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Interview: Emmy Winner Joe Morton Reflects on Michael Brown and the Speech That Every Black Parent Gives Their Child

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act August 19, 2014 at 4:54PM

A day before the Emmy ceremony, we spoke about his role as the unscrupulous dad of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the former head of covert government agency B613. He also had a chance to reflect on other noted roles over the years and share his perspectives on black culture on and off screen.
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Joe Morton

Just this weekend veteran TV, film and stage actor Joe Morton was awarded a Primetime Emmy for his role as Rowan Pope on the hit ABC drama "Scandal." A day before the ceremony, we spoke about his role on the show as the unscrupulous dad of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the former head of covert government agency B613. 

In the brief conversation, Morton also had a chance to reflect on other noted roles over the years, answer some of your questions sent in via social media, and also share his perspectives on black culture on and off screen.

JAI TIGGETT: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. We hear that you're the frontrunner.

JOE MORTON: You've never heard me say that. You may have heard other people say that [laughs]. It would be lovely, but who knows? The fellas I'm up against - Paul Giamatti, Beau Bridges, Robert Morse, Dylan Baker and Reg E. Cathey – they're all wonderful actors. There's just no way to predict, really.

JT: It's hard to believe that this would be your first Emmy. At this point in your career, how seriously do you take these kinds of accolades?

JM: It's exciting for the Emmys because you're voted in by your peers, the community of actors that surround you. And also to get the nomination for the Critic's Choice Award and the NAACP Award, it's been very exciting this entire year. Any time you're a first-timer it's a wonderful thing. It makes you little crazy, but I'm enjoying it.

JT: How does the pressure of Emmy season compare to the pressure of preparing for the role itself?

JM: It certainly makes me want to work harder. Accolades are there to congratulate you, but also to make you understand that it's not over. You now have to continue trying to improve the craft and keep going. It's not something to rest on.

JT: How much of a challenge was it to take on the character of Rowan and to be such a cunning villain?

JM: It was something I was actually looking forward to. I've played good guys for most of my career, and when I came out to California I thought, "I really would like to find some wonderfully intelligent bad guy to play."

And no sooner than I put it out there, Rowan was being offered. At first he was certainly dark and malevolent, but it wasn't until season three where you actually began to hear some of the things that he had to say, that things opened up. It wasn't so much a challenge as it was being invited to an incredibly delicious meal. 

"The industry believes that the only thing they can sell is segregation and the victimization of black people. But I think because of television, maybe that might change."

JT: One thing to appreciate about the show is its social commentary. One of the lines that everyone seems to remember is where Rowan tells Olivia, "You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have." How did that hit you when you first read it in the script?

JM: I thought of all the kinds of things that black parents tell their children. That's how it resonated with me when I first read it. It was one of those things that I remember my mother and father telling me when I was a kid. A lot of what Rowan says are the kinds of things that I grew up with and I think that's what makes him different from the other characters on the show. I don't know for sure, but I think he is a kind of channel for Shonda [Rhimes] to be able to say certain things that no other character on the show can say. 

JT: This idea of black parents having to give speeches to their children to prepare or protect them from racial bias sounds a lot like some of the discussions being had around the recent shooting of Michael Brown.

JM: I think the responsibility that any actor has is to bring some truth to the work. In the case of Michael Brown, it's a horror that some young unarmed kid on his way to college is shot down by a policeman. And in Ferguson as in a lot of places in America, that's going to cause upheaval in terms of whatever racial tensions have already existed. 

The other side of that coin however, is this insane thing that we seem to do as a culture, which is to destroy our own neighborhoods because we're angry. And that is equally as horrible and untenable as the shooting itself. Yes, the townspeople have a responsibility to make sure that they find out the truth and get justice. But at the same time their responsibility is also to make sure they don't destroy what belongs to them because they're angry. 

JT: People are being victimized. It's happening in real life, we're seeing it in the news. But there was an article that you wrote late last year about trying to change the image of black victimhood on screen. What do you feel the solution is?

JM: We have to present more stories that are not about victims. Don Cheadle is doing a story about Miles Davis. I have an idea about Eugene Jacques Bullard, who was the first black combat aviator, and flew for France. So there are all these stories that present a different perspective on our history. Unfortunately what's happened is that, from a commercial standpoint the industry believes that the only thing they can sell is segregation and the victimization of black people. 

But I think because of television, maybe that might change. Because you don't see as much of that on TV as you used to. When I started, black people were either victims or they were the perpetrators; they were the boogie men who jumped out of the bushes and did terrible things to you. So many of those things on television have changed. Not that we shouldn't see our history in terms of slavery. Just like the Jews in this country who don't want anyone to forget what happened in the Holocaust, I think we should never allow the country to forget what happened over 400 years of slavery. But at the same time, that's not our only legacy and we should be aware of that.


This article is related to: Joe Morton, Emmy Awards, Awards, Shonda Rhimes, John Sayles, Kerry Washington


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