The ABC series Scandal, known for its big jaw-dropping moments that you never see coming, is currently in its sixth season, and it’s more successful than ever. Equal parts human drama and political thriller, it’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) that’s always at the center, whether it involves her family, her employees, or getting her pick for President into the White House.
During this recent 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Joe Morton (who gives one of the most compelling performances on TV as Rowan Pope, Olivia’s often dastardly father) talked about why he wanted to play a character like this, how being a part of Scandal is an enormous gift, why people love to hate but still root for his character, the possibilities of what’s to come for Papa Pope, why Olivia will always be his Achilles’ heel, how fun the verbal showdowns are that he shares with Kerry Washington, and how much he enjoys getting to withhold the show’s secrets.
Collider: You’ve played quite a few characters on quite a few different TV shows, in your career, and one of my personal favorites happens to be in the Syfy series Eureka. Where does Rowan Pope rank for you, personally? Is he someone that you’ve especially enjoyed getting to play?
JOE MORTON: Yeah, he is. Most of my career, I purposely spent doing good guys. When I came out to L.A., four years ago, for pilot season, I was looking for a very smart bad guy and this literally dropped into my lap. I hadn’t seen the show yet. I watched it on Netflix. I wanted to find a way to figure out how to get on the show for a couple of episodes because it was just really great. And before I could even talk to my agent or manager about it, I got a call from them saying, “ABC wants to talk to you about coming onto Scandal.” So, all of this was just an enormous gift.
This is one of those characters that people love to hate because he’s just so delightfully evil. When did you realize that this would be a character that would be so much more than just a bad guy?
MORTON: I think it was the beginning of Season 3 when I began to think about it that way. When Shonda [Rhimes] had written that wonderful monologue with, “ I am the hell and the high water,” it really cemented his sense of who he is, his sense of power and his relationship with his daughter. At the same time, it gave a real understanding of where his villainy comes from. Once all of those things were established, I thought, “Oh, I see. This is who this guy really is.” The only thing we know about the character, when we sit down at the table read, is what that character has done in the past. For me, at the beginning of Season 3, all I knew was the set-up for all these different things with Cyrus and Jake, in terms of getting things done, but that’s really all I had to go on. So, when that monologue happened, I knew who he really was. In terms of how he goes about doing things, that began to unfold and I realized not only how he does things, but why he does things, who he is and what he wants. The important part is figuring out what he wants.
Nobody does monologues like you do monologues, which is probably why you’ve become known as the Monologue King. A lot of that has to do with the material you’re given, but does that sort of thing come easily when the words are so good, or is that always a challenge?
MORTON: It makes it easier that the words are so good, that’s for sure. What I hope to bring to it is to figure out, within each monologue, what Rowan, or Eli, wants and to what extent he’s willing to go to get what he wants.
This guy has done so many dastardly things, but you’re just so compelling to watch that I want him to keep doing them, so that he sticks around for as long as possible, even though his presence usually means something really bad is going to happen. When you play someone who commits some of the most heinous acts on television and who says some pretty horrendous things to his own daughter, even though they’re typically very true, has there ever been anything on the show that you’ve been concerned about pulling off convincingly?
MORTON: Not really. One of the beauties of working in Shondaland is that they make an effort to get to know who you are, so they’re not giving you something that’s going to be so far out of your comfort zone. Shonda and the writers will stretch us, but not stretch us so far, in any one particular moment. The writers are terrific, and they spend an awful lot of time doing an awful lot of research, in terms of whatever particular theme or topic of each show is, or the details within each show. I’m sure you’ve heard this from all of us, but it really is a dream job. And I not only hear that from the actors, but I also hear from the crew that they enjoy what they get to watch, what they get to shoot, what they get to light, etc. It’s surprising and fun for everybody.
What can you say to tease what’s to come for Papa Pope, at least in the immediate future?
MORTON: You have a collection of individuals here who, at certain points in time, have all been involved with a lot of power, and it’s all being shattered by another force, making them, to some extent, begin to devour one another, or there MIGHT be a common enemy and there MIGHT be a common cause to come together to get rid of that enemy. That means, once that enemy is gone and gotten rid of, then they can go back to who they are with one another. Those are the possibilities that I see. What’s actually going to happen, I don’t know.
Is there an ideal plan for Rowan Pope and his daughter, or is that something that is always shifting?
MORTON: I think it’s always shifting. If he were able to get her into the White House, I don’t think it would end there. Then, he has to figure out a way to keep her there, at least for years. It would be a constant battle. And then, maybe he could think about what comes next. He’s like a General, who is just always a General. If you’ve been on top of the food chain in the Armed Forces, that’s who you are. You’re used to dealing with your life in a particular way. Remember that old movie, The Great Santini? I think that’s who Rowan is, in some ways. Even when the battle is over, he has to find something else.
You know that it’s a scary day, when Olivia Pope voluntarily goes to her father for help or advice. Do you think he waits for and relishes in those moments, when she goes to him?
MORTON: I think so, but I think he does it in the same way that any other father does. When you give your children certain life lessons, and they come and ask you for additional advice, you say to yourself, “I’ve done my job,” and you’ll continue to do your job. You’ll notice that Olivia’s language, in terms of what she says about herself and how she talks to other people, has become very much like Rowan’s language to her. From a father’s point of view, he couldn’t ask for anything more.
In what ways is Papa Pope most proud of his daughter, and how is he most disappointed in her?
MORTON: I think he’s disappointed when she backs away from certain advantages that she finds herself in. That’s when he’s the most disappointed. For the most part, he is always proud of her because she has goals, and he can help her fulfill those goals. I think that’s part of the reason why the audience even likes him. He may be nefarious, but they see that he loves his daughter.