Julian Morris Isn’t Afraid To Play Complicated Characters

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Actor Julian Morris is known for his darker characters — psychopaths, social outcasts and the like, who float around the edges of decent, common society. He says he loves the bombast such roles offer, but the pain and shame of his Adam Berryman in the new MASTERPIECE production, Man In An Orange Shirt, is a different kind of challenge. Morris reveals what drew him to the role, what is was like to work with Vanessa Redgrave, and more.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

In modern-day London, Adam Berryman lives a fiercely divided life. He’s a compassionate veterinarian and devoted, live-in grandson to Flora. But beneath the surface, Adam’s a closeted, anonymous sex addict whose guilt and shame define his compartmentalized life.

CLIP

Adam: I’m 34 years old, and I’m still hiding in your basement. Is it it any wonder why…It’s no business of yours…who I…

Flora: I don’t need to hear this.

Jace: Adam hides his sexuality from Flora, ashamed of his hunger for meaningless hookups and afraid of genuine romance. Little does Adam know, his grandfather, the long-deceased Michael, also concealed his own homosexuality in the post-war Britain of the 1940s.

CLIP

Flora: I mean, what are you? Are you safe around children? What were you thinking marrying me? Do you even love me?

Jace: Actor Julian Morris — fresh off his supporting role as tutor John Brooke in MASTERPIECE’s recent adaptation of Little Women, and perhaps best known in the US for his role as Wren Kingston in Pretty Little Liars — plays Adam Berryman in Man in An Orange Shirt. Morris brings a nuanced intensity to his performance, and he joined us to discuss hook-up culture, family secrets, and why he enjoys playing characters with dark inner lives.

Jace: And we are joined this week by Man in An Orange Shirt star, Julian Morris. Welcome.

Julian: Thanks for having me.

Jace: What drew you to this project, and specifically, to the character of Adam Berryman?

Julian: There are many things that drew me to the project. First of, I’d been keen to work back in Britain. I hadn’t for years, in fact, most of my work had sort of taken, or at least it originated in the States. And I, you know, I had a hankering to get back home, if you like. So that was one thing. It was great that it came from the BBC, I’m a big fan of BBC drama. And of course PBS MASTERPIECE. And then when the project arrived, you see who’s attached. And of course,  Vanessa Redgrave’s name stood out, you know, glittering in the email. And of course I’m a huge fan of her, as have been for for a long time. And then I read the script, and I was floored. I was absolutely floored by the intelligence of it, how in the first episode in the first part, you see how society deems a love that my grandpa yearns for as illegal, as improper, as wrong. And so he’s denied that, that love. And then cut to the second part, the focus is on my character and my relationship with my grandmother, Vanessa Redgrave where society deems it fine to sort of express yourself in that way to fall in love, with another guy, if you’re a guy, another girl if you’re a girl, or whatever it may be. And yet because of the sense of shame that Adam, the character I play, has grown up with because of his grandmother, because of his grandmother marrying a gay man, and the implications of that on her relationship with him and the pain of that, the shame is so deep-seeded within my character, within Adam, that despite society’s saying it’s fine for you to be in love, he can’t bring himself to be in love. He doesn’t believe he’s ready for love or that he’s granted love. He can’t love, he can’t be loved in return. And that’s the tragedy. So it was the intelligence of those two comparisons that I loved. And then just the epic nature of these two love stories over two generations in Britain, I was absolutely moved by it.

Jace: You mentioned that sense of guilt and shame, which seemed to be sort of embedded within Adam’s DNA.

Julian: Yeah.

Jace: They play out in those scenes where he actually scrubs himself raw after a sexual encounter.

Julian: That’s right.

Jace: Does that sense of shame emanate entirely from Flora, or also from within himself?

