Alex Morf is an actor who can be seen in shows such as Mindhunter, playing Detective Ocasek, and Daredevil. Recently I was privileged to talk with Alex about these shows and others, films, his stage career in War Horse and Of Mice and Men on Broadway, music, wrestling and much more besides.
DB: You were born and raised in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
AM: You’ve probably never been to Iowa. Most don’t go to visit as tourists. Usually the reason most people see Iowa is if they’re driving through on their way to somewhere else, but it was a great place to grow up. It’s farming country and the land has, I think, an understated beauty with rolling hills and lots of space to explore. Great public schools. It’s a place where people tend not to like to talk about themselves or shine the limelight on themselves too much, and in that way, I guess there’s an understated beauty to the people of Iowa as well. I think of Iowans as being hard workers who care a lot, but don’t need to make a big show of it, and it’s those qualities that make me feel proud that I’m from there, you know?
DB: It’s called ‘Mount Vernon’ but I’m assuming, it’s the mid-West, I don’t expect there’s a mountain. Is there a hill?
AM: There’s no mountain! For a time I think the town motto was “One Hill Of A Town”. It’s a small college town – I think those small, college towns around the US are little gems… they’re like bastions of culture. It’s a very small town so in high school you’d do a little bit of everything: I played four sports and was involved in student government, and theatre and music and, you know, you’d do whatever you wanted to. I think that’s probably not for everybody but, for me, I really thrived. I was interested in doing lots of different things so it gave me a chance to explore a lot.
There’s very little diversity, though – I mean, there’s some but it’s very homogeneous. I love living in New York City now because I feel like it’s so important to be around many different kinds of people from in so many different places, different cultures. And I think that is the biggest challenge, growing up in a place like Mount Vernon, is the lack of getting to know people with different experiences from your own.
DB: It’s not cosmopolitan at all, is it? Not like New York or London.
AM: I was lucky, my parents were big believers in travel. They took us to London when we were kids and my mom’s family is from Germany so we traveled there. We went to New York a couple of times. I think my parents did a good job of opening our eyes to the world around us, even though our town was a small place.
DB: Where in Germany did you visit?
AM: My grandfather was from a really small town in eastern Germany called Kemnitz, that’s close to the Polish border. I think it’s a fascinating place, the former East Germany… my grandfather, (when I knew him he was already pretty old) he lived there and fought in WWI, for Germany, and came to the United States afterwards. I had always been fascinated with his life, I think partly because he grew up in such a different world, being born in the 19th century. He lived a very different existence.
I did a tour of a play a few years ago called War Horse (it’s a World War I play) and I played a British soldier, but I always carried around the picture of my grandfather from the war – it felt like that always grounded me in reality.
DB: We must touch on that further because it is a favourite play. You were a really good wrestler weren’t you?
AM: Yeah, I was pretty decent! Where I’m from, wrestling is a really, really big sport. I started when I was 5 and I just always loved it. I loved wrestling with my dad, like I think lots of kids do. We also had season tickets to The University of Iowa, which had a really good team. I think wrestling is one of the great sports. There’s something very pure about it, there isn’t any equipment required or anything, and it’s also ancient. It’s widely considered to be the oldest sport—it’s in the Bible as well as Ancient Greek literature. I wrestled from age five all through college. I still love to watch it. it’s interesting, a lot of my favourite actors were wrestlers too: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Mark Ruffalo. I’ve always thought that sports are so closely connected to acting… having to have that kind of extreme focus as well as a mentality of privacy even though you’re in front of a lot of people.
DB: And you know that all eyes are on you but you have to actually kind of forget that.
AM: Exactly. There’s a very specific skill. I often do think of that before an audition which feels very similar to what it felt like before a wrestling match: there’s a sort of holding area where you are before you are sent in to perform, and you’re trying to keep a level of calm and stillness while also feeling engaged and active. There’s a very tenuous place in the middle between being engaged but also relaxed….there’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle that is important in both sports and acting.
DB: How did you get into acting? Was it at college?
