It might have been in the role of heart transplant patient Denny who fell for his doctor, Izzie, in “Grey’s Anatomy” that first established Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a household name, but as sensitive as he was on that hit TV show, his performance in “Watchmen” as the intense, ill-fated Comedian, is bound to take the actor to a whole new level.
“Watchmen” is, of course, the long-awaited film version of the iconic graphic novel that has taken the world by storm for two decades. The Zack Snyder-directed epic tale is a dark, violent, intellectual and unique take on the superhero genre, and it’s Morgan’s opening scene that sets up this often morally ambiguous tale that fuses film noir with a dark view of our own humanity, and gives Morgan the role that is bound to get people talking.
He spoke to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
Question: This is clearly the most intense character in Watchmen.. What were the particular challenges for you to play that level of emotion?
Morgan: Well, he goes on such an arc. You know, for a guy that’s filming in- you know, a third of the movie, he has an incredible arc, both in time, and what he goes through sort of emotionally. And – you know, he really just – having the source material to kind of go off of, it’s sort of there. You know, there was days that were tougher than others, and where I had to dig a little deeper. Because it was kind of unlike anything I’d ever really done before, for sure. I mean, I had to go places that I didn’t know I would have to go. And then when I figured out I had to go there, I didn’t know if I could go there. But – so, it was good, though. I mean, as an actor, I couldn’t ask for more.
Question: When you do a comic book movie, and, your first time doing a comic book movie, do you expect the characters to be as richly drawn as they are in this piece?
Morgan: No. Uh-huh (NEG). I don’t think it’s ever been done before. I mean, you know, you saw the film. And – you know, I saw it, and I lived it. This is kind of unlike any other – you know, I have a hard time even putting it in, and saying it’s a comic book movie. I think this movie is in a genre by itself. It sort of takes what we know of this comic book medium, and kind of throws it right out the fucking window. Much like my character. It’s just such an original piece. And, I mean, you just feel that these characters are kind of so – they’re so fledged out in the novel, too. I mean, what I found most fascinating about my character in particular, and what I tried so hard to kind of convey in the movie, was – this is a guy that we shouldn’t like. You know, you just – judged on his actions, you should hate this guy. There shouldn’t be a second thought about him. I never did. And that kind of fascinated me. That – the fact that I didn’t hate this guy. Trying to find the humanity in between trying to rape people, and killing my pregnant girlfriend, the woman who’s bearing my child. And yet, finding a way to like this guy, was sort of – you know, that’s a testament to not only Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but – you know, Zack being able to convey that, and the work we did, particularly with this role.
Question: Were you familiar with the Watchmen book before you started doing the film?
Morgan: No. I mean, I’d heard of it. I just never knew the world of comic books. I mean, I’d read comic books as a kid, and gone through my Dad and uncle’s old comic books, when I’d stay at grandma’s house, that kind of thing. But my first time reading it was the day before I met with Zack, and Warner Brothers sent me over a Xeroxed copy of the graphic novel, if you could believe it. And I remember reading it, and I decided that I didn’t know what the hell I’d just read. And I think I read it three times in one day, just so I could have some sort of knowledge of it. It’s kind of – even not in color, I knew what I was reading was – it was not like a comic book, certainly. And – or any graphic novel I’d ever heard of. It was just so complex and smart.
Question: What do you think Watchmen says about the state of humanity? I mean, what do you think it says about the state of the world today?
Morgan: Well, I think it’s incredibly amazing, sort of how relevant it is today, as when – you know, the movie takes place, or when the novel takes place, the Cold War. You know, there was all this talk, always, of this movie, trying to update it and make it a war on terror, or whatever. And Zack went in and fought this good fight and said, ” Let’s remain true to the novel.” But, you know, in seeing the film, and even when we were shooting it, we knew. I was like, ” F–ck, this is incredibly current to what is happening right now in the world.” And what that says is, to me, we live in a scary place. You know, this world of ours is in a fragile position right now. The doomsday clock is five minutes to midnight, in reality. And to me, that just scares the shit out of me.
Question: Your career has really taken a dramatic upturn.
