The actor: David Morse, who from his first extended exposure to the public as sensitive doc Jack Morrison on St. Elsewhere to his villainous turns in the likes of Disturbia and Dancer In The Dark has specialized in playing the kind of solemn, finely shaded characters that seem to exist just beyond good and evil. Currently, Morse can be seen playing George Washington—complete with prosthetic nose and bad teeth—in the HBO miniseries John Adams, now available on DVD.
John Adams (2007)—"George Washington"
David Morse: The first thing that comes to mind is my nose. It was my big idea to do that nose. We didn't have a lot of time, because they asked me to do this about three weeks before they started shooting, and I just kept looking at these portraits and thinking "This man's face is so commanding," and I did not feel that my face was very commanding in the way his was. So I convinced them that we should try the nose, and we tried it on, and everybody went, "Wow, that's Washington." But it's one thing to stand in front of some people not doing anything but looking at a nose and hear them say, "Wow, that's Washington," and another thing to actually have to live it and see it on film. I worried that it was too much. I would look at myself in the mirror when I would have all this makeup on and think, "I don't know if this is working right now." It was amazing to take a picture of it, because I would look at those photographs, and there's no doubt that it looks like Washington. But then again, as soon as you get it on, you have to blow your nose, and you have to blow your nose for the next 14 hours. It's incredibly hot with all those clothes on, and this thing's made out of gelatin and wants to melt. And I'd sit there next to my wife, and all she can see is the nose.
The A.V. Club: When you're wearing a prosthetic like that, do you feel like a person with a big nose, or do you feel like a person with makeup on?
DM: Well, in truth, there were times when I didn't think about it so much. But it's not just the nose, it's everything. The accent back then was probably nothing like what we think of as a Southern accent now or a New England accent now, so we tried to find the root of the accents. For Washington, it was a little bit of Cornwall, that western country English accent with a trace of farmer.
Apparently, there was none of that posh sort of accent that we're all familiar with now, no BBC accent, really everybody had a very regional accent, so that's what we went with, and it was tricky for everybody to learn. Even the English actors struggled. I had to learn that accent so quickly, and in those first few scenes, it felt very, very self-conscious, between the makeup and the accent, because there just wasn't time to live with the character, or to feel comfortable. Over the next couple months, I started to feel much more comfortable with it, and didn't think about it so much, but the beginning was a little difficult.
St. Elsewhere (1982-88)—"Dr. Jack Morrison"
DM: Well, pain and pride come to mind. The pain was the experience of playing that character over all those years. Being one character in the beginning, and then really becoming such a victim, and never really getting any release from that. Maybe a little bit at the end, he sort of came around, but he was not the character that I originally believed in. He was a character the producers enjoyed tormenting, and it was not fun to play that. I liked the character much more in the beginning. But the pride? That was being a part of such an extraordinary show, and really, a lot of that is owed to those same producers.
AVC: Did you make lasting friendships with your fellow cast members? Could you call up Howie Mandel today and say, "What's going on?"
DM: [Laughs.] I haven't talked to Howie in probably 15 years, but I wouldn't say I'm unfriendly with anyone, either. I think it's just the way our lives go. I'm back here on the East Coast, they're all still out there. Ed Begley Jr., I'd probably feel very comfortable with him if we saw each other. It's just our paths don't cross.
AVC: Did you have a certain level of confidence being young and on a hit show, or did you feel less confident because of your relative inexperience and the pressure of being on a major network?
DM: I don't know if "confidence" would be a word I would associate with myself at that time in my life. I guess I had a certain amount of it, because I couldn't have gone in front of the camera if I didn't. The conversation we're having now would've been very difficult for me then. I was very embarrassed by that part of the business, yet I got a lot of attention those first few years on the show, press-wise. My character was the one that was singled out, and I was not comfortable with that. I was much more comfortable with having other people do it, Ed Begley or whoever, because that would suit their personality more. I certainly wasn't confident in that part of the business. I just loved the work, and wanted the work to speak for itself.
