Cartoons, Movies, TV

TR Interview: Star Trek and Superhero Show Veteran Phil Morris

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Phil Morris isn’t just the narrator of “Real Fake History,” the new Machinima series that gives classic fictional battles the Ken Burns treatment (Beatrix Kiddo vs. the Crazy 88 is today’s topic). He’s also quite the acting badass, having made his debut as a child in the original Star Trek episode “Miri,” played J’onn J’onzz/John Jones on Smallville, and voiced animated comic characters as varied as Jonah Hex, Vandal Savage and Lego Hawkman.

You may not know the name offhand, but I guarantee you’ve seen his face and heard his voice before, perhaps most notably as the slick lawyer Jackie Chiles in Seinfeld. And I think you’ll find he had some interesting things to say.

Luke Y. Thompson: Hey, Phil. How are you?

Phil Morris: I’m well. How are you, man?

LYT: I’m very, very good. I just watched the first episode of the show. It’s really fun.

PM: Adam and I were just talking about that.

LYT: Already one of my commenters is like, “Stormtroopers aren’t actually clones. That’s not canon anymore.”

PM: [laughing]Yeah, you don’t want to overthink the funny, man. The death of humor is overthinking.

LYT: How did you get involved with this project?

PM: The gentleman who wrote it, Tony Janning, acting in a couple of them, and I believe is one of the producers, he and I had worked on a short film about a year ago for Roddenberry – the Roddenberry production company. He was a super great guy, we got along great, I loved the short. He’s a very bright creator.

He called me one day and said “I’ve got this project and we need a narrator, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I just worked with the dude who should be doing this!'” He told me the concept, and I just loved it. I loved it. I had them send me the material and I loved it even more, and I was in. I was in, baby!

LYT: Do you have a preference between voice-over acting and live-action acting, because you’ve done so much of both?

PM: Yeah, I think it’s live action. I think it’s the on-camera that really psychs me, because I get a chance to do more with my whole being. I can be more characters in voice-over than I can look like, but the fun for me is in full immersion, and you can’t get that in voice-over.

LYT: Was that right there from the beginning? Because you were in the original Star Trek, which is kind of amazing.

PM: Mm-hmm. Umm – yeah, but I didn’t take to it as a career choice until the ripe old age of 17. [laughing]Yeah, I mean, I was just a kid, really, in that episode, and I think the immersion part of it came in the living with my father and seeing him go through his process, and then his successes. It’s intoxicating for a young man, for sure, especially in the business my father (Greg Morris) was in. It was so exciting – it’s a no-brainer. And then you just have to figure out – do you have talent? Do you have the stones to do it? And apparently I did, I guess.

LYT: What was the role at 17 that made it really click?

PM: There were a couple of things. One was a film called COM-TAC 303, which you will never find, because it was never completed. It was a hysterical film about an African-American Air Force unit in Anzio, Italy in World War II. My father was one of the stars with Billy Dee Williams and Henry Fonda and Chad Everett and Merle Haggard, and some amazing, amazing personalities.

I was 17 years old and went on location in the Mojave Desert. I had done little things – little school productions. I was really basically an athlete at the time – a track athlete, and was thinking about going to college on a track scholarship, and I took this summer job with my dad, and it just changed my life. It absolutely changed my life.

I mean, we’re doing dress up, military stuff, which as a kid you dream about and you play all the time. And then there were girls involved. There were groupies that came in from Bakersfield and that was ridiculous. So I got the full-on experience very young, and I was like, “Man, there could be worse things in the world than to do this!”

LYT: Yeah.

PM: [laughing]So I came back and got into acting class. I got into another experience which was a play called Gangs, where I worked with another group of highly professional, seasoned Broadway actors that had just come off the road company of Grease. Jeff Conaway, Adrian Zmed – so many wonderful people were in that project – John Hofstetter and Bruce Scott – just some crazy, talented people.

I was so young, it was like a great mentorship program, as well. So I kind of cut my teeth well, early, and it just stuck with me. I just loved this game.

LYT: You’ve done so many super hero characters over the years. You’ve got Lego Green Arrow, Lego Hawkman, you’ve got Vandal Savage, Jonah Hex. Are you excited to see all the live-action DC stuff finally happening, or are you like “Been there, done that”?

