Joe Morton, From Stage To Screen And Back Again : It's Been a Minute It's Tuesday: Joe Morton is now starring in the title role of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV, and is known for his Emmy-award winning role as Eli Pope in Scandal. He talks to Sam about dropping out of college after being told his race would "color" a production, and making it in theater, film, and television. Tickets and information on Henry IV at shakespearecenter.org.

Joe Morton, From Stage To Screen And Back Again

Joe Morton, From Stage To Screen And Back Again

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/621881819/1199269071" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Actor Joe Morton plays Eli Pope in the ABC drama Scandal. He's also performing the title role in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV. Bob D'Amico/ABC hide caption

toggle caption
Bob D'Amico/ABC

Actor Joe Morton plays Eli Pope in the ABC drama Scandal. He's also performing the title role in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV.

Bob D'Amico/ABC

Joe Morton learned a hard lesson in 1968.

He was a college student at Hofstra University. He'd fallen in love with theater there, after initially enrolling to study psychology.

But he found college directors were reluctant to cast a black actor in roles that weren't explicitly black.

"Joe, you can probably do this with your hands tied behind you," a director told him one day, after what Joe thought was a successful audition. "But — no pun intended — it would color the play."

Furious, Joe dropped out.

The same teacher who'd refused to cast him was upset by the episode, and tried to help Joe out by putting him in touch with a New York agent. That worked, and five years later, he was a Tony-nominated actor, starring in the Broadway musical Raisin. He would go on to a 40-year career in film, theater, and television, recognized for roles in Terminator II, What Lies Beneath, Brother From Another Planet and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He's currently starring alongside Tom Hanks in the title role of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV.

There's a thread throughout Joe's story you can trace from that 1968 episode at Hofstra. It's summed up in a line Joe delivered in one of his most recognizable roles, Eli Pope, father of Washington, D.C. crisis-manager Olivia Pope in the ABC political drama Scandal. Speaking as a black father, Eli is furious that Olivia has not heeded his guidance.

Joe Morton as Eli Pope (also known as Rowan) in Scandal, with Kerry Washington as Eli's daughter, Olivia Pope

YouTube

"Did I not raise you for better?" Eli asks. "How many times have I told you — you have to be ... what?"

Olivia refuses to answer.

"You have to be what?" Eli presses.

"Twice as good--" Olivia says.

"Twice as good as them," Eli snarls, "to get half of what they have."

As Joe told Sam, "The response to that speech — the black response to that speech — was overwhelming. Because we've all heard that speech."

Producer Brent Baughman

Interview Highlights

On how growing up as a military brat informed his performance on Scandal

My dad was in the service, so from the time I was about four or five, we were travelling. I lived in Okinawa, I lived in Japan, I lived in Germany, I lived in Massachusetts. My father's basic job was to integrate the armed forces overseas. He would be assigned to a particular post, he would show up racially-unannounced, as would we all — the family — and go in and just do the job. And this was the late-50s, so what he was faced with most of the time was opposition. People did not want a black officer telling them what to do.

And I used that, actually, as the basis of who [Eli Pope] was. Someone who — kind of like Colin Powell — was fast-tracked through the military, and found his way into the Secret Service, if you will, and basically built this organization understanding what America was.

On preparing to play Henry IV

A lot of the time you're going back and discerning what it is exactly you're saying, because certain phrases that we use today are not exactly the way they were used back in the day.

I bought a couple of different books just to research Henry IV himself, just to know the actual history of who he was. I found out he was amazing jouster, and used to go to jousting tournaments. I also didn't know during the course of his reign there were six or seven rebellions that he put down.

You know, there's a scene in the play where there's an actual battle. And every time I watch the scene I have to remind myself that when it actually happened, most of the people on the battlefield were teenagers. The king was there, and maybe he was in this thirties, at best. But these wars were fought by very, very young men, out there with swords and chain-mail. You have to think of the strength and perseverance they had to go through.

On the perils of live theater, and a medical emergency one night during Henry IV

I don't know if you heard about this or saw this on YouTube — there was, unfortunately, I think a gentlemen was suffering from dehydration and passed out in the audience. The EMS group showed up and took him out of the theater, and was taking care of him, when Tom Hanks — who plays Falstaff — got up on stage and starting doing an improv.

Tom Hanks improvises as Falstaff during an unexpected interruption of Henry IV

YouTube

He was talking about cutting peoples' hair with his sword, and eventually brought this woman up on stage, who said that her name was Francis, and then said that wasn't really her name, but she had done a play where she had played the part of Francis. And he told her that [the name] Francis would be said in the play.

I think she probably thought he was kidding, until, of course, Hamish [Linklater], who plays my son, later in the play, says, "I know every Tom, Dick, and Francis..." and the audience went crazy.

Joe Morton at NPR West in Culver City, June 29, 2018. Anjuli Sastry/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Anjuli Sastry/NPR

Joe Morton at NPR West in Culver City, June 29, 2018.

Anjuli Sastry/NPR

On falling in love with acting on his first day of college

I decided on psychology [as a major]. First day of orientation, they take us around the campus of Hofstra University, they take us into the theater, and they show us a skit, just about what our first year in school would be like. At the end of the skit they put a work light on the stage, and I can't get up out of my seat.

I just sit there thinking, I've been playing guitar for a while, starting to write songs — I really loved doing that — maybe I could be an actor. I finally stood up in the theater, walked to the registrar's office, and changed all my classes from psychology to drama.

My grandmother, who had promised to help out financially, changed her mind. She thought I was crazy. My mother, at first, tried to be as supportive as she could. But the basic attitude was, 'you're a black man in this world, they're only going to let you go so far,' which was not my attitude.

My attitude was, 'I can go as far as I can go.'

On why his role in Scandal was "a gift" and his "twice as good" monologue

I always call that monologue "my audition." Because up until that point, other than the very last scene of season two, pretty much all I was doing was handing out envelopes and saying 'go kill this person.' I wasn't doing a lot of anything.

Then we have the revelation that I am the dad. And then at the beginning of season three, I get my script in the mail, and it has this incredible monologue on it. I was thrilled. And I thought, 'Okay, this is what they're setting up. This is how he talks.'

I can't tell you how happy I was, because it's like having your cake and eating it, too, in that to get a speech like that is like doing theater, but it's on television. And no one writes monologues for characters on TV.