Hack (2002-04)—"Mike Olshansky"
DM: I was disappointed in some ways that the show didn't last longer. I was disappointed for Philadelphia, because we shot the whole thing here, and that had never happened. There were a lot of people in Philadelphia proud and excited to have that show in their city. Literally in every episode, we were in different neighborhoods all over the city, and this is a city that is made up of very distinct neighborhoods. I'm very fond of the people in those neighborhoods and of this city. I truly am. But I did not sleep for two years doing that show, because I didn't feel like we ever got the show I imagined when I agreed to do it, and I never felt satisfied with what we were doing. I think it's a very difficult process, doing a network television series. I think there was a lot that was good about it. Andre Braugher, I thought was tremendous, and I thought we told some pretty good stories, but I never felt like we ever reached the level where I could say, "Okay, now this is the show, and this is the world that I think we should be talking about and representing."
AVC: When you have those kind of concerns about the direction of a series, do you go to the producers and try to work it out, or do you resign yourself to the fact that you've been hired to do a job?
DM: Well you always have to say, "I've been hired to do a job." When you walk on the set, whatever it is, you commit yourself to the job. You're committing yourself to doing the best you can do with it, no matter what you feel about it, and that never changes. The producers and writers on Hack were all in Los Angeles and never in Philadelphia, so everything was back and forth through different time zones, but they all worked hard to make a good show. I think the problem is that David Koepp, who created it, is really a movie guy, he had this fun idea. But David never intended to stay with the show, and that left a big void of who was the creative center. And as soon as there's that void, everybody wants to fill it with their own ideas. Especially the network. So we had all agreed during the pilot that the show would be one sort of thing, but then the reality of having to sell it to advertisers led to a lot of pressure to go with a much safer product. Everybody tried to jump into that void, and we never had a really strong central voice there. I think that was the big problem.
House (2006-07)—"Michael Tritter"
DM: It's going to sound so weird saying this, but I had so little responsibility on that series, other than to go in there and give House a hard time. It was really fun. David Shore, who had worked on Hack and created House, called me and asked me if I would be interested in doing it if they came up with a character, because they really needed somebody that could go toe-to-toe with House. And I wasn't sure, because I hadn't watched the show. When I flipped through the scenes, I just thought, "This guy House is a total jerk. Why are people watching this show?" Then we were on vacation with some friends who we had known for a long time, and I told them I had gotten this phone call, and they were all like, "Oh, you gotta do this show, it's the most brilliant show, it's such a great character, you're going to have to do this." So I called up David and said, "Okay, I'll do it, my friends are all crazy about your show." It was really so easy, in the best sense of the word, because I had no personal pressure on me. Just to go in there and be with all these people who had worked on Hack, now having success with this show House. We had all struggled so hard. There are a lot of writers on House who were on Hack, and to be around them and enjoy their success, it was just a comfortable place to work. Now, of course, I'm suffering because people will tell me how much they hate me and what I did to House. [Laughs.] That's the only downside. House is so beloved.
Disturbia (2007)—"Mr. Turner"
DM: Disturbia was a surprise. And I don't know why I was surprised, because I knew when I was asked to do it that there were good people involved. D.J. Caruso and Shia LaBeouf and Carrie-Anne Moss. And Steven Spielberg, obviously, who was producing it. I had been asked to do a lot of those movies that are made to make a lot of money on the first weekend—there's a franchise of "first-weekend movies" that are not very good. And I turned all those down. But this was a horror movie that I thought was a little smarter than everything else, and because of the people involved, it had the potential to be something good. Still, just the success of it, and the numbers of people… I thought we were just making a movie for teenage boys, but all kinds of people have seen that movie, and all kinds of people had fun watching it. So it was just a nice, pleasant surprise, that success.
The Indian Runner (1991)—"Joe Roberts"
DM: That was another total surprise, to have someone like Sean Penn be interested in me for the lead in his first film. It was totally unexpected, and just an amazing honor. I knew his father Leo and his brother Michael, because they had both worked on St. Elsewhere, and Sean, whom I had never met, actually sent regards to me when Leo was directing our show, which was a surprise since Sean was one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time. And then I got that script for The Indian Runner, and I couldn't even believe that he wrote it. I don't know why, because he's obviously a very talented, smart man, but there just seemed to be something so mature and just a beautiful poetry to that script, and then to go and meet him up at his house, and have him ultimately fight for me when there were all these other movie stars who were interested in doing it… For some reason, he felt that I was the fellow that should play that role, and he fought like crazy for me to do it. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career, and in some ways my life.
