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Interview: Rob Morgan on the Long Ride to Leading Man Status in Bull

In a wide-ranging conversation, the actor discusses his film appearances, as well as all the life and roles in between.

Marshall Shaffer

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Rob Morgan
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Just by you mentioning the word sleep, I almost dozed off,” Rob Morgan joked when I asked if he got any rest given the breakneck pace of his recent screen appearances. In just the last year, he’s appeared in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, and Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, as well as reprised his roles in Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s High Maintenance. Not only that, the actor is now headlining Annie Silverstein’s Bull, originally scheduled for a theatrical run in March but now arriving on VOD in May in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Abe, a grizzled veteran in the Texan rodeo scene, Morgan breaks loose from his character-actor status to share center stage in Bull. His character becomes a reluctant mentor to a neighboring adolescent girl, Amber Harvard’s Kris, who has to help him out in his bullfighting vocation as penance for trashing his residence. While Kris experiences the sport as a gateway to a future that does not involve matching her mother’s fate of ending up in prison, Abe must reckon with how his own advancing age will soon relegate bullfighting to his past. His is an aching, soulful performance with the undeniable lived-in quality Morgan brings to every role.

I caught up with Morgan over the phone prior to Bull’s originally scheduled theatrical release. In our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed Morgan’s film appearances, beginning with 1996’s Contact, as well as all the life and roles—both lost and earned—in between.

All of a sudden, you’re everywhere. Beyond the obvious answers of hard work and talent, how did this all happen?

Man, by the grace of God and timing, hanging in there, believing in myself. Planning my work, working my plan, showing up prepared for each opportunity and just basically putting my best foot forward and trying to maintain my health and sanity along the way, so that when my number is called, I can actually contribute something.

When did you start acting professionally and what did those early days look like?

I got my first check in 1996 being a background extra on Contact, and I was totally green to the idea of acting. But something came over me in a moment when they told me, “Background, you can make noise now.” And when they told us that, in my mind, I envisioned how we really feel it. Jodie Foster was trying to get millions of dollars from the president to support her outer space explorations when kids in D.C. don’t even have schoolbooks or even art supplies. And I asked myself how I would feel [in that moment], and I just started yelling at Jodie, “There’s nothing in outer space, get a real job, don’t waste my tax dollars.” And from that inclination and moment, a microphone popped up over my head, which just really sent me into outer space. When I went and saw the movie and heard my voice and saw my face, it just really came over me and was like, “This is what I have to do for the rest of my life.”

And that moment is what fueled me for 24 years to get this phone call from you, reaching back to that moment and how it felt through all the rejection, the closed doors, and the “you’re not good enough”s. I just held on to that moment, and eventually stuff just started clicking.

Then I worked with Dee Rees on her film Pariah. And that was because Dee just really wanted to work with me. And that broke me out of the short film game, because I was kind of the king of short films in New York for a while. I was doing all these short films, and they would be in the film festivals, they would get accepted and people would appreciate them. And from there [Pariah], the water started coming through to the walls, everything just broke wide open. Probably after I did Daredevil with Marvel, the Netflix show, that was the first time I actually had a character that showed up more than just once in a project. I would come in and out, and [that’s where] I think the momentum really started.

It’s crazy the scale of the reach that streaming platforms get being everywhere and in so many homes.

I got to really tip my hat to the streaming platforms because I think they saw value in my kind of personality and character, who I am. And they gave me a shot, whereas network TV, I was a little too risky. My voice is a little too deep. My arms are a little too broad. You know what I mean? It’s very funny like that. So I’m very thankful to platforms like Netflix because they actually get the everyday person and they can get a job, sort of like BBC Television. When you look at BBC channels and shows, you see people up there with crooked teeth, scars on their face—not the perfect image of beauty, but they’re working and very talented, and they get opportunities. And I think that’s what Netflix did for me.

Going back to Dee Rees, I believe she fought for you to be in Mudbound over the producers’ desires for someone more well known, right?

If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t even have been in that movie. They wanted everybody but Rob Morgan until they met Rob Morgan. And then, all of a sudden, they started getting on board. I’m getting ready to work with Adam McKay now, and Adam McKay insisted that I do this role.

Is that the Jennifer Lawrence project that he’s doing for Netflix?