AM: Yeah, you know, I have two older brothers who I always just wanted to be like and they were both in plays growing up. I think, originally, it was just that, ‘Oh my brothers do this, so I want to do it too.’ Some of the earliest acting I did was probably home movies of myself just trying to pretty much mimic what my brothers had done. Then I was involved in it in high school. You know, there’s some differing of stories here, my mom would tell you that she knew that I wanted to do it before this, but my memory is that when I went to college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study and I remember my first semester at college I was just working a lot; I spent a lot of time in the library, and I was just very, I think, achievement oriented. I remember, I was sitting in a lecture one day and I realised that I just wasn’t having fun, so I quit taking notes.
I had seen a flier for a playwriting competition and I started to write a play and I got so into it that I just quit doing homework for a couple of weeks and put all my effort into writing this play. I won the competition, and I got to have the play produced and it was there that I met some of my best friends in college. I guess I realised that if I didn’t do something creative that I was going to be a pretty unhappy person. It was a sort of an ‘ah ha’ moment where I, all of a sudden, felt like I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. I feel like I’m very lucky… I really feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I mean it’s a very hard profession and full of ups and downs, but I also think I love it too much to imagine trying to do something else with my life.
DB: It’s a vocation or a calling.
AM: I don’t want to sound too self-important about it but yeah, it feels like what I’m best at. My skills seem to match it very well. I like how a lot of the work is done in private but when it actually happens you can’t do it without other people. I like working with other people but I also enjoy doing some of the puzzling work, some of that detective work, by myself in solitude; it’s a great mixture of that.
DB: So when did you first start performing on stage, properly?
AM: My first paid acting job was right after college. My theatre teacher recommended me to (I went to a College in Minnesota, St. Olaf College) a small theatre company that was in Minneapolis for an audition, and I went up and auditioned and I got the part. It was for a an incredible theatre company called Frank Theater in a musical called The Cradle Will Rock, which is a 1930s, pro-labour musical by Mark Blitzstein; It took place in the abandoned Sears building in Minneapolis. There was something about doing this pro-union play in this abandoned, corporate behemoth that seemed really exciting and cool. I loved it! It was not a lot of money but the people at that theatre company were really incredible artists—so welcoming. It felt like “oh, these are my people.” Also I had never lived in a city before and I was surrounded by all these people who were like amazing professional musicians and puppeteers. I felt flattered to have been chosen. And it’s also amazing to all of a sudden be part of a company comprised of all ages. I had never done that before: in every play that I had done prior to that was with just high school kids or college kids playing old people or children… there’s something amazing about that in the theatre: that you can have kids working alongside 80-year-old actors, working alongside 30-year-olds, and everybody is on the same team, all going for the same thing.
DB: It is almost unique in the sheer age range you can get.
AM: It is! The last couple of years I’ve worked more on camera, which has it’s own charms, but there’s something that I really miss about the community aspect of being in the theatre when I’m not there. There’s nothing quite like it: coming to the same space everyday, and having a cup of coffee and chatting with people and then getting to work, and everybody’s really working on their own thing but you’re all doing it together, trying to work out little bits, find laughs, understand moments…it’s a special place.
DB: I’ve had other people say that, unless you’re in a TV as a member of the regular cast and are there all the time, in the theatre it feels very much family-like.
AM: That’s totally right. I think in a lot of ways, the hardest acting jobs in the world are the ‘guest stars’ on TV, because you don’t really get to know anybody and every day feels like your first day at work – which doesn’t matter what you do, first days are always hard. For me at least, I’ve always been slow to warm up to new people and new situations (it just takes me a little time, I think I’m a little shy) and you don’t know exactly what you’re doing yet, you have to learn the ropes, and so you sort of get thrown out there and have to fly right away. I think the more that you do it, the more you get used to it, but it’s hard! The really good series regular actors understand that too.
I remember, my first TV job was on The Good Wife and my scene was with Josh Charles. In our first scene, during the rehearsal, he was clowning around a little bit, making us laugh, and he spent a lot of the day just hanging out, talking theatre with me and I think it really put me at ease. People who understand the difficulty of that position and go out of their way to be friendly, it makes such a big difference.
