Joe Morton is an actor’s actor.
He is a veteran of the stage and screen who broke through with his silent leading role in the iconic 1984 independent film Brother From Another Planet. The movie was about an escaped alien on the run from his home planet. After he lands in New York City, he tries to adapt to life on the streets of Harlem. Most recently, Morton has been playing Eli Pope, also known as Rowan, Olivia Pope’s father, on Scandal since season three, when he burst into his daughter’s life. He even won himself an Emmy in the process.
Just like his real-life start into acting, it was more like a well-thought out, but impulsive decision.
“I was in college,” remembers Morton. “It was actually my very first day of orientation, and I had actually entered college as a psychology major and they took us around the campus to show us what our first year would be like in school — it was Hofstra University. And at the end of this tour … they plopped us down in the theater. And I had been playing music and playing guitar and singing for a while and really enjoying that. And they put on a skit about what our first year would be like, and after the skit was over, everybody left the theater and I literally could not get up out of my seat. I just sat there staring at the stage thinking, ‘I’ve always enjoyed singing. Maybe I could be an actor.’ And got up out of my seat, walked to the registrar’s office and changed all my majors from psychology to drama.”
Can you imagine Joe Morton as your psychologist? I’m shaking in my boots just thinking about it.
Morton first appeared as Papa Pope at the end of season 2 of Shonda Rhimes‘ White House drama. But even in season 6, the actor says he only knows as much as the fans do about his character.
“The only two things we have to go on are what is in front of us on the script,” he tells Vulture.com. “I have a lot of history to pull from and things I can ascertain from his relationships, but I can only base that off what we’ve seen him do up to this point.”
Morton knows his character is seen as a villain, but he points out that Rowan’s relationship with his daughter has always been what humanizes him.
“My father was in the service. His job was to integrate the armed forces overseas. So that meant we showed up at military bases in Okinawa or Germany, racially unannounced. That made me, in that particular society if you will, the outsider.”
“I identify with the love for his daughter,” Morton continues. “I have two daughters and a son. And this is an…
odd kind of identification, I suppose — Rowan being a black man who has that kind of power that, in the real world, we understand doesn’t exist. But on some level, people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, they had that kind of power because they swayed people with their voices and their actions. And in some way, I think in that kind of strange triangle — between me, those two that I just mentioned, and Rowan — there is something I identify with.”
“Some people are leery of coming up to me on the street, but I get a lot of responses from fans who love Papa Pope,” he says. “They know he’s dangerous, but they love the character. They love this man who has so much power.”
“When it looked like Papa Pope was being told by someone else what to do, there were a lot of people saying, ‘Oh no. this can’t happen. No one talks to papa pope that way,’ ” he says. “It’s interesting. I think on one hand, people love to be terrified by him. He’s this very dangerous individual but at the same time I think people pick up that he’s human and has fears and loves and desires. He’s not just mean, evil and cruel.”
“I think probably no differently than any other actor in that you have your so-called breakthrough performance. You’re hoping for more opportunity, which is what life basically in any particular profession is about — how many opportunities do I have to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish. And for me at the time, it was fairly difficult in that for most black males at the time, the roles were either drug dealers, pimps — you know, boogeymen of some sort. And I made a very conscious decision that somebody would take that job [but] it just wouldn’t be me. That my goal was to try to present as many different kinds of positive African-American images as I could. And if I did play someone who was nefarious in some way, that it would have some reason for being. That there would be something to take away. Not just some guy who comes out of the dark and kills people.”