On Saturday night at the Creative Arts Emmys, Scandal’s Joe Morton took home the award for Best Guest Actor in a Drama, and though he thanked his co-stars and the “genius — in capital letters, bold, underlined, with lots of exclamation points — of [creator] Shonda Rhimes” when accepting his gold statuette, anyone who’s seen his stellar performance as Rowan Pope (aka Papa Pope) knows his delivery has a lot to do with that win as well.
Still, Morton was just as quick to give credit to those behind the Scandal scripts when he sat down with BuzzFeed in Los Angeles earlier this month. “I don’t know of any actor in any television show that I have ever seen who’s given monologue after monologue in a television series,” he added with gratitude, acknowledging that he feels blessed to be given the honor of delivering the writers’ words.
Coming off of Syfy’s Eureka, on which he played an upstanding, brilliant scientist from 2006 until 2012, Morton was looking for a change. “I’ve played good guys for most of my career and was beginning to think it might be great to find some wonderful bad guy to play,” he said. Around the same time he began looking for a darker role, Morton heard about a new ABC show that had a black female character as its lead and began watching Season 1 of Scandal on Netflix.
As Morton was eyeing the series, those at Shondaland were also eyeing him. Just a few days after he finished streaming Season 1, Morton received a call from Scandal saying they’d love to speak with him about a role, which turned out to be that of Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) father, Rowan Pope. “I had a conversation with one of the producers and all he told me was that, if I decided to take the gig, the only thing that was going to happen that was of any importance was that, at the end of Season 2, the two very last lines of the show would be: ‘What are you doing here, dad?’” Morton recalled, noting that, just like his on-screen character, he kept that secret from the entire cast.
Rowan turned out to be exactly the change Morton was looking for and he had plenty of personal experience to draw from for the character’s backstory. “Rowan is partially based on my father. My father was a captain in the Army at a time when it was not an easy thing for a black man to be a captain in the Army. His job was to integrate bases. A lot of who Rowan is in that respect, in terms of the person who has to face people who don’t like him and has to tell people to do things they don’t want to do, that kind of intensity, I think that comes from my father,” Morton said. “But it’s also just who I am in terms of the materials I’ve been given and the things I have to say… What this show offered me in the long run was having my cake and eating it too. They understand what I wanted and literally sort of handed it to me.”
And Morton has taken that gift and cooked up unforgettable, distinct, and, at times, downright terrifying speeches. Below, the veteran actor walks BuzzFeed through some of Rowan’s most memorable Season 3 moments (Spoilers ahead!), including his personal favorites: trying to convince Olivia to get on the plane in the season opener, the “boy” speech to Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) while in chains in an unidentified basement, and the park bench monologue about the 183 lives he’s responsible for.
Episode 1, “It’s Handled”
“What’s wonderful about that speech is you now have a black man in the middle of this episode who’s espousing things that I heard from my parents when I was younger. So on one level, it’s a father talking to his daughter about I don’t like your choice of a boyfriend. On the other hand, it’s a man talking about kind of the state of black people in general in America, which that alone was surprising for a television series, especially a network series, especially a network television series that’s run by ABC that’s owned by Disney. So I thought, This is pretty wonderful that they’re allowing these kinds of things to be said. And for the character, of course, to end up with this wonderful line — ‘I am the hell and high water’ — is just wonderful drama and a great thing for an actor to have to figure out how to play.
There are five questions I ask myself no matter what it is I’m doing, whether it’s just regular dialogue or it’s a monologue like this or it’s Shakespeare or whatever it is. The five questions are: Who am I? Where am I going? Who do I expect to meet? What do I want? And what extent am I willing to go to get it? And I will apply those questions not only to a speech as a whole, but to almost every line and, in some cases, every word within that speech. Until I get answers to those things, I’m still sort of putting it all together. But those are the questions that people are asking themselves every day without thinking about it. So when you apply those questions to all these speeches, that’s where I start. Then you’re going through it and finding the truth by answering these questions to each line.
Where am I going?
I’m taking my daughter to the airplane hanger to get her to leave town.
Who am I going to meet?
No one in particular.
And what do I want?
I want her to disappear.
And how badly am I willing to do it?
I paid for the plane, I paid for the pilot, and I brought her to the airplane. Embodied in all that is what I’m saying to her to try to encourage her, if you will, to actually get on that plane and do what I’m asking her to do. Which I accomplish, for a moment.
