One on One with James Morrison

James Morrison

You can’t stop Jack Bauer, you can only hope to contain him. Dennis Hopper couldn’t kill him, the Chinese government couldn’t keep him imprisoned and even Congress seems unable to force him to testify about his previous transgressions.

However, there is one man who Jack Bauer answers to – Bill Buchanan. Buchanan was Bauer’s boss at CTU until the government agency was disbanded and this season Buchanan is back as the leader of Bauer’s ragtag faction operating outside of the government that is attempting to bring down Colonel Iké Dubaku.

Playing Buchanan is accomplished stage actor James Morrison, who recently talked to us about the new season of 24, guest starring on crap TV shows and his former career as a satanic, drug-addicted clown.

Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?

Originally I’m from Alaska. I actually moved there from just north of Salt Lake. We’re in LA now. We have a little house here and are sort of settled in, but we’re looking to get out.

How long have you been there?

Far too long. I got here in the early 80s.

Is it true that you began your acting career as a clown and wire walker for the Carson and Barnes Wild Animal Circus? If so, what was that experience like and what did you take away from that experience?

Yeah, that was one of my early jobs. I started out acting in college and I don’t know what possessed me to want to be a circus clown. I guess I was always influenced by Marcel Marceau and W.C. Fields – guys like that – and Red Skelton I loved when I was a kid. So I guess it was natural that I’d want to do that. But I also just thought it would be romantic to run away and join the circus. I actually for a while wanted to be a clown in the rodeo, be a bullfighter. But it was a little bit easier to find a circus that would take me in and probably a little less dangerous. I guess ultimately I valued trying to keep the structure of my spine and things like that intact as much as I could.

Ironically, I ended up hurting my spine when I was in the circus, so I had to leave. I was in a mud show – it’s a huge tent service that starts in the wintertime and then travels through spring and summer. It was right at the beginning of the season. We were in Alabama where it was really cold and rainy in February and the mud show means that you just set up your tent in the vacant field and it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. You just play in the mud. I took a fall. I slipped on a wet ring curb and landed on the curb on my back and it was so cold that my back went into a spasm. It knocked my spine out of alignment and I may have actually fractured my fourth lumbar. Later on, it turned out that I actually had a fractured spine and they told me it was genetic, but I think it probably happened then, I just didn’t know it.

It was pretty damaging. I kept performing with the show for as long as I could. Through the pain and the addiction to the pain pills and bourbon at the time just to get through the day, I sort of became a really satanic, horrifying clown, as you can imagine, to the kids who would come to the circus. They would encounter this creepy, cracked white face clown that was all messed up on drugs. (Laughs.) So it was kind of an ordeal for them at the time, but I didn’t really care, I was in too much pain until finally I just left the circus and went back to Alaska to recuperate.

What drew you to acting? How did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?

It’s funny because I just memorialized my friend Pat Hingle. He’s one of the last of the original Actors Studio guys. He was in the Actors Studio back in the day when Jimmy Dean and Ben Gazzara and Andy Griffith and Eli Wallach and all of those guys were there back in the 50s. So he was sort of a piece of American theatre history and he made tons of movies, all kinds of Clint Eastwood movies and [Elia] Kazan used him a lot in his movies. But he was an old friend of mine. We did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof together in 1983 here in LA, so I knew him since 1983. He was family to me.

The reason I bring him up is because he stated it like this one time and when I heard him say this I realized that it was similar to me and I think most actors actually. He said at one point that God intended him to be on the stage. At one point in my life when I was in college or just starting to act, I was doing a lot of plays and I realized that I just felt more at home on the stage than I did anywhere else. I felt like I belonged with the people that I was working with and the community of these insane actors who got together and put on plays and the similar mindset of creating worlds that didn’t exist before we got together really except on the page. We brought them to life. I think I just found a kindred spirit there.

It took me a long time when I came to LA to figure out how to act for the camera because I just felt more at home on the stage and I think ultimately what I discovered is that I just came to the wrong coast. I should have gone to New York and I did actually for a while in the mid-70s and I just couldn’t do it because I’m a western soul, I think. But I think that I’ve always been drawn to the stage and never really felt at home until the last 10 years or so in front of the camera. It took me a long time to adjust to the lens.

