Our Saturday edition of SciFi Stream’s exclusive interview series with the cast of Eureka features actor Joe Morton — who plays Dr. Henry Deacon on the show.
In our chat with Joe, he discusses his start in the business, the successes he had with several Hollywood blockbusters, why he feels a need for Henry to be mysterious, the Henry/Grace relationship, and much more!
Special thanks go to the Syfy network, NBC Universal, Vancouver Film Studios, Jaime Paglia, Matt Hastings, Eric Wallace and the entire Eureka production team for their support and graciousness.
SciFi Stream: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Joe.
Joe Morton: My pleasure. Thank you for asking.
SFS: Tell us a little bit about how you got your start in the industry. Some of your earlier projects include some iconic series, like Sanford and Son and Mission Impossible.
JM: Those were in the days when they would fly you out because they wanted you in a particular show. I’d always been in New York. So I did smaller roles on the shows that you mentioned. Nothing spectacular except for being a young actor at the time and getting to work with Leonard Nimoy and the like. That was a lot of fun.
My actual career, I think, started with the theater when I first came out of school, doing a lot of regional theater and then eventually making my way to film. Of course, for me, the big moment was John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet. That was more or less how I got started, with The Brother.
SFS: Later in your career, you moved on, especially in the 1990s, to some substantial action roles in movies like Terminator 2. I was 13 when that came out, so I remember that movie very fondly. And that was actually the first time that I really took notice of you and some of the work that you had done. Speed came after …
JM: Jan de Bont did Speed.
SFS: What was that like, working with directors like de Bont and James Cameron?
JM: Well, for Jan de Bont that was actually his debut as a director. He had been a DP [Director of Photography] before then. Speed was one of those movies where you read it and you thought it was at least a 40-50 million dollar movie and they actually low-balled it, because that cast at the time were basically a lot cheaper. Kind of well-known but not really. Keanu Reeves — everyone kind of knew him, but he’d been doing those silly comedies that he’d been doing. Nobody knew who Sandra Bullock was, so Dennis [Hopper] was the big man on the ticket. It wasn’t until after they started testing that movie that they realized, “Oh my God, we’ve got something here.”
T2 [Terminator 2] was a very different set of circumstances. James Cameron had already done Terminator, which although it was a low-budget film, had done really really well. T2 was meant to top it, which it did.
I just felt in both cases, I got very lucky. With T2, I think I got the job because James asked my why I wanted it and I said, “Because of a joke that Richard Pryor had told.” He said, “What’s that?” and I said, “Well, Richard Pryor decided that Hollywood figured [African-Americans] weren’t going to be here in the future, which is why we were always the first to get killed or weren’t in the movies altogether.”
With Speed, it was again I think because of T2. I was also doing a television show at the time called Equal Justice which was doing really well on TV, so I was sort of at that place in my career where things were very nicely being handed to me.
SFS: Over the course of your entire career, there’s a ton of genre work in there. You’ve always maintained at least one foot in the sci-fi door throughout your career. Do you enjoy genre stuff itself, or do you prefer more contemporary roles that don’t have necessarily those fantastical aspects?
JM: I think I’ve been fortunate, as you said, that things have worked out in both directions. To do independent films with John Sayles and the like kept me very grounded in terms of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. Doing movies like T2 and Speed and the larger things — that paid the bills, basically. They’re great fun to do, I got to meet a lot of wonderful people, producers, director and actors, and they’re just a lot of fun. They’re the realm of “all things are possible.”
Of course, when you’re doing a contemporary drama, you’re limited to the real world, which is fine in itself. There’s certainly enough complexities in the real world.
SFS: Let’s talk about Eureka and your casting process and how that went. How did you land the role of Henry Deacon?
JM: I was actually doing an episode of House. And the man who directed that turned out to be the same director for the pilot of Eureka, and he just recommended me. That’s pretty much how that happened.
SFS: Henry, over the course of the years, has had kind of a tumultuous personal life. Kim comes back into his life, but he loses her in the accident at the end of Season One. There’s the anger he held towards Jack after, and by the end of Season Two he ends up in prison between seasons. In Season Three, he gets a version of Kim back, only to have to sacrifice her again … and on top of all of that, he becomes mayor of Eureka. So he’s been through the wringer.
And after the events of the Season Four premiere he comes back to find that he’s got a wife he doesn’t know. How easy is it to play that range? It seems like everything has shifted. There always seems to be a flux of Henry’s purpose within the series.
JM: When we started in the pilot, I don’t think they knew who Henry was going to be and where he was going to go. I just started playing with the idea that he was a guy with a really very, very dark past who’d lived in and out of the bottle after whatever had happened in his past. And he had been brought to GD as a way to pull himself back together again. He was not a team player, and never really was. He was one of those scientists who doesn’t really do well in groups.
As a result of that, they started playing — “they” being the writers and Jaime and Andy — started playing with the idea that because of this dark past and because of his inability to play with others, they kept putting him in situations where he kept pushing the envelope in terms of what he could create or what he could discover. And how that affected his personal life et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — which was for me, sort of pig heaven.