AVC: You worked with Penn again on The Crossing Guard four years later. Have you found him to be more focused on the performance than other directors, or more hands-off?
DM: Well, it depends. Obviously, you think he's such a wonderful actor, that's where his focus is going to be. But if you look at all of Sean's films, he has a great visual sense. Everything he went through to get to that first day of filming on The Indian Runner was an incredible effort, which is true of most films, but he had been to every studio in the city, and everybody had turned it down. He'd found his money in Japan, and he had to fight for these relatively unknown actors like Viggo Mortensen and Patricia Arquette. And myself, even though people knew me from television. And he got to that first day, and then took a look at the dailies, and it was not good. Didn't matter how good our work was, when you looked at that film itself, it just wasn't good. And he knew it. He literally took control of the whole visual look of that film and how that story was going to be told. Then you look at Into The Wild or The Pledge, and he just has grown, every movie. Into The Wild is, for me, spectacular and beautiful in its storytelling. But yes, he is great with the actors too, with every performance. With Crossing Guard, Indian Runner, The Pledge, or Into The Wild, everyone is clearly working at their highest level, and I think part of it is that people want to do that for Sean. Sean knows what it's like to go out there, and with his actors, he'll go out there with them, and make sure they're okay in taking those chances. You feel safe with him.
Dancer In The Dark (2000)—"Bill Houston"
DM: We shot it all in Sweden and Denmark. It was obviously supposed to take place in the Pacific Northwest, but Lars does not travel, because he has this odd view of America. I had said no to that movie a number of times, and it hurt me to do it, because I'd loved his films before. I couldn't wait to get the script when I heard that he was sending it, and I read it and… [Laughs.] I couldn't believe he was going to make a musical out of this. It was just so grim, but my manager convinced me to talk to him. I still didn't feel like I could do it, but I told him I would think about it. And it was literally 12:30 one night and I was flipping through channels and there was this incredible scene from this movie on, and I couldn't stop watching it. I realized what I was watching was Breaking The Waves, and I called Lars the next day and we talked more, and I said, "Whatever happens, this experience is going to be amazing. The movie may stink, but there's no doubt this experience is going to be amazing." So I said yes, and the experience was truly amazing, one of my favorite experiences, and I think the movie itself is amazing too. Obviously there's a big gap between how people feel about the movie. Either people hate it or just completely love it, and I'm one of those people who loves it. I think it's remarkable.
AVC: Other actors have reported having a hard time working with Lars von Trier. You didn't find it to be difficult?
DM: I didn't find anything about him difficult. He had that reputation, and I did not see a day of it. I've worked with directors who were monsters on the set, who were bullies and abusive and screamers. I didn't see Lars do that at all. I know Björk said she had a hard time, but I didn't see any of that. I know there were times when they were working together when they maybe got into it a little, but I think part of it was Björk is someone who had been a star since she was 13 years old or something, and everything had revolved around her. She called the shots for much of her life, and suddenly to be in another person's hands, I think that was hard for her. But I loved working with her, and I think she's amazing in the movie, and I was so impressed with her integrity in how she did it, having never acted before. It was really exciting to be working opposite her.
The Green Mile (1999)—"Brutal Howell"
DM: I think I was the second person cast in it, though I don't know who the first person was. Frank Darabont, I had worked with a little in HBO's Two-Fisted Tales series, before he directed The Shawshank Redemption. He called me up and said he was going to send a script, and the only thing he was worried about was that I would want to improvise, so I was quick to assure him that I didn't want to improvise. I didn't want to change his lines. You basically have to tell the director whatever they want to hear when you're looking to get a job. [Laughs.] That script was a script that everyone who read wanted to be a part of. Everybody who read it wept; it was just wonderfully moving. And I was one of those people. I got the script, and there was just no doubt that I wanted to be that man and be in that world and go through that. When we made the movie, it was supposed to be shot in three months, and we wound up shooting it in five months, which put a lot of pressure on people. And it was a long five months. But I think all of us looking back on that probably are grateful it went five months, because of the experience of being with each other. All those actors, all those people doing such amazing work. We just got to spend that much more time together in such a rare film.