Why did you decide to transition to film and television? Did you just feel like it was what you were supposed to do?

You really can’t make a living as an actor on the stage. You can make a meager living working on the stage. You have to do film and television to make any kind of decent living as an actor if you’re going to be a professional. You live hand to mouth working in regional theatre or solely on the stage. You have to mix it up a little bit so that you can afford to do theatre. If you’re just a working stiff like I am, you really have to supplement your stage career with television work.

You’ve been a bit of a journeyman actor, appearing in episodes of shows like Quantum Leap; Doogie Howser, MD; LA Law; Walker, Texas Ranger and The X-Files.

I did as much crap TV as I possibly could.

What were those experiences like for you? Are you someone who enjoyed the journeyman aspect of going on all of these different sets?

Journeyman to me just means someone who’s been doing it a long time. What I decided early on was that I was going to work on the stage a lot and get a solid foundation as an actor and become a proper actor. I truly don’t believe that somebody who hasn’t worked in the theatre, especially the young actors, is a proper actor. In the first place you don’t learn discipline – learning how to be prepared, show up on time, do your job without all kinds of nonsense.

If you’re doing a play and you don’t show up by eight o’clock, somebody else goes on in your place, man. But if you’re working on TV or film, sometimes you have to wait for these jokers to come to the set. I always get to the set and the guys that are there waiting for somebody are the real pros. If you keep somebody waiting, you’re just sort of half-assed. That’s the way I look at it. There’s just no excuse for it. So I think you learn that on the stage. You learn that in the theatre. You learn discipline. You learn that it’s about the work first and the story first. That’s what I decided early on, I just wanted to create a solid foundation.

In direct answer to your question – no, I didn’t enjoy going from episodic guest star role to episodic guest star role because you walk into a situation where you’re new. It’s like you’ve been invited to dinner at somebody’s house and when you get there, they ignore you or they just treat you like you’re the unwanted date of the good-looking sister. It’s a terrible feeling. Very rarely does a set of a television show even make you feel like part of the ensemble for the week that you’re there. It’s an uncomfortable thing.

And plus, the material mostly in those TV shows – come on, it’s just crap. It’s barely written and they treat it like its Shakespeare, so you can’t really change it and adjust it or make it as though a human being actually says it. It’s just awful.

James Morrison

The great thing about 24 is that those of us who have a background as writers or we do improv or we know how dialogue works and we know the value of the story, we actually sit around and rehearse and change dialogue according to what the character would say and make sure it’s appropriate to the situation. And then you rehearse it and get up and they shoot it like a little play. They shoot from beginning to end and then they go back and set up the camera angles differently and shoot it again from beginning to end. They really place a lot of value on the acting and the contribution of the actors. For the most part, they make you feel like a true collaborator and that doesn’t happen on most television sets, at all. In fact, quite the opposite.

Speaking of 24, when you came in to play Bill Buchanan, did you realize you were going to be such a big part of the show? How was the character described to you originally and what did they tell you about Bill Buchanan’s future?

They gave me nothing. Well, first of all, they did a makeup test and hair test because I couldn’t look like myself because I was doing another Fox show, so I was hired under the stipulation that they make me look “different.” So that’s why I had dark hair, they put rinse in my hair. First, they tested me, they put a goatee and a beard on me, they wanted me to look like Jon Cassar evidently. That didn’t work. I walked in and it looked like I had road kill on my face, which was awful. So we took that off. Then I remember sitting in the makeup chair one day and Joel Surnow came in and introduced himself and said something about “I thought you were dead” in reference to my name – which is always really clever. (Laughs.)

You probably never heard that one before.

Never. (Laughs.) And then he said something like, “It’s going to be a really good part.”

And I said, “Oh, okay, great. Thanks a lot for having me.”

And then he left. And sure enough, it turned out to be a pretty good part. They were great though. I’ve said it before, one of the high points of the experience was at a party when Joel took me aside at one of the wrap parties, I think it was the wrap party for season five actually, and he said, “We really love your work. We want to have you back as a regular next year for all 24 episodes.” That was a nice moment. The best response you get from somebody is not praise or affirmation. The best affirmation you can get is that they hire you and keep bringing you back. You don’t need to get all of the warm fuzzy stuff.

