Joe Morton is a talented actor who has enjoyed success in theater, television and in film. In addition to his role on the CBS drama “The Good Wife,” he currently stars in the SyFy challenge series “Eureka.” The series kicks off its fourth season on Friday night. Here now, a scene from “Eureka.”
Tavis: There have been jokes for years, jokes for years, as you well know, about the absence of brothers in sci-fi, the absence of brothers in the future, and I started counting, actually. You’ve actually done a few —
Joe Morton: I’ve done a few.
Tavis: — sci-fi projects.
Morton: Actually, that particular idea, the idea of the joke, when I did “Terminator 2” James asked me why I wanted to play the character, and I said, “Because of a joke that Richard Pryor had told.” I’m sure you know what the joke is. Richard said that they always killed us off in sci-fi because they figured we weren’t going to be here in the future, and that’s what I think — (laughter) that’s what I think got me the job.
Tavis: So what is it about the genre that interests you in the first place?
Morton: It’s funny — it never did. “Terminator 2” was something that came around. Before that I think I’d been playing mostly lawyers and generals and educators or whatever. Suddenly, this one movie comes along and as Hollywood will do, they think, “Oh, science fiction.”
Even with “Eureka,” I got “Eureka” because the gentleman who directed an episode of “House” which I was in was also the director for the pilot, which is how I got into “Eureka.” So it was never anything I pursued, it just actually pursues me. So I figured, why not?
Tavis: You said two things I want to go pick up, because both of them are fascinating for me. In no particular order, I don’t watch “House,” I’m not a regular viewer, but I was on a plane traveling internationally somewhere, literally a few months ago, and they had this whole collection of every “House” episode. So I’m on an 18-hour plane ride, I popped in one episode, and I kid you not that entire plane ride I watched every episode I think they have ever done of “House.”
So the episode that you’re in, when you play the sick guy, was a — I just saw that for the first time, like, a couple months ago. It’s a powerful episode.
Morton: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: I really, really — I was like, “Where is this storyline going?”
Morton: Well, it was interesting to play sort of an Obama-type character who’s running for the presidency or I think actually running for the Senate who’s got this big, deep, dark secret, and I think what makes “House” work is that you have this guy who loves people but hates mankind. I think that’s what sort of makes it work.
Tavis: But you played that beautifully. The thing I’ve always admired about your work are the types of characters that you play. I want to know what you think it is — why is it that you get to play doctors and lawyers and generals and educators? There’s something about your persona that works in those authoritative roles where so many brothers are trying to move from playing pimps and et cetera, et cetera. You mastered that a long time ago.
Morton: When I sort of entered the business, mostly what I was interested in was playing a diversity of Black men, and I’d made up my mind very, very early on that if I was going to play a pimp or a bad guy there had to be a real reason for it. I was not going to play a boogieman just to be the boogieman in the movie.
I wouldn’t take those roles. I figured somebody would, that’s going to be somebody’s job, just not mine. It wasn’t what I was interested in doing, and really made it part of what I did in my career to question directors and question producers and say, “Why can’t a Black man play that part? What’s it going to do to your movie?”
I played a lawyer in “The Good Mother,” a piece about a woman who is separated from her husband who ends up with a lover, and they unfortunately make love with their child in the bed. When I interviewed the director he said, “Well, we have to be very careful about — ” because I wanted to play the lawyer, and he said, “Well, we have to be very careful about how we use our Black people in this movie.”
The use of the Black people were mostly sort of indigents and sort of the usual way you, quote, unquote, “see Black people in movies.” I presented it in a way like a lawyer, and he said to me, “Well, you just did it like you were a lawyer.” I said, “Well, that’s what this interview is all about.”
So I think I’ve spent a lot of time presenting myself when I get into a situation that’s an interview, so that they think oh, it’s going to be hard to say no. You actually have to say no, because well, we just don’t want a Black guy to play that part, and most people don’t want to say that.
Tavis: Most of us think of actor/interview, actor/director, the director interviewing the actor, not the way you just described it — the actor interviewing the director. You got me on that.
Morton: I think again, the way I was taught is those two minutes, however long it is that you’re in front of people, are your two minutes, not their two minutes. It’s your two minutes. When I first came into New York City what I did was I didn’t have very much money and I couldn’t afford pictures or a resume, so what I used to do is I would tear off the back of a matchbook and I’d write my name and telephone number on the back of the matchbook.
So when they asked me where they can get in touch, I would give them that, mostly thinking they’ll remember the idiot who gave me the matchbook cover, and they would call.
Tavis: What happens, though, when you’re not yet Joe Morton and you’re asking these questions that make the guy across the table a little uncomfortable, perhaps?
Morton: Then you become Joe Morton or whoever you are. I think you have to occupy the space that you’re in, that you have to say, “This is my two minutes.” The executives, the directors, the producers, all those people did the same thing in their careers. They sat down, they said, “This is who I am. This is what I want.”
I’ll do it even simpler than that. There are five questions I think in my career that I use for any script that I’ve ever had, and I use it for every line, every word in the script, and those questions are, who am I, where am I going, who do I expect to meet? The last two are the most important: What do I want and to what extent am I willing to go to get it? That’s how I approach every job I’ve ever had.
Tavis: Wow. You just — you ought to trademark that. (Laughter) Might be too late now that you said it on national television.