You ask those kinds of questions over and over again until you come to a truth that seems to make sense for what it is you’re trying to say. Now what I don’t know, obviously, is what Kerry’s response to any of this is going to be and that will also color how I do what I do once we’re actually there on the set. For me, it is about deepening the scene, because maybe something will happen while we’re doing it that I hadn’t thought of when I was rehearsing it at home. Then I’ll sort of put that into the hopper and that becomes part of the scene. Maybe Kerry will do something that makes me respond in a way that I hadn’t thought of before. Maybe even where the director puts the camera or where the director wants me to stand begins to sort of motivate something else. All of that is going on as we go from take to take to take to take. But I never change the lines. This is Shonda Rhimes, you say it word for word.”
Episode 2, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
“That’s one of those wonderful surprises; the character thinks he’s got everything covered and he makes the stupid mistake of leaving the pen with a woman who is very smart. So, he makes an error and has to face that error when she comes to dinner and confronts him the following weekend. What’s great about that is dad’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and he has to deal with it and he doesn’t deal with it in the most pleasant way because he’s still Rowan. And in that scene, he says to her, ‘You have to talk to me in a particular way. You cannot ask questions that you’re not prepared to hear the answers to. So figure out what you want to eat and tell me about your day.’ And I knew going in, there was no way she was going to stay and have dinner, but that’s who Rowan is.”
Episode 6, “Icarus”
“Early on in the season, he talked about how he regretted the fact that he had not paid the kind of attention to her he should have when she was younger. I think, when these moments come up, it’s him deciding, I’m going to give you this because I didn’t give you what I should have when you were younger. There’s not a lot he can tell anybody, including Olivia, about what he does and how he does it. But I think it’s all about trying to make up for the things he wasn’t able to give her when she was a young child.
It’s just being a father. I have three children, two of them are daughters, so it’s that part of me that says, ‘All right, just talk to your daughter.’ A lot of the softer moments come out of my relationship with my children because there is that sense that you want to teach your children, as well as loving them. So you open certain doors and say, We can talk about this…but only for however long, in Rowan’s case. But I think it is about being a father.”
Episode 7, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie”
“That was fun because it’s coming out of a vacuum. I didn’t know really what our relationship was. I knew I’d kept Maya [Khandi Alexander] in prison for 20 years, so it wasn’t the best obviously. To give her that kind of hint, I’m trying to draw something out of her, information. So if I tell you that your daughter is interested in you, maybe she’ll soften, which she does. And then I’m also going to move her to another prison, so I’m not going to let her go. It’s just to get something.”
Episode 10, “A Door Marked Exit”
“The first image I had of that scene when I read it is a black man in chains, not wearing a suit or armor, if you will, sort of stripped down to his bare necessities, talking to a white, southern, Republican president of the United States. That alone is where you start. And from then on, suddenly this character is saying things that no other character on the show ever says. He’s talking not about politics; he’s talking about, I’m black. You’re white and you’re privileged. And here’s what I think about this particular privileged individual that happens to be the president of the United States and is sleeping with my daughter. I don’t like that as well and the way you talk about it with me makes me pissed off even more. All of those things together become what that speech becomes.
But mostly, I think what Fitz doesn’t understand is that I do know him better than he thinks I do, that there’s somebody always telling me, ‘This is what he did today.’ The image of a black man talking in that manner to a white, southern, Republican president, I think was remarkable. Rowan knows [about the affair]; that’s not news. I think all it does is put another log in the fire. Because, if you notice, Rowan never mentions it. He says, ‘If you think you can get a rise out of me by sleeping with my daughter, you have another thing coming because actually I am above your pay grade.’ He pushes it aside because what he really wants to do is take a metaphorical knife and put it into Fitz’s heart to make him feel as small as possible. And he does it even as he’s incarcerated.
I mean, the beauty of that was to do that speech and not be able to move anything about my body. I couldn’t move my hands, couldn’t move my legs, so it had to be he and I, eye to eye. Just from a dramatic point of view, it’s a wonderful scene to have to play. [Coming from a theatrical background] to be confined is perfect, because the only thing I have is looking at him, my voice, and my body.”
Episode 11, “Ride, Sally, Ride”
“I think everything that Rowan says, especially in those speeches, is exactly what he plans on doing. And so, at that point, he’s begun to put into motion everything that happens at the end of Season 3. Basically, what he’s saying is, ‘If you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire, get out of the way.’ When he says, ‘I know where the bodies are buried,’ he means exactly that. He knows what everybody has done and whether they are literal bodies or metaphorical bodies, he knows where all the terrible things are and have been hidden.”