Julian: I think to play a more interesting character you try and take bits and pieces from many sources as possible, so yeah there is a way to play Adam as only having that sense of shame from his grandmother, from being raised by his grandmother who obviously is not comfortable with him being gay given that her husband of years and years was a gay man, she knew, she, you know, ripped up the letters and you know you try to think about the pain that that would have caused in their marriage. It’s easy to imagine the pain that she would feel. So would she take that and her grandson, my character, would he then have a huge sense of shame from that? Absolutely. But it was important to me that there were other areas that he sourced that shame from. I think it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come as a society both in Britain, in Europe and here in America in terms of gay rights. There’s been a huge transformation in the last 15 years. And certainly that would have been something that Adam would have experienced growing up. He certainly still would have been growing up in the vestiges of that of that time when it wasn’t okay to be gay. And I think that’s the case with many gay men and women grow up with a sense of shame, in Adam’s case particularly acute and it leads them to this place where he is his own jailer, if you like. He is his own shackles. He is so deserving of love, and yet doesn’t feel that way.

Jace: A lot of that emoting happens in the sort of grand two-hander scenes with Vanessa Redgrave.

Julian: Yeah.

Jace: What was it like specifically working opposite Vanessa, and what did she bring to those scenes together?

Julian: Those scenes were some of the most incredible professional experiences of my life. She is blistering, she is formidable, she is fierce, exceptionally intelligent, and so her take on the character is so wonderfully intelligent and an interesting and nuanced and original. And she’ll break down the scripts, and she’ll discuss and she’ll fight, and she’ll argue and invariably, she’ll be right. And so when we were rehearsing, you know, we discussed our relationships, and the characters and our approach to the scene at length. It was wonderful. And we’d get to set, and you know we’d talk more, and and you know, when you’re on a film set and you sort of take one action, and you begin, and well, it’s OK it’s great. And oftentimes it’s not. Then you take two and you sort of find that interplay between the two of you. And you know, it’s much like, if you play sports, it’s like playing a great tennis game, if you like, with someone or you’re surprised by what they’re doing and you allow that surprise to sort of come over you. And it’s a game, it’s like a dance scene, it’s like sex, it’s really intimate when it’s really good. And it was really good with Vanessa.

Jace: Was there a specific lesson you sort of gained from watching her, or acting opposite her?

Julian: She has a sense of freedom which is born from her understanding, her thorough understanding of the character. She has a sense of fun and silliness, which is important because it can’t all be work when you’re on set, because that’s just no fun. It was wonderful to be with her. We laughed, you know, she’s funny. She’s dramatic, she’s just as you would imagine. We got on really well, you know, so often that you get on so well with a castmate, you hope that you do, but Vanessa for whatever reason, I felt incredibly close to and she with me and we we’re still incredibly friendly. it might have been the fact that when you were playing very close relatives who loved each other, so you know you allow those feelings, you encourage those feelings when you meet, if there is anywhere there. I absolutely adore her. I have a huge amount of love for her. I asked her, because I haven’t done theater in years, I started in theater,  sort of was lucky enough to play the young roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company through my teens, which is an incredible learning ground, and incredible fun, but I hadn’t done theater since then, and so I asked her, I said, ‘Would theater make me a better film actor?’ And she said no. She said film makes her a better theater actor.’ And we discussed why that was, and that was interesting and that I learned so much from her.

Jace: That’s so funny to me. I mean I think because those scenes have this sort of live wire intensity that you do associate with a sort of live stage performance.

Julian: I love theatre. My problem with theater an actor, at least a challenge for me is that I often find that in theater, because the reaction from the audience is immediate, you’re often serving their needs and their interests over and above the character you’re playing, and that you might play for a reaction laughter a gasp, a reaction, an audible reaction that you as an actor on stage can can hear, can feel, which is very wonderful, but it’s not often true or correct. In film, you know, you’re striving after these moments, you know, take after take, day after day to get these moments of truth, and each one has to be fresh and original and truthful. And I think that’s good practice for when you’re on the stage, night after night at the same performance, that maybe the director is gone now. You know he set up the production, and it’s so all over to you guys the actors and you’re doing your thing, but you need to keep it fresh and each each. Each night, each evening, matinees, afternoons, it needs to have that freshness and that same freshness that you would bring on a film set from take to take. So I think that was maybe what she was talking about.