DB: Which was a really nice start in TV because it could have been completely different.
AM: Totally! And, you know, your first experience with something often colours your future experiences, so I’m so grateful to Josh Charles for being so cool.
DB: You went to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco as well didn’t you?
AM: I did. I spent two years after college in Minneapolis, doing what we call non-Equity theatre (non-union) and also I was selling backpacks at REI and I was coaching high school wrestling, just getting theatre parts where I could get them (and I loved it, it was really great). Somebody at some point said, ‘You should go to grad school because getting your degree can help you get better parts.’ I didn’t really know anything about it until I met with somebody who told me that I should try and go to NYU because it’s a really good school. I thought, ‘Well I’ll do that.’ So I went an auditioned, and I got close to getting into NYU, but I didn’t make the final cut —and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go back and apply again next year because I really want to go there!’ Then someone wisely gave me the good advice that, ‘You should also apply for some other schools too and cast your net a little wider.’ So I went back, and auditioned for NYU and just had a terrible audition—just bombed…but luckily I had these other places that I was auditioning and I got into ACT – and it ended up being one of the best things I ever did.
Going to grad school for acting is not for everybody – it’s a pretty big expense for a profession that doesn’t promise a lot of rewards – but I loved it! You know, growing up in the midwest, I think that there’s a hesitancy to show emotion, and I feel like going to grad school (maybe especially in San Francisco which is pretty liberal) it really allowed me to ‘open up’ emotionally. I always say it made me realise that I had more secrets than I thought that I did and I feel like that’s been the real ‘gift’, to understand that there are questions about myself that I haven’t even begun to ask. It was great! It was very weird: there was a lot of rolling around on the ground, and we’d go to these voice classes and people would spontaneously break into tears during exercises, and sometimes I felt like I was in a Pentecostal church. (Both laugh) But also, the thing that I learned is: there can be so much value in saying ‘yes’ to an exercise that you might think is hokey. I try to hold onto that in my life now, to say ‘yes’ to things I think might be stupid because I might really gain something from it. I felt I had pretty good instincts before, but ACT helped me to really open up and let those instincts out.
DB: Have you found that really valuable since?
AM: Absolutely! I mean, in so many ways. Vocally, it was a really big deal for me, especially doing a play like War Horse, where we were performing in theatres of up to 2,000 people. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t have had the kind of vocal training that I had. I also appreciated the fact that at ACT it’s not just one technique, they throw a lot of different things at you, and I think that makes the most sense to me – very seldom do you come back and use the exact same tools for any two parts. Usually, whenever I start a job I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know exactly how I’m ever going to be able to do it, and then slowly you try different things and you figure it out. For me it’s helpful to have a lot of different ways in. I also made a lot of good friends there; they were three really good years!
DB: War Horse: what was that like as an experience?
AM: It was very special. I had never done a national tour before, which is also really an experience. Talk about becoming a family with a group of people… when you’re on the road exclusively with the same group of people, you really get to know them. I was also really moved by the play. It was a long run – I had never done a play for that long – we were on the road for 15 months. I was lucky, as about half-way through the run, our lead broke off and quit the show and I was asked to take over the lead so I got to change parts. It’s nice when you get new challenges thrown at you, especially during a long run. Also in that show there are so many different kinds of artists: puppeteers, musicians, actors. I still feel very close to all of the people on that tour; maybe particularly because it’s such an emotional story – I know it’s a fictional story but it’s about something very real that I think still holds great import today.
DB: I’ve always seen the story and play as Michael (Morpurgo) using it as a vehicle to show the realities of war.
AM: Exactly! Which is a daunting place to live inside of for 15 months – it’s a dark place!
DB: I was thinking about that. When you are in roles like that which are in a dark place: how do you cope with something like that, as an individual?
