Interview Date: 08/19/2011
Run Date: 09/09/2011
There might be many parallels between director/co-writer Gavin O'Connor's festival of emotion and creative MMA bloodsport, "Warrior," and 1976's "Rocky," but the character of Tess Conlon as played by Jennifer Morrison is a far cry from the put-upon Adrian Pennino. She's a woman who is fully secure in her intelligence and beauty who knows what she wants. What she doesn't want is her husband, Brendan (Joel Edgerton of "Animal Kingdom"), risking his neck, or her and their children's future, by getting involved in UFC-style fighting. She's also very understandably not too sure what to make of his long-estranged war-veteran brother (Tom Hardy, "Inception") or his recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte).
Jennifer Morrison is an actress very much on the rise and clearly isn't lacking for focus herself. A Chicago native, she's known to millions as Dr. Allison Cameron on "House." After being written out of the show for reasons she says she remains unsure of, she moved on to the world of sitcoms and a pivotal romantic role on the very popular "How I Met Your Mother." She didn't turn out to be the titular matriarch. She did, however, get to be the mother of James Tiberius Kirk in the opening segment of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" – and we're damn mad that we forgot to ask her about it. Starting this October, she will be leading the cast of the ABC fantasy-drama "Once Upon a Time." Created by former "Lost" writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the show stars Morrison as a bail bonds agent who learns that she is the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming.
We met with Ms. Morrison during the "Warrior" press day at, as usual, L.A.'s celebrity friendly Four Seasons. A thorough professional, she informed me that a publicist had carefully tidied up from the prior interview. I made a Hemingway-influenced crack about "a clean, well-lighted place" and we were off.
Bullz-Eye: We're a men's magazine and obviously MMA cues in pretty closely to our demographic. But your director, Gavin O'Connor, is saying that, after the testing on "Warrior" was done, an executive told him he'd made "a chick flick." Women are liking this movie.
Jennifer Morrison: I know. Isn't that crazy?
BE: What do you think about that?
JM: I think there's any number of elements to it. There's certainly the appeal of watching manly men be in a film like this. Both Joel and Tom are solid guys who are incredible actors who give incredible performances. You have this opportunity to watch two great men be very manly, which is appealing for women. But within that, it's such a heartfelt story that really is about family and really is about fighting for family. I think women really do relate to that. It's sort of an unexpected element.
"I was a fan of 'How I Met Your Mother' from the beginning. I had pieced together, based on little pieces of information that they had kind of hinted at, that there was no way I could be the mother. I don't think I'd fit into what they'd established. I never really had my hopes that high for that."JM: The fact that there's this interesting marriage between Brendan and Tess where you really want to [root] for them and you want them to be together. Yet they have very real problems and a very authentic conflict that's going on. I'm hoping that part of it is that women really do identify with Tess and how she feels in this circumstance.
BE: You don't see a lot of, in movies or in real life, people who are high school sweethearts who've stayed together.
JM: There's an appeal to that, for sure. My parents are high school sweethearts. They've been together and are still together. So, I've witnessed it actually work.
BE: You've got a significant role in the film, but your part is not gigantic. How do you create that feeling that these two people have been together a long time.
JM: We were really lucky. Gavin is incredibly collaborative and inclusive in the whole process. We spent about a week with Joel, me and Anthony [Tambakis], one of the writers, just together in a room going over every detail of that marriage. Ultimately, the script changed as we got through those meetings because we would discover something about them that would really inform the way they would actually converse about what was going on, and would add an element to the scene that we didn't realize was going on before. Gavin gave us about a hundred questions to answer. There were 30 or 40 just for the marriage.
BE: These were questions about minute details, like what you're favorite television shows were, favorite colors, and things like that.
