Interview with Rob Morrow Oct 2, 2002
I had been observing on the set of Street Time for a long time. See the field notes I kept during the first season. In addition, I interviewed Scott Cohen, Michelle Nolden, Rob Morrow, Richard Stratton and Chris Bolton. I had pleasant conversations with Erika Alexander, but no taped interview.
I went to the Opus Restaurant on Prince Arthur Street where they were shooting "the last supper" of Goldie's. I had to wait almost an hour. Chris Bolton came by, kissed me and said he had been reading my book yesterday over Rob's shoulder and was particularly interested in the Sensation Seeker personality, which he has. He said he isn't sure what would happen to him if he hadn't had bike riding and similar things as an outlet. I said that actors tend to be risk takers. Jack Knight's mother was standing there listening, [Jack is about ten, plays Rob's son in the series] and she said that Jack has that too. ("You should have seen him when he was little!") I offered Chris a copy of the manuscript if he wanted it and he said definitely yes, asking if I am going to be around tomorrow for the murder. (He is supposed to kill Goldie.) I said no, but I will bring it to him on the set. Also, I questioned him about the "what makes this show different" theme and said I will call him to talk further after the show ends. He gave me his phone number, and said he is still going to be in Toronto.
I left my walker there and Rob helped me down the stairs, asking me about my disability. I told him osteoarthritis, and that the operations on hips are generally more successful than operations on knees, but that my knee is going to need it too. He said his mother-in-law has it. His car had dark glass in the windows and he sat in the back with me. Immediately he said he had read a couple of chapters of my book and found it insightful and important. This was not a just politeness, I think, for he kept pursuing some of my ideas, especially about the morality of displaying immoral behavior. I said that there are antinomies, and that because opposite things are both true, we have to balance them against each other.
He said he had wanted to be accurate, and when he was directing that episode a couple of weeks ago, there was a scene involving some prostitutes. He made a very graphic porno scene, expecting that the studio would cut it out or at least reduce its explicitness, but they left it in. Michelle later told him it was "gratuitous" and he didn't quite know what she meant, but he looked the word up and it is gratuitous. I said I don't think it's correct to lump sex and violence together. He said that, yes, it's true. If people imitate that sex scene the worst that might happen would be that women would have sex together, whereas if viewers imitate a murder, someone would get killed. It's not the same level of immorality.
Then we got to his trailer. He was glad that I was going to tape it, since recently somebody quoted him as saying something very negative about a writer, when it was his own film, Maze, that he was describing as flawed. "What will that guy think I said? It's in print now. There's nothing I can do about it."
I saw pictures of his daughter and mentioned that I have a new surrogate granddaughter whom I haven't even seen yet. I said that I don't expect ever to have grandchildren. Instead, I serve as a "local grandmother" for friends whose own parents live very far away.
He said grandmothers are important; his mother complains that she doesn't get enough time with Tu, but he tells her, "What can I do? I'm up here."
METTA: Let her come up here on weekends.
ROB: Well, I do. But then she says, "Why should I always be the one traveling?" (We laugh.) Well, you can't have it all.
METTA: She just sounds like all mothers. Except me. I don't talk like that! ... I've got three tape recorders going. Now, the other thing I will do. I truly am not out to scandalize or hurt anybody's feelings. So I will let you see it and if you see anything you wish you hadn't said or if I got it wrong like that guy did, you can change it. I'm extremely grateful because I think this is an important opportunity."
ROB: I do too. Your research too. I like the way you have handled this. You're smart.
METTA: You are too. You were asking about what my discussion group thinks, and I wouldn't say that this group has anything special about what they have to say. I was surprised that nobody, so far, attributes anything much to character, as opposed to situation. You get a free ride. Everybody thinks you were in a bad situation. It's not a matter of personal weakness.
ROB: But that's based on the pilot?
METTA: The pilot and the first two episodes.
ROB: Yeah, but soon thereafter I become culpable. I consciously get back in the game. And I think he deludes himself. But the interesting thing, just as of today (because I have to call the network) is that they are reluctant for me to do things that are "irredeemable." And we have now our first murder from our side of the camp, which I had nothing to do with, but then I help clean up the body. So you can still get away with saying I had nothing to do with it; it was after the fact.
METTA: This tape recorder is already not working. That's par for the course. Sorry.
ROB: That's okay. There's another murder that happens in the season finale - the episode we're shooting next week -where Freddy Fariz (Hector Elizando's character) gets murdered. As originally written, I am complicit in it. There's a him-or-me situation. The network doesn't want me to know about it. Personally, when I read it, I thought "Oh, no. Don't make me be a murderer. I don't want to be a murderer!" But then I thought, that's just me, Rob, not wanting to be associated with murder, but when I really thought through the game these people are playing, the life they are living, the role they are in, it seems that I'm going to have to cross that line sooner or later. My argument to that was - they don't want me smoking pot, right?
METTA: Didn't you light a hash pipe?
ROB: Yeah, but it was an isolated instance.
METTA: Okay. I was surprised that you did it.
ROB: We actually shot it two ways, in case they didn't want me to do it. But it seems in keeping that he does smoke pot. He's not a pot-head. I think of him as someone who would smoke pot like someone else would have a scotch. At the end of the day, someone would have a scotch and he might take a hit of a joint.
