How Lamorne Morris Got Woke...and then got 'Woke'.
The actor on his new Hulu comedy, his own experiences with racism, and his friendship with Chadwick Boseman.
Lamorne Morris in Woke, 2020
Highly publicised incidents of police violence against Black Americans have dominated headlines this summer, stoking a deep unrest that many are only now realising has been frothing just underneath the surface for some time. It’s a realisation that Keef Knight would recognise all too well. Knight, a fictional cartoonist and the gravitational centre of the new Hulu series Woke, is a Black man living in San Francisco whose career-changing big break is derailed after a violent encounter with the police sparks a racial awakening within him. The series is based in part on The K Chronicles, the award-winning comic strip created by the real-life Keith Knight that satirised his life in San Francisco in the ’90s and ’00s.
Knight is played with goofy charm by Lamorne Morris, who is best known for his seven seasons as Winston Bishop, the endearingly dweeby failed basketball player turned LAPD officer on New Girl. Woke finds Morris treading much of the same comedic water he explored on the hit Fox sitcom, but also diving a bit deeper. Knight confronts his social responsibility as an artist, navigates racial fetishisation in a city where Black people are rapidly becoming extinct, and tries to unpack the trauma of an encounter with police. And he does this all while arguing with a host of suddenly animate objects, including a rather chatty pen voiced by J.B Smoove.
GQ spoke to Lamorne Morris about his first time as series lead, his own journey to “wokeness,” and a lesson he learned from his late friend Chadwick Boseman.
Did you see anything in Keef’s story that you felt paralleled your life and your career in Hollywood?
Lamorne Morris: As soon as I read the script I thought, Man, this is absurd. This show is insane. And yet this character reminds me of somebody I know, reminds me of myself. This character is exactly who I am. It's very rare that you read a script where you go, Man, this is written specifically for me. I jumped on the phone with the agents and the team and said, “Hey, can we get an offer for this?” And they said, “No, you audition for it.” So I auditioned for it, and the rest is history.
I was that guy who was, Oh, I just want to watch basketball and go to set, say some really silly, funny off-the-wall jokes, then go home. I was very happy and content in that space. Meanwhile, across the street, somebody is getting beat up. Meanwhile, down the street, another person's getting evicted from their apartment when they're going to tear down their condo or their apartment complex and build a strip mall. Stuff like that that would be happening all around you. It didn't affect me, so I just kept it moving. And I thought, Man, this is exactly who I was. I didn't know a damn thing about politics. I was checking out of those classes in high school.
I just shied away from it because I didn't want to look like an idiot. And in our show, [Keef] makes a comment: “Why do us people of colour always have to stand for something or be saying something with our work?” And [Ayana, a journalist played by Sasheer Zamata] says, “Because the world's a racist, fucked-up place.” That never hit me until later in life where I was like, Man, that is affecting me. What just happened makes me sad. I just watched the man get killed in cold blood by a police officer.
Lamorne Morris in Woke, 2020
You've been acting for a long time. But if I'm not mistaken, this is your first TV series where you're the series lead. Did that change how you function on set at all?
Oh, absolutely. The responsibilities that come with being number one on the call sheet are a little bit different. It's almost like you're the captain of the football team. When things go wrong, you have to be the one to address it for people.
If [comedian, actor, and Woke costar] T. Murph was having an issue on set, now that this is his first show, I would say, let me take care of it. And I would tell him what I'm doing, because it's not going to be very long before he's number one on his own show. And then he's going to have that responsibility to do that for other people. Things that we weren't as a cast agreeing on, I would have to be the spokesperson for it. At night when everyone wants to go out maybe after and have a drink or something like that, because you are number one, you can't do that, because I got to be on set at five in the morning, and I'm working until five, six at night, often later than that.
This one was definitely an eye opener, but it was fun because it felt more like a team effort, because we were all hands on deck with rewrites because the subject matter is so sensitive. So we were trying to make sure we got things right, and even though I'm not a writer on the show, I was definitely included in all those conversations.
Can you give an example of an issue on set where you felt compelled to speak out on one of your castmate’s behalf?
Some things I will say are very, very personal. So, I won't put those out there. But some of the differences between film sets in the States and in Canada are vast. We were shooting in Vancouver. And race being a very touchy subject matter as is, and being a crew of Black people coming to a town with no Black people to film, you would have these issues of, oh, we need this scene to mirror San Francisco, so we need a group of Black people there. And then, when you get to a set and there were no Black people, you would ask, where are the Black people? The point of the scene is that it's a discussion with Black people. And then it'll become a bigger issue on set like, we need to find some Black people, how do we do this? What's going on?
