Thursday, May 23, 2024


‘Scandal’-ous success



As the devious Rowan Pope on the ABC drama “Scandal,” Joe Morton is one the most visible African-American men on network television. In an exclusive sitdown with Black Image, he shared candid views on race, fatherhood and more. In doing so, the veteran actor (among his many credits: “American Gangster,” “The Brother From Another Planet” and the original Broadway production of “Hair”) demonstrated why he is also one of the most thoughtful people in Hollywood.

The season finale of “Scandal” was very dramatic. Your character’s story arc left audiences on the edge of their seats. How do you respond to critics who say the series is a negative portrayal of African-Americans?

Well, let’s go back to the start of the show. First, Kerry Washington is playing a black female lead on a television series — that hasn’t been done in 40 years. Secondly, my character is meant to be one of the most powerful men in America; and that has never been done on television before. I guess on a larger note, if this was an all-white cast, there would be no objection. Many would say, “Oh yeah, that is how shows like this go.”… I think some people might try to call Kerry Washington’s character “a side piece,” or try to nitpick by saying I am playing an evil guy. But if we are not playing these intriguing characters, what are we left with on television? There are not many shows that have black leads, unless it is a comedy. … One of the things that I talked about this year was the movies that received acknowledgement at the Academy Awards, the ones that had black actors, were [nearly] all about slaves and segregation. There must be something else that shows the legacy of black people.

Do you think there is someone in the U.S. government who is like your “Scandal” character?

My character, Rowan Pope, was created by Shonda Rhimes. I think most Americans believe there are certain powers beyond the presidency, people pulling the strings. It could be a military force or a billionaire with a vested political interest.

How do you think your character deals with fatherhood toward his onscreen daughter, Olivia?

My character’s agenda in “Scandal” is much darker than most fathers in the world. I think he genuinely loves and wants to protect his daughter. There is no question about it; he kind of shows it in the last episode for the season. She wanted her lover to be re-elected president of the United States — and he was. A real-life father in our society would not go to the extremes of killing the president’s son to satisfy his daughter’s wishes.


As the saying goes, “an eye for an eye.” Do you think your character will be killed off when the new season begins — once the President finds out who killed his son?

I have no control over that. I am assuming, by the way the episode ended, that my character will be returning. But like the creator, Shonda Rhimes, indicated on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” — none of the actors on the show have any idea what’s going to happen to their characters. For example, when the character Harrison Wright (played by Columbus Short) was presumed shot in the season finale, you only hear the gun go off — but it does not mean that he is dead.

Do you think Harrison won’t be returning because of Columbus Short’s personal issues?

I don’t think Shonda Rhimes thinks in those terms. But that’s a question you would have to ask her.

When I see you on any television show or movie, I think of your starring role in the 1984 hit movie, “The Brother from Another Planet.”

That movie is still my favorite.

Since that role, do you think African-Americans hold you to a higher consciousness standard in your career?

That question is very hard to answer, because you just don’t know. I would not want to ever assume that is what people do. I would hope that people respond to my intelligence and choices of the characters I play. So, in that sense, I think that the things I have put out there are positive. If it holds me to a higher value or not — you would have to ask other folks. When people ask me what I think my legacy will be, I tell them I don’t know. That is someone else’s decision.

Are there any roles that you refuse to play?

Absolutely. When I first started acting,  the roles that were being offered mostly were pimps and drug dealers. I immediately made a very conscious decision that those were roles I would not be interested in playing. Somebody else will get that job — but it won’t be me. Unless there is some underlying greater truth about the character that I think might be interesting.

What are the virtues you hold dear as a father?

Fatherhood and parenting is lifelong. This is something that people don’t realize when they have children. And in some cases, the bigger the child, the bigger the problems — but also the bigger the rewards. The hope is when you are raising your children, that you are giving them values that they will hold on to for their lives. They will need to cultivate those values as they move through life and get older. I think that is what I have done with my children. I am very proud of them. My oldest works for a company in Florida that is the umbrella for many nonprofits. My son is an actor, and my youngest is still in school.

What do you say to those who claim that inner-city violence is caused by young black men without fathers in the home?

Yes, that might be partially correct. But the other part is that there might be a lot of families — black or white — that have no father in the home because the father might have died and the mother never remarried. I was 10 when my father died, and my mother raised me on her own. To say that is the reason young black males are violent in the inner city is to only look at half that truth. There are other parts of that truth that have to do with employment or lack thereof.

What do you think “Scandal” says about interracial relationships?

I think we need to get beyond the fact that there are interracial relationships — which are actually making for a better world. There was a study recently that showed when people are in a diverse community, they have a tendency to get along better and understand what other cultures are about. When cultures are separate or segregated in some way, that whole idea of “the stranger” takes hold and fear builds up. So the fact that Olivia Pope has a lover who is white shouldn’t be an issue, because it is very narrow-minded and not the truth of the world. Imagine if there were more of a romantic mix between Palestinians and Israelis— there might be a more united society between them. To date, Palestinian children and Israeli children will probably grow up fighting each other without realizing how the fight started — and why they are still at war with each other. That’s what happens when you start putting up walls.

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