AM: I think for one thing, you have to do your best to shake it off in between shows, and I think that we did a pretty good job of having fun. I found a couple of friends on the tour who are both amazing musicians (I play guitar) and one of them, my friend Nathan and I discovered we both really like Tom Waits. We could both play a lot of the Tom Waits’ discography so we started playing songs together and then another person in the cast, Megan, who’s a tremendous violin player joined us and the three of us just started playing songs. I found it was a very creative and fruitful time and I started writing a lot of songs. We would play in cities around the country and that became a really good outlet of joy and expression so it wasn’t just bombs and death.
DB: My daughter saw it with her school and when they got off the coach afterwards, about two hours later, they were all still crying.
AM: I met my wife (Charise Greene) while I was doing that show so while we were getting to know each other she would come and visit different cities and I think she saw the show about seven times and I think she cried every single time.
DB: Thinking also about the stage, you were in Of Mice and Men with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. I love Chris O’Dowd.
AM: Great guy—such a wit. I got back from doing War Horse and I thought I was going to hit the ground running and then I don’t think I worked for about six months – and that’s kind of how it works, the minute you think you’ve got the world on a string, you go through a long, dry spell. I was lucky enough to get a callback, but then I found out the callback was happening in about three months, which is a long time between auditions. So in those months, wherever I went—on the subway or walking around town, I’d just run the lines in my head to myself. I must have looked like a crazy person talking to myself in public all the time. The callback went really well, and that’s where I met the director, Anna D Shapiro, who I think is probably still my favourite director that I have ever worked with: I am so impressed with the way she worked with actors and the way she told that story.
DB: When it was done as NT Live and you knew it was the performance that was going to be the NT Live one: did it feel any different performing that evening or not?
AM: You know, we had a full audience of people who got in for free, which is the best audience you’ll ever have. It didn’t feel that different, to be honest. You can see the cameras a little bit, but we’d also done the show so many times at that point that we could do it in our sleep. The great thing about being part of a long run is you really get to explore different choices, different ways of doing things and deepen what you’re already doing; that’s also a great gift of theatre. I think we could have done that show if they had thrown live monkeys on the stage. (Both laugh)
DB: What was the very first movie that you ever appeared in and what was it like as a newbie on set?
AM: I think it was In Dubious Battle but the two that came close to each other were Maggie’s Plan and In Dubious Battle. Much like doing a guest star in a TV show, there’s more nerves involved because oftentimes you have one big day where basically most of your scenes gets shot so that’s always a little bit of a challenge to just talk yourself through those nerves so that you can just forget about the camera. In Dubious Battle was amazing because they had a whole encampment and it was the first time I had been part of a big, outdoor set.
DB: How did you actually get the part in that particular film?
AM: James. I think James really enjoyed doing Of Mice and Men, and I remember toward the end, he mentioned backstage to us that he wanted to do a Steinbeck movie (you never know if those things are actually going to happen). About a week before it started, he sent me an email that said, ‘Hey, I want you to do this movie!? Can you make it in a week?’ And I said, ‘Okay. Who am I playing?’ He has gone out of his way to include those of us who were in Of Mice and Men in some of his projects, and I’m very grateful for that.
DB: Where was it filmed?
AM: I filmed in two different locations: the first part was outside of Atlanta, Georgia and then the second part was in an apple orchard which was out in Washington State. Those scenes were shot almost a year apart too. That was also strange: to come back and be part of a film that you had worked on almost a year before.
DB: How did they work out the fight scene?
AM: Really fast. There’s a fight choreographer. Luckily I’ve done a lot of stage fighting so they were able to really throw it together pretty fast and I’m sure that Vincent [D’Onofrio] has too, so we blocked it down really slowly, showed them what we were going to do, the started speeding it up and then shot. I think they were pleased because it looked really good on our first take. You always want to try to be as efficient as possible and help everyone to not to spend extra time on something like that.
DB: What was it like working with Vincent?
AM: You know it’s funny, because I never worked with him in Daredevil but my character was the one who gave up the name of his character, Wilson Fisk—I give up his name to Daredevil and then I kill myself because I know he’s just going to do when he finds out… so I did a lot of imagining him in Daredevil, but we never actually worked together. It was fun to get to do this film and have a little bit of time around him. He has tremendous range. It’s fun to watch him work, and also there’ was fair amount of improvisation on that set, and it was fun watching Vincent improvise.
