Joe Morton remembers, “For us as children, it was our own private house of horrors.” He continues, “The showers were still there, the ovens were still there, there’s a huge field that obviously they brought the holocaust victims onto so they could get air that was just miserable. We would go and we would play around them as if they were something out of Halloween.” An only child to an army intelligence officer and a secretary, the veteran actor lived for several years in West Germany as a child. He saw firsthand the detritus of the Holocaust while living in Dachau. It is the location of the first and one of the most infamous, of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps; it too named Dachau. Too young to grasp the implications, little Joe Morton and his friends innocently played amidst the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of Hitler’s victims.
Morton, who is currently doing double duty with both his role on Scandal and the play Turn Me Loose at LA’s Wallis Annenberg Center, says his father was charged with a daunting task. “My dad’s job was to integrate the armed forces overseas.” He explains. It took the family to disparate parts of the globe. Now most commonly known for his role as Eli “I am the hell and the high water” Pope on Shonda Rhimes’ long-running nighttime drama, Morton recalls the toll his father’s job took on the family. “This was the early fifties and the individuals in the army did not want the army to be integrated so we went through a lot of stuff. We showed up unannounced and once that happened in almost every case, the shit would hit the fan and all kinds of stuff would start to happen and then we would spend like two and a half, three years battling that all the time.”
It was stressful, he says. “To say the least. The impact on us is that you come close to self-destruction. You’re so frustrated by what’s going on outside of you that you begin to turn in on those closest to you and take it out on them. It got pretty crazy at times.”
Complex family dynamics mark not only his TV role as “Papa Pope,” as fans refer to the character, but also one of his most high profile film roles to date as scientist Silas Stone in the DCEU Justice League franchise of films. Dr. Silas Stone is of course, Cyborg’s father times two. First as his biological father, and also as the person who used his scientific skill and knowledge to rebuild his son Victor as the metahuman Cyborg after a horrific accident. Opening November 17th, the next Justice League installation promises more explosive dissension and resentment from Cyborg toward his father Silas.
Morton observes, “Unlike the other superheroes in Justice League, Cyborg can’t hide his identity. He is who he is 24/7. He’s not Batman who becomes Bruce Wayne or Superman who becomes Clark Kent or whatever. Cyborg is simply Cyborg. So Justice League is sort of the bars and spikes that are between Victor and Silas because Victor is not really happy with who he is or who his father has made him to be I should say. You will see father and son conflict.”
Black actors don’t often get cast as scientists. Morton has managed to do this several times over. Even in his current role on Scandal when not manipulating the lives everyone on the planet through the shadowy yet lethal B613 organization, Eli Pope is a sweater vest wearing, dinosaur fossil obsessed archaeologist. Incredibly, it all began with a joke Morton told director James Cameron back in the early nineties. He recalls, “He asked me why did I want to do the character Miles Dyson and I said it was because of a joke Richard Pryor told.” Intrigued, Cameron took the bait. “He asked what was that and I said ‘Well Richard used to say the reason black folks either die off in the beginning or are not in sci-fi movies, is because Hollywood doesn’t think we’re gonna be here in the future.” Morton believes the joke gave Cameron some food for thought and convinced him Morton was the one to play research scientist Miles Dyson in the blockbuster Terminator 2.
Morton’s resume is dotted with Hollywood tentpole projects like Terminator 2, Speed, and Justice League. At this point in his stellar career, no jokes are needed. Morton’s body of work and reputation speaks for itself. For the Justice League films, director Zack Snyder reached out to him unexpectedly. “It was one of those miraculous things.” Morton explains, “I was on the East Coast driving to the grocery store and my manager called and said Zack Snyder called and wants to talk to you about doing this role. So I pulled over and had a conversation with Zack Snyder. He never revealed why he wanted me for the part, I was just very grateful that he did.”
For Morton who was originally a stage actor, a lot of the appeal of high action comic book-based films are the outsize personas of the superhero characters. Superhero films, he enthuses, “Are great for a lot of reasons. They are serious in terms of the drama that they envelop. They’re also a lot of fun because you’re dealing with characters with wonderful personalities like The Flash and Batman and Superman, and Wonder Woman. It’s terrific. The other side is that directors like Zack Snyder are amazing. He is someone who can handle all of the money and all of the size of these kinds of movies and still maintain a kind of boyish attitude and make it very easy on the set, very collaborative. I really enjoyed it.”
The stage has not lost any of its allure for Morton. He is currently playing the late comedic genius and social activist Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose at the Wallis Annenberg theater in Los Angeles. The similarities between himself and Gregory were obvious to Morton’s manager when he heard about the play. His manager brokered a meeting between the actor and the play’s writer and director. “We sat and we talked about Dick Gregory and about the play. We had a read through. It was a love fest and they offered me the role so we’ve been working together for the last three years.”
Besides Morton who plays Gregory, there is one other actor in the show and he plays a variety of characters. Morton played the same role off-Broadway last year and was touched by the reception it received. “The impact on the audience was amazing. It was powerful.” In conversation, Morton reveals a deep knowledge of American history, concern for justice and desire for the healing of the fissures in American society. Reproach punctuating his tone, he is insistent that America must come to terms with its hypocritical beginnings. “When you start off a Declaration of Independence and a Bill of Rights that say all men are created equal but you have slaves then you’ve already made a mistake. The fact that because of the fifteenth amendment men actually had the right to vote before white women or that if you had money and you owned land, you should be the only one allowed to vote and run the country means there is a problem in the system even before any of those things was signed.”
Turn Me Loose, like Gregory himself, pulls no punches. The play examines all of the above-mentioned issues. “Dick Gregory was so prescient in what he was saying 45 years ago.” Morton marvels, “We are still dealing with those same things today: racism, corporate greed, bad health, the economy. All those things are represented in the play and what he had to say about those things is just as relevant today as they were 45 years ago which is both our strength and our sadness.”
Justice League opens November 17.
Turn Me Loose runs through November 19 at the Wallis Annenberg Theater in Los Angeles.
Scandal, now in its final season, airs on ABC Thursday nights at 9 p.m. and on digital platforms beginning Friday mornings at 5 a.m.