Jace: In the case of Man In An Orange Shirt, this is a case where the viewers actually know considerably more than the characters.

Julian: Yeah.

Jace: Because we’re aware of Flora’s past with Michael and Thomas. What does Adam, who isn’t aware of that history, initially make of his grandmother and her distaste for sex or passion — or even feeling?

Julian: I think it’s a very English thing. You know, it’s in so many ways, because Adam has been raised by his grandmother. He’s so classically English, in that emotions are sort of kept in, stiff upper lip if you will, and that sort of thing. They diner with each other, it seems nightly. At the very least,they’re incredibly close. I think that because of that, because of their closeness, because he’s so English, if you will, that’s what makes the emotion harder for him and the sense of shame because it’s all it’s bottled up.

Jace: Well despite their closeness, there is this thing between them, this secret that is this enormous wedge in their relationship. That he really can’t be himself with Flora, and that she reads into him she knows his secret, though they won’t talk about it.

Julian: Yeah. It’s a reminder of how painful that that that situation is and must be for so many people that you know, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell, really. It’s clearly something that they both know. You know it’s an it’s an awful public policy, and it’s an excruciating personal policy, particularly with a loved one as your grandmother when that is the only person, the only familial family person in your life. You can totally understand why Adam carries so much pain. Why he has such a source of shame over who he is. Because he’s not accepted by that person. It’s awful. And I think it’s a great reminder to many of us who feel, oh it’s easy. We live in a society now where you know, you can be this, you can be that, it’s fine, except that sure, there are pockets of homophobia or whatever it is. But no, we are still carrying the baggage of society. We’re still carrying the baggage of a former time that creates a sense of shame of who we are. And that’s true in any minority, I feel. I think you ask any minority whether you’re a person of color or an immigrant where society makes you feel less than you are. And and if you’re not strong enough then that can very easily become internalized, as it is in Adam’s case. So yes, this is a gay love story, is a gay love story. But I think it will ring true, I’m sure to any person who is in the minority or feels that society hasn’t quite recognized them to the full extent.

Jace: There was a moment early on that I love, where Flora notices that there is a stain on Adam’s jacket.

Julian: Yes.

Jace: And it almost becomes his reaction is almost as though she has said that he has a stain on his soul. It’s just it’s painful but tiny, tiny moment that says so much about their relationship and his own sense of shame and guilt.

Julian: Yeah absolutely. I mean it’s interesting to see it outside of it you know all we all are sexual creatures. You know we we clearly live in a very sexualized society. It’s obviously for many people a very urgent need and. And in Adam’s case because of his psychology not a particularly healthy one. And in Flora’s case, it’s sort of sexual desire which she clearly has you see it in the first part. And yet she lives in a time before you apps you know who knows the sort of the dynamics of her relationship with her husband. You see it and it seems like a very traditional one. And it seems like she had a sexless marriage, and very possibly a sexless life. Not. Not by choice but because of the situation that she was in and how that sort of crushes her if you like it. It makes a spiky you see it. She is she’s spiky because of it. She’s also not happy. It’s interesting to look at sort of her as a sexual creature, or at least one in need of passion, in need of intimacy. Same thing with with Adam, and so you know there are similarities between the two. Maybe she recognizes something in Adam and likewise. So in that moment that you know that that scene where Adam says to her passion, passion, you know he’s saying something that he’s always thought. Don’t you as a woman, as as yet forget about you be my grandmother, you as a person. You need passion, too you need physical intimacy, too, you need love. And why not. And of course he doesn’t realize why she has been denied it or has denied it to herself.

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…

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Jace: I love how the camera focuses on Adam’s eyes as he swipes through an array of pot of potential men.

Julian: Yeah.

Jace: Do you see him as a sex addict?

Julian: No I don’t see him as sex addict. I don’t see Adam as an addict. He has other problems in his life, but he is not an addict. I don’t think he has a healthy relationship with sex. I think he has a very natural human desire for it. Does that make him and make him an addict? Absolutely not. Does his inability to accept himself make his sex problematic? Yes, it does. But that doesn’t come from his use of an app or him having sex with men. It simply comes from the fact that he doesn’t accept himself for who he is because of his shame.