DB: I was thinking about his range because the character he plays in that film is so different from Fisk, in Daredevil.
AM: Yes. He can be really transformative, I think. He makes pretty big choices. With Wilson Fisk, his manner of speaking, his physicality, there’s something almost stylised about it almost, but he’s able to do it in a way that you believe it. I always appreciate actors who are willing to take risks – that’s my favourite kind of acting.
DB: Also it’s the tiny details in it, such as eating in the European-style and very particularly. It is so perfect for the character because he likes to consider himself a cultured man, even though he’s really a barbarian.
AM: (Laughs) Exactly! Exactly! You know it reminds me of Holt, in some ways. Holt is such an interesting actor because you know there’s the part of him that’s the Irish boxer but he can also be an extremely genteel, sensitive, cosmopolitan guy – speaking French, talking about meeting up with the Princess of Monaco or something like that – those different aspects of him make his work extremely fascinating I think and allow for a lot of range as well.
DB: You’ve been in quite a few short films. In what way are they different from working on a feature film?
AM: In the way that they are shot. It’s usually a really small crew and you’re trying to shoot everything fast, so that you don’t spend too much money. I think it’s fun! It’s like getting together and making a film when you’re a kid, you know? I like the format of short films a lot. My wife and I have a standing date every year to go and see the Oscar nominated shorts at the IFC Theater. I’ve always enjoyed reading poems and I feel that shorts are more akin to a poem – it’s a little taste of something that sometimes can be deeper and more satisfying than reading a full novel.
DB: We have touched on Daredevil and Mindhunter which we’ll go onto into a little while but you mentioned being in The Goodwife and then you were a snarky intelligence officer in Madam Secretary. (Both laugh)
AM: Yeah, that’s all he did, make snarky comments! Part of me wished I would have gotten to explore that character a little more but you take what you’re given. One of the coolest parts was that one of them was directed by Morgan Freeman. Obviously, he’s a phenomenal actor, but he also was just a very kind person. He’s someone that when he looks into your eyes you really feel ‘seen.’ My contribution to that show was fairly minimal. I appreciated getting to be there. Every job you get to learn a little bit more of what it is to be helpful to the greater story and how to best do your job.
DB: You were in another show TURN, which was about Washington’s spies. You played a British Army officer in that and you had an English accent.
AM: I did. That also felt like playing dress-up a little bit. You get there and they just have everything for you, there was not a fitting or anything. I just showed up and they had the Redcoat and the powdered wig and then, of course, the set where you’re in the 1700s and lit candles. We shot it all in one morning so it was so fast it was kind of a blur, but I really enjoyed that little scene.
It’s interesting, when I did The Good Wife, I had a bit more hair on my head and I played a lot more comic roles back then, the sort of ‘lovable idiot’, but then I started losing my hairline and all of a sudden started getting cast more as villains and despicable people and I was so excited about it!
DB: Because often they are the most interesting aren’t they.
AM: That’s right and what’s best is when you can find a little of both—when a character is lovable and also despicable or vice versa.
DB: How did you get your English accent down pat for the British Army officer?
AM: We studied it in grad school, and I’m also very fortunate, my wife (who’s a beautiful actor as well) also works as a dialect coach, so if I’m ever in a pinch trying to work out an accent, she’s a genius and she can clean something up really quickly. I’m very lucky in that respect, having a world-class acting and dialect coach in the house.
DB: I will say that it was spot on: as a Brit! You wouldn’t know that you weren’t English.
AM: That’s the highest compliment that I can get, I think!
DB: Then you were in Elementary.
AM: Again, some of those jobs, they just go in a blink of an eye – about two takes and it’s over. The most fun part of that is that I got to have shingles makeup and dentures.
DB: Dodgy dentures!
