Interview date: 05/29/2008
Run date: 06/09/2008
David Morse is a familiar face no matter what your preferred genre of film. His first big break came via his role on "St. Elsewhere" as Dr. Jack Morrison, but film critics began to take notice of his abilities after teaming with Sean Penn for "The Crossing Guard" and "The Indian Runner," while mainstream audiences came to appreciate him via performances in "Twelve Monkeys" and "The Rock." Morse spends most of his time these days on the big screen, but in addition to a guest spot on "House" last year, he's recently caught the eyes of TV viewers for his performance as George Washington in the acclaimed HBO miniseries, "John Adams." Bullz-Eye spoke to Morse about what it takes to play the first President of the United States, how much fun it is to play a movie bad ass (and what the drawbacks are), and which of his roles has resulted in people coming up to him on the street and saying, "I hate you."
Bullz-Eye: How much of a history buff were you when you went into "John Adams?" Were you already familiar with the work of David McCullough?
David Morse: I really wasn't familiar with his work, actually. I'm from Massachusetts, and I live in Philadelphia, so I've lived in places that are kind of steeped in history, and I know about my family history. So I was aware and interested, anyway.
BE: How does a guy go about approaching playing someone as formidable as the first President of the United States?
DM: Well, I'll tell you, I only got the part about three weeks before filming, so pretty much from the moment I got the role, I read everything I could get my hands on about George Washington. I picked up a copy of "John Adams," but when I started reading it and realized how close it was to the script, I could see that wasn't going to be much help. So I talked to people who knew more about Washington than I did, and I studied portraits of him, to get the look right and to approximate the stance as best I could.
BE: I have to say, I was very impressed by the way they made you look so much like Washington. I mean, you could see David Morse underneath the make-up, but you did look remarkably like most portraits of Washington.
DM: I don't always know about that make-up when I look at it. My wife and some of my family and friends, people who know me, they see it and they're, like, "That's David, but he's got that fake nose and the wig." And it's hard for them to get past that. But the people who don't know me as well seem to accept it better.
BE: How much make-up time was required for you?
DM: It was about two, two-and-a-half hours every day.
BE: Were you impressed with the amount of historical accuracy that the producers strived to bring to the miniseries?
DM: It was really just awesome. They brought in craftsmen from around the world to make sure things were as precise as possible, because, of course, we weren't able to get our hands on a lot of the furniture from that era, so they had to make it. The attention to detail was just remarkable, even the portraits. I remember being on the set and noticing a portrait of Washington, but when I looked at it really closely, I realized that it wasn't just that, it was actually a portrait of me as Washington, that they'd made a point of making sure the portraits were of the actors as the characters.
BE: I would expect that getting the lighting right on some of those shots was rather challenging, given the attempts to reproduce the lack of light in a pre-electrical era.
DM: It was. The first day of filming, I arrived in Williamsburg and went to the set to meet Tom (Wilkinson), and when I got there, I saw everything that was going into it to make sure it was just so, to make it look just right. It was like a living painting.
BE: I know you'd already worked with him as an actor, but how hands-on was Tom Hanks as a producer? I know he made a point of making the rounds at the various premiere screenings, but I also know he's a busy guy.
DM: He's a very busy guy. In fact, I don't think I actually saw him at any point while we were filming the series. But he was very hands-on behind the scenes, and he was directly responsible for making sure that the historical accuracy was as significant as it was. We worked together on "The Green Mile," of course, and I remember we got to talking at one point where, you know, you're just talking about whatever, and he mentioned that he was at a point where he didn't necessarily want to keep reading a lot of books about a lot of different things. He was enjoying the opportunity to pick one thing and just learn everything he possibly could about that thing. And I think that comes into play when he's producing something like "John Adams" or, you know, "Band of Brothers" or any of the other things he's produced.
BE: I was going to ask you if you had a favorite episode of the miniseries, but then it occurred to me that you might not even have seen the whole thing yourself.
DM: No, I've managed to see it all, I think. And I think I have to agree with a lot of other people about that second episode, the signing of the Constitution. It's one of those events where it's been told so many times that you think you know everything, but the way it's presented, you learn so much more.
BE: I wanted to ask you about some of your other TV work. I was really psyched when the first season of "St. Elsewhere" came out on DVD; I was just on the cusp of my teens when it premiered. The experience is kind of strange, though, to see Denzel Washington in a small-screen role and, of course, to see Howie Mandel with hair.