Jace: I mean do you think that those apps work to liberate Adam, or to trap him?

Julian: My feeling, and I have thought about this, is that I think that the apps that allow you to engage in relationships whatever they may be are a great liberating thing for gay men. And I would venture to say for women as well. And here’s why. I think that if you look Man In An Orange Shirt, and you see how his grandpa. Most of us need a physical connection with with someone and if we’re not in a relationship. How do we how do we get it? So you know, if we’re lucky enough, we go to bars, and parties, we go to dinner parties, and you know, we meet someone and things happen. But if. In Adam’s case closeted man. How is that going to happen for him?  And prior to apps, and you see this and in the show, you would have to cruise. And I think that’s an unhealthy thing. I mean, I can’t see how sort of happiness could naturally spring from that. And you see it in Man In An Orange Shirt. However, I think that if you can use an app on your phone in a healthy way and connect with someone, over similarities that you have in life, or sex I think that’s a really good thing. And I think it’s a much safer thing. I think, you know, irrespective of safe sex and all of those other issues, just the ability to connect with someone. I think sex can be a wonderful healthy happy thing. And I don’t think it should be closeted or or repressed as long as it is consensual and healthy and doesn’t hurt.

Jace: So what does the chance encounter with Steve open up to Adam in terms of possibility. What does Steve represent him in a way that these other men haven’t?

Julian: Steve represents love. He offers love. And I think he in many ways is the right person at the right time.  He meets while he’s putting down Steve’s cat which I think is such an original moment to meet someone. And by the way Patrick Gale, he is a wonderful writer known for his incredible novels. He said the most beautiful beautiful job with the scripts with the intelligence of the themes the thoroughness of the characters that their depth and it makes acting so much easier as well. Steve represents to Adam happiness, and I’m not too sure why He grasps it but he does and it makes him happy. It’s beautiful.

Jace: And we touched on this scene earlier. “I’m 34 years old and still hiding in your basement,” Adam says all of Adam’s issues and Flora’s come to a head and the scene where he gives his grandmother the painting he found stashed away at the cottage.

CLIP

Adam: I’ve been ashamed, all my life, and I wonder why that was

Flora: Yes you should be ashamed, because it is terrible, it is disgusting, to live with other people as if you were animals.

Adam: Animals?

Flora: Yes. Animals.

Jace: What was it like filming this extremely painful, emotional scene?

Julian: It was thrilling. It was Vanessa and I we we really we spoke at length about that scene with Michael the director, and the morning of we really took our time which meant there was less time to actually film it, but we sort of I think we sort of understood it from our various points of view quite well. For Adam, in so many ways you could swap out basement for closet. Just thinking about it, the basement. You’re locked down, you’re locked up, you’re dark, it’s without light, it’s so allegorical, metaphorical and in so many ways, you really could be talking about a closet, and then hiding from from you, my grandmother, and then he reveals, he tries to reveal himself to her in such a honest and forthcoming and sweet way. He’s lying down on the sofa when she walks and he’s eating crisps, chips in America and he’s happy, you can see he’s happy, and he’s made this discovery you know and he wants to know about it, and she shuts it down. It was thrilling to film, there were fireworks. You know, you sort of have an idea of where the scene may go, but you know it’s that was like a fight. It was like I mean it’s like you know, being in a boxing ring with with someone with Vanessa and and and the way that we filmed we did the master shots, we sort of knew where the other was going to go roughly in and she threw some serious punches, and then you just punch back. You really was a very physical performance, emotionally. I was so lucky to have Vanessa Redgrave snarling at me. And then you just let it affect, you just let it move you.

Jace: It’s Steve who tends to Adam at the cottage, bathing him in the kitchen with the washcloth. It’s a scene of tremendous tenderness and vulnerability. Initially coming after that brawl scene.

Julian: Yeah.