SFS: He’s always had this … some sort of mysterious X factor to him. The years that you’ve portrayed him on screen, it doesn’t feel like we completely know the character yet.
JM: Which is great! Which is how I’d like to keep it. The more layers of the onion, as it were, that I can peel as to who Henry is, I think the more fascinating the character becomes. On one level he is this teacher — I had a fan, a woman who was at one of our Q&As, come up and say that she was glad that there was a character like Henry because it made her son more interested in science.
So, on one level, that’s how he functions. He’s the guy who’s always got the silver lining. But on the other side, personally, he’s got a lot of demons that he has to fight all the time. That, I think, gives him a lot of facets.
SFS: I was talking about this with some of the other cast members last week and we were talking about — especially for genre shows — sometimes storylines involving love and romance don’t always work, yet this show it’s everywhere. You’ve got Jack [Colin Ferguson] and Allison [Salli Richardson-Whitfield], you’ve got Henry and Grace [Tembi Locke] …
JM: Before that you had the triangle, that’s right.
SFS: Nathan [Stark] [Ed Quinn] in that triangle. There’s more I won’t touch on. What do you think it is about Eureka that you’re able to get away with it in spades? On some other series, when they attempt it, it just falls flat on its face for whatever factor, whether it’s the writing or it just doesn’t feel honest enough.
JM: I think, for our show, because we never started off being exactly what anybody defined as a genre show, we weren’t exactly a sci-fi show. There were no monsters involved, there was no space aliens involved, there were none of those kinds of things. We weren’t like our predecessor, Battlestar. We weren’t a heavy, dark, political animal, either. So because of the left-of-center comedy and because the world that we lived in, or that we do live in, was always on the edge, you kind of want something.
One, we had the comedy to relieve the tension. And then two, relationships would begin to build and instead of it folding into a drama, they fold into a more comedic kind of thing, or certainly romantic more than just simply a relationship. My relationship with Grace was epitomized by last year singing “She Blinded Me With Science.” To do that song, for Henry to figure, “What can I do that’s going to make me different that the Henry that she knew before?” was both romantic and comedic all at the same time.
Even when Allison and Jack finally get together — because I actually shot that episode, I directed that episode — even the way that was done. It’s a kind of “yes, they’re together, we always knew they were going to be together.” It’s very romantic as well as a little bit sexual. “Finally, ah! They’re together!”
It allows to the audience to go, “Well, there’s nothing soap opera-ish about it.” We’re not going to play out, “Oh, I wish I could, no, I wish I can, blah, blah, blah,” that you do in a soap.
SFS: Having directed that episode, maybe you have some inner thoughts about it. Do you feel like there’s the possibility now that they’ve hooked up …
What we’ve seen at this point leads us to believe Jack and Allison are together in every sense. Are you afraid [that] part of the viewership is probably tuning in just for that romantic tension between them that’s always been there? Now that it’s been solidified, are you afraid of losing that tension?
JM: Not a bit. I can’t tell you why that’s true, but no, not at all. I think one of the things that we learned — especially from Season Four — was how to make the show bigger than any of us actually thought. By constantly shifting all the characters around, always being confronted with new obstacles one way or another, keeps all kinds of tensions going. Or in some cases, things that the character has to hold onto, despite what the situation might be. So, no, none of these relationships will ever rest easily.
SFS: Especially over the course of this last year, we’ve witnessed the demise of several different sci-fi series. Most of those are very serious shows compared to Eureka where it’s got a little bit lighter tone. Do you think that’s what’s helping it buck the trend?
JM: Yeah, I think us and Warehouse 13. Because Warehouse has the same sort of comedy involved in what they do. I think that’s what helps. I hate to be genderist about it, but it becomes as much a chick show as it does a guy’s sci-fi show. I think the heavier sci-fi shows are traditionally more male-induced, if you will. It’s mostly guys who watch it and that audience gets smaller and smaller after a while, whereas with this show, we get both men and women and kids who are interested in the show.
The science is kind of cool, and as of last season because we sort of rebooted everything, it got even cooler. We started off in 1947 and ended up in the present day. All those things, I think, help keep the show very much alive. It never falls into, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen next.” I think with any formulaic show, you have to have something where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next.
Unfortunately, the days of law and order, where you always knew they were going to win at the end may be coming to an end. The world we live in teaches us over and over and over again that we can’t trust what we see. We can’t trust what seems to be happening right in front of you. To portray that as any part of the world these days I think is difficult for a writer.
SFS: Do you think maybe part of it is just escapism, too? That there’s so much — for lack of a better term — crap going on in the world around us that going to something heavier like V, like Caprica, like SGU and Fringe is just too much to enjoyably digest for some people?
JM: It’s altogether possible. I think that one of the difficulties for writing for a weekly show is that you have to figure out what it is you want to talk about. The world as it stands now, whether you like it or not, doesn’t necessarily want to talk about what’s going on within its world. They don’t want to talk about the nuclear disaster in Japan, they don’t want to talk about the fact that our economy is going down the drain. They don’t want to talk about those things, they want to talk about anything else but.
