HEAT VISION

Why 'Justice League' Star Joe Morton Thinks Fans Should Have More of a Say

Justice League
Courtesy of HBO MAX
The actor reflects on Zack Snyder restoring his storyline as Dr. Silas Stone, and weighs in on the power of fan campaigns: "It’s kind of like voting."

[This story contains spoilers for Zack Snyder's Justice League.]

Now that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has finally been released, viewers are understanding exactly what Snyder meant when he called Cyborg’s (Ray Fisher) storyline “the heart” of his movie. Of course, an integral component of Cyborg’s arc involves Joe Morton’s Dr. Silas Stone, who was first introduced in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After a devastating car accident took the life of his wife, Dr. Elinore Stone (Karen Bryson), Morton’s character channeled the incalculable power of an alien technology to prevent his son Victor from suffering the same fate. In doing so, he created an advanced human cyborg with a laundry list of superpowers, as well as the ability to manipulate technology at will.

In a movie that’s filled with second chances, it’s quite fitting that Snyder would receive one himself by way of his most ardent fans, who’ve raised over $500,000 for suicide prevention along the way. After Snyder and his supporters overcame incredible odds to get “The Snyder Cut” released, Morton believes the audience should have greater influence on what they want to see.

“The fact that it engendered so much interest that people really pushed on social media to see it, I think that’s how a lot of it should actually work,” Morton tells The Hollywood Reporter. “If the audience says, ‘We really, really, really have heard about this, we really want to see it,’ so much so that the studio says, ‘Alright, I guess we have to put it together and put it out there,’ then I think that’s a great thing. It’s kind of like voting.”

When 2017’s version of Justice League reduced the roles of Cyborg and Dr. Stone to a significant degree, Morton was still able to look at the bright side of the matter. Namely, that Dr. Stone survived the theatrical cut, where as he died in Snyder's version.

“Well, what I actually felt about it was, ‘Oh, I guess I get a sequel because I don’t die,’" Morton shares. “That’s really what my response was. I loved Zack’s version of it; I thought it was terrific. But this means that there’s life for the character after [2017’s Justice League], and I’m still hoping that’s true.”

Ultimately, Morton is gratified that Silas’ self-sacrifice played a major role in the Justice League saving the world. He even likened his big moment in Zack Snyder’s Justice League to his other franchise involving cyborgs.

“I think that his self-sacrifice was the ultimate human gesture, if you will. The same thing was true in Terminator 2,” Morton explains. “When the Terminator actually sacrifices himself at the end of the film, it’s because he understands the fullness of humanity and what that means in terms of making it better for other people. And I think that’s certainly what Silas is going through in that moment.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Morton also looks back at his unusual first day on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, playing the spirited Mac in Speed and how real life inspired Miles Dyson’s final moments in Terminator 2.

The Stone family storyline is truly the heart and soul of this movie. Victor (Ray Fisher) and Silas really affected me, and that’s been the common refrain so far.

Oh boy! I unfortunately have not seen it yet. (Laughs.)

You’ve probably witnessed many absurd moments in this business, but is the rebirth of Zack Snyder’s movie the craziest, most improbable thing you’ve ever seen?

I don’t know if it’s the most improbable. I mean, I think of it the other way around. The fact that it engendered so much interest that people really pushed on social media to see it, I think that’s how a lot of it should actually work. If the audience says, “We really, really, really have heard about this, we really want to see it,” so much so that the studio says, “Alright, I guess we have to put it together and put it out there,” then I think that’s a great thing. It’s kind of like voting.

The movie is about second chances in a lot of ways, and that includes the second chance that Silas gave Victor. So it’s quite fitting that Zack would also get a second bite of the apple.

Yeah, I think it’s tremendous. I wouldn’t want to compare the two films, but for Zack, as you say, to get a second chance, especially given the reason he had to leave the film in the first place, I think it’s a wonderful thing.

