In HBO's historical miniseries John Adams (Sundays at 9 pm/ET), David Morse is tasked with the role of recreating one of the United States' most legendary figures, George Washington. We chatted with him about playing the first president, brushing up on his history and remembering some favorite gigs on his résumé.
TVGuide.com: How did you prepare to play George Washington?
David Morse: I didn't have a lot of time. I found out about three weeks before shooting that I was going to do it. It was really a cram session. Obviously I was looking at every single portrait I could find just to get some feeling of how people saw him and how he held himself. Literally, I started reading from the moment I started to the day I wrapped.
TVGuide.com: Describe your interpretation.
Morse: When I looked at portraits, one of the things that kept striking me was his nose. I kept thinking, "If I don't have that nose I just don't think it's going to work." He was a commander and there was just something about that feature that said to me something about the strength of his face. When I walked onto the set everybody gasped and said, "It's George Washington!" In terms of his behavior, what struck me early on is that he was not comfortable speaking publicly. You don't hear about him being a great speaker — he was a great presence. He was very careful about the words he spoke, very thoughtful. He was very soft-spoken. That contrasts with how he would walk into the room and would change the room. It wasn't just his height — there was something in the way he carried himself. People were surprised when they talked to him that he was not as extraordinary as his physical presence. The most interesting thing in the miniseries is later when he becomes president and you really get to see him under the gun. His world gets very complicated and it's much more dramatic for him. When John Adams becomes vice president he becomes an afterthought. There are people like Jefferson and Hamilton who are really getting his affection and attention — and those two men hate each other. The country is literally torn apart and Washington is caught in the middle trying to hold this country together. Adams becomes an ally and an intimate.
TVGuide.com: How did it feel to stick it to Hugh Laurie's curmudgeon on House?
Morse: [Laughs] Right now it feels painful because there are so many people who hold it against me! I had worked with David Shore, who ran Hack, and when they came up with the idea of a character who could stand up to Hugh Laurie's character, he called me to see if I would be interested. I had not watched the show, so I mentioned it to some people I was with, and they said, "You have to do it!" It is such an unbelievable show and this character frankly needs somebody to go after him and put him in his place. So I said I'd give it a shot. It truly was great fun. Hugh is just amazing, and he really is a formidable character to go up against.
TVGuide.com: You have such a rich movie résumé. Which film roles stand out?
Morse: I'd say there are three — the two films that Sean Penn directed (The Crossing Guard and The Indian Runner) and The Green Mile. I think in all three of those films, the actors were all doing extraordinary work. They were all at the top of their game. And there was something right from the beginning that just felt extremely special. The scripts were great. There are films that just have an aura about them.
TVGuide.com: One of your lesser-known gems is Diary of a City Priest.
Morse: I knew Father John McNamee for years; he was good friends with my in-laws. When I was sent the book to read and asked if I would do the film, of course I said yes. It was a unique challenge to play somebody that I knew. You're always very careful about the characters you play — you want to honor them. Particularly when you're portraying somebody who is still doing the work that he's doing, and who's talking about a very difficult period in his life. It's a very tricky road to walk. I loved doing it, and I love him. He is really living what he is talking about on Sunday more than anybody I know.
TVGuide.com: Looking back, how do you regard your stint on St. Elsewhere?
Morse: I'm grateful to have been a part of it. It was an amazing show. I think that and Hill Street Blues really changed television. The character was difficult for me. There were times I loved doing it and times I hated doing it. It was painful for years. But he is a character that is loved by many, many people. It means a lot that the show can enter into people's lives. It pushed the ways you could tell stories on television to extremes. It didn't always work, but that's part of really taking chances with storytelling. Those writers were fearless.
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