After snagging an Emmy last year for his performance as Rowan Pope AKA Eli Pope in ABC’s Scandal, Joe Morton hasn’t slowed his roll. His portrayal of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)’s duplicitous father dominated last season, culminating in his imprisonment at his daughter’s hand. Of playing TV’s favorite “bad dad,” Morton says, “I read something the other day that said I was the worst parent on television.” In TNT’s new show Proof, which premiered this week, Morton plays Dr. Charles Russell opposite Jennifer Beals. He says of this latest project, “It’s a whole other world and it’s beautifully shot.”
Has winning an Emmy last year taken the pressure off this year?
I mean, you know, it’s like anything else. If you do it well, then you feel as if what you have to do to follow up is to try to do better. What I think I did was pretty good last year, so whatever was going to get thrown at me this year, I was hoping to do even better.
Success adds pressure for you?
Absolutely. I’m a real tennis fan, so I’ve been watching people like Serena and Federer and even Nadal, and especially for Nadal this year, the pressure is enormous on him. He’s won it ten years. Out of ten years I think he’s only lost it one time, and so, every time he plays, the pressure gets higher and higher and higher. I think it’s true for all of us, if you find yourself doing really well at something, then the pressure is on you to try to improve.
When you first got the role on Scandal, what appealed to you right out of the gate?
It was that I had to keep a secret. That secret was that I was going to be revealed at the end of season two, in the very two last lines of the episode, as Olivia’s father, so that was the appeal. Because I’d been watching the show, and I thought, “oh my god, you can’t have a better entrance than that,” and that was where we started.
You’d enjoyed the show before joining the cast?
Yes, I just loved what I saw. I loved the way it was written, the way it was directed. Jeff Perry I just thought was amazing in the show. I just loved everything about it. I simply thought to myself, “I wonder if there’s a way I can get on the show?” But before I had an opportunity to talk to my agents or my manager about it, they actually called me and said, “we got a call from Scandal. They’re interested in you coming on the show.”
Rowan/ Eli Pope has evolved from a sympathetic character to a true ‘bad guy’–how has that experience been for you?
“Well, I think he’s become more frustrated with his relationship with Olivia. It may be what you felt was sympathetic was that there was a real desire to have a real relationship with his daughter. Over time it’s become clearly more and more adversarial. She’s trying to kill me and she believes I’m trying to kill her. It’s a terrible thing if the only way your child knows that you love them is if you don’t kill them. I think that’s kind of where it started that I think he’s gotten darker and darker because he’s unable to reach her in the way that he would like to.
What would you say is unique about working with Shonda Rhimes?
Well, she’s an amazing writer, and to help craft the kinds of monologues and the kinds of stories that she puts together–it’s very courageous. The one-off (episode of Scandal) that she did in terms of the kind of Ferguson story called The Lawn Chair where Courtney Vance is sitting over his dead son’s body in a lawn chair after his son has supposedly been shot by a policeman. It was an amazing story. Then the story that she did about abusive women in the military. The things that are woven through those stories I think are terrific, and I think things that an audience doesn’t expect necessarily to see in a show like this. So, working with her is a real honor. It’s a real treat. I give her all kinds of kudos, and look what’s she’s been able to accomplish. I mean, she owns Thursday night from nine to eleven.
Is there a particular episode you’re most proud of from this past season?
The one where Olivia picks up the gun is one. But the other one, where we have dinner and I tell her, “if you think the world is so terrible with me in it, imagine what it’ll be without me.” I think that scene just sort of moves towards her and lets her know that he feels he’s been forsaken.
At the end of last season, you were in jail–any ideas how are you going get out of that?
I haven’t the faintest idea. I mean, we don’t know. Shonda doesn’t let us know until we actually sit down at a table read. So, we really don’t know. There’s no kind of, “here’s what we’re going to be doing next season” kind of thing. On the surface, it looks like given who Rowan / Eli is, to be in jail for extortion or for embezzlement seems like something that might be easy for him to get out of, but we’ll see. Who knows what will come out of the mind of Shonda Rhimes.
You’re working on Proof right now–it’s quite a departure from your Scandal role.
Yes. I’m playing a brain surgeon as opposed to a killer, and secondly, I think would be the idea of the series, which is to prove whether or not there’s life after death. Obviously, you know, is a whole other kind of area of investigation. It’s a whole other world and it’s beautifully shot. I mean, I just think that what Alex Graves did is gorgeous, and that the storylines that Rob Bragin has put together are just gorgeous. So, it’s a whole other world and a very different look at things.
You were in an episode of Grace and Frankie. How much fun was it working with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin?
It was great from the costume fitting all the way to whatever the last lines I spoke before I had to leave. It was wonderful. I couldn’t have played a character further away from Rowan, and then on top of it to be able to work with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda was just a real treat. It’s one of those things I hope will happen again.