When you found out your role was cut down in the 2017’s theatrical release, did you dwell on that disappointment for a little while, or does that sort of thing no longer faze you at this point in your career?

Well, what I actually felt about it was, “Oh, I guess I get a sequel because I don’t die.” That’s really what my response was. I loved Zack’s version of it; I thought it was terrific. But this means that there’s life for the character after [2017’s Justice League], and I’m still hoping that’s true.

So let’s revisit your casting, which took place prior to Batman v Superman. What do you remember about those early conversations with Zack?

When I got a chance to talk to Zack, I was in an airport. So he told me what was going on, what he wanted to do and would I be interested, and I said, “Absolutely.” I thought, “This sounds really exciting.” He explained that the introduction would be in Batman v Superman, and then the actual thing would happen in Justice League. I thought it sounded great.

Did Zack explain Silas and Victor’s overall story at the time?

More or less. I’m not quite sure it was fully imagined by that point. I hadn’t really read the comic books, but I knew that you would see the reconstruction of Victor into Cyborg in Batman v Superman. And then I knew that there’d be more detail in Justice League, but I didn’t quite know what the detail was going to be.

And once you received Chris Terrio’s Justice League script, what was your first impression?

Well, it’s interesting. I was doing a play at the time. I was doing a play here in New York called Turn Me Loose, which is about Dick Gregory. And it’s a very realistic, very funny, very hard-biting play about the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his comedy and the death of Medgar Evers. It was a very real kind of thing. So I ended up having to do the two of them at the same time, and when I read Justice League, I felt, “This is going to be a very interesting contrast.” And to be quite honest, when I was in the middle of doing the play, I got on the plane for my first day on Justice League and it felt like moving from a very real situation to a very elaborate Halloween costume party. So I was enjoying all of it. I thought, “This is great.” But literally, when I got to that first day, they put me in a harness and those creatures were flying me over a rail and down into this basement. I thought, “This is just bizarre.” I had just played Dick Gregory, so my mind was in a whole other place in terms of what I had been doing. And then, to walk into this world, the contrast was enormous in terms of going from a reality to an absolute fiction.

Victor resents Silas for turning him into a monster, as he called himself. Since actors are taught to justify their characters’ decisions, could you easily rationalize Silas’ decision to harness this unpredictable alien power to keep his son alive?

Oh yeah. From my point of view, it was, “Not only can I resurrect my son, but I can resurrect him in a way that makes him even more powerful than he was before. I can give him powers that neither one of us would realize the capacity of until he began to use them.” I think that’s any and every father’s desire. What can I give my son to make him greater than I could possibly imagine? We send our children to all kinds of schools, training grounds, jobs and whatever to make them more powerful people. I don’t mean powerful in terms of waging power one against the other, but powerful in terms of their own self-worth and what they have to contribute to the world.

When Victor was in a coma at the hospital, Silas said, “I won’t let you die. I won’t allow it.” The latter phrase, “I won’t allow it,” is a rather interesting choice of words. Did you sense any hubris?

I think it’s more defiance than hubris, and then I think it’s, “I lost my wife, and so I won’t allow this other loss.” I also think it’s the kind of thing that everybody feels, but are usually powerless to do anything about. When somebody that you are close to is dying, the great thing that you feel is your powerlessness. It’s the inability to change it. And here, he says, “I actually have the power to change this, so I won’t allow it to happen.” Again, it’s being able to facilitate something that most people in the real world don’t have an opportunity to do.

Through the tape recording, Silas speaks to Victor as a scientist first and then as a father second. Prior to the car accident, do you think Silas mostly spoke to his son as a scientist?

Yeah — and I think it probably was even worse than that. The impression I kept getting was that Silas was not available to his son very often, and that he was mostly working. I have three children, and in many ways, I suppose I could look at my own self and say that the big worry in my life is that I work a lot. When you’re not around your children, there is a part of you that thinks, “How do I balance this? How do I figure out a way to be with them and still do what I thoroughly enjoy doing and find compelling to do?” And I think that’s what Silas’ thing was. Before the accident, it was all about, yes, science, but science in that it was his greatest love. And suddenly, in being faced with loss, he realized, “Oh, I need to do something to change this.”