METTA: Yeah, but with the urine test, it's stupid.
ROB: That's what they said. Except that Stratton says - now this is Stratton, who lived the life and he is arguing for it. Stratton says two things. You take a hit or two of pot and there's a week or two, it's not going to show up. It's going to work its way through your system. If you smoke regularly, then it will show up. But his argument also is that, with all that's going on, all that I'm risking, all that's on the line, the stakes, what difference does it make? If he gets busted, they're not going to put him away for a trace amount of marihuana in his urine.
METTA: Okay. The impression was given that they would.
ROB: Yeah, but I think that he's out and about and I don't think they would. It would be an inconvenience, but I think it would be hard to justify from a legal point of view. For a trace amount in the urine, to put the guy away for life? You'd have everyone coming to his rescue. But it's a cumulative thing. If we try to keep him so pure, we're going to lose people because of that. Their concern is mainly that the murder will make me irredeemable. The audience will not be able to empathize once I commit that murder. And my feeling is, in this world - I don't believe in murder in any way - capital punishment, nothing! But within this realm, I could see why these guys would think they had no other choice. The choice for me would be to get out of the game. That's apparently not for them. Although Kevin says he wants to do that, I think he's addicted to it on a certain level. So my feeling is, we have to risk that the audience is going to come along. You know, it would be one thing if I killed my brother-in-law. I could see that it would be hard for people to forgive me that. But someone who is trying to destroy us, is giving evidence to the government against us, who stole my money, who risked my life and my family, I could see being involved with that murder and have the audience having to deal with that within themselves. Because as Kevin, I'm a likeable guy, so I get a lot of mileage on that. But if I'm a murderer and a likeable guy, there's an interesting dichotomy that has to be reconciled - or not. And I don't think that's a bad thing, especially in the day and age in which we live, with the morally ambiguous protagonists that seem to be in vogue.
METTA: It took me a while to realize that it seems that the main theme that is going to be developed in relation, not just to you, but to all the other parolees, is that right and wrong aren't as clear-cut as one would like to think. And the development of James, I would assume, having interviewed Scott, is that he is going to develop a much more nuanced notion of right and wrong. Take this guy that Red Buttons played. In a way he's a good guy. They couldn't protect Carmen, so he did what was necessary, in a certain sense.
ROB: Right. I love that character. And he's a killer.
METTA: I know: Well, we've already got the precedent of the Sopranos, where we see Tony strangling somebody with his bare hands, and yet people accept it.
ROB: Love him.
METTA: One thing that put me off - and they cut it out - was the Colombian dental hygeinist.
ROB: That was the same reasoning. Apparently, women in the studio saw it and said, he can't do this. They loved the relationship that's blossoming [between Kevin and Rachel]. The women would write me off. So they cut it. Which I thought was smart - not that Kevin is not capable of having an affair, but it seemed too early.
METTA: From my point of view, when Kevin goes to the nightclub before he even goes home to his wife and kid, I've got a problem with that. I really didn't like him. Except they left that in. I wonder how that decision was made. What's this stuff?
ROB: This is balsamic vinegar, that is olive oil. Yeah, I thought __________ about that too. I don't think they quite knew that Kevin was going to be as empathetic as he ended up being. You know what I mean? Because they wrote him to be having an affair right away. He was automatically a dog; he basically jumps in bed with two hookers within the first twenty minutes and then within a month he's having an affair - which got cut, so theoretically he never had that affair. So I think it was a learning thing.
METTA: Yeah? But you agree that ___... Did it bother you, his going to those hookers before he goes home?
ROB: It did and it didn't. It bothered me, but I thought that I could possibly - you know, I've got to think, it's such a shock to the system, getting out of prison and into the world. Now, I know that if I were away for any time, the first thing I'd want to do is see my family. But also, the fact is that his family - his parents cut him off; his wife stopped seeing him way, way years ago. They were barely talking on the phone. So-he doesn't want to go [to the club where he and his brother will meet the prostitutes]. He does protest when his brother says we're going somewhere else. He says, No, come on, I've got to get to the thing. I could see in the shock of stimuli, kind of going with the flow. And then the hormones to women, which I gather he hasn't been around. It didn't bother me too much. And in a weird way, I liked it because it wasn't expected. It wasn't the pure-
METTA: My friends were more forgiving. I was pretty critical, but my friends said, Well, you know, he just got out of prison. What do you expect?
ROB: Also, he didn't initiate it. It was just kinda -
METTA: Well, that's true. But I did think he was weak. To me, that is what stood out the most - his weakness. Whatever his craving for risk may be, that has never shown up, for me.
ROB: His craving for risk hasn't? Yeah, it's there.
METTA: Oh, I know you said that. We talked about it. But I don't see it and my friends don't see it.
ROB: But what about just doing this deal?
