, who don’t do TV, and they’re wonderful, talented actors, and I think they kind of get shoved aside and replaced by stardom.
Where do you like to spend your time while in the city?
I love the Upper West Side of New York. When I had apartments, that’s usually where I’ve had them. The summer that we were in town doing [Turn Me Loose off-Broadway], I stayed on West 48th Street so I could walk to the theater, which is on West 43rd Street. I just love that whole area of New York, with all the restaurants and all the bars and all the people on the street. I think New York is a remarkable place.