Emmy-winning actor-musician Joe Morton (he played Kerry Washington's father, Rowan “Eli” Pope, on Scandal) didn't take quarantine lying down. He made the call-for-unity song and music video “Wake Up America" and appears in the star-studded adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award–winning book, Between the World and Me (HBO, Nov. 21, 8 p.m. ET), which recounts the author's experiences growing up Black in Baltimore's inner city. The show combines a 2018 Apollo Theater stage adaptation, family movies, animation and powerful readings from Coates’ book by Morton, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance and Pauletta Washington. AARP chatted with Morton about his new work and his past.
On Americans facing the impact of systemic racism during the coronavirus pandemic
Because we were self-quarantined and George Floyd was killed at the same time, we couldn't escape it. I think that did sort of raise people's eyebrows to say, “Oh, maybe those things that we heard about, young Black men being killed by white policemen, is really true.” Hopefully, there will be people who are not of color who will look at Between the World and Me and in some ways, like [Morton's 1984 film] The Brother From Another Planet, they'll be able to look at it through the eyes of Black people, through the eyes of someone they kind of know.
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A reminder of the vibrancy and vitality of historic Black colleges and universities
I also think that when we think of universities in this country, often we think of the Ivy League. We think of Princeton, Harvard and all those kinds of places. In the film it will be nice to see Black people in a Black university, Howard University, where Ta-Nehisi Coates went to school, and see that kind of joy, that kind of romance and innocence, if you will.
Speaking of Howard University...
What [Howard alum and Vice President–elect] Kamala Harris offers this country is the prospect of a woman of color having some sway and some power and some influence in this country.
Why it was important to create ‘Wake Up America'
The divisions in this country are fairly wide, and we wanted to put together a piece of music and lyrics that are nonpartisan and talk about unity and hope and about the prospects of how to gain that. If politicians on both sides of the political line dealt only in fact and not in party lines or platforms, the debates would be about that — what is the best way to fix this problem or that problem or make this better or that better. It says in our Constitution, “to form a more perfect union,” not “to form a more perfect division."
The making of a young actor
On orientation day at Hofstra University, they took us into the theater and they showed us a skit. At the end of the skit, I literally could not get out of the seat. I just sat there staring at the stage. When I did get out of my seat, I walked to the registrar's office and changed my major from psychology to drama. My grandmother thought I was crazy and withdrew her offer to help us with my tuition. My mother didn't know what to make of it; she wasn't quite sure. Her fear was, of course, this was 1965 — the business would only let me get so far.
The flight attendant career that never was
I never thought I would give up. I got close only once. I had been auditioning and not having very much luck, but I auditioned for the American Shakespeare Theatre Company in Stratford, Connecticut. I hadn't heard from anybody, so I started applying for a job as a flight attendant, thinking maybe I can fly around the country and see the world. No sooner did I send out that application that my agent called and said I got the parts at Stratford. So there I was.
Birthplace: Harlem, New York
Current dramatic moment: Between the World and Me (HBO, Nov. 21, 8 p.m. ET)
Musical moment: A call for unity: Wake Up America
Hits to stream: The Politician, God Friended Me, Proof, Eureka, The Good Wife, Smallville
‘Scandal’ Gold: Won a 2014 Emmy as outstanding guest actor in a drama series as Rowan Pope on ABC’s Scandal — the first time he was ever nominated
A lifelong lucky streak
It has been sort of my luck to try something once and get noticed. Raisin [the 1973 musical adaptation of the play, A Raisin in the Sun] was not my first Broadway play, but it was my first Broadway lead, and I got a Tony nomination for that. To walk into Scandal — which was just this tremendous opportunity — when I was just nominated [for outstanding guest actor in a drama series], I thought, That's plenty. But to win it? That's extraordinary.
On playing Papa Pope
The beauty of that character is people didn't know whether they wanted to shoot him or hug him. One because of his relationship to his daughter, Olivia, that clearly he would do anything to protect her, even if protecting her got in the way of the Republic. She was his first charge — that's what made him such a wonderfully complicated character. He had all this stuff that he had to do, take charge of, in terms of the politics of the country, but at the same time, he had this very tough tenderness for his daughter.
The gift of a lake — and family — during the pandemic
We just moved out here [New Jersey] about a year and a half ago; we're on a lake. My youngest daughter and her boyfriend stayed with us from March through the beginning of July. That was time I thought I would not have had otherwise. We spent a lot of time on the lake, swimming, kayaking and canoeing. It made the quarantine so much more livable; we actually felt we didn't have to go out. We just went out the back, down the stairs to the dock, to hang out on the water.
Cooking together and a go-to recipe
I am a cook, and so is my youngest. She's actually a much better cook than I am. So, I'd cook one night, and she'd cook the next, and vice versa. We learned things from each other about cooking, which is terrific. One of the things I enjoy cooking is a vegetable tian — potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini cooked over a bed of onions and garlic, topped with cheese and olive oil. You bake it both covered and uncovered for about an hour. It's delicious.
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi. It's about race, where the idea about race came from before slavery came to this country, and how that developed. It's a huge tome.
Lots of movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe. Recently, I've been watching Bill Hurt play Captain Ahab in the 2011 miniseries Moby Dick. Then I watched the 1998 version with Patrick Stewart. I think Patrick Stewart is a wonderful actor, but I didn't particularly care for that rendition.
Discovering deeper meanings in roles during quarantine
The things I got to do during this quarantine were some really interesting projects, and it's got me hooked into looking for very particular kinds of things. I played James Comey in an audio version of Anne Washburn's play Shipwreck. I played Paul Robeson and James Baldwin in the Vineyard Theatre's virtual production of Lessons in Survival, and those materials just really struck a chord. I even played a doctor in a play about Typhoid Mary, and when I first read it I thought, Well, I kind of get it, but when I dove into it, it's so analogous to what's going on with COVID, that it was remarkable. I'm looking for things that are topical, kind of like Scandal, in a way, so that it's more than just entertainment.
New Year's wish
My biggest wish is that somehow we figure out how to make our way through the pandemic and that politically we find some way to unify.