So you get something like — which I haven’t seen yet but am interested in seeing — Limitless, which I thought was, in its conception, just a great idea. This guy takes a pill and he knows he can do anything and everything, which is what I think most people wish they could these days.
SFS: You mentioned about the fact that you have directed some episodes of Eureka. Has it been enjoyable for you?
JM: Oh, I love it, yeah. I’ll direct again this season. For me, it’s the top of the season when I get to direct.
SFS: Is that something that you’d like to do going forward, even after Eureka?
JM: Oh, absolutely. I’m actually working on a couple of different projects. One has to do with a character named Eugene Jacques Bullard who was the first black combat aviator, but he never fought for the United States. He only ever fought for France. Brilliant story, this guy’s life was just enormous. He was a pilot, he was a club-owner in France, he was part of the underground in France, he was a machine-gunner.
He did all these incredible things in his life in France, and then found himself at a point in World War II where he was badly wounded and in danger because he had been part of the underground and he had to actually flee back to the United States. France made him feel huge, enormous, a big man. Then the United States always made him feel small. So he comes back to the United States and tries to live out his life here. And in the end, he ended his life as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.
SFS: Are there any other projects that you have that you’re working on currently?
JM: Yeah, well the biggest thing at present is, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson. Do you know who that is? You know what “Love in Vain” is, that song?
JM: He wrote that song. Robert Johnson is probably one of the seminal blues musicians of American musical history. He recorded 29 pieces of music, and he died at a young age of 26. He is the music that Eric Clapton plays over and over and over again. So does Keith Richards. Keith Richards, I think in his book mentions him at least a dozen times.
So, as I say, this year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and me and my partners are trying to put together a concert to celebrate his birthday. We hope to do it at Carnegie Hall, which is not an easy task to do on a couple of different levels. Because it should be more than just a concert or a gig. It should be an event, a huge event.
To do it at Carnegie Hall is expensive, but the reason to do it at Carnegie Hall is, in 1938 John Hammond Sr. put on a concert called “From Spirituals to Swing” and one of the key elements of that concert would have been Robert Johnson. But Robert Johnson had died before that concert was put together … only weeks before. So that’s why we want to do it at Carnegie Hall, to bring the music alive in a place where he was actually invited to play but never, unfortunately, had the opportunity.
You know, Robert Johnson is the guy — you’ve heard the story where he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads and that’s how he got to play so well. That’s his story. Clearly, that’s not what happened, but that’s the man we’re talking about.
SFS: Any message you’d like to give to fans, not just of Eureka but your body of work as a whole?
JM: With Eureka, I would hope that the fans continue watching the show and that they tell their friends about it. I think Season Five will top this summer’s season if we do everything we’re talking about doing.
SFS: We’ve only seen the first half of Season Four, but I can tell you those first 10 episodes are fantastic.
JM: Then the next 10 will be equally so.
SFS: Is it frustrating for you that fans had to wait a full year to see the back half of Season Four? Not counting the Christmas episode, the last aired new episode was last summer and that was just a two-month, nine episode run.
SFS: And what you’re on now, we won’t see until probably summer next year.
JM: It’s the unfortunate situation of scheduling. We are a summer show and they like it to be, as the industry calls it, a “blue-sky, green-leaf” show. The first season that I directed, it snowed and I was kind of, “Hell, you can’t shoot this because there’s snow on the ground.” I kept thinking, “Yeah, but I have to shoot that.” So it can become a problem. That was that one year [Season Three], I think we did 18 episodes. So I was shooting in January. Up here.
That actually adds to the delight of Eureka — that we are a summer show — that it is that time of year where people are home. That’s, I guess, to our compliment. People are home, they’re on their vacation, whatever they’re doing, and with DVR they’re obviously taping the shows and going back and watching them or buying the DVDs at the end of the season.
But I think Season Four taught us a lot about what we are actually capable of doing and I think we’re actually going to move forward with that idea in Season Five. And in some ways, I think hopefully top the stuff you’ll see this summer.
SFS: So from a creative standpoint, the peak hasn’t even hit yet?
JM: I don’t think so. I think we have a little ways to go.
I was talking to a friend just the other day and he said, “I’m surprised you’re still on the show.” Because what happens is that people get on the show for four or five seasons, they’ve had enough already, time to go. One, in this economy, that’s not the smartest thing to do.
Two, because the show is building and because I think Colin and I, and now Salli Richardson in particular, have been given opportunities that we wouldn’t necessarily get in other shows. I have artwork in the show. I’ve written music for the show, I’ve directed the show. I helped do the arrangements for “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s been a show that’s offered a lot of creative input. And that’s just a great place to be.
Interview by Chad Colvin
Transcription by Lahela
TOMORROW: SciFi Stream’s Eureka interview series continues with actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield!
Season 4.5 premieres on Syfy on July 11 at 8/7 p.m. (E/P). Season 4.0 is available on DVD today.