BWW Interview: Joe Morton Talks SCANDAL's Papa Pope, Bringing TURN ME LOOSE to Broadway
There are very few characters on television as terrifying as SCANDAL's Eli Pope. The former (or is he?) head of the classified, covert government organization B613 has been the series' most dangerous and destructive force since Season 2, and with tonight's highly anticipated Season 6 premiere just hours away, Papa Pope's portrayer Tony-nominee and Emmy-winner Joe Morton is happy that the show is finally back.
"It has been a long time, hasn't it?" Morton said yesterday. "We get excited about coming back to work, number one. Number two, this (episode) was shot before we went on hiatus, so it's kind of like... if you're in university or college, and you come back after the holidays. It's great to see your friends, it's great to get back to work again. So the whole thing is very exciting, it's very celebratory."
The sixth season of the highly addictive ABC drama was pushed back because of the pregnancy of the show's star Kerry Washington. The cast shot a handful of episodes in summer 2016 before taking a mid-season hiatus, then returned to work after Washington gave birth to her second child in October. The season premiere airs tonight at 9/8c on ABC.
Washington plays political fixer Olivia Pope, whose relationship with her morally dubious father Eli often leads to the show's most explosive moments.
"We were talking about that the other day," he said of his TV daughter. "Her parents don't understand why we enjoy those scenes so much. We sort of pummel each other all the time, and that is the joy. Those characters get to express a lot of really full and complicated emotions.
"What usually happens with Kerry and I is we never really talk about the scenes, and we just come to work. We just begin to literally go at each other in terms of what's going on in the script, and then, obviously having brought in some choices on either side, discover what happens between the two of us."
The volatile chemistry between the two was first seen in the final moments of the Season 2 Finale, "White Hat's Back On." Eli had been pulling the strings behind the scenes to influence the president, who was in a long-term affair with Olivia. Eli, also known as Rowan, or simply "Command," views his actions as being for the greater good of the republic, but the means are often brutal, bloody, and possibly treasonous.
As the season raced to a conclusion, the world learned of Olivia and the president's relationship, and she was swarmed by reporters only to be rescued by a waiting town-car. In the back seat, the country's collective jaw hit the floor when she greeted the show's new "big bad" with a confused single word, "Dad?"
"When I joined the show, at the end of the second season, I was the only one that knew that that scene was going to happen," Morton said. "That was part of the pitch when they offered me the job. But Kerry didn't know, most of the directors didn't know. Of the cast members, I was the only one who knew that, in fact, that scene was going to happen as it did."
That moment, which aired on May 16, 2013, in large part changed the way that people watched television. With the rapid expansion of social media, SCANDAL's twists and turns became appointment programming, if for no other reason than that people wanted to be shocked without first being spoiled online.
So, having the upper hand on his castmates (as Rowan often does), Morton was able to witness a reaction at the cast's table read that was very similar to what occurred in front of millions of TVs across the country.
"Their reaction was just like the rest of America," he said. "I mean, people leapt up from the table, yelled, and screamed, and carried on. It was exactly the way the rest of the world responded."
Morton, who one an Emmy for the role the following year, said that since the scene was such a shock to most of the people involved in the show, he and Washington didn't have much information to work off of, so they ended up having to play the scene in as many ways as possible for future editing.
"When I shot that scene," he said, "we had no idea what our relationship was, so we had to shoot that several different ways. We didn't know whether we were friendly, whether we hated each other, what were the terms in which we split, or are we still together, and I've just been in hiding? We had no idea. So, we just had to take a whole bunch of options, and shoot the scene, and hand it back to Shonda (Rhimes) and the rest of them to put it together."
An acclaimed stage actor, Morton was nominated for a Tony award in 1974 for playing Walter Lee Younger in RAISIN, the musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Morton has appeared in nearly 20 shows on and Off-Broadway in the past 50 years, from the Tony-winning TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA to MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Delacorte. He also was a part of a handful of legendarily short runs on Broadway with TRICKS, OH, BROTHER!, and HONKY TONK NIGHTS; three musicals which combined for 15 total performances.
However, last spring, he returned to the New York stage for the first time since joining SCANDAL in the one-man play TURN ME LOOSE, about comedian and activist Dick Gregory, a man that Morton credits for essentially breaking the color line on television.
"He was the first black comedian to be asked by, in those days, Jack Paar, to sit and actually talk," Morton said. "Usually what happened was black performers were brought on, they did their routine, and were kind of shooed off the stage.
"He was the first to do that, but what got him there was that he was the first black comedian to talk about race and politics, and that is what sort of brought him his fame. He literally was a guy who went from making 17 bucks a month to maybe $17 million a year, and then gave all of that up to become an activist during the Civil Rights Movement."
Gregory is still alive at age 84, but Morton said that he didn't feel any extra pressure knowing that he was portraying a real historical figure. However, that didn't mean that he didn't have any other apprehensions.
"The only sort of fear I felt about that is I knew he'd probably be there opening night," Morton said. "It was a very small theatre, I think we only housed 250 seats, so that at some point, since I move into the audience, and I spend a lot of time talking to the audience, I knew that he and I would be looking straight into each others eyes.
That moment came on opening night when Morton was in the audience talking about Emmett Till, a teenage African American boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
"At one point, I talk about Emmitt Till in the play, and I turn to my left, and there he was," Morton recalled. "It was as if we were having a conversation. It was one of the highlights of my career, I think."
Not only did Gregory and his wife come to the show's opening night, but they came the following night as well. Gregory's 10 children all saw the show as well. After several extensions, the show closed on July 17th, 2016, but Morton, playwright Gretchen Law, director John Gould Rubin, and producer John Legend are hoping that the play has another run left in it.
"Well, TURN ME LOOSE was Off-Broadway, and now we are making a concerted effort to figure out how to get it to on Broadway," Morton revealed. "I think what I felt was a great joy to have the opportunity to say those things, because many of those things were the things that I believed anyway, so to put what I believe in the present day, in combination with what was spoken over 40 years ago, and have that resonate... (with) people of all walks of life, was just a wonderful, wonderful gift, and a wonderful opportunity."
Before he can head back to Broadway for the first time since replacing in ART in 1998-1999, Morton still has work to do on SCANDAL. Though creator and showrunner Rhimes is notoriously tight-lipped, Morton did share what he thought made the upcoming season special.
"The only thing I'll say is that... the one thing I hate about real-life politics, and the one thing that I truly love about this show, is that the masks everyone has to wear are wonderfully complicated," he said. "You just don't know who's doing what to whom, and why necessarily until it's absolutely revealed.
"I think a lot of that is what you will see this season. I don't know why I keep thinking this, (but) it's kind of like being stranded in the desert of politics. In the desert, everyone is very desperate to stay alive. Water is important, sun is important, all the rest of it, so that's kind of how I feel about this season."