An Interview With One of Our Greatest Character Actors
BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
David Morse likes a challenge. He picks his parts like a pole vaulter launching himself to greater heights. Perhaps one of the most identifiable character actors in the industry, Morse has been a continually mounting presence in movies and on TV since his breakthrough as Dr. Jack Morrison in the 1980s series St. Elsewhere.
Since then, he has appeared in a number of major films, including The Green Mile (1999), The Hurt Locker (2008), Concussion (2015), and in the TV shows Treme and House. Morse, 62, a resident of Philadelphia, was most recently seen in theaters playing downtrodden ex-Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in Concussion, and currently can be seen as the head of a backwoods Kentucky clan in the WGN America series Outsiders.
When the Massachusetts native started his acting career in the 1970s, it was with the goal of working in theater, but after his inaugural big screen debut in the 1980 film Inside Moves (starring John Savage as a crippled alcoholic, and Morse, as an ex-basketball player and bartender), he pursued a path that led to St. Elsewhere, where he stayed through the end of the series’ sixth and final season.
Perhaps Morse’s best earliest work was a powerful performance in The Indian Runner (1991), the tale of a peaceable deputy sheriff named Joe Roberts (Morse) in a small country town, whose brother, Frank (Viggo Mortensen), a Vietnam veteran, returns to town in the aftermath of his most recent run-in with the law. Frank claims he wants to make a new beginning, and Joe is prepared to help him— until he sees that Frank is irretrievable.
The Indian Runner represents a thoughtful, slick directing debut from Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay. Penn claimed his script was inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman.
Charles Bronson, most noted for the wantonly violent vigilante movie Death Wish (1974) and its four sequels, plays the siblings’ father. It is a performance of understated, honest power from a man typecast for the latter part of his career as mean, clichéd and one-dimensional.
“I believe that Jon Voight was going to do the role at first and then Gene Hackman was lined up, but Hackman had problems with his son,” recalled Morse. “When I heard it was Charles Bronson, I thought, ‘oh, no, not Charles Bronson.’ But he couldn’t have been better. For him, it was an important role. His wife (Jill Ireland) had just died and he didn’t talk much. It seemed as if he was dealing with some of the stuff he was going through. I didn’t have the memories of him as an actor—just the Death Wish series. He wasn’t shy about telling people how to do their job, like telling the boom guy how to do his thing. His attitude was, ‘let’s make a good movie and not f–k around.’ When the film was at the Cannes Festival, the real movie star in Bronson was in his element, and he enjoyed that world. Although it’s a world I’m not so crazy about. I really appreciated the role and how he went about it and the pain he was carrying from the loss of his wife, and his integrity.”
From The Indian Runner to the title character in McCanick, (2013) in which Morse plays a growly Philadelphia police detective with a sinister secret, the actor has always added a distinct dimension to his characters, lending the material extra dignity.
“I like characters with substance and I think it is borderline offensive and simple-minded when the characters are not of substance. I am one of those actors who tries to steer away from that.”
Penn selected Morse to play opposite Jack Nicholson in The Crossing Guard, (1995) which features Nicholson as a sketchy, alcohol-driven jeweler named Freddy Gale whose young daughter was killed some years ago by a drunken driver. Once he learns that the driver is out of prison, Freddy intends to kill him. The other key character is John Booth (played by Morse), who has served his sentence and returns home to live in a trailer parked in the driveway of his parents’ home.
“I was in the production trailer on the set of The Indian Runner, and Sean Penn handed me a scene, and it’s the scene in which Nicholson bursts in and he intends to shoot me while I’m sleeping. He stares at me and the gun doesn’t go off. Sean wanted to know if I could do that role in that one scene, or act that part. Sean said, ‘I don’t know what I have, but I have something.’ He kept sending me different scenes, and over the period of a few years, it became The Crossing Guard. I think the great thing about that movie was literally being a part of it from the concept to the editing and production—and that was most meaningful. It was a great experience. Sean wanted to write a movie about compassion, and that’s not a word many people associated with him at the time. But he wrote a movie about compassion. There is something special about Sean and the people he brings together and the stories he tells.”
