Papa Pope! ‘Scandal’ Star Speaks

Photo: Benjo Arwas

If you watch “Scandal,” then you for damn sure know who “Papa Pope” is. The conniving, slick-talking king of clapbacks and treachery is nothing to play with. But “Papa Pope” is simply one of many characters portrayed by veteran actor Joe Morton during his more than 40-year career.

Before the days of B613, there was “A Different World.” Matter of fact, before that famed wedding interruption that left Morton’s character, “Byron” without his “Whitley,” there was “Sanford and Son,” “Miami Vice,” and “What’s Happenin.'”

In this JET exclusive, the Harlem-bred army brat talks about his humble beginnings and sheds light on “Papa Pope’s” character development this season.

JET: So how did you get into acting? Were you one of those kids who knew what you wanted to do at an early age?

Joe Morton: Not really. When I was a kid, I thought I was going to follow my father’s footsteps. I thought I was going to go into the military. As a matter of fact, I even applied to the United States Air Force Academy because I thought I wanted to be a pilot. Two things happened: One: I did go to a military school for about three years when we came back from Germany. Right before I graduated high school, I went back into that same military school because there was an air force base across the street from it to take a physical for the Air Force Academy only to find out that I needed to wear glasses and that meant I couldn’t be a pilot. I could be a navigator, but I couldn’t be a pilot in a high altitude plane, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Two: My father died when I was ten and so I guess I thought I was trying to fulfill his wishes after he died and then when I didn’t get into the academy, I thought, “What do I really want to do?” And I liked psychiatry. So I attended Hofstra University as a psych major. The first day of class they took us to a theater to show us a skit of what our first year would be like. When the skit was over, I literally could not get up out of my seat. I sat there looking at the stage, looking at the work lights on the stage and thinking to myself, “You know, I like the stage.” I thought, “Maybe I could be an actor.” I got up out of my seat and walked to the administrator’s office and changed all of my major from psychology to drama.

JET: Wow. My first time being exposed to you was in A Different World. You know that famed wedding scene? If shows like that still existed, do you think today’s generation would be different? 

Joe Morton: Well, we’ve never really had Black TV. What we had for a long time was a bunch of Black comedies. That was the only thing that was available for Black actors on television. What was different about A Different World was that it was just that. It was a world in which you actually got to see Black and brown college students dealing with everyday life, even though it was a comedy and a love story. It still was another breed of comedy and The Cosby Show did the same thing. We had an upper middle class family and you watch them sort of bring up their kids. Those two shows in particular were very different than what was out there. What was out there at the time in my opinion, was buffoonery. Whether it be Black or white.

All in the Family I loved because of what it did. It was talking about something. It was talking about a certain generation that looked at the world differently than the younger generation that was coming up behind it. A Different World did the same thing. It had a younger generation of Black and Brown people coming out of college with a view of the world that was different than anything we’d ever seen on television before. That was brand new. There was nothing else like that at the time.

JET: Right, and it seems like it won’t be anymore. It’s been more than twenty years and we don’t have anything like that.

Joe Morton: Well now things have changed, right? Now you’ve got two shows in particular, one is Scandal, the other How to Get Away with Murder and even before that, Grey’s Anatomy. These are shows that are led by One, females and two, in the case of Scandal—Kerry’s character was the first Black female lead on prime-time in what 45 years—followed by an incredible actress Viola Davis on How to Get Away with Murder. So the model now is very different, but what’s great about it is you’re now seeing real, full, three-dimensional characters on television who are Black females who have relationships with Black and White men and in the case of “Annalise,” with women as well. They’re full range. We would never see that on television twenty years ago. You never would’ve seen anything like that. In that way, things have changed tremendously. In other ways, you know, what’s the old phrase? “No matter how much things change they remain the same.” There still is a struggle outside of those particular shows. Now the struggle is in films. There’s not that many films that come out that have Black lead characters. Maybe we will begin to see that as well.

Joe Morton - Bobby Quillard photo

Joe Morton – Bobby Quillard photo


JET: Let’s talk about Scandal. Eli Pope. You get to be the bad guy. What do you think is so appealing about being the villain?

Joe Morton: There is no boundary to what they can do, right? The idea of playing a villain, whether it’s on Scandal or any other show is that most villains think that what they’re doing either makes the world a better place or their world a better place. Their view of what they’re doing is positive and that’s what makes playing a villain a challenge because you have to do that without in any way editorializing on what the character is doing.

JET: Like many of the characters on Scandal, “Papa Pope” is a very complicated individual, but it seems like he’s the most complex of them all. I can’t tell if he loves Olivia or if he wants to destroy her.

Joe Morton: Well “Papa Pope” actually loves his daughter. He may do things that get in her way, he may do things that threatens what she’s trying to accomplish, he may even kill people that she loves but he does all of that because he’s trying to protect and show love for his daughter in his way, from his perspective. He also loves his country. His job is to protect the public. So again, he will go out and do some outlandish things under that particular umbrella but it’s under the umbrella of “I am protecting the country I love.”

JET: I understand that. How’s working with Shonda? Is it just as crazy for you guys as it is for us in terms of not knowing what’s next?

Joe Morton: Oh God, we never know. We had a table read today. That’s the only time we find out what happens next. Once the script is done at the table read, that’s when the cast finds out what’s happening in our future. And our responses aren’t too different than what the audience has when they watch it on television on Thursday night. There’s lots of screaming and hollering and “ohhs” and “ahhs” and applause and hands over mouths in embarrassment as we read the script. We actually do get involved as we read through, not just reading the words.

JET: Seems like you can’t help but to!

Joe Morton: Yeah. Absolutely.

JET: What can we expect from the season?

Joe Morton: As you know, we don’t tell a lot about what’s going on so the only thing I will say is that it’s an election year. [It’s] Fitz’s last year and a half in office. So there’s going to be a lot of gerrymandering and moving around the determine who will be the next president.

Catch Joe Morton on Scandal Thursdays at 9/8 CST on ABC. He’s also starring in a one-man play, “Turn Me Loose,” this Spring. Click here for more information.