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December 2003
PAYCHECK: An Interview with Joe Morton

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

PAYCHECK: An Interview with Joe Morton

I've always felt that if you are an actor and want to last long in this business for a long time, then it would be better at some point to up roles as a character actor. It may not be lead roles, but you get to steal scenes and who knows where your career goes from there. Joe Morton has been a character actor for over twenty years in this business. You may not remember his name, buy you certainly remember his face. With the exception of his lead role in "The Brother from Another Planet", Joe has played believable characters for most of his films such as Terminator 2: Judgment, Speed 2, and Lone Star. In his latest film, Paycheck, Joe plays a government officer bringing in Ben Affleck's character for questions after some business moves are deemed criminal. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Joe talks about his role in the film and lasting in this industry as a character actor.

WM: What led you to take this role?

JM: Well, a couple of things. One, I had never worked with John Woo before and I wanted to see what that was like, and two, Ben Affleck is a friend, so it would be fun to work with him again. And three, I'm sort of intrigue by the issue of intellectual properties and the whole idea of time travel or the ability to see in the future.

WM: You seemed to have done a number of high tech roles over the years. Do you have a preference for that?

JM: Because of "Terminator 2", you get not pigeonholed, but circled as one of those guys who can understand their way through a movie like that and hold it down. I think the thing is with a movie that has this much science fiction in it; you need characters who are more science fact, if you know what I mean, than they are human. The FBI agents and the Paul Giamatti character fulfilled that function in the film and that's why I get cast. I think people believe that I give ant aura of someone who has both feet on the ground. Someone who's very solid and very human and so it helps balance the movie.

WM: How was working with Ben Affleck?

JM: Well, a couple of things. One, I had never worked with John Woo before and I wanted to see what that was like, and two, Ben Affleck is a friend, so it would be fun to work with him again. And three, I'm sort of intrigue by the issue of intellectual properties and the whole idea of time travel or the ability to see in the future.

WM: How do you feel when people just remember you from "The Brother from Another Planet"?

JM: I loved that movie. That's still to me one of my favorite films. The interesting thing about that film is that it talks about a lot of issues that I think need to be talked about. I think it talks about the fact that there are black people in the world who have tremendous amount of talents and have no channel through which they can those talents. I think it talks about a real kind of imbalance in terms of a justice system. I think it talks about that there needs to be some proactive attack against drugs infiltrating our culture. For lots of reasons as well as the humor in that movie, I loved that film.

WM: 2004 will be the 20th Anniversary of that film's release. Are there any special plans with the DVD of the film?

JM: The DVD has already been made and I believe it's available in your local video store. It came out last summer.

WM: As mentioned earlier, your roles seem to bring credibility to a film, like in this film and the one you played in "Speed". Is that what you look for deciding to do a film?

JM: Yes, I would love to play one of the leads in one these movies and have all those challenges and deal with all those complications, but the business being what it is, there is a slot for me in these kinds of films, so I enjoy them, and I enjoy the people that I work with. You get to work with incredible directors like a John Woo and James Cameron, so it's certainly not anything I'm going to complain about. If someone wants to give me the lead in anyone of those films, and deal with those other complications, terrific, I'm ready for them.

WM: With most of your roles, you normally play one of the good guys. Do you ever consider playing the heavy or the villain?

JM: I would love to play the villain, but again, it sort of what happens in this industry. When I started off many years ago, I made a determination that there were certain roles I didn't want to play. I started acting in the late 60s and at that point, most of the roles that were available for African Americans actors were "bogeymen" of the world such as the drug dealers, the pimps, and the hoodlums. I just thought that we need more diversity within that context; and so I thought somebody's going to get those roles. It just doesn't have to be me. So I started of trying to play as many different African American men as I could play without having to play the bad guy, unless of course, there was some really reason that the bad guy existed, not simply to be a bogeyman and jump out that end of the shadows and shoot somebody or to be use as a large threat against another culture. So I think that's what's been attached to who I am and what I do. So if someone's looking for a good guy, they call me; and as far as that goes, I think it's great that young people can go to the movies and see what I do and say, "Good. There's a guy who's not the villain and he looks like me."