AM: Yeah, dodgy dentures. You couldn’t speak with them in, so I had to take them out in between and hide them under my leg and I remember, after we did one of my takes, I hid them under my leg and they broke! And I was so scared! I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have ruined this shoot!’ Luckily when I gave them to a PA, thinking I might be fired, it turned out that they had already gotten the shot they needed, so it wasn’t a big deal after all. But I had a couple of very nervous moments…
DB: Daredevil leaps to mind (pun intended). You have several scenes in Season 1 Episode 3 which is ‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’. You’re the ‘shark in the skinsuit’ according to ‘Foggy’. Can you describe what it was like: working on the show generally and more particularly with Charlie [Cox] and Elden [Henson]?
AM: I think the show is so well written; the guy who wrote my episode, Marco Ramirez, is now the showrunner, so obviously other people thought the same thing. It was the first time where I actually got to have multiple days in a row on set and got to know the people, which just feel makes me feel more relaxed, more at home. Charlie and Elden also really went out of their way to get to know me, and I really appreciated that. I also just felt like it was a really juicy character. The scenes that I did for the audition, the interrogation scenes, were really rich and interesting. I was able to find something that was understated and menacing at the same time, and then I got the script, and I found that I got to like, you know, bash people in with bowling balls and impale myself and I felt like I had won the lottery!
The fighting scenes were a lot of stunt work. There was a really good stunt choreographer, names Philip Silvera. It was his first stunt choreography job and he just crushed it! All the stunt guys on the show are just fantastic. And I was able to do a lot of my own stunts probably because of my wrestling background. It was physically exhausting but really fun.
DB: How much of the fight scenes with the two of you was it you and Charlie?
AM: The parts that look really fast and difficult are probably not us! (Laughs) But there’s a fair amount that we both did, Charlie is really physically capable too. I felt proud of the amount we were able to do.
DB: And the editing is so sharp, you don’t notice anyway.
AM: Exactly. Then we had to shoot the scene where I impale my head, which mostly amounted to me slamming my head into a pad a lot of times. I had such a headache by the end of the day because you are literally banging your head against a wall. But it looked really cool!
DB: It looked so good! And I’m sure the rest of it was special effects because, obviously, you didn’t really impale yourself!
AM: No I didn’t! There’s a little bit of CGI and also, you know, they have to do a million different shots. It’s actually a long and tedious process of actually, getting a really cool shot like that.
DB: The ‘summing up’ scene in the courtroom, where Charlie has this long speech.
AM: I think that was my first day of shooting. Yeah, it was a really long speech and it took a while, it has a lot of substance. He was memorising so much at a time that I remember, it took a while before they could get the right take of it. But I also think that came out really well too.
DB: I thought it was excellent because for him it’s not only the fact that, for anybody else you’d be doing it and you’d be doing your gestures and everything, but he’s also got to appear to be blind at the same time.
AM: Right! And then they’re also trying to work out how they’re going to shoot the visual of what he is ‘seeing’ so he has to imagine all of that as well. I think that casting Charlie is a huge reason why they just keep doing more seasons of that show – he’s really good!
DB: Have you watched Daredevil as a whole, or just your episode?
AM: I’ve watched both seasons. I like it! I didn’t watch The Defenders but I really like both seasons of Daredevil. I think I feel invested, especially because I spent a lot of time with Charlie and Eldon. I like to watch it to see what they are getting up to.
DB: Do you normally watch yourself on-screen?
AM: Yeah, I do. I feel like it teaches me about myself and what’s working and what’s not working. It’s always interesting to see what take they use, and to try to figure out how that influences the storytelling. I also teach an on-camera audition class from time-to-time so I feel like, I make them watch themselves, so it would be hypocritical not to watch myself as well.
DB: When you were wrestling, did they ever record that and did you look back at that? Because it is similar.
AM: Yeah, sure! It is! I hadn’t thought about it, but it is. Sometimes it’s easy to be hard on yourself but at this point I’m pretty good at also finding moments where I can say, ‘Hey look, that turned out pretty good!’
DB: Turning to Mindhunter: how did you get the part of Ocasek?