Yes sir, Don’t Look Up. And I’m glad you brought that up, because a lot of my work, it’s like I even skipped over casting directors in a lot of ways because it’s the directors and the producers who want to work with me. I just did a movie, Just Mercy, and it was Gil Netter, one of the producers, who was like, “Yo, we’re gonna get Rob Morgan for this role. Period.” And that’s me opposite Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner, Michael B. Jordan, one the biggest movie stars on the planet today, Brie Larson. Gil trusted me enough, and I had never even met him. But he was like, “Look, Rob Morgan is this character. Period.” So that’s really how I get a lot of my work—through the producers and the directors that really want to work with me.

Rob Morgan

A scene from Just Mercy starring Rob Morganas Herbert Richardson. © Warner Bros.

You have a remarkable eye for kind of catching directors at the beginning of their careers. Dee Rees, like you said, but also Reinaldo Marcus Green, Joe Talbot, Stella Meghie, and now Annie Silverstein. How are you spotting talent that might not have been proven in the feature filmmaking context? Or is it more that they’re spotting you?

Honestly, I think it’s them recognizing me. I approach all my work with directors with the same amount of respect and decency, and I think new directors really appreciate that. Oftentimes, when they meet you, they might have an impression of you. But I’m very open to working with new directors. I look at them just as I would look at a Steven Soderbergh or Adam McKay, those who are already established and doing their things. I also look at them with the same enthusiasm and hunger to bring their vision to life.

Your IMDb page doesn’t list a screen credit until 2003. But you’ve talked about Contact, and I saw somewhere else that you auditioned for the 2000 remake of Shaft.

Yeah, I was actually the guy that they picked for Shaft, the original remake. But Warner Bros. didn’t want to give John Singleton the money at the time for a no-name, even though he was known for bringing out no-name actors. They wanted him to go with Will Smith, but he didn’t want to go with Will Smith because he didn’t feel like Will would have been Shaft at the time. So it was me. And then when they shelved the project, I was stuck in New York on my own and just had to figure it out. I was kind of pushed to the back of the line, like I started all over again. That was a tripped-out experience, but I’m thankful for it.

Do you think the fact that your journey took a little bit longer to get to the point where you are now factors into how you approach your craft or the characters?

I believe so. I believe I have a lot more information that I can put into my characters with the longer road traveled. I definitely feel that it informs me more as far as my approach and my gratitude to be able to be a working actor in this industry. The appreciation is definitely there, if I would have got it when I was 24 years old, straight out of college, would I be able to manage it like I manage it now? That’s something I could ask myself. But at the same time, I don’t mull over any of this stuff, Marshall, because I believe everything is in God’s timing. And what was meant for me is meant for me when it’s supposed to be, and that was part of the psychology that kept me sane while I was pursuing this. Being happy for others when they win and just being grateful for when I get an opportunity.

To your point, I think you can tell the difference between people who’ve actually been out in the real world and had real experiences versus those who are just defined by their relationship to the craft.

Oh, definitely. And I found myself to be an actor. I’m in it, but I’m not of it. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t make me. Like, I was cool before Hollywood, I think. I appreciate it. I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I do. But, at the same time, if this was all to end tomorrow, I would still be good. I would still be all right. Because I don’t do it for fame, I don’t even care about being famous actually. Actually, that’s the least attractive part to me. I just wish I could make the money, be under the radar, and be left alone—actually, that would be ideal for me. But it comes with the territory. It’s part of the game, you’ve got to navigate it. I think working smarter and not harder is always best.

Speaking of work, I saw that you worked at Bear Stearns at some point?

Yes sir, that was my survival job.

I hope more than survival at such a big institution, or at least until they went under.

You know what, though, Marshall? That’s how I had to look at that job because, yes, investment banking, there was a moment when I was thinking, “You know what, forget acting. I’m just gonna do this investment banking thing and live my life.” I really had that thought for a good amount of time until I was like, “Nah, this isn’t feeling [right] to me.” But it was one of the best survival jobs anybody could ever ask for. Because it helped me maintain my own level of dignity and respect when I walked into these rooms to audition. I was already paying my bills. I was already good. I didn’t need them. They needed me. That’s how I looked at it, and that survival job afforded me to be able to do that.

Let’s talk Just Mercy. Your character, Herbert, is so crucial for the audience to understand the unfairness of the criminal justice system and how that has really devastating consequences. How did you go about playing that character and bringing the humanity to life of someone who could easily just become an empty symbol?