Jace: It’s something shifts here within Adam very visibly, and it’s not that he craves sexual gratification in this moment, but comfort he says, ‘Can you just hold me?’ How did you read that scene?

CLIP

 

Steve: It will be okay. Here. Do you want to talk?

Adam: I wouldn’t know where to start.  

Julian: I think Adam had this like a, almost like a melting here. He’s so up until this point he sort of put this glass, this structure around him to protect himself, and and through this fight with his grandmother tries to sort of allow her to see into him. And it doesn’t go well, and then he goes and he punishes himself in the best way that he knows how through, this sort of sexual act. This assault, and the glass are like cracks and then sharpens and and then he goes, thank God, he flies and drives as fast as he can to see Steve where you know he goes down the end. And so the habit that he has is sort of trying to scrub himself clean to sort of wash away his his skin his dirt his shame. And then of course Steve comes in, and played so beautifully by David Gyasi, he’s such a wonderful actor as well. And comforts him, and he melts, the glass literally sort of melts, and what is left but Adam and what does Adam need? What does he always needed? Comfort. To be held, and he is.

Jace: The other scene that I love is when Julian Sands’ character Caspar figures out the mystery of the inscription on the painting, and makes a discovery that Thomas’s Man In An Orange Shirt painting is actually concealed within the frame. What does this moment signify, both for Adam and for Flora who they finally sort of come to the truth of their family history?

Julian: That moment is interesting. He there’s a realization for Adam but not quite. That realization comes later when when the Flora, hiss grandmother tells him the truth, if you like. And then when he reads the letter, but for Vanessa’s character in that moment when she’s outside, in the cottage, but seeing Adam happy with Steve, and I think there is not just an acceptance of Adam, but an acceptance of her late husband. And of course, of herself.

Jace: The piece is bookended by Adam retreating to the basement of his grandmother’s house, the very beginning of the first chunk to finally finding his own place in the world one that was denied to his grandfather, and ironically he finds it at the site of his grandfather’s most idealized and romantic self. This cottage. What do you make of that place that Adam reaches at the end of Man In An Orange Shirt?

Julian: I think that it’s such a wonderful resolution. To what had has really been a very tragic story up until then in terms of Adam’s character through the the pain of his of his grandfather through the pain of his grandmother, and his own pain. Finally comes redemption, and acceptance. And what does that lead to? But it leads to that acceptance of love where he, he goes out he finds Steve as you see, and clearly to me it’s a happy ending, although it’s nothing said, but clearly to me, it’s one of acceptance. The resolution is of acceptance, acceptance of love and and of course that has to be acceptance of one’s self. And of course that means an understanding of oneself and the love of it.

Jace: So he’s finally able to actually embrace himself.

Julian: Yeah he’s he’s. He’s not afraid. The fear is relinquished . The shame is gone. And it’s I mean it’s it’s it’s wonderful that it’s just this happy ending it’s sad to think that there’s a 34 year old who’s only reaching it then. But you know this is why I think this is such a wonderful and vital program. It was interesting just a sense of comparative sort of other films that have touched on similar territory. And by that I mean you know gay love — Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country, Moonlight. And in terms of like, you know Call Me By Your Name, and I know many friends really responded to that. And then they saw themselves in that central character. Well I have many friends who didn’t, and they said, you know, it wasn’t that easy like, it wasn’t easy. And I think that’s true for many gay men and women. I think the people who responded to Man In An Orange Shirt probably see that those those elements of uneasiness and of shame and of and of perhaps growing up feeling alienated in themselves. And I think, it’s wonderful that now this sort of show can be aired, that it’s aired on PBS and that it’s aired and in a month celebrating gay pride, which is sort of celebrating love. So I think it’s a it’s a wonderful reminder of how far as a society we’ve come.

Jace: Now you’ve played Prince Phillip on ABC’s Once Upon a Time but you’ve also played a sexual killer a coed murderer a Nazi lieutenant —your resume is filled with sadistic characters. What is it about these darker roles that appeals to you as an actor?