METTA: You could SAY that it's a craving for risk, but he never has the moment of pleasure, of excitement, of fun. When I was reading Richard's novel - . I'm pretty moral, pretty judgmental, and I'm not at all a risk-taker. I'm the least risk-taking person you'll ever meet. So here I am reading this thing and saying, This is sordid. This is terrible. And then there was a moment when something snapped, and I said, This is fun! It's like a chase in a cowboy movie. This is fun! And suddenly everything changed totally for me. The theory that Apter has is about risk-taking and when you want it and when you don't. When you enjoy that risk. The threshold for you may be -
ROB: It may not be risk. It may just be the life. The man. The guy calling the shots. He definitely gets off on logistics. Getting on and making it happen. It's not so much the risk as just the joy and the challenge. And just because he's not smiling doesn't mean he's not digging it. Because he could always stop. That's the thing. He says he can't but he could. He could just say, I'm out of it. I'm going to work at Burger King. I'll see you guys. I'll take care of my family. But he doesn't. I think it's the life. Where else is he going to make that kind of cash?
METTA: You don't think it has to do with adrenaline?
ROB: Yeah, but I don't think it's the same kind of adrenaline as when one jumps off a cliff. Peter might be more that way.
METTA: Because if it's that kind of adrenaline, I didn't see that.
ROB: Yeah. I can see where you wouldn't see that. I don't think it is in there.
METTA: What I want to argue about this kind of film is --- as somebody who doesn't like risk at all, I would not watch it.
METTA: If I did, it would be because I was into a boredom thing and I really needed some kind of stimulus. There's a certain proportion of the population - actually, it's genetic - who have to have excitement. I think the justification for this kind of film is that if people didn't have this, they might join the army quicker, they might rob banks, race cars up and down the street or other dangerous things. This is a substitute for real risk taking.
METTA: So some people are going to need this and we have to make room for it. I would like to think that we could have some kind of plot with constructive risk-taking behavior that would be equivalent to anti-social risk-taking. It would be things like firemen rescuing people, or peacekeepers in Third World countries - people who give the audience this kind of satisfaction - those who want it.
ROB: I don't remember all the arguments in your chapters that I read but they were very cogent in terms of the vicarious thrill and satisfaction. I underlined something. I don't have it with me - I gave it to Michelle to read. But I underlined something that kind of dovetailed with my motto. My company motto (which is not something I made up, I stole it) is to illuminate the human condition and convey truth and beauty. That's my goal. If I can do that in my work, I will feel that I have succeeded in a big way. You said something that was - if the work is insightful and truthful - something like that. I have never had a problem looking at the darkest world that man is capable of. I don't crave it. I'm not somebody who goes to those movies either. I sometimes need to know how they are doing something so I go to movies that don't really interest me except from a technical filmmaking point of view. But I don't like horror. I don't like violence. But, for me, if there is insight into the behavior, then it's okay. And truthfulness. One of the things that frustrates me more than anything is that when you see someone in a fight on screen, nothing happens. I've never been in a fight. Maybe when I was a kid, in skirmishes, but not in a real, real fight, ever. Yet I've seen a couple of them. And physiologically what happens when someone takes a punch in the face, it's extraordinary. Things start working out this way - and you never see any of that in the films. People punch each other fifteen times - but if two people got in a real right and they both looked and behaved the way people do in that situation, I don't know many people who would want to repeat it. Whereas in the movies where there are no ramifications - that, to me, is exploitive and dangerous. So that to me is a good demarcation for what is acceptable. Is it insightful? This Hitler thing they are doing on CBS - is it going to be insightful? Is it going to give fodder to the revisionists, that Hitler never did anything, or the Jews did it, or whatever?
METTA: Well, the worst is that it will produce people who admire Hitler. And there will be a certain number.
ROB: Right. That is irresponsible.
METTA: That is the thing that I'm going to open the next chapter with - the chapter on ethics. I think it's impossible to give a flat answer to that, but it's interesting that it came along right now because it's just such a perfect example of the problem one needs to think about ethically.
ROB: Right. I'm in this movie you're going to love in November. I have a little part. Called The Emperor's Club. All about ethics. It takes place in a boys' prep school in the sixties. Adapted from a short story by a guy named Ethan Kanin. A young writer.
METTA: Is that what was The Palace Thief?
ROB: Exactly. They changed the title. It's weird because it's - it's not like the greatest movie ever, but it's thoroughly entertaining and it's smart, especially for a Hollywood movie. I think it might end up being a little hit only because of the coincidence of the timing of its release in the scandal-ridden culture. It's one step removed from showing how George Bush became George Bush. How to rationalize, justify. And these are elite kids, so you see what happens.
METTA: Let's talk about your original idea that I should write about what makes this show distinctive. Tell me how that happened, and ways in which it actually made a difference in what we will see.
ROB: The way it came about was truly organic and fortuitous. When I signed on, it wasn't like I knew this was the way it was going to be. I knew these were documentary filmmakers, which appealed to me, and I liked their work. And because I'm a writer and director, and someone who really believes in improv - it tends to have an indulgent connotation.
METTA: I didn't know that.