DM: And me looking like a 13-year-old! I was glad to go back and revisit the show (for the retrospective featurette on the Season One DVD), but I have some mixed feelings about the series. It was a great bunch of actors to work with, and it was certainly a groundbreaking series, and I enjoyed working on it.
BE: But there's a "but" there…
DM: There is a "but," and…it was a behind-the-scenes thing, really. I mean, with any ensemble cast…and in the first season, we had, what, over 20 regular cast members?...it's always a struggle for the writers because they'll write for a character, and then they'll get tired of writing for that character and they'll focus on someone else. And no one's ever going to be happy 100 percent of the time, because of course you want the spotlight. And I think that's an issue on just about any show, but it's still something that can really cause turmoil behind the scenes.
BE: Do you remember how "Hack" was originally pitched to you? Because in my mind, I like to imagine someone just said, "I've got three words for you: crime-fighting cabbie."
DM: (laughs) That's funny. Actually, it wasn't even a pitch. I had talked to Les Moonves, and I met with him and Nina (Tassler), and Les asked if I would be interested in doing a series, and I really wasn't. I wasn't really excited about doing a weekly series, plus I was living in Philadelphia at the time and I had a family, and I wasn't interested in being away from them. So I told him that if I was going to be interested, it would have to be something that could actually be filmed in Philadelphia. Maybe New York, but I wasn't even sure about that, really. A little while later, I get two scripts: one for "Hack," one for…what's the show with Anthony LaPaglia? "Without A Trace." I read that one, and I think, "Oh, this is going be a hit. It's by Bruckheimer, it's got a formula, it's gonna last for seven seasons." And then I read "Hack," and I liked it, and what I like more about it was that it could go anywhere, really. You didn't know from the outset what direction it might go. I liked it, and I know a lot of people really loved it, but it never really reached its potential in my mind. It wasn't everything that I thought it could be. Part of that was the network, because they saw Andre Braugher and kept wanting to push it to be more of a buddy show, and that's not really what the show was.
BE: Did you enjoy your stint on "House?"
DM: I did. I love Hugh (Laurie). And David Shore was an executive producer on "Hack," too, and a lot of the "Hack" writers are now on "House," so that was great. But I'm getting kind of tired of people coming up to me on the street and tell me they hate me.
BE: C'mon, it's not like you never played a bad guy before.
DM: I know. But I guess they really took this one personally.
BE: You've worked with Sean Penn on "The Indian Runner" and "The Crossing Guard." Do you prefer one film to the other?
DM: I like them both, of course, but I think I'm more partial to "The Crossing Guard." When we were working on "The Indian Runner," Sean brought me this scene he'd written – it's the one in "The Crossing Guard" where Jack Nicholson confronts the guy – and he said, "What do you think?" I said, "I think it's great. What's it for?" He said, "I don't know, I'm working on something." And for a couple of years, he kept working on it, and he'd send me scenes here and there. And, eventually, several years later, we made it. And just being on the inside of the creation of that film like that, I think that's why I'm probably more partial to it.
BE: You're in two of my all-time favorite turn-off-your-mind-and-just-eat-your-popcorn flicks: "The Rock" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight." Do you relish the opportunity to be a bad-ass?DM: I do. It's a lot of fun doing films like that. And it's pretty amazing, actually, when you consider that I spent all that time on "St. Elsewhere," playing anything but a bad-ass. But now it's gotten to the point where that's what people know me for, so I have try and take a step back, I think.
BE: When you were doing "Dancer in the Dark," did you think, "Oh, man, this is gonna be an either-you-love-it-or-you-hate-it movie?"
DM: Oh, definitely. I didn't even want to do it. I loved Lars' (Von Tier) earlier films, but I just couldn't believe that he could take such a dark subject and make it work in that kind of a setting. But I'm grateful that he convinced me to do it.
BE: Do you have a favorite project you've worked on that didn't necessarily get the love you thought it should have?
DM: There's probably more than one, but the first one that comes to mind is "The Slaughter Rule." It was an independent film I did with Ryan Gosling. He's really a talented guy, a great actor.
BE: And do you have a favorite project that you were pitched but which never took off?
DM: You know, I'm not sure if I do. (considers the question) Actually, yes, I do: "The Legend of Pig Eye." It was based on a story written by Rick Bass, and I just loved the script. It was fantastic. But it kept hitting stumbling blocks, and it was proving to be a struggle to get financed. The director (Lauren Lee) was a woman and she was Asian, and…well, it just fell by the wayside, which was unfortunate.
BE: Thanks, David. It's been a pleasure talking with you.
DM: Thank you, same here.