Morse’s great depth as an actor was recognized by Montana directors Alex and Andrew Smith, who were so touched by Morse’s performance in The Crossing Guard that they mutually agreed that he was their first candidate for a starring role in their debut film The Slaughter Rule, released in 2002.
The twins worked on The Slaughter Rule script for almost six years, including work at the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford’s incubator for promising films. The film was accepted into the influential Sundance Film Festival, and Village Voice said it was “the most impressive feature by far in the dramatic competition at Sundance.”
The title comes from the former “mercy rule” in six-man football by which a game is called if one team runs up a 45-point lead. Through the story of an angry, frustrated teen, Roy, played by Ryan Gosling, and the moody, volatile man who befriends and recruits him for a regional six-man football team—Gideon Ferguson, played by Morse—the Smith brothers spin a dark expressive meditation on the frontier strength of mind and American machismo and its agonies.
The New York Times commented on the volatile emotional charge Morse delivered to the sexually ambiguous drifter role.
“Mr. Morse, always a versatile character actor, has never had a role as juicy as Gideon, a charismatic, sexually repressed man who falls in love with Roy while vehemently denying any erotic attraction. His Gideon observes the world with a fierce, demonic glare and the insinuating half-smile of a bully psyching out his victim’s emotional soft spots.”
The Smith Brothers filmed the The Slaughter Rule in Great Falls and Choteau in the winter of 2000 “during the coldest November in 100 years,” recalled Morse. “I think it was 10 below all night long and I had frostbite on my ears. There were times when I didn’t have to be out there, but I felt some obligation to be out there with them—after all, Gideon almost dies in snow. I can tell you that my ears were white and numb for two months afterward. I first met them (the Smith Brothers) in Park City and my instincts told me that they were in the right place, the right community, and that they were doing the right thing. I believe they hold the values of Montana and there is a real sense of what’s great about America in them and what is great about the part of America that they come from. There is real truth to them and their lives are honest. I like that about people.”
Apparently the feeling was mutual. In a Montana Pioneer interview earlier this year, Andrew Smith referred to Morse respectfully as a mensch. “It took us nine years to get the film made to the end of production,” said Smith. “It was five years after we saw The Crossing Guard, and we were blown away by David’s performance. He was sympathetic but weary. But we knew we needed David to be Gideon. We met at Sundance in 2000, and he hadn’t read the script. He was an intense and intimidating guy at first. He checks you out to make sure you are bonafide. He humored us and he slowly got interested in it. He has twin sons and I think he was intrigued by working with twins.”
Morse describes the brothers’ scripts as “wonderful poetry,” and the actor told us he finds both humor an drama intertwined in their stories.
“That’s what I’m drawn to,” he told us. “Too much of the stuff you receive as an actor, there are characters that aren’t there to evolve the plot, and are one-dimensional, and you have to do a lot of work to make them human beings. In the Smith Brothers’ films, there are rich characters and you’d want to play any of them. One of the things I loved about playing Gideon was that he didn’t even know himself and he didn’t know what his own nature was. He’d spent time in the oil fields and had a tough life, a damaged confused guy, and I love that combination. Being that it was based on some of their own experience growing up, the brothers were real sensitive to that original person who was being presented. They have such a strong feeling for the world they are writing about.”
The Slaughter Rule is also notable as one of Ryan Gosling’s earliest films. The Canadian-born actor, who began his career on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1993, starred in the romantic hit The Notebook (2004). He earned an Academy Award nomination for Half Nelson (2006) and a Golden Globe nomination for Lars and the Real Girl (2007).
