Joe Morton is one of the most polished and pleasant people you’ll ever have a conversation with, yet he manages to naturally fall into character every week on Scandal and pull off, quite possibly, the greatest villain in TV history, Eli Pope.
Talk about range.
“The thing about being an actor is that you want to come home and be you,” Morton said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to come home and be Eli; I’d be too tired to be Eli! It would be lovely, at some point in my career, if people felt that Eli was the greatest villain.”
We caught up with the Emmy award-winning actor to chop-it-up about everything from where his character Eli “Papa” Pope’s darkness began to his worst football injury to why his TV daughter Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) should “absolutely” seize control of the oval once and for all and run for President on the show.
Jason Jordan: I always like to gauge the sports backgrounds and experiences of all of my guests on the Celeb Chop-Up; what sports did you try coming up?
Joe Morton: When I was a kid I played little league and when I was older I played football in middle school and then in high school I was on the swim team for a while.
JJ: Which was your best sport?
JM: I’d say football.
JJ: Give me your shining moment?
JM: (Laughs) I don’t think I had a shining moment as a football player. Mostly because we were in a scrimmage and I was at split end and got tackled. So then everyone jumps on top of the pile and I released the ball and put my arm up and someone jumped on my wrist and I broke it. That was it for the season. That was my “shining” moment.
JJ: Ooh steep. Your character Eli Pope is very dark, I’m curious about whether that could potentially be rooted in being jilted at the alter by Whitley Gilbert (A Different World) when he was Senator Byron Douglas III? Names change when you’re the leader of B613 ya know!
JM: (Laughs) Oh wow! No, no… It’s certainly an interesting idea though. Byron was much too likable and gentle and fell in love with Whitley. I think Eli started getting very dark when he found out his wife only married him to get information.
JJ: Rumor has it there may be a B613 spinoff?
JM: Yeah that’s been a rumor for a while; at one time, Shonda (Rhimes) was actually talking about, but she hasn’t talked about it in a while. It’d be really nice; we’ll have to wait and see.
JJ: What kind of President would Eli Pope be?
JM: You know what I don’t even think he would want to be President; as the leader of B613 he was actually above the President’s pay grade and had more information. That’s what he enjoys, working from the shadows. You can’t do as much when you’re in the spotlight.
JJ: Should Olivia Pope run for President?
JM: Oh absolutely! It would be a great idea, but will she? Probably not.
JJ: Is Eli Pope the greatest villain in TV history?
JM: Well, that wouldn’t be for me to decide. It would be lovely at some point in my career if people felt that he was the greatest villain, but, again, we’ll have to leave it up to them.
JJ: Right now it’s either Eli Pope of Gemma Teller from Sons of Anarchy.
JM: Hmm… Not Frank from House of Cards.
JJ: He’s up there. Definitely top five. What was your worst pre-fame job?
JM: When I was in high school I worked in a cleaners. When I left college I had a job with Verve Records standing by a table and putting boxes inside of boxes. I remember this guy said to me one time how great the job was and I actually quit the next day.
JJ: What movie absolutely deserves another installment?
JM: It would be interesting to do a sequel or maybe a prequel for Lawrence of Arabia.
JJ: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
JM: At the moment it’s Donald Trump.
JJ: When you see yellow traffic lights what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
JM: (Laughs) It always reminds me of the movie Starman where this woman is teaching this alien how to drive and she wakes up as he’s going through a yellow light and says, “I thought you told me you knew how to drive?” Then the alien says, “Red means stop, green means go and yellow means go faster.”
JJ: What current fad would you love to see die-off?
JM: Hmm, I’m not even sure what the current fads are… Well, maybe, generally speaking, it would be interesting if people learned to converse with one another without going to their phones and devices. We were on set the other day and I looked over once and the whole camera crew were on their phones. Also, our young, black men wearing their pants around their ankles; that really bothers me because it’s a fad that came from prison. To emulate being in prison is never a good psyche for anybody.
JJ: You have to pick one: 12 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson in his prime or five rounds in the octagon with Anderson Silva in his prime?
JM: So it’s a choice of who I want to be killed by? I think I’d go with the five rounds because it would be over quicker.
JJ: What random fact can you just tell me right now?
JM: Alabama’s Bear Bryant got his name because he wrestled a bear when he was 13 years old.
JJ: Nice! If you could’ve been a fly on the wall for any past historic event which would you pick?
JM: I’d want to be there when President Obama had to decide to go after Osama Bin Laden, I would’ve been there at any point to hear conversations between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver because their politics were so different. Then I’d be there at any point to listen to what Donald Trump has to say whenever he’s not at the podium.
JJ: All good picks! OK, we’ve got season finale of Scandal coming up, talk about what fans can expect down the stretch and everything else you have coming up.
JM: As far as the end of the season, we’re paralleling what’s going on in the election because it’s an election year, obviously. My guess is we’ll pick up in the fall, which would take us right into the election. Other things that I’m involved in, I’ll be doing a play in New York this spring called Turn Me Loose. It’s a one-man play about Dick Gregory. He’s a brilliant comedian who was way ahead of his time and broke the color lines in terms of comedians on TV. He was also the first black comedian to start talking about, not only race, but also politics in general. The conflict in the play is that you have this man who goes from being poor to enormously wealthy and it’s at the same moment that the Civil Rights movement is getting more and more heated. Medgar Evers, who became his closest friend, started inviting him to the south to become part of the movement. Dick’s conflict is whether he wants to become an activist or remain a wealthy comedian.
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