I think Frank has a real sense of how to tell Stephen King's stories on film. He's a really good storyteller. He's completely the opposite of Lars von Trier. Lars, when you're shooting, doesn't give a damn about his script. The camera will be rolling and he'll say, "This is crap, just say what your subtext is," and you're improvising constantly in the flow of things. And if something happens that's not in the script, that's great. I was doing a scene in Dancer In The Dark where I walked out the door of the trailer and I'm supposed to be off-camera, except that Lars walked out with the camera following me, so I had to keep acting. I haven't got a clue what I want to do, and slowly people start stumbling out, and we wind up doing a scene outside the trailer that was never written, and that's how Lars works. But Frank is completely the opposite. A woman who has worked with him on everything he's ever done told me, "There isn't a comma in there that he doesn't fret over. There isn't a moment that he hasn't lived with and imagined and seen how to shoot it, and it's really fulfilling that this thing he's lived with in his mind for so long is what you're there to help him create."
Proof Of Life (2000)—"Peter Bowman"
DM: Well the scandal with Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe is what everyone remembers, but we were so unaware of it while it was going on. It was like the world found out about it before we did. The first thing that comes to mind to me is that Taylor Hackford, when he asked me to do it, said he wanted an actor that could go to the edge of the cliff with him, because this role was going to be so physically demanding, both in the world that he was going to be shooting in—which turned out to be completely true—and emotionally. He just wanted someone who was willing to put himself in his hands and go the distance with him. I thought that was a great challenge, and I was excited to say yes to that.
Obviously, we didn't know that it was going to be as dangerous as it was. My stand-in wound up being killed during the movie, doing a scene I was supposed to do. My stepfather was dying in Massachusetts, and I only had three days off in the whole film. I had flown up to Massachusetts to see him because he only had two weeks to live. As soon as I got off the plane, Taylor called and said, "You're going to have to come back here to shoot a scene, and then you can go back and see your stepfather," and I said, "Well, I don't know if he'll be alive when I get back here. I'll get back on as soon as I can, but I'm not going to go back tomorrow." And he was furious at me, and the next day, they shot the scene with my stand-in, and the truck he was in went off a cliff with five other people in it, and he was killed. And he was a very sweet man, thrilled about being a part of this movie. He and his wife were down there. It was very sad, very tragic event, and very difficult on the crew that was there shooting that day. It was a second-unit crew. But even out of that, there were some inspiring moments, and it all had to do with Will's family. Will was the young guy who died, and his family could not have been more concerned about the crew, or more generous to the crew. They didn't blame any of them or any of us. These were people who lost their golden boy, their oldest son, and they're down there caring for the crew. It was so devastating. So that's probably the first thing that comes to my mind.
AVC: Is it difficult for you to watch the film now?
DM: Well, there's obviously a lot of meaning to that film that goes beyond what you see on that screen.
DM: A silly controversy with that film [regarding child actress Dakota Fanning playing a rape victim]. It was silly to begin with, and it's too bad for the film, because it got the wrong kind of attention. It wasn't the attention it deserved. Deborah Kampmeier had tried to get that movie made for 10 years, and was so crushed and overwhelmed by that furor or whirlwind that surrounded it. It just couldn't ever be looked at on its own terms, and I think that was too bad.
AVC: Do you make a conscious effort to divide your career between parts that pay well and smaller projects like this that you can help out just by lending your name to them?
DM: Yeah, I do. Because of my experience having done St. Elsewhere. Before I agreed to do St Elsewhere, I'd said I would never do television, and then I wound up doing nothing but television for almost 10 years, and I got so typecast from that character—that St. Elsewhere sort of sensitive, nice victim—that I just decided I was never going to let myself get in that position again, or do my hardest not to. I wanted to make sure that I kept as much of a balance between television, which can do a lot that film can't do, and independent films, where you get to experience worlds and characters which big-budget movies can't touch, and those big-budget movies, which can be a lot of fun. And I've enjoyed being able to maintain that balance over the years.