ROB: It does, because - but it's misconstrued in that it's a tool that has great value. Not all the time. And it can easily go into indulgence. But what happens is, it's an environment where people are alive and spontaneous and their expression is true and pure because it's coming off of something real. You don't know I'm going to say, "Hey, don't eat that!" Your reaction is going to be real. And so when we got onto the set and - Let's say I've done a hundred works in my life. It's probably more than that, but let's say a hundred. I can say 90 of them weren't very good and 10 were very good. Plays and movies and independent movies, and TV movies...and what I have had to learn is how to make a lot of stuff that doesn't work, work. So some of the stuff wasn't working initially when we started, and I just intuitively started to - and a lot of times when I start my thing, people rein me back. "Oh, they didn't write that." It's not so much a matter of me being disrespectful. If it works, let's do it. If it doesn't work, let's try to make it work, and the advantage here is that if it works, it can happen for the first time on camera. And that's gold. It just became instantaneously clear that I had a sympatico with Marc and Richard. And I think it just became a jump off point for the rest of the company. Just because this isn't working, we don't have to shoot it. And just because of the nature of the logistics, movies tend to do that more. You have the time to explore. You do two pages a day in a big movie - or four pages a day. Here we are shooting ten. So television has tended to be much more hierarchal. It comes from the top. What happens is, you lose the potential for magic. Not that - I mean, there are great shows. West Wing is a great show and it's totally traditional. Word for word. And it works, as far as I am concerned. It's one of the few shows I actually can watch.
METTA: It's the only one I do watch.
ROB: But, we're trying to do something fresh and unique, and actually be on the street - and that's another thing. The street is alive and spontaneous. You don't know whether a car is going to come up over the curb and hit you. And so having that alive every moment is potentially great. Finding the balance between indulgence and - because a lot of times I will go off on tangents, it seems, and I know it. And I'm not doing it for me but because I know the other actor needs to get loose and open, so I'll just kind of take him somewhere that he didn't expect. He'll say, Wow, that was so great! And then when we get into where we're supposed to be, they're not self-conscious, they're not thinking about it. And on the other side, sometimes we'll go on a tangent and be brilliant, and there we have it. And the television directors who come on are so not used to it that it's a learning curve for them, in terms of letting go and giving over to it.
METTA: Have they all done so?
ROB: Some better than others. They have to adjust, but the ones who are flexible and willing end up improving upon it and getting into the spirit of it. The ones who aren't, either just ride along. So few directors actually direct. They're just like traffic cops.
METTA: I noticed. [I was referring to the episodes that Rob had directed.] You were in there on the set with your little pocket monitor, it was so different than what had been going on in previous episodes.
ROB: Yeah. Sometimes I am doing an intimate scene and some guy is going to yell 100 yards: "Put your hand on her leg." Or, "Sit up." I can even just feel it now: My whole body goes! It's like, well, if you're right there, you're part of it. I've worked with a few directors that do that and you forget them. You don't even think they're there. But at least in an intimate scene, if they're right there, they can be in the moment with you.
METTA: I loved it the other day when you made up this scene about taking the popsicle out of the freezer. (Laugh.)
ROB: Right. And even if it doesn't work or it's not necessary, it keeps everyone on their toes and keeps the channels open, so to speak. And just one more point about that, my feeling in all of this is that, it's not like I'm right at all necessarily, I believe that, unless you are dealing with Shakespeare or something like that, the script isn't done until we finish shooting. Just because the script is published, it doesn't mean that it's done. It can be re-written fifteen times. And what is cool about this show is that we've sometimes been re-writing as we're shooting into the scene - the master. By the time we get to the close-ups we've figured it out. The heart of films tend to play, more so on television than in feature films, and so you're dialing it in as it's getting closer, and then that's when that moment happens where it's magic.
METTA: Can you think of some examples? If I write this magazine article, I haven't actually been on location at all, so the only things I have seen are on the set.
ROB: It's hard for me to think of any because it's not about attribution. Sometimes anyone can say something and it becomes the jumping-off point for the scene. I could do something. Another actor could do something. I know countless, countless times I've walked into scenes thinking, "This doesn't feel real, doesn't feel authentic." And by the end I think, "We did a really great job."
METTA: But you also talk to Richard and the director off screen. I had a hard time because I didn't feel like coming and sticking my face into the conversation.
ROB: Right, you can't because it's an intimate thing.
METTA: But I don't really know what goes on in those short conferences.
ROB: They are so different. Because I'll add something, and maybe it will be; "Yes, the feeling's right but the words aren't." It's so amorphous. It's not one thing. The discussions are, if it's not working or if another actor is not working. Does it feel real? The dialogue between us is amorphous. Sometimes it doesn't even make sense. It's like "Do you think that the way we put the thing.." and he'll say, "Yeah, but I don't know that you want to be that intense about it." "Let me try it and we'll see."
I guess it's the inclusiveness and openness and willingness to try it. A lot of times if we disagree, we'll shoot it a few different ways.
METTA: I want to watch the editing because I guess a lot gets decided there.
ROB: It's all the editing. That's what it's all about.
METTA: You would like to see this happen more. You think many shows would be better if they could do that.
ROB: But it's difficult because in traditional television it's just not the way the structure is set up. And they are so scared of actors and talent. They're scared of it because you can't quantify it.
METTA: Directors, or people in the money end?