At the end of last season, Bill Buchanan resigned in exchange for a pardon. Many fans were pleasantly surprised to discover that Buchanan is back this season working with Jack Bauer and Tony Almeida. Did you know that you would be coming back this season or were you surprised as well to find out that Buchanan was still in the mix?

They said goodbye at the end of last season. We sat and talked and they said, “We’re going to shake it up. We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet, but we know CTU is going to be gone. We’re going to move on. The sad thing about this is because this is a one-person show – its Jack’s world and the rest of us are just visiting – and it’s a plot driven show, we lose a lot of actors that we really love. So adios and thank you.”

And then, I don’t know what happened to change their minds, but to me it just seems like one of the best decisions they could have made, not just because it’s me, but because people need the characters that they’re familiar with and that they enjoy watching to make this world familiar to them.

You look at these shows that people like and you go: “What is it about these shows that you really enjoy?” It’s the people; the characters. You could name all of the characters and what you love about them before you could name the specific plot points in the episodes and the storylines. I think it’s the people that draw us back, just like in life. It’s family.

This might be a bit of a random question, but is Bill still married to Karen Hayes?

Yeah, I’m still married. We’re still married.

Will there be any of her in the show this season?

No. I think it’s safe to say without it being a spoiler that Karen is not going to visit Bill. There’s too much going on. It never really was about us, even when we were 3,000 miles apart, we talked on the phone. And I think that’s just not a storyline that interested them, frankly. And I think also that she was unavailable and had other things to do. She’s on Broadway now, Jayne Atkinson, and it just didn’t work out.

But I still wear the ring. In fact, when I first got back there, I said, “Am I still married? What’s going on?”

And they said, “Oh yeah. Here’s the ring, put it on.”

And then again, you see it through the effusion of love I have for her deep in my heart. But that’s about it.

James Morrison

We’re glad that you two were able to stay together though. So many Hollywood couples don’t work out.

It’s a tough town to stay married in. And DC is even harder.

Kiefer Sutherland has mentioned a desire to do an eighth season of 24 and alluded to possibly killing off Jack Bauer in a film after season eight wraps up. If that ever happens and we’re forced to live in a world without Jack Bauer, can you please tell us Bill Buchanan is ready and willing to step up and take over the role of kicking ass and saving the world 24 hours at a time?

(Laughs.) I sincerely doubt it. But it wouldn’t hurt for you to write a letter saying, “I’d like to see Bill take over Jack’s job.”

I do have some stuff coming up where you might actually go, “Hmmm, yeah this is an ass kicker.”

We would definitely like to see more Bill ass kicking.

The fact remains that there’s a lot of ageism in this business and they’re not going to let the white-haired guy go out and kick ass.

It still works for Clint Eastwood though.

You know what though? Of all of the actors in the universe, it only works for Clint Eastwood. The odds are against me.

Obviously you can’t give much away, but what else is in store for your character and the show this season?

I think it’s safe to say we’re out in the field now. I think it’s safe to say that I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack and Tony and we’re in full ass kicking mode. That’s something to look forward to, I think, to see the old guy mixing it up with the young studs.

Is Chloe going to get involved in any of the ass kicking?

Well Chloe is a mom now, so she has to be careful. She doesn’t want to strain her milk, you know what I’m saying. I think that’s the expression.

Having played Bill Buchanan for so long, are you going to look to do something different with your next role?

Oh yeah, I’m definitely going to go different. If I didn’t play a guy wearing a tie for 10 years, I would be happy. I know that I’m not in a tie this year. It was very refreshing for me to go back and say, “I want to look really different. I want to just let myself go like I’ve been at this for a while and we’ve been on this job now for at least a week without even any sleep.”

Bill is looking much smoother this season too.

