Long before Joe Morton played Olivia Pope’s sinister father on “Scandal,” the actor starred in Tony Award-winning musicals on Broadway. The 68-year-old Emmy winner was first mentioned in Variety for his role in the musical “A Month of Sundays” — his first part after leaving Hofstra University. Now, some 45 years later, he’ll portray NAACP leader Roy Wilkins in HBO’s “All the Way” and channel Dick Gregory in the one-man show “Turn Me Loose” later this year.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue acting?
I entered Hofstra as a psychology major. During orientation they took us into the theater and did a skit on what our first year might be like. When it was over, I literally couldn’t get up out of my seat. I kind of sat there and thought, “I’ve been singing for a while and playing guitar, and really enjoyed that. Maybe I could be an actor.” I got up out of the theater, walked to the registrar’s office and changed my major to drama.
How did you land your first part?
A teacher, Joe Leon, was directing a play called “The Hostage” by Brendan Behan, and there was one character that was truly an outsider. He’s an Englishman who’s captured by the IRA. I thought, “This is perfect; I’m an outsider.” I went to the audition and Joe said, “Well, you know, you could really do this part with your hands tied behind you, but I’m not going to give you the part because — no pun intended — if I put a black man in that role, it will color the play.” I got so furious, I left school. He got so upset that I’d left that he actually pointed me toward an agent.
Do you ever feel like an outsider today?
Sometimes, I think I do. But I think actors, in general, feel like outsiders depending on what their circumstances are. For the most part, I feel secure about where I am as an actor, as much as any actor can feel secure, and it’s actually been a wonderful ride.
How did your stage experience help you transition to television and film?
The great thing about working in the theater is that if you can do a part, let’s say for six months, and you’re obviously doing eight shows a week, you can do anything. You’re using your entire body. The only difference (in TV and film) is it’s smaller in size, not necessarily smaller in intensity or smaller in value, but simply smaller in size to me because the camera is right there. You don’t need to project as much as you would on stage.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Stay relaxed. Do your homework. Make sure you’re prepared, then even after you do your homework, sort of let it go so that you’re in the moment.
What’s it like playing such a villainous character on “Scandal”?
The greatest thing about playing a villain in general is that the point of view is not what most people might suspect it to be. You’re not out there trying to do evil, you’re actually trying to make the world a better place.
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