ROB: Directors have a kind of love of actors, I think. More so than the buck stop people - whoever that is, be it the producer or the director or the network - because they are scared of it getting out of their control. To their credit, these people have been open. But I also wonder whether, if we were in LA on a sound stage where they can come and meddle, would it be different? We are kind of on our own up here, which is great. But they have also come round, and they see that it's working.
METTA: Could you see them taking the initiative to get some other show to - ?
ROB: The problem is that they don't understand it. I can talk like this for an hour and they will have no clue what I am talking about.
METTA: Do they come to see it often?
ROB: They come, they visit, they sit in their nice sweater on a chair and get brought a cappucino and they tell everyone "We love what you're doing," but they've got six shows they're thinking about. It's: is it here? Is it on time? Are we going to make the day? If it weren't working, they'd be here and we'd know it, but if it's working - I guess it's just like a kind of manager. They do micro-manage, but if they tried it here it wouldn't work.
METTA: In the table of contents I've got the book set up to compare Street Time to Northern Exposure. So I want to ask about the comparison between the ways the two shows operated in this respect.
ROB: They were completely different. Northern Exposure was a traditional producer/writer driven show. And here everyone is involved - and also because of the documentary style.
METTA: The other day I was talking to Richard about Kevin's character - the risk-taking trait being the dominant one, to my mind. He said it's hubris that's his tragic flaw. I had trouble seeing that.
Rob. I think there's a lot of hubris. That's why I talk about the life he wants to live.
METTA: He doesn't listen when people warn him that he's on thin ice.
ROB: That's the hubris. He thinks he is smarter than them. He can get over. He also draws a kind of moral distinction that allows him a kind of quasi-superiority because, up till now, there have been no murders or anything. He thinks he's offering something that is less harmful than other things out there. I'm talking about narcotics, alcohol. He draws the distinction, as do a lot of these "hippie mafia" types that there's nothing wrong with marijuana - certainly nothing wrong like alcohol or cigarettes. And he understands the nature of the drug war. If they legalized pot worldwide, Kevin might be a hero. He might become a baron.
METTA: Well, that's clear, but it's also clear that when Freddy steals from him, he can't go to the police, so he has to resort to self-help, which is immediately not only illegal but worse than illegal.
ROB: You mean when they -
METTA: Well, Freddy steals his load. So if he's going to get justice, he can't do it through the law.
ROB: Right. Well, he tries to just steal it back. And then Goldie gets killed, but that's not his plan.
METTA: Yes, but the point is that you may say that smuggling marijuana isn't such a bad thing (and I don't disagree) but you immediately get into situations where you encounter much more difficult moral challenges.
ROB: But stealing back what is yours is not wrong.
METTA: That's true. But killing Freddy?
ROB: That's why we're at a crossroads in terms of where it's going to go. And I don't know where it's going.
METTA: You don't even know the next episode?
ROB: I know the next episode - the last one of the season - but next year? No way. And it's a fine line. It speaks so much to what you're writing in terms of where do we lose the empathy? The conventional thinking is that in order for people to tune in, week in and week out, there has to be empathy for one of your main characters.
METTA: It's not only convention, but actual research. People who are immoral or unjust lose the empathy of the viewers.
ROB: The question is, what is the line of morality?
METTA: That, I agree, is the question.
ROB: And we want to walk as close to it as possible only because what's the point of doing it if you're not going to do it in a new way? There are so many stories in the human dynamic in terms of relationships of people. And so my feeling is that if we're going to do it. Let's do it in a way that's never been done. And that's in a risk.
METTA: Right. My thing is a culture of peace - a culture that encourages ethical behavior and peaceable behavior.
ROB: --- (inaudible)
METTA: Right, and that's why I'm doing this. But the opposite, in a way, is a culture of blame, which is what we have in almost all television - certainly crime shows and war shows. Good guys and bad guys. Establish who's to blame and then lock him up.
ROB: Right. Which is a palliative but it doesn't really hold up in the real world.
METTA: Yes, and then you have morally ambiguous characters like Red Button's character or all those other guys who - you can make a case for the value or legitimacy of their decisions - and Kevin's decision as well - so that challenges that culture of blame and I really value that. I think it's really a necessary and useful thing At the same time, it's clear that there's also a certain amount of imitation that goes on and gray characters - especially if they are empathetic - are going to get people to imitate even more. So I don't know how to resolve that.
ROB: I don't either. I would feel awful if I was putting garbage out into the universe.
METTA: I have you pegged as a closet idealist - or an idealist without a cause.
ROB: Not even a closet. Quixotic. In my past, maybe quixotic. Not so much now, but - well, I know what the cause is. It's just a question, for me, of putting my money where my mouth is, or taking my money out of my mouth (we laugh). Fortunately, up till now I've been very conscious and have avoided doing anything that I considered morally repugnant. _____ repugnant, but that you can justify as making a living. It's interesting to turn around after a couple of years of this show. If my character just became Hannibal Lecter, I can't imagine I'd want to stick around that long. It would just eat me up to be around - to even think those thoughts.
METTA: I heard you quoted once as saying - I think it was with respect to Last Dance - that you didn't want to do characters like that anymore. It took too much out of you.