AM: It’s a long story. Several years ago I did one of these things where you paid $100 to meet a casting director. I was having trouble getting anything going on camera, so I went to this place and paid $100 and I met this casting director named, Julie Schubert, who liked what I did in the class. Then, she started calling me in to audition for Boardwalk Empire and I didn’t get a booking, but I always felt like I came in prepared and did good work. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in this business so to have someone notice you and be able to see something special in you…I am so grateful for that. So I got the call for Mindhunter and Julie was casting it. Originally I just made a tape at home. The script was quite different at that point too: it was a different kind of character. So I made a tape and they liked it enough to bring me into Julie’s office for a proper audition. She was familiar with David Fincher’s aesthetic so she was able to give me some good pointers and let me do the scene a few times to get a good take. And then I was on hold for the role for a very long time I kept calling my agents and asking if I needed to let go and they kept saying, ‘Not yet. No.’ Then a few months later they told me that I got the job, and that was that. It ended up really being one of the highlights of my career.
I had such a good time. I thought that it was going to be a much shorter shooting period than it was: I ended up being on set for three or four months, mostly with Jonathan and Holt – I really love those guys. They’re such generous castmates, and really a pleasure to be with. And their differences and idiosyncrasies are extremely endearing. I also really love the show. I love the script: thought it was really smart and very moving.
It was the first show I’ve done that involved table work: where we actually get to sit around the table and talk about each moment of each scene. Originally, I think Ocasek was written less smart than he ended up being and more just your general small-town rube, and I think it was David who really pushed the idea that he was just someone who hasn’t dealt with something like this before and not someone who is unintelligent. So we kept pushing things in that direction and I’m so glad that we did because I think it gives integrity to the character, and to the plight of somebody in his position, dealing with something that is unimaginable, really awful, but at the same time, there’s also Whole town of people relying on him to figure it out.
DB: And the mistakes the character makes are only done out of naivety and the fact that he has never had to do something like this ever before.
AM: Yeah and what I found really interesting was the idea of a person who, I think, genuinely believes the best about other human beings being confronted with the reality that not only do things like this happen, but that this can happen to somebody in your community, who goes to your church, and whom you’ve known since they were young. That internal conflict, to me, was really interesting. And also what I appreciate about the show is that it sort of makes everyone confront their own demons, and that’s something I’ve always been interested in. A lot of people would label a crime like this as quote unquote ‘evil’, and, while I understand the impulse, I think that’s the easy way out a little bit, because that allows you to avoid looking inside yourself at the places where maybe you’re also a little bit obsessive, or vengeful – to look at the darkness within.
DB: How did you go about preparing for the role?
AM: I read the book and I went back and looked at newspaper clippings and stuff from the original crime my episodes mirror in the book. And you know, personally, I’ve also just had a baby, and there was something about having a baby coming into the world that for me makes crimes like this one more difficult to face. That got me a lot of the way there in identifying with some of what Ocasek was wrestling. Also, he really has to do this job! He’s the head of this investigation for this whole town, so there’s also a large sense of responsibility – the sense that you need to go into the darkness, even though it feels awful.
DB: Initially the character really, really wants it to be a drifter, someone from outside town, doesn’t he? And he holds onto that for quite a long while.
AM: Exactly because then you can explain it away and say that, ‘Well this kind of thing only happens in other places.’ I’m familiar with that viewpoint. I think being from where I’m from, that it’s an easy thing for people to say, ‘Well, in places like New York people do bad things. Here we take care of each other.’ And you know, the truth is, there are bad things that happen in every corner of every place and in every country.
DB: When you are very first about to walk over to the guys who are sitting in the car, you are smoking a cigarette. Was it a real cigarette?
AM: Oh yeah. I was told early that David Fincher doesn’t like the way that herbal cigarettes look on film. Luckily I only smoke in that one scene – and I’m not a smoker either. I think I smoked (I don’t remember) maybe six packs of cigarettes in that one night or something like that. I was very hyper by the end of that night because I had inhaled a lot of nicotine.
DB: In the diner scene when you’re talking to Ford and Tench, you are showing them photographs of the crime scene. Firstly, were they real photos and also, the subject matter is really difficult, so how did all three of you approach that particular scene?