Episode 14, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”
“I love the ‘boy’ speech, but among all the speeches, this is probably one of my favorites simply because it starts off by talking about who he is. What I’m saying is, ‘In order for me to talk about who I think you are, you have to understand who I am.’ And she just sat down and said all the people that she loves are monsters, and what’s the point in trying to do something right? He begins to lay out all of the things he’s done in his career as this Command and then, he goes to the next section and says, ‘Now that you understand that, you have to understand what Jake’s position is before you begin to rail at him.’ And finally, there is a point: 1) Everyone is worth saving, and 2) You, my daughter, are the light of the world in my eyes, which is really as close as he ever gets to being a father by absolutely saying, ‘I’ve always thought that the point was you’.
That particular arc in that speech I just thought was miraculous because it starts off in a place where you wouldn’t expect it to end up where it does. The two things he wants to protect are Olivia and the Republic, and he has to figure out how to do both of those things, which sometimes conflict, without hurting one or the other.
By the end of Season 3, Olivia basically gets everything she wants and so do I. It’s the first time you hear him confess, if you will, to Olivia, This is what I do and this is what I’m responsible for. He sort of takes the onus off of Jake by saying, ‘So that’s how you have to think about him,’ and finally says, ‘The point of all this is that, 1) Everyone is worth saving. 2) You.’”
Episode 15, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
“It was, in some ways, a reiteration of what I had already said to Olivia about what the job is. For me, I’m sure Scott [Foley] will disagree, the scene sort of emphasized that Jake was not ready for this job, that there was a kind of strength that he does not occupy, if you will, for this job because he came looking for something and tried to disguise it as a threat. I think that thought pays off because later on, he says to Olivia, ‘Remember I asked you to save me and you said no.’ I think he’s feeling like he can do the job, even though he doesn’t like the job. The difference is Rowan created the job and loves the job.”
Episode 16, “The Fluffer”
“I say to Olivia before Jake shows up, ‘I want to put down a mangy dog, not because I hate it, but because I love it.’ He’s in the process of putting it back together; we don’t know that at the moment, but he’s in the process of making whatever eliminations he needs to make in order to hopefully occupy Command again on his own. But I think he’s also thinking, If that doesn’t work, I’ll destroy it.”
Episode 16, “The Fluffer”
“What’s wonderful about that is I kept thinking about what Olivia must be feeling to see her parents literally with knives in their hands, ready to attack one another. Those were steak knives! So to sit on the other end of the table and watch your parents literally glare at one another with knives in their hands, I felt badly for her. I want to protect Olivia. I want to let Maya know she’s not going to get away with anything. I say to her, ‘I have a long memory for things.’ This is someone I need to recapture or kill. But it is about, again, protecting my daughter.
I was just going off each episode. I didn’t know whether Maya was the monster or I was the monster.”
Episode 17, “Flesh and Blood”
“This is the guy who talked my wife into marrying me so that she could get information. I don’t like this guy at all. I think the moment he pulls him into that office, he knows he’s going to kill him. This guy is not going to walk out of that office at all. The Russian roulette is to get any information he can, but he’s going to die. It’s why I almost play it casually. And then, boom, it’s over. For Rowan to kill Dominic [Sebastian Roché], you just know that’s what has to happen.
I’ve never killed anybody! But I think when you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. We did all that interrogating. He wasn’t going to answer… he wasn’t going to answer. And then, I push everyone out and I kill him. For Rowan, that’s who I am at that moment. I think I even came home and said, ‘I killed someone today.’ It was a little, not rattling, just odd and interesting in understanding what that might mean for somebody to literally take a life and take a life out of revenge. It didn’t occur to me until after the scene was over that I thought, Oh, that’s odd. But during the scene, it made all the sense in the world.”
Episode 18, “The Price of Free and Fair Election”
“What was great about reading that was, we don’t know from episode to episode what is going to happen. The only thing I can base what I do on is what I’ve already done or what I’ve already said. That’s what I know. It was, as an actor, a wonderful surprise that, Oh, you manipulated all this and got everything you wanted. So I thought, Oh, good. Everything I’ve said so far has made sense.
As far as Columbus [Short (Harrison)] is concerned, I don’t know what they would have done had his oust from the show not happened. Maybe he would have ended up in the Hole. I have no idea. There probably is more than one Hole. He knows there will be repercussions, obviously.
If Olivia stays wherever she and Jake have gone, it will take people a long time to figure out how the president’s son died and all those things. If she comes back, then he knows her well enough that she will probably get involved and probably start digging around and things will be revealed. What I don’t know is whether I’m aware of the fact that Jake gave all those files to David [Joshua Malina]. If I do know that, then there is a game he must be playing in order to figure out how to deal with all that. If I don’t know all that, then it’s going to be a surprise for Rowan.”