ROB: It did. But that's kind of a little glib. If something was good, I couldn't not do it. Not because it was going to be hard on me. I put myself through a lot. I think my ultimate point was, I wouldn't want to spend every job in that state. I'd like to do a bunch of comedies because what happens is, as you say in your book, when you do the muscular gestures, you actually have the feelings. If you are doing it in a scene 20 or 30 times a day, you've got to keep that alive in you. If someone dies right now and I start mourning, it's going to arise and dissipate. If I'm acting it, I've got the keep the worst part of it alive so I can act it. In Last Dance, there were a couple of days when Sharon was getting executed. I was in my trailer trying to keep alive what was going on. And it was killing me. It was too much. I was a young man and I did it. I'd do it again. It's just that I'd rather spend some lighter moments than my whole career doing it.
METTA: I spoke with Scott about letting go of a character. He said that when he is finished with a character, he often mourns. It takes him a couple of months, having a really bad time, to let go of a character. Have you ever had that?
ROB: I don't think I have, no. I'm not conscious of it. I don't think of them so much as characters as myself in those situations. They are not separate from me. "What would it take for me to pull the trigger?" That's how I get there. I could pull the trigger if someone started to do something to my kid. No problem. But I couldn't if they took her bicycle. I've never had that particular problem. I had all those horrible videos of executions and stuff that I was watching to keep that going. I felt that I was losing my mind at one point.
METTA: If you were writing this show and you knew you had five seasons (by the way, I hope it does) how would the story line go?
ROB: You have to keep ratcheting it up. I like this idea - we've been talking a lot about him as the beginning of an empire. The problem for me is that I want to be the good guy. I want to be liked. My guess is that every empire has been built on bodies. If this is the beginning of an empire, we're going to accumulate bodies.
METTA: Well, we have the example of the Sopranos, where people love Tony Soprano.
ROB: You're asking me what I would do. I don't want to be surrounded by death. I don't want to put death out into the world. Yet I also want to be authentic. And I also want to be original and fresh. And I also know, like you're talking in your chapters, that there's an escalation. A de-sensitization happens, the more we see of this. And we know that there has to be conflict, so - I don't mind if there are some bodies along the way that are not innocent bystanders but in a him-or-us kind of thing. I don't mind so much, so long as it's insightful in the way we deal with it, and -
(on the phone; Hello? I'm in the middle of an interview. How are you guys? Thanks for your sweet message. I love you. I'll call you after lunch. Everything okay? Good. Bye.)
I lost my track. Oh, what I was going to say is that there's a scene coming up tomorrow where my brother shows me the dead body. I'm like, What happened? He goes to the back of the car and opens it and it's my brother-in-law, dead. And, as written, I just take a beat and then go, "I'll drive." I get in and drive off. To me, that's not how I'm going to play it. Not that I won't drive away or say it, but to me, the value of human life is not acknowledged here. It's a terrible act. So I'm going to make it very clear that this is not - uh - good. It didn't have to happen. There's a dead body. There are ramifications. So that's important to me, to be insightful in terms of how human behavior deals with stuff like this. Because it is out there. And maybe that's a justification. But again, if it's insightful, if it's truthful, we can learn. I don't know what we'll learn from that moment, but -
METTA: One of the things that bothers me is that it took me so long to see, from the kinds of examples they are giving - not just of you, but from a number of the parolees - that involve moral ambiguity. The penny didn't drop. And what I think is that, if I didn't get it, other people aren't going to get it. There's a wonderful lesson there, but if it isn't made clearer. I think what we need is a Chris Stevens - somebody who's got a homily about it that's not preaching, not too didactic.
ROB: Chris was my favorite character.
METTA: Well, he was the Greek Chorus.
ROB: More than just a Greek chorus, wasn't he? In his life?
METTA: Well, that was the function of a Greek chorus, wasn't it? To make little homilies that kind of spell out -
ROB: See, I try to do that a little bit in this show with my character. If you look closely at what I say, especially if you compare it to the script, you'll see me trying to give a little comment that will give an anchor to the audience. I don't know how that would work in this show.
METTA: Well, obviously, you couldn't use anything quite like Chris Stevens.
ROB: I'd say that it's a device that would be a last resort as opposed to making it resolve satisfactorily within drama, not having someone necessarily make comments on it.
METTA: Well, I agree that sometimes it's too heavy-handed. For example, there's one show, Touched by an Angel, where you have angels come in and solve people's problems. There are often interesting moral questions that they intervene in, but it's very heavy-handed. It's like the word of God is now given to you and you don't quarrel with it. It's not subtle enough.
ROB: It could be. I don't read a lot of the criticisms about the show but I've noticed this refrain about bleakness and stuff. Yeah. I don't know. I know it hasn't quite gelled completely. It's getting there.
METTA: I'd like viewers to get the message that's there, when there is one. If I don't get it, a lot of other people aren't going to get it either. It's too bad because it's an interesting message, an important message.
ROB: The message being -?
METTA: That moral situations are often not clear-cut. I mean, I'm not certain Red Buttons wasn't right to kill the guy who beat up Carmen. I wouldn't do it, but given that kind of situation -
ROB: Yeah. That's the point. But that message comes as a result of empathy toward a character. Because if you empathize with a character with whom you disagree, yet you still empathize with him, in that conflict within yourself is where the answer is.