Morgan: I’ll say.
Question: Did you expect Grey’s Anatomy to be such a springboard for you as an actor?
Morgan: No. No, not at all. You know, I’m just thankful that I had a couple episodes on anything. And – you know, for me, it was paying the rent. And certainly I didn’t get to choose anything I was doing. And if I would have thought in a million years that that would lead to Watchmen – which it did. You know, I mean, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if it weren’t for Grey’s Anatomy. And not in a million years would I have anticipated. That story line just kind of took off all on its own. And then for Zack to be able to look at something like Grey’s Anatomy and go, ” There’s my Comedian,” blows my mind.
Question: And yet there was a lot of criticism when Denny returned from his two-month recent spate of episodes.
Morgan: You know, yeah. That’s what I hear. I try not to pay attention to that. Mostly I’ve been kind of enveloped in my Watchmen world since they’ve been airing. But, yeah, there’s been a couple questions about that. And my feeling is, you know, trust Shonda Rhimes. You know? I think people care so much about these characters, that whenever they feel like they go off track, the fans, they flip out. And that’s a testament to the writing that Shonda has always done. Now, in saying that, I think people should trust her a little bit more than they are.
Question: Now, you’re incredibly busy. You’ve got a number of films coming out. What are you the most excited about?
Morgan: Well, Watchmen. [LAUGHTER] You know, it’s weird – I don’t remember the order, I don’t know the order of what’s coming out, and all that stuff. But, you know, all of them I did for a reason. They all had characters I thought were very interesting, and would be a new kind of a deal for me. They’re all very diverse in what they do and what they say. And so I’m excited about all of them.
Question: What was it like to work with Ang Lee?
Morgan: Well, I mean, you know, it’s Ang Lee. I mean, you know, the fact that I got a phone call saying, ” Ang Lee wants you to be in his movie” – you know, I about shit my pants. So. It was awesome. It was a completely different experience than I’ve ever had before with a director. I thought for the first two weeks I worked with him he was going to fire me at any given moment, because he never said a word to me. And then when he finally did, I was so damn happy. But, you know, we all found that. He’s just a very quiet, kind of subdued director. And coming off something like Watchmen, where you’re working with Zack, who’s got more energy than all of us put together – he’s bouncing off the walls and acting off scenes and rolling around on the floor. And to work with somebody that is so kind of quiet, but – you know, focused. And – the one great thing that I can say about both of them is that they trusted their actors. But, you know, just a totally different style of working.
Question: Has Watchmen opened up any additional doors for you? Are more doors opening up for you as a result of that movie?
Morgan: Well, I mean, I’m busy. I’ll say that. I get to play another bad guy coming up, which is great.
Question: In what?
Morgan: I’m doing a movie called The Resident. It’s kind of psychological thriller. Very much Psycho meets Fatal Attraction. And it’ll be me and Hillary Swank. And I start filming that in May. And that’s a completely crazy – you know, like, literally I’m talking to psychiatrists and trying to break down a character that way, because his mental deficiencies are a-plenty.
Question: So, he’s obviously less empathetic than The Comedian.
Morgan: [LAUGHTER] Well, I don’t think anyone’s less empathetic as The Comedian.
Question: What are your other ambitions at this point? Are you looking for a variety of roles, or to do anything else besides acting?
Morgan: Absolutely. I think a variety of roles is a very good way of putting it. I mean, look. If people are going to – if people are going to hire me to do stuff – you know, I’ve been doing this – I’ve been an actor for 20-someodd years, and just now I’m getting this opportunity to kind of work. And so really, the most important thing I could do besides being humble is making these decisions. And the decisions that I make as an actor – there’s a whole array of roles – I could have probably just done romantic comedies for the rest of my life, or something to that effect, after doing Grey’s Anatomy. And, you know, the first chance I got was Watchmen. And the way I pounced on it would have made your head spin. I was like, ” Absolutely.” So it’s – whatever I can do to push myself, and get better, you know? I just want to get better. I enjoy what I do, and I know how fucking lucky I am. And, you know, if people are going to give me this opportunity, I want to take it.