In Highlight Reel, we ask the people who make movies and TV about their favorite individual scenes from their careers.
The actor: Lamorne Morris is in a much more comfortable position this fall than the one he was in two years ago. In 2011, the actor scored his first series-regular role, playing Winston Bishop on Fox’s New Girl—a part that was created only after the last-minute renewal of Happy Endings prevented Damon Wayans Jr. from filming any New Girl episodes beyond the pilot. Introduced in the series’ second episode, “Kryptonite,” Winston was one of a handful of kinks the New Girl writers and producers had yet to work out—kinks that relaxed as the series progressed beyond its initial premise (a newly single Zooey Deschanel moves in with three bachelors played by Morris, Max Greenfield, and Jake Johnson) and developed into one of broadcast TV’s funniest (and most poignant) portrayals of the transition into full-blown adulthood. Part of that development involved Morris’ two-pronged approach to his character, believably playing den father to his character’s roommates when he’s not indulging in wild escapades that draw on comedic chops honed during the actor’s time in the Chicago improv scene. Morris and Winston return to the air with New Girl’s third season, which debuts on September 17 at 9 p.m.
The scene: In season one’s “Secrets,” a sleep-deprived Winston admonishes his roommates for their outlandish and childish behavior—but only after he indulges in similar behavior himself, inhabiting the alter-ego of his male roommate’s “lover on the down-low,” Theodore K. Mullins.
The A.V. Club: Was the Theodore K. Mullins voice one that already existed in your repertoire?
Lamorne Morris: It was. It’s a mix between an unemployed black actor and an old, Negro, gay ghost. I’ll always see these actors that are so about the “craft” and “never selling out.” Then you watch some of the stuff they do and it’s this over-the-top, extremely dramatic style of acting, which is why they’re unemployed.
AVC: Winston first brings up Theodore in the first season’s 14th episode, “Bully.” Was the alter ego a part of that episode’s script, or was it improvised on the set?
LM: [The writers] had the name for it and they said, “Do you have any voices?” I started off doing a fast, Eddie Murphy kind of voice, and we did a couple of takes like that. And, I don’t know why, I started just thinking over-the-top, dramatic—like if Tyler Perry were to shoot a movie before he was “Tyler Perry,” what those scenes would be. I started playing around with the voice and they liked it, so I got to do it again in “Secrets.”
David Wain directed “Secrets,” and he was just like, “Go and improvise and don’t stop.” He said, “We’re not going to say cut, just go and talk as long as you want.” We got it over and over again, but he wanted to see more. So he let the rest of the cast go, so it was just me talking to nobody forever. It was perfect.
AVC: What’s it like to be emoting like that, with no cast members around to react to that emoting?
LM: It’s great because the crew is reacting. I can hear the crew laughing a little bit, so that’s always validating. But it’s great because when you want to try stuff out, you still have to be generous to your fellow actors. “I’m going to goof around for awhile and you guys don’t want to sit around and watch this all day—so you guys don’t have to watch it.” And if they leave, the pressure’s off, too. It’s like, “Oh, well they’re not here. So I can get silly whenever I feel like it.”
The benefit of that is if you look at Jake Johnson a certain way, he’ll make you laugh hysterically. Because whether he’s off camera or not, he reacts in a very goofy way. Zooey [Deschanel] is really good: When she’s off camera, she’s giving you lines but not emitting any emotions. She’ll just do it so you can do your honest thing. Jake, because I break easy…
AVC: He’ll mess with you?
LM: Yeah! Subtle things. One time—I think they actually used a take of it—I said something and he just opened his mouth like a dead fish. I don’t know why, but I just started laughing, and I was like, “Come on, man! I don’t need Jake here. I don’t need Jake here for that.” And he’s like, [Imitates Jake Johnson.] “Come on, come on, stop being a little pussy! Come on, come on, come on let’s shoot this damn thing!”
AVC: So sometimes it’s better not to have someone reacting to you in the moment?
LM: Yeah. Max [Greenfield] breaks so easy. When we have funny guest stars on the show, he’s the one to worry about. He starts crying so hard that we literally have to stop for a while to get more makeup on his face.
AVC: Looking back on the first season, what was it like to develop your character alongside the writers and producers?
LM: It was a difficult process when you walk in and you see these fleshed-out storylines, and you yourself are eager to find out what you’ll be doing—and they haven’t figured it out yet themselves. It’s no knock on them: It was such a last-minute casting, it was really difficult to do. You’re sitting with all these characters for years in your brain and on paper, and all of the sudden it’s like, “Never mind that one, bring someone else in—quick.” I think I auditioned 15 total times for this show. It was a bit of a nightmare to have to figure everything out on the fly. “Who’s my character? I don’t know! What am I doing? I don’t know!”
AVC: Did the Theodore K. Mullins rant feel like the moment that Winston “arrived”?
LM: I think so, because they were still developing the character—from the beginning, a lot of developing. And this moment was my first big monologue. It happened to be really funny and it was also very informative of who I was and who [the other roommates] were. Like, “You guys need to grow up and stop being assholes!” It set the tone for who Winston was because he lives among this weirdness, but every once in a while, he’s not going to put up with it.
AVC: Everyone’s got their breaking point.
LM: Exactly. Although my character is an idiot, too, especially this season. Oh my God, season-three Winston is as dumb as the rest. He’s an idiot.
AVC: There’s a little bit of that in season two, after his love of pranks is revealed.
LM: If I could do that every day on set—just have extreme scenarios—it’d be perfect. “What’s Winston doing this episode?” “Oh, he tries to kill a homeless man as a joke.” “Okay, great.” They’re a little seedy and my pranks go a little—well they’re not even pranks, it’s just that Winston doesn’t have a sweet spot in life. There’s nothing even or normal about him. I don’t want to spoil or give anything away—season three, I try to kill something really bad. It’s really awful decision-making on Winston’s behalf.