METTA: If you think about it.
ROB: Well, you can't not think about it. You may not consciously -
METTA: I managed not to think about it and I'm not stupid.
ROB: It still goes in. I think cumulatively things like that pay off. I may not get it, but if I see it enough times, I get it.
METTA: Okay.... You said on television that Street Time is about whether people can change.
METTA: Now, I don't know how much Kevin has changed yet. He may be changing for the worse.
ROB: Why I said that - and I still believe it - is that one of my first questions to Richard Stratton was, do you regret being in prison? And he quickly said no. Not that he would choose to go there again, but that the life lessons he learned were so valuable that it has given him who he is now. It's given him his life. So my backstory for Kevin is that in prison he became ascetic and spiritual and disciplined and tried to find the best. Without any of the accoutrements of life, he found out who he is. And when he thought about getting out he was going to walk the straight and narrow. He was going to be a positive force in his family, a positive force in society. He would find a way. And then, as soon as he comes out, temptation enters into it and soon thereafter he is pulled back in. So it's: will he change? Will he live a valuable life as a human being? Will he get there? Or will he just keep going down and start accumulating bodies and bigger drugs and worse things? And in his case, the answer would be no.
METTA: You are confident that he will find out what his life should be about?
ROB: I would like that to be, in the same way that I told you about Northern Exposure - that I know (maybe no one else will agree with me, but I know) that I informed his journey. Me, Rob Morrow, informed Joel Fleishman's journey, in that he did evolve.
METTA: Let's talk about that conclusion. How much did you have to say about his transformation up river?
ROB: I didn't. I didn't choose that story line - they did - but I feel I created, at a certain point, because I had more power, I could subtlely change things on that show. Not as much as here, but I could slant things, cut things, shape it to make my point. And I think cumulatively at a certain point the writers are writing based on what they are seeing, not what their preconception is. And also because Josh, the guy who created it, was gone and because of the way I was pushing it and occasionally was in a real conflict with them, I think that it made sense that they saw, because of who I am, that they took from that. And, as you say in your book, do we love the actor or do we love the character? At a certain point in a TV series you're loving the actor because they are the constant. And if they are any good, they're bringing a bunch of themselves to it. So in that regard, I think I significantly affected it.
METTA: Were you happy with the way -
ROB: I felt so grateful for those last eight shows, I believe it was, when I went up river and then went to the mythical New York. And sometimes the corollaries between my work on that show and this show are just extraordinary. So many corollaries on that show. I moved from New York to Seattle, totally out of my world, to go do this show, where at my worst moments I felt like an indentured slave and at my best moments felt obviously lucky. The last shot of Northern Exposure I filmed was in New York harbor. It was bringing me home. It was so Odysseyan I couldn't believe it.
METTA: Were you thinking in terms of the hero's journey all through?
ROB: I don't know about all through - but that is something that I'm very interested in. They are partial to that too. They had a lot of Joseph Campbell references all over the place.
METTA: But that wasn't Josh.
ROB: That was Josh.
M. He told me he'd never read Joseph Campbell.
ROB: I didn't know that.
METTA: So I assumed that it was Frolov and Schneider.
ROB: I don't know. That's funny because I thought that stuff was referenced before Josh -
METTA: I would love to interview them but I probably won't be able to .
ROB: You might. They are around. They do the Chris Izaak show.
METTA: Yeah. Okay, you liked that ending. I felt that it was - first of all, Joel abandons his patients -
METTA: Which a doctor wouldn't do. He wouldn't have done that.
METTA: And also, he's Jewish and suddenly he became an Eastern mystic. I'm also an Eastern mystic, but Judaism is not a religion of transcendence, but of mastery in this world. And it seemed to me that he could have stayed Jewish in the sense of becoming masterful in this world instead of transcending this world.
ROB: I don't know. I opt for transcendence. I'd rather - you know, it's Pascal's wager thing. In terms of putting messages out into the world, I would much rather see someone opening to the similarities and also the benefits of all kinds of religions than being dogmatic about one. If you take a middle class Jewish guy from New York and open him to Eastern mysticism, that shows what we are capable of. I think the world is a much better place if we can all look at the others and take from this, take from that - Islam, whatever - and be about how we are similar, not how we are different. So in that regard, I liked that change. I hear what you're saying. But he was taken advantage of. He was lied to. He was put into indentured servitude, and came out of it all right. I think it was more of a journey for Joel.
METTA: You know who I think of as a fulfillment for Joel? Matthew Hiller.
ROB: Matthew Hiller? Who's he? I remember his name.
METTA: (laugh) You were that!
ROB: Oh. In that thing I hated.
METTA: You hated it? Well, I hated it until I saw it as a fulfillment of what Joel was not able to become. So if you see Joel as leaving and becoming a very successful person - both ethically, in his Doctors Without Borders experience, and as a physician. It seemed to me that he became a real man.
ROB: I think so, and also had much more to offer.
METTA: I wanted to see Joel do something like that.
METTA: And I felt that his up river life was an opting out of that.
ROB: But he goes back.
METTA: He goes back, but we don't know what happens to him. You don't know how many hours I bawled. I sobbed my heart out.
