Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... David Morse
June 23, 2008 4:00 AM
From the HBO miniseries "John Adams": Paul Giamatti as John Adams and David Morse as George Washington.
Chris Haston/NBC Universal/Fox
David Morse on an episode of "House."
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He made a name for himself playing the kind, baby-faced Dr. Jack Morrison in the 1980s television drama "St. Elsewhere." Since then David Morse has moved to the big screen in "The Crossing Guard," "The Green Mile" and most recently last year's "Disturbia." The Philadelphia-based actor plays George Washington in the HBO miniseries "John Adams," drawn from the book by David McCullough. It's now out on DVD.
Q:What was your reaction when you looked in the mirror and saw yourself in full makeup as George Washington?
A: It actually happened in stages. The first thing we did is we tried the hair. That looked pretty good. I had been looking at a lot of portraits of the man. His nose just kept standing out to me. It was so different from my own. We had a cast made of my face and shipped it off to Los Angeles and built it [a nose] there. I flew back to Richmond [Va.] and walked in with the hair and nose on and everybody went, "Oh, my God. That's George Washington."
Q:Did you find anything about him that you related to?
A: I'm more comfortable talking to people one on one. The more people there are the more sort of self-conscious I get, the more internal and thoughtful I get about the things I'm going to say. George Washington was similar. He was very self-conscious about his education. He was very self-conscious about his teeth. He was not comfortable presenting himself publicly.
Q:As an actor, do you feel more responsibility when portraying someone so historically significant?
A: Oh, of course, particularly this figure. Something that's very hard to do is to present someone who is living, but this man, in a certain way is still living for all of us. He is so much in our face every single day. You know? [He's on] the money that we have. We all think we have an idea of who he was, so the trick was to both respect the man we believe we know and also find that part of him, the human part, that we wouldn't expect.
Q:Did you learn a lot doing this film or were you already a fan of American history?
A: I love American history because I grew up in Massachusetts and am related to a lot of people from American history. Literally I was playing in the graveyard of the Minutemen. The church up the street had the bell made by Paul Revere. But I wouldn't say I was a scholar.
Q:Who is your most famous ancestor?
A: Well, some of them were supposedly related to Rebecca Nurse, one of the witches of Salem. But I'm actually named after Nathaniel Bowditch, who most people won't know. My middle name is Bowditch. He is the father of modern navigation. He was a great sea captain during the war of 1812.
Q:Are you the kind of actor who brings the characters home with him?
A: I think more in the beginning than as we go along. Part of it is there is never time to rehearse when you do these things. You wind up just going in and doing it. For a television series everybody arrives on the first day and you start shooting. There's never an opportunity to live with the character and live with other characters. One of the things I tend to do is literally take walks for hours just to let my imagination run over the life of this character I'm going to play, and it takes shape in my body and my emotions. In that way I live with it at home.
Q:Have you ever found yourself in a role you hate?
A: I'm sure I have. It's mostly experiences that I've hated. Later you can sort of have a sense of humor about it. There were times doing "St. Elsewhere" where it was very difficult to do that role. I was very unhappy doing it. "St. Elsewhere" is a series that is just loved by people everywhere, and I don't really want to take away from the affection people have for it and even the character that I played.
Q:You are very tall [6-foot-4]. Has your height ever interfered with you getting a part?
A: It used to all the time. I'm not going to mention a name here, but there is a very famous movie star who would not work with me because of that, because he was a shrimpy little guy. [He] didn't want people to know it.
Q:How did you end up in Philadelphia?
A: We had lost our house in the earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994. My wife grew up in Philadelphia. We needed to find some place safe and comfortable for Susan and our kids, and I had the idea for them to come back here, where she at least knew some people until we could figure out what to do with our lives. We had to put our daughter in school, and it just turned out to be a very good place for us to live. It's been great.