PM: Oh, no, dude! If you’re a real fan, you’re never “Been there, done that.” You know, you started the conversation with some of your friends are already saying “Hey, they weren’t clones!” It doesn’t matter how old you get, you’re always passionate and enamored by the things that move you in your fantasy mind – in your imagination.

So I’m never bored. I’m always thrilled with what comes up. Am I a fan of everything? That’s impossible. That’s impossible. But what I love is that the technology has met the concept. So before you could have the concept and want to do it, but because the technology was so wonky, the movies were just a little bit laughable. Now they’re seamless.

If you were to watch Avengers, which I know that’s not DC, but in the most recent roll-out there’s a shot where every single super hero is exhibiting their powers in one frame – in a single frame. Thor is throwing his hammer, and Black Widow is kicking somebody in the face, and Captain America is throwing his shield, and Iron Man is using his – I mean, it’s just ridiculous! And that was never possible a while ago.

So it just thrills me to see how these filmmakers are marrying technology with the concepts that we’ve loved since we were children. I’m fascinated, always, by it. It always moves me.

LYT: So do you naturally sort of gravitate towards – shall we say, nerdy properties? The comic books, the sci-fi kind of stuff, and even this project, Real Fake History right now?

PM: Well, I think that what happens is – you know, like when I went up for Smallville, they, being the producers, had no idea that I was a genre guy. I don’t think they had any idea that I had been on several Star Treks or whatever. They were looking for the right guy for the role. And then when you get into that world – I had done a very few seminal Star Trek episodes, as well as the one, “Miri,” the one that I did when I was a child – I think then there’s a certain awareness of you in those universes from the fans, and then if the creator is pretty savvy, then they know that you’re connected in that way.

And then after you do a few of those roles, then maybe then things come to you, but it’s very difficult for the actor to seek them out. We don’t have that much control. So it’s a matter of body of work that then speaks for that. Essentially, Justice League Lego, I started to do – I’ve done a lot of voice-overs for the DC/Warner Brothers people for a long time, so they’re familiar with me.

I’m on the radar. So then I get the work because of that – not necessarily because they know I’m interested in that genre, or because I am, in fact, chasing those things, you know. I have less control than that.

LYT: That’s cool, because I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary I Know That Voice, but you get the impression from that that even the most experienced voice actors have to try out every single time. So it’s kind of cool that you’ve built a reputation where that’s maybe not necessarily the case.

PM: Well, it is and it isn’t. A part of that is that creators – so let’s just take Bruce Timm, for example. Even though I’ve worked with Bruce quite a bit, they hear me a certain way, so for me to change perception, or for them to then hear me a different way, or to substantiate that what they hear is, in fact, what they want – there’s a lot of money on the line, you know. We’re friends to a point, and then there’s business.

So they need to justify their choices and their casting and their positions as well. We already know we like each other, we already know we respect each other’s talent. It’s now “Will this voice match up with this concept and vision of this character, Vandal Savage, in this particular universe that I want, and not the Vandal Savage that was in the Justice League series?”

So they want to hear me be THAT guy, and sometimes that takes an audition. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just “We really want Phil for this. We know he’s right for this.” And you get it – so much the better for me. But that’s not a steady diet.

LYT: Is it particularly cool when you can cross racial lines and do a character like Jonah Hex? Since it goes so often in the other direction in terms of casting?

PM: Yes, yes. And I think voice over, like I said, you have a lot more opportunity for that, because, you know, you close your eyes and I can sound like a Brazilian wrestler or a Chinese bus driver, depending on my particular range. So yeah – it’s great to play those characters. Vandal Savage – Vandal’s not ethnic, really. He might be Mesopotamian! [laughs]I don’t even know what that is.

But he’s not African-American, so that was a great character to portray, just as a being. And I think Saint Walker on Green Lantern was the same. They could have hired anybody. Well, not anybody, I hope, but they didn’t have to go African-American is my point. So in voice over, you have a lot more opportunity to cross those lines, because, again, you’re doing it just with your voice, and there’s no visual cue.