WM: Is there a dream role that you haven't played yet?

JM: I haven't had much of a dream role, but I think my dream at this point is to get certain projects either on the screen or on the stage and they have to do with things like "The Invisible Man", which I now have the rights to, to do as a play as well as "The autobiography of a ex-con man". There are lots of stories about my culture that I think bring a whole other perspective to who we are and where we have been and how we got here that I think need to be done. So, at the moment, that's the dream that I'm holding on to.

WM: What do you think you need to do to make your dream come true?

JM: As I said, I have the rights to "The Invisible Man", which for many, many years was unavailable. So, that's changed. It's like any other dream, everyone takes out their hammer and chisel and go after that rock until finally somebody finishes it. If it's not me, then it will be the person behind me, but we will keep going at it until finally we get to where we want to be.

WM: Joe, in the early days of your career, who were some of your role models?

JM: Everybody from the Al Pacinos and Dustin Hoffmans of the world to Harry Belafonte. When I became aware of him as an actor, I was awestruck by what he was able to do, and Sidney Poitier. For a while, I used to say that I belong to the school of acting that these guys were a part of because these guys would play lead roles as if there were character actors, and those were the actors I most admired.

WM: You happen to be in a class of actors who can do TV, film, or theatre without it being a big deal. Denzel, hasn't done theatre in year, so if he were to do theatre or appear on a TV program, it would be highlighted as a big thing. Which of the three is most appealing to you and why?

JM: The reason I can move from one to the other is because they offer different discipline. Basically, the actor's job is to pay attention to the script. That's what you are serving and to deal with the character. With my background, I came out of the theater. I came into the industry at a time when there weren't a lot of choices to what you could do. Part of the decision I made was to move very fluidly from one medium to the other, and so it has stayed as part of who I am. I don't know if I have a preference. I love doing movies but I loved doing theatre just as much. I don't do theatre as much anymore because of the time it takes and it can't always pay me what I need to be paid at that particular time. Television has been really good to me in terms of the roles I've been able to get on TV as opposed to the roles I've gotten in film and in theater. I supposed what I loved to do is move back and forth between the three of them.

WM: Where did you begin your acting career?

JM: Well, I started off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island and started doing theater in Manhattan in 1969.

WM: What's the difference of between the style of production in "Paycheck" and "Terminator 2", which you did years ago?

JM: It's funny, but if you are going to compare both films, it's interesting. James Cameron has always been way ahead of the curve in terms of the use of technology in his movies. If you look at the big atomic explosion in this film, then think about what James did in T2. There isn't a big difference that I can see. There's a difference in technique between John Woo and James Cameron in terms of how they approach their shooting. John has a trademark with the face to face gun-pointing scene. In terms of the special effects, as far as I can see, they seem fairly similar to me.

WM: What are you working on next?

JM: I'm going down to Australia to work on another big action movie, a sci-fi film called "Stealth". Rob Cohen is the director and we start that in the middle of January. Without giving anything away, it's about a man who creates a technologically superior flying machine that comes off an aircraft carrier. This machine, like the cyborg in T2, has the ability to learn about everything, in terms of, not only technology and skill, but also it seems to have the ability to understand something about emotion and nuance; and eventually gets us into some trouble.

WM: What would you say to an actor who wants be around as long as you have been in this business and sustain quality work?

JM: The advice that I usually give to young actors is that if you can create a character for the stage and keep that character fresh for at least 6 months that means you're doing the show eight times a week. If you can do that for six months for any period of time, then you can do anything. Film and television is just a different technique in terms of how to approach the camera but basically the job is the same; but what you learn as a craft in theater, you can then learn to translate that into any mediums. That's what gives most actors longevity. Unfortunately, most actors want to play off their own personal mystique and good looks and whatever, but that will only carry you but so far. If there's no craft there, then once the looks go, there goes your career. If you have the skill, then you can move as you age. It's like a good bottle of wine, the longer it hangs around, the better it taste.


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