JM: And much deeper than that, too. Like, “What was the first time she had her heart broken and who was [her] first boyfriend and where was [her] first kiss?” We had so much history of talking all this through together that it felt like a shared experience. Also getting [Brendan's/Joel Edgerton's] perspective on his relationship with this father and his brother, so that I could know what I was aware of [was helpful]. There was the weight of knowing the depth of his pain in terms of his brother not being around, being away from his father, having been abused when he was younger, and his father being an alcoholic.
BE: You have a theatrical background. You were with the Steppenwolf Theater, which brought along a lot of amazing actors. I was wondering about the transition between doing a show like "House" and regular movies to doing a three-camera sitcom like "How I Met Your Mother." Was that more like theater?
JM: It is, a little bit. "How I Met Your Mother" does not shoot in front of a live audience, but you do have that feeling of a live audience because you've got the crew around and you do have the three cameras going at once, so you're not doing a million set-ups. It's moving quite quickly and you do have the run-throughs with the network watching. So, yeah, it definitely does feel a little bit more like a throwback to being on stage. It's very fun.
BE: We'll talk about the new show, "Once Upon a Time." For some reason, it's not the only fairy-tale themed, somewhat dark, adult show premiering on the networks this year. [The other is NBC's "Grimm."] I don't know why it always works that way. Anyhow, since you've been shipper-bait in two separate shows now, are you prepared for a third round as people get more involved in the story. I'm sure your character will gravitate towards someone eventually.
JM: Yeah. It'll be interesting to see what they do, because Emma is so guarded. She's been through a lot and we'll start to see that more as episodes unfold. We'll start to see more and more of what her upbringing was actually like since she was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. I think she's always used her ability to seduce men to get what she wants or to get what she needs in life – not because she actually wanted to open herself up and have a relationship. If she did at some point, it was probably incredibly damaging because it ended in some horrible way.
JM: It'll be interesting to see what it takes for Emma to step out of her comfort zone. I think right now she uses her sensuality to get what she needs, not to be in love. That'll be interesting to watch unfold.
BE: With the online world being what it is, where people were expressing very strong opinions about whether or not you should ever be with Dr. House and what not, did you ever think that, on your last show, that you might turn out to be the mother?
"[Gavin] really wanted to tell a story that was relevant to what was going on right now and represented the circumstances that a lot of people are in. That was considered every step of the way... just trying to represent authentically how things are really changing right now."JM: I was a fan of "How I Met Your Mother" from the beginning. I had pieced together, based on little pieces of information that they had kind of hinted at, that there was no way I could be the mother. I don't think I'd fit into what they'd established. I never really had my hopes that high for that. But, yes, that is part of the fun of those shows. With "Once Upon a Time," I feel like there was so much intrigue set up just in the pilot that will continue... There's always going to be questions that will keep people wanting to come back for more. I'm sure I will be the center of "this should happen" or "this shouldn't happen" or "you should be with this person" or "you should never be with this person." Everybody's going to have a different perspective on it. I'm always fascinated to hear it because I have my perspective on it and I certainly have Emma's perspective on it, and I know the showrunners' perspective on it. Sometimes someone will really surprise me with something like, "I thought you and Foreman [Omar Epps' "House" character] were going to get together."
BE: I'm trying to remember. I think you had a short scene with Nick Nolte in this film. Of course, you worked a lot with Hugh Laurie, and the new show has Giancarlo Esposito and I'm trying to remember the other fellow's name...
JM: Robert Carlyle.
BE: Veteran actors like that – it's almost a silly question -- do you feel like you learn something from them?
JM: Oh, absolutely.
BE: What's that like for you?
JM: I feel really lucky because I've just had opportunities to do this from such a young age, even before I realized what was going on. I do feel that I'm one of those people who's very much like a sponge. I really do like to soak up what's around me and truly experience it and try to take the best I can possibly take from it. Certainly, the most longstanding example of that is working with Hugh Laurie. You can't help but get better when you are around people who are that great. I feel like even watching those performances – when I watch people like Annette Bening, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife" [I learn]. I feel like I've really learned a lot about how to open myself as an actor and what I would like to be able to accomplish either by being moved by those performance or being in a scene with someone like Hugh, where you get to watch the level of detail that he works at and the perfectionism that he aims for. When you're around that for so long it's infectious. I've had a couple moments on set where I kind of laugh because I'll [say], "What if blah-blah-blah?" and it's so something Hugh would have said.