Yeah. I’m not working for the government anymore for the first time in probably 25 years. After I was fired and they disbanded CTU and went through all of the hearing and stuff, I think, like Jack too seems a little bit more relaxed. Kiefer’s work is a little different this year. It’s very nice. It’s much more thoughtful, there’s a lot more sense of irony and there’s kind of a world-weary quality to it that we haven’t seen, I think. It’s actually very nice work.

There is definitely a different energy this year and the show seems fresher this season.

I also think that LA is just LA. There’s only so much here to sustain anything. I think it needed to break out of LA and go somewhere else and DC was a good move, in my opinion.

It’s good that you are working outside of the government this season, since there is always a mole inside every government agency working with the villains.

Yeah and they recycle that with the mole in the FBI now. There are standard things and let’s face it, there are only 36 dramatic situations and I think they’ve examined at least 45 of them already on 24. So you can only do so much.

In 1996, you wrote and directed a short film called Parking, which screened at 25 film festivals and was featured on the Sundance Channel. What was that experience like for you and do you see yourself doing more writing/directing in the future?

It was a great experience. It actually came about from the experience I had with that short play with Ensemble Studio Theatre based in New York and LA. It was a great success critically, and audiences loved it. So I said I’m going to make it my first film. It’s going to be a 10-minute film based on my play. It was a wonderful experience to be able to make a film. I also just wanted to be able to get my writing out there.

As a matter of fact, my partner Riad Galayini, to whom I’m also married, and I are making our first feature-length film right now called Showing Up. It’s a documentary wherein we talk to actors about the audition process.

How far along is that project?

We’re cutting now. We’re editing. We’ve got about 60 interviews of some really great actors. Sam Rockwell, Eli Wallach, Lois Smith, we talked to Pat Hingle a couple of years ago, when we were just in New York we talked to Margo Martindale and Bill Irwin, Kristin Chenoweth – we talked to some amazing actors. We’ve talked to 60 of them now, we’ve got about 100 hours of footage to cull through and come up with a three or four hour cut. Then, from there we’re going to come down to an hour and a half.

We have quite a task ahead of us. It’s turning out to be a really revealing project in terms of going after what you dreamed to do and to be. There’s a built-in audience with showpeople, but I think it reaches beyond that. At least I hope it will. I’m pretty sure it will appeal to people who aren’t in the business.

People have different feeling about how they approach it. There are different aspects to this too. The audition process – some people love it, some people hate it, some people get burned out on it, some people don’t do it anymore, but they still take meetings, which they consider auditions. Some people talk a lot about how if they hadn’t shown up for something they didn’t get, something wouldn’t have happened 10 years down the road. So we examined that undercurrent of blessings that follow each of us through our lives. It’s going to be a pretty interesting project and I think it will include some amazing insight from some of our best actors and actresses.

What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?

I think I might be teaching. I know I’d be teaching because I actually wanted to be a teacher since I was in high school. I’ve always taught something. I’ve always done workshops since the time I was in college. Now I teach Hatha Yoga. I would have taught something probably.

But I’m also working on some music now. I did that too back in the 70s. I started performing as a guitar player and singer and I’ve written a lot of songs now in the last couple of years and I’m going to start to lay some tracks down of my own stuff.

And I look at teaching as a performance art too because I think there’s just no way to escape that. So I think that it would have been something to do with performing. As I said, I feel as if I was chosen to have been offered the gift of wanting to do it and when I’m afforded the gift of being able to do it, I truly feel gifted.

James Morrison

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

Well, you know, most people don’t know anything about me. (Laughs.) It’s kind of a trick question. I’m still relatively anonymous.

I think that most people don’t know that my father was named James Morrison too. His father’s name was James Morrison too. So I come from a long line of James Morrisons. It’s a very common Scottish name. You remember the poem from A.A. Milne Disobedience, right? “James James / Morrison Morrison / Weatherby George Dupree.”

I think that’s about the extent of the secrets in my life that I’m willing to reveal. The other secret that I might reveal is that I have to be really careful about keeping a lid on it when I’m asked that question because I’m usually far too honest and I end up saying far too much.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy. 24 airs Monday nights on Fox. Please send your letters to Fox now demanding an all-Bill Buchanan season nine of the show.

  1. jf February 18, 2009
  2. MarIe February 28, 2009

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