I was extremely honored that they trusted me with that character because I feel like he’s the moral compass of the movie. You ask yourself, “Does someone in this situation, under these circumstances, deserve the death penalty?” It forces you to ask yourself that once you see how this character plays out. I found it to be very important to play a human being instead of a caricature. Because, right now, with the climate that we’re in, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ll still have a lot more Herbert Richardsons that we still must deal with. We should deal with the same delicacy and care that we wish we would have dealt with the actual Herbert Richardson. So, what I wanted to do was just put a human being on screen who we all can relate to and understand, at the end of the day, has the same wants, needs, and desires. To be protected, to see our children grow up and be smarter than us. And hopefully by putting a human being on the screen, regardless of circumstances, people can [ponder] if he’s worthy of that kind of punishment, and how much more of this unjust justice system they’re willing to tolerate.

It’s my understanding you were filming Just Mercy and Bull overlapping, right?

I was filming Just Mercy, Bull, and This Is Us all at the same time. This Is Us was in L.A., Bull was in Texas or Denver or Oklahoma—we were going all over—and then Just Mercy was in Atlanta. And I literally was on the set of all three of them in the same week.

When you’re dealing with that, are you able to just draw walls around the characters? Are they seeping into each other at all?

It’s tapping back into my original training by American Theatre of Harlem—my first teacher was a gentleman named Keith Johnson—understanding the approach to characters and defining them enough in your preparation, that you won’t cross them up like that. Because those are three totally different characters. And I just had to rely on my own instincts and training and then also rely on the directors that I was working with. Thankfully, there were directors that created safe spaces for us to just go and play and have fun.

Bull seems like one of the one of the first times we’ve really seen you take on a part of such a huge magnitude where you’re a lead, or co-lead at the very least. Are you being offered lead roles and turning them down to favor supporting roles in these really great movies? Or are those parts really just that that shamefully rare?

They’re shamefully rare! It’s mind boggling to me sometimes too. But I just focus when somebody does put the ball in my hand, and give them the best jump shot I can and be thankful for that. But I think the lead stuff is starting to brew up, you know, as much as people wanted to keep me as the heartbeat or the informant of their projects, which basically is like four or five scenes. I think more and more people are starting to take interest in me actually being the lead in their project, which is pretty cool. And just a testament of like, hard work tastes great. Staying in it, not letting it beat me down, not letting it take me out. But just being inspired every time I do get a chance to do it. Honestly, when people say, “Yeah, you get the small parts,” at the same time, I don’t see no part as small. Just put me on camera and I’ll do my job! That’s all I really try to focus on, and by doing the job I think people become attracted to that. It stands out. I make my one scene the lead of the whole project.

By the time we meet your character Abe in Bull, he has a lifetime of physical and emotional experience. How do you go about inhabiting that?

Drawing from my own personal ups and downs, my own failures and wins, long rejections and acceptances. I was able to have access to a beautiful pool of men and women who actually were cowboys and cowgirls, fought bulls, learned how to ride a horse. I sat out there, listened to them, and talked to them and ate with them. Sucking in the environment that way helps a lot. Throwing me in the environment, I’m able to pick up on the little nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up a person. I love going in places and becoming a part of that environment, instead of going in places and flexing my strength on an environment. I just go to be open to receive, and then when they say “action,” I just try to pull from all those little takeaways I get.

A line that really stood out to me in the film was whenever Eva, the woman over for the evening, tells Abe, “There’s other ways to make money,” besides the rodeo, and he replies, “Not for me.” Was that an entry point for the character?

That’s the lifestyle of a bullfighter. They’re so engulfed in that practice that a lot of them, literally, would rather die trying to save a cowboy than get up and go work at Walmart or a gas station. In their minds and where they’re from, there’s much more nobility and dignity in sacrificing yourself for somebody else time and time again. When you go down there and hang out with these people, they’ll tell you, “Damn a hospital, damn a doctor, the only thing I need is the emergency room. If it ain’t the emergency room, I’ll be alright.” They’ll tell you, “Why am I gonna go to a doctor so they can put a $500 bandage on my arm when I can go right to CVS and buy it for $8 and do it myself?” You see a mother out there with her eight-year-old boy riding a damn thousand-pound bull, she’s entrusting some bullfighters to save her child and is cool with it. It’s a whole other level of human spirit that these people carry man, and I was so blessed to be down there and get a get a glimpse of it and try to portray it in the movie.

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