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‘Scandal’s’ Joe Morton on being Papa Pope: ‘That kind of theater doesn’t happen on TV’

The actor talks the series finale, Serena Williams, family and more

“The only way I can describe the finale is that when the cast finished reading it at the table read, for a good 15 seconds, there was absolute stunned silence,” said Joe Morton, the actor known to Scandal fans as B613 leader Rowan “Eli” Pope and known as Papa Pope in “Shondaland.”

As Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington’s) father, Morton’s character isn’t even in line for the Daddy of the Year award. But he firmly believes that everything he’s done has always been to protect his daughter, who has dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite by keeping their secrets under wraps.

Morton, a Harlem, New York, native, won an Emmy for his role in Scandal, and his acting career spans 40 years in film, television and theater. He’s acted in recent big-screen hits such as Justice League and classics such as Terminator II. Many fans remember him as politician and fiancé of Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), Byron Douglas III. He also had roles in Speed, What Lies Beneath, American Gangster, Stealth and Ali.

As the show comes to an end, Morton spoke to The Undefeated on his evolution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the respect he has for queen of the tennis court Serena Williams, Colin Kaepernick and more.


How has Rowan evolved over the seasons?

Interesting thing about Rowan is that he went from someone who is very, very dark to someone who realized he needed to help his daughter get back into the light, which I thought was wonderful. When he’s with Quinn’s baby in his house, in some small ways, he tries to relive what he didn’t do with his own child, Olivia.

Whether solicited or not, Rowan is always giving advice. What’s the best advice you’ve ever given personally?

The best advice I’ve given is that when you’re a parent, you’re a parent for life. It doesn’t matter how old your children get.

How did you prepare to play such a complex character?

First thing was the amount of monologues that Rowan was given. That kind of theater doesn’t happen on TV, usually, so that was enormous to me. In each of his monologues, you learn something new about him. From his beliefs, thoughts, where he came from, etc. I learned a bit more of who he was from each of those.

Rowan has this fascination with dinosaur bones. What’s the last museum you’ve personally visited?

Recently I was in Washington, D.C., and visited the African-American Museum. It’s a mind, feeling and emotional experience with three tiers that walks you through African-American history from slavery to advancement and culture and what black people contributed to this country. It’s just very beautifully organized, and everything has a point and reason that leads to the next.

What will you always be a champion of?

I will always be a champion of the truth and champion someone who despises the hypocrisy of democracy. Those are things that I will always speak out against. … I think what Colin Kaepernick did [in taking a knee during the national anthem] was brilliant because it was peaceful and protesting the fact that democracy was down, just as players take a knee when a player is down, and too many black men were being killed by white officers and police in general. Anyone who says that’s unpatriotic has it backwards. You have to remember that this country was built on revolution.

What’s your favorite sport to watch?

Tennis. I enjoy watching Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and, of course, the queen of the tennis court, Serena Williams. Serena and Venus have changed tennis in so many ways. They are amazing players. Venus coming back from her ailments and Serena coming back after giving birth and winning at Indian Wells, which is the place that used to boo and make fun of her, is remarkable. I had the opportunity to meet them both, but it was a day that I was working so couldn’t make it. I do hope to meet them one day.

Gianina Thompson is a contributing writer for The Undefeated and handles NBA and MLB publicity for ESPN. Since grabbing kicks for Allen Iverson back when she was a 16-year-old Foot Locker sales associate, being part of how sports meshes with entertainment and impacts culture has been a driving force for her ever since.