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It's Complicated

Versatile actor Joe Morton moves from stage to screen, from good guy to bad guy, and revels in it all.

Melissa Byers
  • Bobby Quillard
  • Courtesy ABC
  • Benjo Arwas
  • Courtesy ABC

Joe Morton is a man who enjoys complexities.

Take two of the roles he’s played this year alone: Rowan Pope, the mother of all fathers on ABC’s Scandal and comedian/activist Dick Gregory in his upcoming one-man off-Broadway show Turn Me Loose.

In Season 2 of Scandal, Morton appeared as the enigmatic head of the super secret B613. The season culminated with a single word from Olivia (series star Kerry Washington) that came as a shock to everyone – including the actress herself. Olivia gets into a car with the as-yet-unnamed character played by Morton, looks at him in surprise and says, “Dad?”

In succeeding seasons, Rowan Pope moved to the center of several competing and parallel story lines. He was at once the ruthless head of B613 and the loving father of Washington’s Olivia. Morton says the character created by Shonda Rhimes is, for him, a conglomerate of several men and characters, from a character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Morton’s own father.

Morton says that Pope is “to say the least, a complicated, driven man.” And, while he is considered by many viewers to be the personification of evil, he maintains, “Evil is not evil all the time.” Pope is also driven in part by a deep love for his daughter, for whom he will do “anything and everything.”

Morton says, “I love Rowan Pope,” adding that the huge monologues he is given on topics ranging from the labyrinthine machinations of Scandal’s political world to his relationship with his daughter are “a wonderful gift.”  He also notes that he enjoys playing the villain because, “with a villain, everything is possible.”

He didn’t always seek out villainous roles, however. He notes that at the start of his career, he made a concerted effort to play “good guys.” Many, if not most, roles for black actors in the 60s and 70s were drug dealers, killers, and other unsavory characters, and Morton sought to change that perception.

However, after many years of playing the good guy, he came to L.A. a few years ago for pilot season looking for something different. He was looking, he said, “for a very smart bad guy,” which he undoubtedly found in Rowan Pope.

Noting that it was “synchronistic, in a way,” he was looking for a way to get a meeting for Scandal, when he got a call from one of his agents saying that the producers of Scandal wanted to talk to him. The producer told Morton, “You’ll come on, and no one will know who you are until the last two lines of the season.” Intrigued, Morton said, “I’m in!’

But as much as Morton enjoyed being a part of the cast, that first season was also difficult, because, except for the producers, the writers, and Morton himself, no one, including the other actors, could know the secret that Rowan was Olivia’s father.

When series star Kerry Washington expressed to Morton one day that she hoped they’d get to do a scene together soon, Morton could only reply, “I hope so, too,” in perfect Rowan Pope enigmatic style.

As the most recent season of Scandal wrapped shooting, Morton was already hard at work in another project about which he is passionate. On May 19, he will open at the Westside Theater in New York playing comedian/activist Dick Gregory in the one-man play Turn Me Loose.

The brand-new play by Gretchen Law follows Gregory’s rise as a young comedian and his awakening to the Civil Rights movement through his friendship with Medgar Evers.

Dick Gregory “came up very poor,” according to Morton, and hoped to make it big as a comedian, to be rich and famous. When he met Evers and was invited to come to the South to see what was happening, he “got hooked,” realizing that he could make a difference.

However, Morton says, Gregory “knew what it meant.” He could either be rich and famous as a comedian, or he could be an activist. “He couldn’t be one AND the other; he had to be one OR the other.”

Gregory and Evers became best friends and worked together on many civil rights issues. In fact, the title of the play, Turn Me Loose were the last words Evers spoke as he died of gunshot wounds in the driveway of his home in June of 1963.

Morton and Gregory have gotten to know one another through Morton’s research on the role, as much as they can with their busy schedules. Morton says they have exchanged emails and had several telephone conversations.

“I believe this is a very important play,” says Morton. “The beauty and the irony of it is that, although the events are set many years ago, these are issues we are still struggling with today.”

Morton is playing another important figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the upcoming HBO movie All the Way with Brian Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson and Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King, Jr. Morton plays head of the NAACP Roy Wilkins in the film about the fight to get the Voting Rights Act passed.

Morton won an Emmy for his portrayal of Rowan Pope at the 66th Emmy Awards in 2014. He said he was “overjoyed” to win, noting that “It means an awful lot to be recognized by your peers, whether in the Academy or at the NAACP awards.” Remembering the evening of the Emmys, he said, “I was floating on air for a few days after that!”