Did you record your voiceover during the original production or postproduction?

I think it was during the original production. I think I did it on the stage, but I honestly don’t remember.

I know I’m getting into the weeds here, but there’s a lab scene where Silas and Ryan Choi (Ryan Zheng) walk perfectly in sync with each other. Is that something that’s directed and rehearsed on the day?

I don’t think so. I think that just happened. (Laughs.) I don’t remember Zack ever saying, “I want you guys to be sort of in lockstep with one another.” I don’t think that’s true. The great thing about working with Zack is that, unless there was something really, really, really specific that he needed, he pretty much let the actors have their heads. We just did what we thought, and if he needed more, then we would do more. But that was the beauty of it. It’s a huge set with all these enormous sets on it, and all of these people doing all of these things. And Zack is like a college kid. He clearly loves the genre. He clearly understands the genre thoroughly and makes it a very easy environment to work in. I really, really enjoyed that fact probably more than anything else.

There’s a moment at the lab where you’re trying to alert everyone to a false alarm, and suddenly, these five superheroes emerge including Batman and Wonder Woman. Even if you have no previous connection to these characters, that had to have been an invigorating day for you, right?

(Laughs.) It was! In some ways, every actor, and in this case, this character’s dream, is to be in the presence of such incredible… I started to say human beings, but they’re not exactly, except the Batman. And so, yeah, I think that was a very, very special moment to turn around and see all of them. And then, to have that moment with Victor and recognize that he is one of them.

[The next question contains spoilers for Zack Snyder's Justice League.]

Silas sacrifices himself in a major way. If he didn’t mark that mother box somehow, the Justice League, and Earth by extension, would probably lose. So were you quite pleased that Silas’ sacrifice had real utility to the eventual victory?

Yeah, I was. I think that his self-sacrifice was the ultimate human gesture, if you will. The same thing was true in Terminator 2. When the Terminator [Arnold Schwarzenegger] actually sacrifices himself at the end of the film, it’s because he understands the fullness of humanity and what that means in terms of making it better for other people. And I think that’s certainly what Silas is going through in that moment.

Dr. Miles Dyson’s last gasp is another indelible scene from Terminator 2. For the uninitiated, how did you arrive at that breathing pattern?

Well, we tried a couple of different things and it wasn’t working. So I told James [Cameron] that a few years earlier, I had been in a car accident where my lung had collapsed. So I told him how I was breathing. I said, “This guy just got shot in the chest, so I’m sure he’s breathing the same way.” And so when I showed him, we both got excited, and that’s when he started working with the lights and so forth. So that’s where it came from.

A few years later, you played Mac in Speed, and I still love the way he’d basically repeat his lines at a higher decibel. For example, “You’re fired. Everybody’s [expletive] fired!”

(Laughs.) “You’re fired. Everybody’s fuckin’ fired!” Yeah.

Were you guys actually harnessed to the bed of a moving truck as you were yelling lines to Keanu on the bus?

That’s right. Not only that, but I was actually up in that helicopter when we’re flying over the bus through the city, which they don’t do anymore. And the guy who was our pilot for that helicopter had been on a series I’d seen when I was a kid called Whirlybirds. It was about cops who were in helicopters, and he was one of those original pilots. It’s funny because my partner’s nieces think of me as a nice guy, and they were shocked to hear me curse like that. So in that sense, it’s kind of funny.

Are you surprised that they haven’t tried to make a proper sequel at this point?

I suppose. It isn’t something that I really think about. More than Speed, I’ve been asked, “How come there wasn’t a sequel to The Brother from Another Planet?” And certainly, there have been innumerable sequels to Terminator. But I think Speed was a surprise to everybody. At first, the budget on that was very small, or smaller than it should’ve been. And then they tested it as we were shooting it, and they realized that they had something here. So then they threw more money at it and it became very successful.