Morton: Well, it belongs to the teachers that I was under.
Tavis: If I ever start acting I’m going to have to roll this tape back and ask myself those five questions.
I’m fascinated by this conversation. I promise I’ll come back to “Eureka,” I promise, but I’m having a eureka moment with you talking about this. (Laughter) So how does it feel, then, when in this business you see others, to the point you made earlier in this conversation, it ain’t for you, that’s somebody else’s gig? Does it bother you that there’s always somebody else who will take that role that may be demeaning, that may be denigrating, that may not show the complexity of character for Black people?
Does that bother you, or do you just say, “You know what? It ain’t mine, god bless him.”
Morton: Yeah. It’s not mine, god bless him. Everyone does what they believe they need to do in order to survive in this business, survive being the operative word. If that’s what you think you need to do — and some people have done it and then moved on and done really well.
My only thing would be, if it were a young actor, is just be careful. Just be careful that doesn’t become who they think you are for every film that comes out, every TV thing that comes out. That you have to sort of present yourself in a way that says, “I can do a lot of things.”
Tavis: What’s the Joe Morton back story? We see your face, we know the name, I’ve seen you play all these different characters. How did you get in this game? How’d you know it was for you?
Morton: I didn’t know until I was a freshman in college. I entered Hofstra University as a psychology major. The very first day of orientation they took us all around the campus and then they finally took us to the theater, and they put on a skit about what our first year would be like.
At the end of that skit, and this is a true story, I couldn’t get out of my seat. I just sat there, thinking — I’d been playing guitar and singing for a long time and I thought I like to sing, maybe I could be an actor.
I got up out of the seat, I walked to the registrar’s office, and I changed all my majors from psychology to drama. The end of that story is my grandmother was going to help me with college and she decided not. (Laughter)
Tavis: Once you changed all your courses. But I guess you got through anyway, though.
Morton: I got through anyway, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. It was worth it?
Morton: It was worth it on a lot of levels. That same grandmother who would not help me, it must have been my second year out of school I was in “Hair.” I got two tickets for my mother and said, “Come see the show.” Well, as anybody knows in “Hair,” you’re supposed to take your clothes off. What I didn’t tell them is I was the understudy for Hud, which was sort of the major Black character in the play, and Hud doesn’t do the nude scene. He plays one of the cops who arrests the audience.
I set it up so that I would be right next to my mother when I did this. Well, I kept calling the box office, “Have the tickets been picked up?” “No, no, the tickets haven’t been picked up.” Finally they were picked up. I said, “Oh, great.”
So I go up and I do the thing as the cop, and I turn and it’s not my mother, it’s my grandmother. (Laughter) It’s my grandmother. I do the whole bit, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all under arrest,” blah, blah, blah, blah, and I leave, and I can hear her — because she was up in the mezzanine — I could hear her say, “And that’s my grandson.” (Laughter)
Tavis: In the middle of the play.
Morton: In the middle — yeah.
Tavis: That’s why you can’t faze Black grandmamas.
Morton: But it was nice to understand that she understood that things were not the way she thought. Both my mother and my grandmother were terrified, obviously, that there would only be so far that I could get. This is the late ’60s when I started, so they were both — my mother was on a bus. At this point I’m doing “Raisin” on Broadway, playing Walter Lee, and she’s on a bus and it’s a matinee day, a Sunday.
All these women get on the bus and they all have their little playbills from “Raisin” and they’re all talking about the play, so of course my mother tells them that I’m her son, and she signed autographs on the bus. (Laughter)
Tavis: See, I’m thinking — you said on the bus, I’m thinking “Speed.” (Laughs) I just saw you in that the other night. (Laughter) I’m like “This Joe Morton is everywhere, man.”
Okay, so it’s all worked out and now you’re on “Eureka,” so for those who have not seen “Eureka,” the storyline of this series is?
Morton: Basically “Eureka” is the name of the town, and it’s occupied — it’s a secret town somewhere off in the northwest that’s occupied by all geniuses. Henry, the character that I play, is probably the smartest guy in town, although he loves to tinker with cars. He loves to sort of make them do whatever he wants them to do. He used to work for NASA.
What’s lovely about “Eureka” is that it’s a sci-fi show but it’s not monsters from outer space, it’s not craziness from outer space. It’s just about this community of people and what they do. These geniuses have sometimes done wonderful things and sometimes created global warming. It has this wonderful left of center sense of humor.
Tavis: How cool is it, though, to be in a series where you play the smartest guy in town?
Morton: What’s cool about it is (laughter) we did a series of events last year and a mother walked up to me afterwards and she said the thing that she loved about the character that I played was that it encouraged other children to become scientists as opposed to businessmen. She said for that, she was very grateful.
Tavis: We are all grateful for that, not just that role, but for so many roles you have taken that shed light on a lot of good stuff. Glad to have you on.
Morton: It’s a pleasure.
Tavis: Oh, Joe, I’m glad to have you on.
Morton: Glad to be here.
Tavis: “Eureka” is the show on the — I noticed SyFy changed their little log now. They’ve got the S-Y-F-Y thing.
Morton: Right, I think they want to be the special channel that everybody goes to, and they are.
Tavis: We are going to see Joe Morton in “Eureka.”
Tavis: Good to have you on the program.
Morton: Glad to be here.
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