When you guys were working on the show, you couldn't have anticipated the high profile police violence that we've endured this summer. But still, there's a long documented history of these types of encounters. Did you worry about trying to portray an incident which for many Black people in this country (USA) is one of the most sensitive experiences that they can imagine?
For sure. You want to be sensitive towards the people who have had it a lot worse than you, or than this character. It's a fine line you have to walk, especially in television, not to throw off anybody. [The showrunners] had most of those discussions amongst themselves, but with me, it was a lot of talking about how it felt, maybe how it should feel, we have multiple cuts, some of them look really light, some of them look really gentle, some of them look really aggressive. We shot in a few different ways. We’ve been getting a lot of good feedback on it, and then for me personally, seeing what has happened and transpired since then, I thought we could have gone even darker. But that is still a sensitive subject for a lot of people.
Lamorne Morris in Woke, 2020
One of the feelings I think the show and your performance do a great job of getting at is the feeling of being marooned that many Black people navigating artistic fields experience — where they don't feel entirely apart of the largely white establishment, nor do they necessarily feel completely in sync with its Black counterpart. Is this a feeling you recognised as an actor living and working in LA?
Absolutely. I remember when I first started on BET. I was a TV host there. I just thought, “Oh, I have to fit in, so I have to perform the way the rest of the TV hosts are delivering dialogue.” And I sucked at it. I was like, this is not who I am. And I remember Reggie [Hudlin, filmmaker and former President of Entertainment at BET] pulling me to the side going, “I didn't hire you for that. I hired you to be who you are.”
I've been told so many times from random white people, “I'm blacker than you are.” Stuff like that. Based off of what exactly? There's this notion that you don't fit in, even in the film business. I had one director ask me “not to be so….” and she kept moving her hands like a stereotypical hip hop video, like doing this weird dance. I just looked at her like, “What the fuck did you just say?” And then, on the other hand you're told that you're not that enough.
So yeah, there is that weird in between. When we get these casting breakdowns that might be a little too descriptive in what they're looking for — “Urban.” And so I go, “Am I urban? I wonder. Can I play this character that they're asking me to play? What are they looking for, are they looking for a rapper or are they looking for an actor? What is the thing here?” So there is always this cloudy in between that you walk through.
In the first episode of the series, Keef has a very public meltdown at a comic convention. It seems that now that the band-aid of anti-black racism has been ripped off for him, he can’t help but feel it all around him. I'm wondering if you have ever had a moment like that?
Oh, man. I was 18. I remember having to make this video, an industrial video. It's an actor’s first job type of video. The character I was playing was the lead singer in a band, and the director kept screaming at the top of her lungs for me to smile. And one of her words was literally “let me see those teeth!” She was at the top of her lungs and screaming at me and the rest of my bandmates were all white, and they weren't asked to smile. You know what I mean? And apparently I wasn't smiling enough. And, at the end of it, I got up, I walked away and I just started crying immediately.
I used to think that military Black folks were just too much. But now I'm like, oh no, maybe they're not even enough. How come we can't just be ourselves, and co-exist and be friends and be lovers and be family members? So, once I realised that I couldn't have regular human emotions from those days, is when I started to feel like, damn, this sucks. You know what I mean? And that carried with me for a long time.
I saw recently on your Instagram that you posted about the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who of course is a huge figure in Black Hollywood. Did you know him personally, and if so, what was your relationship with him?
I definitely knew him personally. I want to say we've known each other since 2005, maybe 2006. Right around the time I moved to New York or a little bit before that. We became buddies through another actor, Ramses Jimenez. Him and Ramses were writing a movie together. I just remember literally spending every day with those guys, ideas, notes, helping write. Chad had coached me on my New Girl auditions. He gave me advice during that time. When I was going through a which-show-do-I-pick dilemma, I had an offer from two different networks and he walked me through that decision making process.
When I was broke in LA, he brought a buddy in town to live with me so he could help me pay my rent. He was like a mentor to me. He was such an intense guy when it came to his craft. I remember having an audition for Selma, and I asked him to coach me on it. And he came by, and at the time, I was trying to infuse humour in moments that I didn't need to infuse humour into. I just remember him looking at me going, “Hey brother, this movie is going to be two hours long.” And he's like, “I understand you probably just left the set where you were telling jokes, but, if you want this role, you got to check out of that. You got to clock out of that. Now, let’s get back to work.” I didn't get the part. But that stuck with me, to attack every audition and every role with that veracity and that intense work ethic.