I’ve always felt that Beth Grant’s character, Helen, is the key to a proper sequel. She tried to get off the bus too early and was blown up in the process. But if you rewatch that scene, some of Mac’s officers were encouraging her to get off prematurely. So instead of blaming Dennis Hopper’s character, Helen’s son would seek vengeance against Mac, Jack (Keanu Reeves) and the rest of the LAPD for failing to protect her from a known threat.

(Laughs.) That’s an interesting idea. I also think it’d be an interesting idea to do a film about the PTSD of the passengers, as opposed to us. Actually, now that I think about it, there was a sequel to Speed. It’s the one with the boat, which I didn’t much care for, but that was the sequel.

Yes, that’s why I’ve been stressing the word “proper.”

(Laughs.)

Terminator 2 and Speed are two prime examples of how practical action filmmaking used to be, while Justice League is a testament to how far technology has come. As an actor, do you still prefer the old-school approach with real explosions, helicopters, speeding busses, etc.?

Yes and no. I’ve been in films where things have exploded and people almost got hurt and all the rest of it. The idea of being in those kinds of films and knowing that the opportunity for anyone to get really hurt is lessened, I think, makes it more fun. The idea that you can do a movie like that and people can be looking at tennis balls instead of creatures, or whatever might be coming at them, makes your imagination come to life. It makes you actually work to make something happen. And of course, they do everything they can. As I said, on my first day of Justice League, they put me in a harness, and they had the folks in those creepy costumes lift me up. So we literally had to fly through the air, and that is fun. And the cast, we had a great time. I thought the kid who played The Flash [Ezra Miller] was hysterical. A really smart kid. But the fact that the danger is lessened makes it more fun. You don’t have to worry about a helicopter crashing on you or that the explosion is going to be too close to you or that the gun is going to go off. Now, you have a gun that doesn’t actually fire at all, but by the time they finish with it in post, it’ll do all kinds of things.

As we wind down, what has the last year been like for you?

It’s been kind of wonderfully busy. I got involved with a group called Lessons in Survival through the Vineyard Theatre, which is a local theater here in New York. They would get old tapes of, let’s say, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, and by listening to those tapes and acting at them at the same time, actors would then channel what was being said. And it was remarkable. It was just remarkable the kinds of things that would begin to happen. I did a play for The Public Theater called Shipwreck, which was kind of an “anti-Trump” play about the confrontation between he and the head of the FBI. I played the head of the FBI in this radio play. It was really beautifully and very operatically written and produced. I just finished directing an episode of Bull. I also have a series that I think we’re getting ready to get on the air, and it’s called Inside the Black Box. Basically, it is Inside the Actors Studio, but it’s from a Black point of view in terms of entertainment and artists of all kinds. And at the same time, I’m going to be directing for Zoom. I know that sounds weird, but it’s going to be really interesting. It’s another play called Brutal Imagination, which is based on the Susan Smith case, the woman who drowned her two children in a lake and then blamed it on a Black man who did not exist.

Did you always have aspirations of being a director?

I think I always wanted to be a director. Even when I was in college, I started directing plays. And when I came out of school, I directed plays before I started doing film and television. And then once I started doing TV, it became a part of the contract that I would get to direct an episode per season of whatever series I might be doing. So I think it’s always been something inside me that I’ve wanted to do, and I really, really enjoy it. And this last episode of Bull, although it is a courtroom drama, it offered some really interesting challenges. The plot of it is basically about a young dancer who executes a sexual predator in the middle of a funeral. So you sort of get to see her past and that past is written as a representational kind of thing. We shot her, as a young dancer, in high-contrast black and white as she’s meeting this guy for the first time… If we did it correctly, I’m hoping it’ll be not only poignant, but quite beautiful.

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming on HBO Max.

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