Julian: You know I just I guess interesting criticism. I’m fascinated by. I’m interested in people. I would say that probley earlier in my career, I would gravitate towards those those characters because they’re so much more bombastic if you like in terms of where they are. I think more. More recently in recent years the my my my tastes have shifted somewhat. I really enjoying the nuance and in sort of, the common, everyday experience and the sort of society so shapes that you know, with Man in An Orange Shirt, But you know Bob Woodward in Felt, with Liam Neeson, and that was an amazing journey, and and playing a biographical character. Just now, I’m about to finish next week in New York, this movie, and it’s again I play a journalist who’s kidnapped in the Middle East who is ultimately executed by ISIS. And it’s told from the viewpoint of of my mother, played by Susan Sarandon. And that was thrilling and interesting to see them investigate why someone would put their life in danger, in such obvious danger. But in order to tell the truth and then of course there’s the other MASTERPIECE, Little Women, where I play John Brooke, but that was just some of the people involved, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Angela Lansbury, of course, who was exceptional. So I guess for me my drive is I just want to do good work, my best work with with really great people who I can learn from and and play with.

Jace: True or false: You nailed your American accent by studying Tom Cruise your co-star in Valkyrie?

Julian: That’s correct. That is true. Some actors, it comes to very naturally, they’re just wonderful mimics often they’re wonderful singers. I’m not a good singer has any of my friends will tell you. And I have to work hard to nail the accent. With American. I found it challenge. And I was at Sundance, and across the street from me was Matthew Rhys. He’s wonderful actor on The Americans and at the time he was doing brothers and sisters and I can believe he was a Welsh dude. And so I ran up to him I said hey you don’t know me. How do you teach your accent so well. And he said I just you know I the trick is this you got to pick someone super famous. And I think he said he picked George Clooney. And you know, you just, you just watch tape after tape of them, or movie after movie and you try and copy them, which is obvious advice, but you know I hadn’t been doing it. And so that night I’m in the hotel room and I think well I know Jerry Maguire was on was on the tele and Tom Cruise as that thing what show me the money. And I stopped trying to copy my show me the money show me the money. Show me the money. Show me the money. Show me the money. Show me the money. That is great. That is amazing. Show me the money. That is great work. OK.  Tom Cruise it is! And then lo and behold a month later I’m in the desert with Tom Cruise filming Valkyrie, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, but because of the scene I was there with him for like two weeks when we got to hang out. He was wonderful he helped me get my my green card. He wrote letters for me and he was give me so much advice as well. He has been really actually amazing to me. And yes it was just more of an opportunity to sort of get to see him and how he stands and I can copy his voice. And of course you sort of embody it. I had one tricky thing though where did this pilot for FOX and the star of it was Cuba Gooding Jr., and I was playing an American, and I used to have to say “Show me the money, show me the money, show me the money” before every single time I did an American accent I had to say it and I was acting and I thought, Well what am I going to do? I thought I could pretend like I said I need some honey, that was good I got away with it.

Jace: Julian Morris, thank you so much.

Julian: Thank you so much.

Jace: Coming up next on MASTERPIECE, Detective Sergeant Endeavour Morse is back on the case as the Oxford City Police becomes the Thames Valley Constabulary, with a priceless faberge egg up for auction — and murderers lurking in the wings.

CLIP

Max: Gentlemen. Shot. Three times. Twice in the chest and once in the back. From close range, somewhere between midnight and four o’clock.

Thursday: From inside the car, then?

Max: Can’t say if any of those would have been lethal until I’ve had a gander.

Jace: This season, DS Morse and DCI Fred Thursday come face to face with international crime syndicates, simmering racial tensions, and reclusive train fanatics — all the while struggling to deal with the biggest threat of all: their own personal lives.

CLIP

Joan: I’m just finding my feet, is all.

Thursday: Charity work?

Joan: Just helping people, same as you.

Jace: MASTERPIECE Mystery’s Endeavour returns to your screens next Sunday, June 24 at 9 PM Eastern / 8 PM Central, this time with six feature-length episodes.

It’s 1968, and murder and mystery are once again in the air among Oxford’s dreaming spires.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

 

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

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