Joe Morton is a household name, thanks in part to his amazing portrayal of the villainous Rowan Pope on ABC's Scandal. However, before Morton became a TGIT fixture, Morton showed off his versatile acting chops on television, film, and the stage. Morton was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for the musical Raisin; made a mark in films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Speed and Miss Ever's Boys; and wowed TV audiences on A Different World, Smallville and Law & Order.
This May, the Emmy-winner goes back to his theater roots when he stars in Turn Me Loose, an Off-Broadway production about comedian and activist Dick Gregory. The one-man show explores the comedian's life and reveals how many of the issues Gregory faced 50 years ago still ring true today.
EBONY.com caught up with Morton to discuss the play, as well as how much his career has changed since becoming “Papa Pope” on Scandal.
EBONY.com: How did the play Turn Me Loose fall into your lap?
Joe Morton: My agent got a call from the producer about the project and asked if I was interested. We then got together and read the script, which was beautiful, written by Gretchen Law. We got together, started rehearsing, and we did a series of readings. It was an easy thing.
EBONY.com: Tell me about the format of the play.
Morton: It's primarily a one-person show. We use a lot of material from Dick Gregory. The conflict in the play is basically about a man who is struggling to determine whether or not he wants to become rich and famous as a comedian, or give all that up and become an activist.
EBONY.com: Did you get to meet or speak with Dick Gregory to prepare?
Morton: I have, yeah. We've spoken several times, both in person and on the phone. It's been enormously helpful. We had met many, many years ago, although he didn't remember. I certainly was familiar with a lot of his material, the fact that he had gone into a health program and started fasting, and I certainly was aware of his activism. So, yes, he was someone I knew from all the work he's done over the years.
EBONY.com: Now that you've gotten to know him more, what's your impression of him now?
Morton: He's still as funny as he's always been. He's probably a lot more intense as he's gotten older in terms of the issues that he wants to talk about, which of course has to do with racism and corporate greed and wars and politics. He's become far more intense about that part of his life than possibly the comedy. Although, I saw him at B.B. Kings in New York and he's still really, really funny, and this is a man who's now 84-years-old.
EBONY.com: Why do you think his story is an important one to tell?
Morton: What we're talking about these days in 2016 are things he was talking about in 1961. So, the irony is enormous and he was so ahead of his time. You'll hear two points of view [in Turn Me Loose]. You'll hear a younger Dick Gregory in the play and you'll hear an older Dick Gregory in the play. So, to understand in the 1960s until the present day, he's been pushing an agenda that has to do with freedom and why there is an economic discrepancy. To start that conversation in the 60s is enormously important.
EBONY.com: What's the difference between being on stage, or on television and film?
Morton: When you are in a theater, you have to project your voice so that they hear you in the back of the house, and your body as well. Whereas when you're on screen, there's a camera that does all that work. So, internal work for an actor is the same on screen; it's just that the physical work is a bit smaller.
EBONY.com: Is there an emotional difference in your acting in theater?
Morton: No. The approach mostly is the same whether you're in theater or on the screen. I'd say the difference is the size, because the camera goes in for a close-up so if you're too big, it just looks like it's too big. Whereas the theater, you need to be larger because you need to project all the way to the back of the house.
EBONY.com: Do you prefer any of the three more than the others?
Morton: I think my first love will always be the theater; that's how I started. The theater is far more difficult. The theater is a playground, if you will, of ideas and themes. Whereas film has a tendency to be about "real stories," or soap opera kind of things. Even if it's a biography, it's an issue as opposed to an idea.
EBONY.com: Do you think a show like Scandal could translate to a theater setting? Especially considering the epic monologues your character has.
Morton: That's the beauty of Scandal. For me, I get to have my cake and eat it too. I can be on screen and yet have these glorious monologues that they have written for me. So, at times I get a little taste of being on stage, and that's just a real job.
EBONY.com: How much has your career changed since you became a regular on Scandal?
Morton: I think for the life of any actor, as soon as you achieve any kind of recognition, people have a tendency to swing your way because you're the new flavor of the month, flavor of the year, whatever it might be. I think because of what I am on Scandal, I'm now a part of Batman Vs. Superman. I've gotten in the last several weeks offers to do other plays, and the opportunity to do some other stuff on screen. So, it all becomes a matter of scheduling.
EBONY.com: Did you think you've been getting typecast because of Rowan?
Morton: No, I don't think so. I think that people are still aware that I choose roles based on what the role is, not necessarily the type of role. For me, Rowan was kind of stepping outside of most of the roles I've done. Most of the roles in my career have been good guys or had some sense of moral ground and I did that on purpose because I thought there weren't many roles other than pimps or drug dealers played by Black men, and I was determined that those were not the roles I was interested in. I was interested in doing other types of the things, not only proving it to myself, but to the industry, that certain types of roles could be played by Black men and played successfully by Black men.