ROB: (Smiling) But he comes back with the boon. He comes back to New York with something to offer.
METTA: We hope. We didn't get to see it.
ROB: But the foundation was laid that he was someone who had learned a lesson and was coming back. That's the way I look at it.
METTA: All right. You said you got your morality from watching TV and movies.
ROB: Right. Not totally, but in a lot of ways. It exposed me to a larger world, for sure. The conceit to imagine "what if" in those situations informed my morality.
METTA: Obviously you are an idealist, and it obviously has something to do with what you choose to do in your work. How unusual would you say that is, for actors - your idealism?
ROB: I think most actors are idealistic. The problem is, they are beaten down at a certain point because it is so difficult to make a living that it goes by the wayside, but given a chance - I am amazed when actors come up to us. They say it is so much fun! And why? Because we're letting them bring their heart and soul to it. And there is something idealistic in that. You can just see it! Even these older guys - 70-year-old actors who have been doing it for so long. They're like kids! Because they are getting to bring what that they had a long time ago. I can't dictate how this is going to go. I'm lucky to be standing here making a pay cheque.
METTA: But you were also worried about whether the moral effects of your work are going to be good or bad. I just don't know that that concern is all that common.
ROB: Only because - this is just conjecture, but I think it is - only because they have to let it go that they suppress those urges, whereas I have, for whatever reason, been relatively lucky to pick and choose.
METTA: Have you ever been sorry about what you chose?
ROB: No. I hated that CBS thing - but mainly that was an opportunity. It was called Only Love, right? ...
METTA: I read that book in French, to practice my French, which is pretty bad. The novel is very different from the TV story.
ROB: I read some of it too.
METTA: I didn't like it until I thought of it as a way to fulfill Joel.
ROB: Yeah, I can see that. ... I got a huge paycheque for that and it was very much needed and allowed me to do - who knows what else? Maze and other things. It is definitely nothing that I regret doing.
METTA: Who owns a character in a TV show?
ROB: The studio. In this case, Columbia TriStar. They buy it.
METTA: With Cheers Grammar took it on to the next series.
ROB: But that was with consent. Everyone benefited, I am sure. Theoretically at the end of this I could go to them and say that I want to do the Kevin Hunter show and they would say Okay, here's what we want.
METTA: I always thought that Josh Brand identified with Joel and that there would have been a conflict over the ownership of Joel.
ROB: We bumped heads a bit. And also because I was young and quixotic, I didn't handle it as gently as I could now. We didn't argue so much about this because it was so early when Josh was around, but in the back of our minds, we must have been aware of it because I wanted Joel to go somewhere and Josh wanted him to be something. I want people to be their best. I want to see someone who is myopic and prejudiced open his heart. I want to see that!
METTA: Toward the end, long after Josh left, they slandered Joel. There were times when it was clear they thought he had some terrible flaws. He clearly did have plenty of flaws, but he was a lovable character.
METTA: And I could forgive his flaws easily.
ROB: Who are you talking about? Critics?
METTA: No, the writers. They were implying that he was such a screwed-up guy that he had a long way to go before he could be okay.
METTA: Well, one thing was this awful episode that everybody else likes called Northern Lights. This is a different issue. I felt they were mixing up their animosity toward you, personally, with the character. It is the one where Joel goes on strike and they lock him out of his house and he has to live out in the snow. But that was much earlier in the series.
ROB: It's hard for me to remember.
METTA: The whole town becomes so cruel that it was one of the most painful things I have ever been through. That week, one of my dearest friends had died. I could live with her death. She was ready for it and I didn't get upset about that. But this thing, when I found a community of people I had come to love behaving so badly -
METTA: Because Joel went on strike. He was supposed to be allowed to go on vacation and he wasn't given that, so he went on strike and they locked him out of his house, took his belongings, and left him out in the snow. They were so cruel that I inferred that you had negotiated for a raise and they were punishing you. You don't remember that?
ROB: I don't remember those two things connecting. I did negotiate for raises, and I was young and quixotic. I made mistakes in the way I handled things, and I am sure it came home to roost in certain regards. I don't remember the timing of those things to know whether it had anything to do with it, but one would have to guess that if I can inform it in a positive way, I can inform it in a negative way too. Meaning that if the way I am playing it would form the way they would write it, then the way I was would also. And to my credit, most of my fighting was for it to be taken in a positive direction and not to play into the clichés and the baser qualities of man but to elevate him. But I don't know how much of that stuff helped with the writing. I don't know.
METTA: Okay. Another example. When you were up river, Marilyn comes to see Joel and he is frustrated because he isn't becoming as wise as he wants. She acts as if she doesn't have much use for him. Nobody acts as if they have much use for him. I would have thought that anybody who had done as much as he had done for the community and had just taken off - well, if I had split, if I had left town without warning, my friends would come running with a net and make sure I was all right.
ROB: That might have been a vestige, whether consciously or unconsciously, of being upset that I was leaving. That might have been the writers -
METTA: You don't remember?
ROB: I remember those moments. But I don't -
METTA: Do you remember feeling hurt by it? If I were playing that character and they talked about me - in fact there is an earlier episode where Joel gets on a bus to leave and they ----