JM: I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
BE: That's it.
JM: Yes, I was. Yeah.
BE: What was that like?
JM: It was very cool. The process of getting that job was quite funny.
BE: You were 10 years old?
JM: I was eleven, I think. They actually did an audition for that. I was sitting in the waiting room and you could hear through the door. I kept hearing them say, "No, don't be shy. No, just go ahead and do it!" I heard them say that a hundred times. [I thought] "I am not being shy." So, I went in there and they said, "Just stand on the chair" and they gave us a little ball. [They said], "Stand like you're dunking the ball." In my determination to not be shy, I take the ball, I jump off the chair, I slam the ball, I stick my tongue out, and they all burst out laughing. They [said], "No, no, no. You just need to stand there while we take the picture. You don't have to jump up and slam the ball." But it got me the job because, obviously, I wasn't shy. It's funny because that was always my mentality. "Okay, I have to not be shy."
BE: You've mentioned that you box solo. You were a cheerleader. You obviously enjoy athletics. Did you feel a little bit jealous during "Warrior" about not being able to get in there?
JM: There was definitely kind of that [feeling] that, "I could do it. I could do it. I think I could do it." There's sort of that intrigue of, "Gosh, what would that really be like to shoot scenes like that?" At the same time, I was more than happy to not potentially get my face punched.
BE: Sure. We wouldn't want to ruin that beautiful face.
JM: (laughing) I really enjoy boxing when no one's hitting me back.
BE: It's safer that way. Anyhow, this is kind of a downer point, but "Warrior" is actually a pretty topical film. It hits the whole home mortgage issue and the economy pretty strongly.
JM: I think that's something that was really important to Gavin. He really wanted to tell a story that was relevant to what was going on right now and represented the circumstances that a lot of people are in. That was considered every step of the way... just trying to represent authentically how things are really changing right now. When you have that kind of financial strain, it affects every relationship. It brings out parts of a relationship that you didn't necessarily know were there, until that problem exists.
JM: That definitely was a huge part of the conversation when we were building the marriage. This is a new problem. This is something they haven't been dealing with… Brendan's unwillingness to give up the house, because of what it really symbolizes to him more than just being a house, whereas Tess [says] that "our family and our life together is more important than a building." I really thought that was something that Gavin did a beautiful job navigating. There was a stripped down feeling to every element of the film, which was intentionally [done] to reflect the state that a lot of families are in right now. Families that never expected to be there. These are hardworking people, these aren't people who aren't trying to get away with something. [Tess and Brendan] are working three jobs between the two of them and that's still not enough. That seems like that shouldn't be the case.
BE: Either on "Warrior" – or maybe with "House," which obviously deals with a lot of real-life issues, too – has anyone ever come up to you and said, "I saw something you did and it helped me get through some problem"?
JM: I feel really lucky. I've had numerous situations where I was just overwhelmed by how generous people were. I had a moment where I was in the hospital for a cyst that I had that burst. The nurse that had been taking me from room to room for all the tests at the end of the night told me that his brother had passed away recently, and the only way he got through [it] was watching "House." "We used to all watch it together. It really meant a lot to us that we were able to watch that together, and you were his favorite character."
JM: When you hear stories like that, and you know that what you're doing is something that people [tell you] helps them through a hard time.... Kids write letters all the time saying that they want to be doctors because of Dr. Cameron. It is a nice feeling because sometimes you think, as an actor, "What am I doing? I'm pretending to be other people for a living. How am I really helping the world?" When things like that happen, you get it in some perspective that entertainment really does serve a purpose. It is a nice feeling that maybe something good came of it for someone.