By Josh Estrin.
With each change of the seasons, New York City has a remarkable way of reinventing herself. Beginning with the reawakening in spring to an enthusiastic, nearly euphoric vibe as summer spreads across the city, “Lady Liberty” continues her vigilant watch over both residents and visitors alike. The Big Apple and all of the eclectic neighborhoods and boroughs that make it one of the world’s most dynamic destinations, is also home to a thriving, cultural collage of people who walk, ride, bike, and jog to the beat of a musicality that is unique to summer in this city. This is no more evident than in the ever-changing montage of the performing arts. Music, theater, dance, and the avant-garde collide in parks, streets, rooftops, and theaters, creating a delicious mix that is reflected all over the city that never sleeps.
Emmy Award winning film, television and stage actor Joe Morton is part of this thriving community. Born in Harlem and raised in a military family he spent a great deal of his early life in West Germany and Okinawa before completing his schooling in New York at Hofstra University.
Morton worked his way through the Broadway circuit before making his stage debut in the Tony award winning musical Hair, which led to his starring role in Raisin, the Tony award winning musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. His performance garnered him a Tony nomination for Lead Actor in a Musical. Prior to his career-changing role on television’s, “Scandal,” Morton was best known for his leading role in his first film; John Sayles’, Brother from Another Planet. He is also widely recognized for his starring roles in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Speed, the Syfy network’s Eureka, and The Cosby Show’s spin-off A Different World.
Morton, a strong supporter of the continued need to address diversity in Hollywood, uses his celebrity as a platform upon which to express the need for more contemporary non-white roles in TV/film. His free time is devoted to his family, writing, playing guitar, and recording music (he enjoys singing the blues). Music has been a huge part of his life and his talent has led him to write and score a multitude of songs for his various film and television projects.
Recently, we sat down for an insightful chat. We talked about his role as “Rowan”, the merciless and sinister father to “Olivia Pope” (Kerry Washington) on ABC’s Scandal earning him bragging rights as one of television’s most despicable dads. We went on to tackle life, love, Broadway, and a few of his favorite New York City haunts including “Lilies”, the now closed “Barrymores”, and late nights at “French Roast”. Although he’s proving to be deliciously evil onscreen, in life he is a man of great conviction and strong opinions and as magnetic and magnanimous as the city he will soon be calling his home away from home this summer.
Joshua Estrin: You were born in Harlem, one of the neighborhoods in New York City undergoing some dramatic changes. What are your thoughts on the changing face of that community?
Joe Morton: That is a complex question to answer. Harlem has grown and in many ways the growth has been good, but it has changed the cultural landscape and displaced people who are simply unable to afford to the live there any longer. Any city needs to expand but with that comes sacrifice and the gap between those who have and those who don’t have has gotten much larger especially in places like Harlem. I want to see the infusion of new ideas and new business as a good thing in the long run, but it is so very complicated and impacts so many people at so many levels.
JE: You have made a career of pushing the envelope and forcing audiences to think about some very uncomfortable yet important topics including race. Did you pick your early projects with this in mind?
JM: When I started in the business it was a different time. The opportunities for a black actor that exist today were not available and I was unwilling to play the pimp or drug dealer. I looked for characters that had depth and had something to say. I would not say that it was strategically planned, but I would not be a stereotype and I refused to conform to any preconceived limitations.
JE: On Scandal, you are one scary father. Do your children have anything to say about how you chose to raise your onscreen daughter “Olivia”?
JM: I have two daughters and a son. My daughters love the show (Scandal) and the character. They actually make fun of me for the things Rowan does and for the monologues he delivers. The writing on the show is some of the best television has to offer. My son is very proud of me as well. The show is not exactly the kind of program he watches, but my daughters watch it every week and they are not the least bit afraid of me. They actually enjoy watching Rowan do the things he does knowing full well I could (and would) never impose myself on my own children the way in which he does.
JE: When the time comes for you to take your leave from this life how do you hope to be remembered?
JM: I have been asked that before and I really don’t know quite how to answer as it is not about me as much as it is how my actions impact others and how those actions are perceived. As a father I want to be remembered as the kind of parent that my children felt they could rely upon and whom they could come to and talk about anything without fear or reservation. I also hope that I will be remembered as a loyal and trusted friend.
2016 is sure to be Joe’s busiest years yet. Morton will portray the role of NAACP leader Roy Wilkins alongside Bryan Cranston in the highly-anticipated HBO biopic All the Way, adapted from the Tony-winning Robert Schenkkan play. The productions will be directed by Jay Roach and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. Morton also returns to his theater roots this spring when he will portray the groundbreaking comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in the one-man show Turn Me Loose at The Westside Theatre in New York City which runs from May through July.
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