“We all knew when he auditioned that Ryan was a great choice,” said Morse. “I was in L.A. at the time and the movie had worked with five other actors they had chosen, but eventually it was Ryan. On screen, I pushed Ryan and he pushed back. There was a quality to him that was deep, sure of himself, and he had all that mousekeeter background, and he had a tough background, a single mother in Canada, and he had to fight. I told him he had the quality of the best actors I’ve worked with. It’s no surprise people recognized what he was about.”
Morse and the Smith Brothers reunited for Winter in the Blood, released in 2013. Based on James Welch’s first novel, the drama was filmed in Havre and Chinook during the summer of 2011. Welch, who died of a heart attack at 62 in 2003, was a product of the Hi-Line. Born in Browning of a Blackfeet father and Gros Ventre mother, he was raised on the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Published in 1974, Winter in the Blood tells the story of a young Native American who violently grapples with his heritage and his life. The story has been translated into eight languages and remains in print. Citing their respect for Welch’s novel, then-Governor Brian Schweitzer offered to make his plane available to fly in potential investors, and Native American tribes approved filming in previously off-limits sacred places. Morse turns in a compelling performance as the hallucinatory “Airplane Man,” who appears after Virgil First Raise wakes up in a ditch—thus beginning a series of inebriated encounters with the mysterious red-headed apparition.
“Before I was contacted, I didn’t know anything about Welch’s work and I didn’t know the book. I started reading Welch and other Native American stories and tried to get as much of a feeling of that world. The book was really a part of their (the Smith Brothers) blood, and Welch had such meaning as a part of their lives. At first, they weren’t sure if they could do the film, and they asked for the blessing of Native Americans and got it. It’s a challenging script and book. It’s an unusual story. The book has great humor and a surreal quality mixed with real literal and actual quality.”
Morse said that he weighs and considers several factors before accepting any role.
“Sometimes I read things and think, ‘my God, is someone really asking me to do this?’ I couldn’t believe that in The Green Mile I was the second person cast. It was such a beautiful script. Films like that, you don’t have to think a whole lot on the answer. With Dancer in the Dark (a Danish musical drama from 2000 direc-ted by Lars von Trier), I couldn’t wait to see the script and I heard I was going to get it. But I thought, ‘I can’t do it. It’s the grimmest musical I’ve known in my life.’ And I couldn’t stand the character. But, I put myself in someone else’s hands and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been offered so many B-movies, but there has to be something smart about it, or the character. I guess it’s a combination of instinct and fighting and asking how much do you need the money.”
Morse is currently filming the second season of WGN’s Outsiders, a drama set in the fictional town of Blackburg, Crockett County, Kentucky, which tells the story of the rural Farrell clan and their struggle for power and control in the remote hills of Appalachia.
“We shoot for a little over five months out of the year,” Morse said, “and it’s an ensemble cast.”
In Hack, which aired on CBS from 2002 to 2004, Morse played a disgraced police officer turned cabbie, who assisted his ex-partner in solving crimes. “I was in every single scene and those kind of roles break you down physically and mentally—to be a lead in a one-hour drama. The Outsiders you get to film in town and the mountains. You are not always shooting and you get some time off. But the prep is not any different. You make the character work, you find what’s unique, and you use that time wisely. With The Crossing Guard, I had four years to prepare for the role and with Crazy in Alabama (1999), I had three days to be ready.”
Morse said that an actor is not meant to be at a standstill and that every path of an actor’s evolution asks him to turn the page on what is past while staying constantly grateful.
“I’m really lucky to do what I do as an actor, and I’ve worked a lot on stage, and the stage is a wonderful thing, and I’m at home there. While working on films, I’ve got to go shoot in the Andes in Ecuador, in Taiwan and China, and there is something that happens when you are in the presence of the real deal, something that colors you in a way that feels like a gift, it’s like being in Montana, it helps you come to life in a unique way.”
As with most actors, Morse concerns himself with getting his next job. “I’m getting older, at 62,” he said, “and it’s less and less where you find the roles that both give you something and where you also get something back from them. It feels more precious now.”