Scandal's Joe Morton on the Legacies of Dick Gregory and Shonda Rhimes

On summer hiatus from Rhimes’ popular television drama, Morton takes the stage in the new Gregory-inspired solo show ”Turn Me Loose”.

At present, Joe Morton is one of television's favorite bad guys. As the manipulative CIA operative Rowan Pope on the hit Shonda Rhimes series Scandal, Morton's even been confronted by passionate viewers who tell him his character is a "piece of s**t." Morton himself laughs it off — "A well-spoken, intelligent, powerful piece of s**t," he replies. After decades of playing the good guys, he's reveling in his current villain status.

This summer, the Emmy winner is returning to his stage roots in a not-so-nasty new role. Morton is playing the iconic comedian and activist Dick Gregory in Gretchen Law's biographical drama Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre. He jumped at the chance to play this iconic figure who, at the height of his fame and fortune, gave it all up to try and change the world.

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in John Gould Rubin's production of Gretchen Law's Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre.
Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in John Gould Rubin's production of Gretchen Law's Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre.
(© Monique Carboni)

How did you come into this project?
Literally it was a phone call that I got saying they were developing this one-man show about Dick Gregory. I know who Dick Gregory is; I knew what his accomplishments are. I certainly knew him as a comedian and an activist. It's the kind of material that comes my way a lot because people know that these are the kinds of things I'm interested in. Once I read the script and met the director, I was in love.

Do you know Dick personally?
No. We had only met once, many years ago. Soon after getting the role, he and I spoke on the phone. I wanted to have him talk about his dad and his mom. We got into a conversation around those things, what his situation was. He was determined to become a star as a comedian and to talk about something very specific in terms of racism, which he accomplished to the nth degree. And while he's on top, he becomes involved with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

He befriends Medgar Evers, who I think had a tremendous influence on Dick's point of view of what the civil rights movement was all about. At a point, he has to make a decision because he feels like he can't do both. When you think about it, here's a man who went from being literally dirt poor to being a millionaire, and then gave up the millionaire thing to become an activist.

What kind of research did you do?
The first thing I did was read his biography. Then I started watching a lot of footage and listening to his records. Then, you have to make a choice. There's the real person, and then there's this character who's written on the page. It's then a matter of shuffling those two things together to create a character that we're calling Dick Gregory. He won't see it until opening night. My fear is, of course— I know I'm going to turn and be looking right at him. I know that's going to happen. [laughs]

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and Joe Morton as Rowan Pope on Shonda Rhimes' ABC drama Scandal.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and Joe Morton as Rowan Pope on Shonda Rhimes' ABC drama Scandal.
(© ABC)

Do you miss doing theater when you're in LA shooting film and television?
I do. I love doing theater. Despite the fact that out of theater, film, and TV, theater is the hardest thing to do. It's the least paid, and we all have these bills that we have to pay. I try to come back to it as often as possible, [my] schedule being part of the problem. Even with this it was kind of a juggling act. We started rehearsal in LA while I was still doing Scandal and continued rehearsal here.

Speaking of Scandal, what's it like to finally play a bad guy?
Oh, it's wonderful. Playing Rowan is a joy from beginning to end each season. What Shonda [Rhimes] allows me to do. She channels this character to say things that no other character in that series can talk about. Also, there has never been a black male character with that kind of power and presence on any television series that I'm aware of. It's ironic for me; most of my career I spent doing good guys, and that was very purposeful. When I went out to LA, I went out specifically looking for an intelligent bad guy, and this one literally fell into my lap.

How so?
I saw the show on Netflix, and thought about trying to get a few episodes. Before I had a chance to talk to my agents, I got a call from ABC saying, "We'd like to talk to you about Scandal." I talked to the producer on the phone and he said, "Here's what we'd like you to do: The last two lines of this season will reveal you as her dad and you have to keep this a secret." Kerry [Washington] didn't find out until she read that last page [at the table read]. They were all in shock. Everyone was surprised.

Do you look at Rowan as being evil, which is the way so many viewers describe him?
No. I look at him as someone who has a point of view of how the world should be handled, and make sure that his daughter is safe at all costs, and at the same time, is accomplishing what he needs to accomplish. I don't think he's a bad guy. The smartest thing about playing a villain is that that villain, so called, is doing what he thinks is going to make for a better world or a better life. It's all about making the world better; it's not about making it worse.

What do you want to see happen in season six?
We don't know what Shonda has in mind. We're in an election year, so the outcomes of certain things will begin to pan out. Who knows? Anything I can come up with, Shonda will come up with something better.

Joe Morton stars in Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre through July 3.
Joe Morton stars in Turn Me Loose at the Westside Theatre through July 3.
(© Monique Carboni)

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Turn Me Loose

Closed: July 17, 2016