LYT: So what do you have coming up next? Are you going down to Comic-Con next week?

PM: I’m gonna! I’m gonna go! I’m gonna go! In fact, the short that we did, Tony Janning and I both acted in, Instant, will be down there, and the Roddenberry people are going to be there, they’re going to have a booth, so I’ll go visit them. And then I’m doing the panel, oddly enough, on voice over acting, animation, voice over for Mark Evanier, who does those panels quite frequently, and I think started those panels for Comic-Con many, many years ago, and they’re a big hit, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

And I only go now for a day. I can’t take the whole weekend. It’s absolutely madness! I’m going to take a couple of my nephews, and a friend of mine who has always wanted to go. So that’s always fun, to see people indoctrinated into The Way of the Comic-Con World! It’s quite the circus, as you know, so as much as I love, love, love the fans, and love the energy, there’s only so much that you can take. Especially as talent, because you can’t walk around as freely as you would like to – like as a collector.

LYT: So for Real Fake History, is there potentially another batch coming, if this lot does well?

PM: I sure hope so! I saw the first one today, and I think it’s super funny. Super funny, crazy-good quality production, and the dude doing the narration isn’t terrible either, so….

LYT: [laughs]

PM: I think it’s a really good package, and I think if the fans, like I said, take it with a grain, and don’t kill it with too much intellectualization, they’ll find a lot of fun in it. The people who are doing it have a great deal of respect and honor for the fans. This is why you do it, you know, and I think that they want them, obviously, to appreciate it. They don’t want them not to like it.

I think that if the fans just kind of give it a shot, take it in the vein it’s meant, they’re going to find a lot of fun out of it. There’s so many places that these creators can go with the battles, and with the various projects and products that they can then kind of riff on. I’d love to see it go for a while.

LYT: Is there one in particular that hasn’t been done yet that you’d particularly like to do?

PM: Umm…

LYT: Or would that be spilling too much?

PM: Well, I don’t know. Again, this is their concept, and they came to me kind of as a hired gun. So the concept, to me, I haven’t lived with as much they have. I sort of go to sort of comic book battles, you know, like Muhammad Ali vs Superman in that Neal Adams roll-out, or Hulk vs The Thing – you know what I mean?

LYT: Yeah.

PM: I like those kind of classic battles. Namor vs Fantastic Four, laying waste to New York City outside the Baxter building. So those are kind of some of the ones I go to. I’d love to see – now they’re going to do The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie. It would be great to see The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and to have U.N.C.L.E. against their nemesis would be interesting.

I’m a throwback guy, too, so I love a lot of the nostalgic stuff. But yeah, yeah – those are kind of some of the battles I’d like to see. And I do have a couple more Justice League things coming out – Lego things and Lego Scooby-Doo things coming out.

I do this great podcast called “Living the Dream with Phil Morris,” which is basically about process. It’s about how we get from Point A to Point B. Not necessarily the dream that we have, but how we go about trying to live that dream. And everybody’s got a dream. Everybody wants to be somewhere different than where they are today. How do you get there, and what problems do you encounter, and how do you overcome them?

I do that because I’m always on the search for answers, and how to tighten up my game. As I listen to other people and their experience, it informs me about myself, and it tells me a little bit more that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling along kind of similar paths that I am, and I don’t feel so desperate at times, and disconnected. I think we need more of that connection, and more of that – we’re pretty much the same, in different ways. The more stories we tell, and the more experiences we relate, the more we break some of these barriers down.

LYT: Well, based on what you just said, I can’t let you go without asking if all the super heroes you’ve voiced, in all their particular incarnations, had a big fight – who would win?

PM: [pause]J’onn J’onzz would wipe the floor with them. Vandal might think he has an advantage, because he’s an Immortal, but I just think John has – he’s just so wise, and so – he’s so human for being such a Martian! [laughing]I did Imperiex for Legion of Super Heroes, and I think he would take Imperiex out, no problem. Jonah Hex wouldn’t stand a chance. He’s not nearly tough enough. J’onn is my pick!

LYT: Awesome! Well, thank you so much Phil. I really appreciate your time today.

PM: A pleasure, and good luck to all of us. Thanks, man.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist