School may be almost out, but that doesn’t mean Jeffrey Dean Morgan isn’t ready to offer some history lessons. The actor will soon appear in two period dramas about very different aspects of U.S. culture: History’s “Texas Rising” miniseries, about the formation of the Texas Rangers, and Lifetime’s “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” where he plays baseball great Joe DiMaggio. (Later this summer, he’ll head to the future and star opposite Halle Berry in the second season of CBS’ “Extant”).
Morgan was candid with Variety about his attraction to both projects during an interview at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. Here, he explains that Westerns make for good entertainment because there’s less dialogue (“That’s the sign of bad television, they’re over-explaining. In a Western, you’re never over-explaining.”) and speaks of the tumultuous love story that was Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with DiMaggio.
“Texas Rising” premieres at 9 p.m. May 25 on History. “Marilyn Monroe” premieres at 8 p.m. May 30 on Lifetime.
Which project did you shoot first?
I did “Texas Rising” for about six months last summer. I lived in Durango, Mexico. Looking back on it now, it was one of the greater experiences I’ve ever had. While I was there, I was miserable because I was away from my family and I didn’t eat for six months. I lost almost 50 pounds to do the role. I tortured myself greatly.
Now, a year later, I made some great friends and had some adventures that could not be duplicated. I fell in love with being on the back of a horse. I’ve seen the finished product, and I think it’s extraordinary. As an actor who is pretty hard on himself, it’s rare to come away from it and think it’s pretty damn good.
Had you seen History’s other miniseries?
I’d seen “Hatfields & McCoys” and I watch “Vikings.” I think the stuff they do is really good television. They get writers and they get good directors and they get good actors. Roland Joffé directed [“Texas Rising”], and I think he’s one of the finest, if not the finest, director I’ve ever gotten to work with.
Did you know the story of Sam Houston and the Texas Rangers?
I’m not from the South and I think I knew the story up to the Alamo. This takes place right after the Alamo. I play a guy, “Deaf” Smith, who’s a real dude. Sam Houston, there’s volumes written about him, but Deaf, there wasn’t a lot of stuff.
I got a lot of differing stories about this guy — for instance, him being deaf, when did he go deaf and how deaf was he? It’s all differing accounts. It was probably later in life and that was better for me because it wouldn’t have affected his speech.
And the other big choice that I had to make was he has consumption in the film, so in the 10 hours you see him deteriorate. So, in six months I dropped almost 50 solid pounds on camera … If you’re on a horse for 12 hours a day and all you’re living on is a can of tuna a day, let me tell you it was a rough deal.
Did you watch a lot of old Westerns to prepare for the part?
No, but I’m a huge fan of the genre. I’ve got a Western out now called “The Salvation” that I did in South Africa with Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen. If I could just make Westerns for the rest of my life, that’s all I would do. It’s my favorite movie to make. There’s something about being a cowboy.
In a Western, you talk more with your eyes and your actions than you do with big speeches. I love that. I think that’s the problem with the storytelling we have today, you tend to over-explain. In a Western, you don’t over-explain. It is what it is.
I love the challenge of having an audience know what you’re thinking without having to tell the audience what you’re thinking. In a Western, I think you have that ability to do more. People don’t trust that. They want to write everything down. That’s the sign of bad television, they’re over-explaining. In a Western, you’re never over-explaining.
So you went from a Western to playing one of the most famous baseball players of all time. (And, in between, did the Robert De Niro film “Bus 657”).
That’s right. A big Italian-American by the name of Joe DiMaggio … Look, it’s not a Joe DiMaggio story. It’s the Marilyn story. I’m an arm piece. I kind of help the story go along, but it’s very much the Marilyn story that I think Kelli Garner pulls off with aplomb. She’s really good in it. And of course, Susan [Sarandon as Marilyn’s mother] and Emily [Watson, who plays Marilyn’s foster mother Grace]. These are some fine actors.
I watched a documentary with Joe and Marilyn. I was so fascinated with this couple that had such a tumultuous relationship and yet, they were supposed to be remarried on the day that she died. He never married again. He visited her grave every single day for the rest of his life. Watching that documentary made me say yes to doing the movie because I was so fascinated with that love. They couldn’t hardly be in the same room together, but they couldn’t be apart.
She was married several times …
… But she always ended up back with Joe. The Arthur Miller [marriage] is probably very fascinating; that’s the one I might be more interested in. But the DiMaggio one: There’s so much passion, and he was Joe DiMaggio! They met at the height of their lives. Joe was around during all of the Kennedy stuff, so you know who she was going to. Having him deal with that aspect of her life and still be in love with her …
What he did to her, there was some physicality with her from what I understand … he pushed her around a little bit, but they always went back. That, to me, is very fascinating. That is a love that I would like to be able to tell.