AM: When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, my first stop was to go and get a costume fitting and my second stop after that was to go and look at the model of the woman who had been killed – which was an intensely life-like figure that was made by our make-up designer Gigi Williams, who’s a genius. That was remarkably thoughtful of them, to invite me to do that right away, before I had even started filming: most productions won’t think of those details, or you have to really push to get access to something like that. So I went and I just sat with this young woman’s body for a while in the dump. And the pictures were of her. So I didn’t have to do any imagining because I got to be there and take everything in.
DB: So in the diner it must have been relatively easy to react in the way you are reacting as you are passing the photos over?
AM: Yeah, I think so… No I mean it wasn’t easy. That’s a hard scene to shoot. It was one of my first days on set too and in some ways I think that was helpful. Ocasek really wants to be seen by these FBI guys as being competent, as being good at his job and I (as Alex) also wanted Jonathan and Holt and the director to think that about me – sometimes those real life feelings can have a convenient way of helping the scene.
DB: Because it is a very difficult scene in a bizarre place to hold it because it’s not in the station, it’s in a diner.
AM: What was amazing is that, it was a long shoot – we shot all day, 12 hours or something – and you get to the end of the day and Jonathan just started getting the giggles. When you are working with things that are so tense, its exhausting and I think you have to let the steam out sometimes… It also really put me at ease, that those guys weren’t above cracking up in serious moments. I think we were all able to dial it back in, and remember that this was something that really happened, to a real person. But the laughter was very welcomed!
DB: The junkyard scene you were in: how much of that was a junkyard and how much of the rest of it CGI?
AM: I think that whole set was a piece of scenery that was created by the Art Department, which is amazing! I’m sure that there was some CGI that was added on but it was enormous and a really amazing piece of craftsmanship! There’s something about that part of rural Pennsylvania that just has so much character – everywhere you go feels like you’re inside of a movie.
The funniest story that I can remember is that: while we were shooting that scene with Alvin in the same location, it got really, really cold by the end of the day, and so you could see our breath on every take and it wasn’t going to match with the earlier footage. And so, what they had us do – and it was freezing, we were shivering – they ordered a bunch of really cold pop (soda) and ice cubes and had us hold it in our mouths until they called ‘Action’ and then we’d spit it out, so our mouth would be the same temperature as outside and there wouldn’t be any steam coming from our mouths! I had never heard of anything like that before. It worked though!
DB: How cold were you by the end though?
AM: Freezing! (Both laugh)
DB: The scene with the wife with baby who comes into the station, I thought was really subtly played.
AM: That actress is amazing! It was her first TV show, amazingly… Jackie [Renee Robinson]. We had actually worked together years before in a reading of a play that a mutual friend of ours wrote, so I knew her and knew she was really talented. I think, in that scene in particular, the thing that really put it over is the moment you get a live baby in the room, the stakes go up. It just really makes everything that’s going on feel much more grounded in reality.
DB: Thinking of that interrogation scene where there’s you, Tench and Ford and Janderman (Jesse C. Boyd). How was that prepared and shot? Because it’s quite intense.
AM: All the scenes were intense. For me, those scenes are mostly about listening and ultimately about internalising that this was done by people in this town. That’s not the focus of the scene of course, but it was for my character.
DB: What was it like working with David (Fincher) himself?
AM: He didn’t direct me in any of my episodes. I was directed by Tobias Lindholm and Asif Kapadia and they also were both amazing and very different directors. I feel like they did a great job of maintaining the kind of tone David set during that first episode. But David is very much a presence: in table work, I always got the sense that he knows the story better than anybody, and there are a lot of great minds that have contributed, but David is the mastermind behind everything and he’s also just so passionate about his job.
I think I was probably a little bit shy around him for maybe a month or so I’d say, ‘Hi’ but I didn’t talk to him very much. I remember one day I asked him about the music for the series – you know, what he was thinking about – and for the whole rest of the day he would just come and put earphones in my ears and ask, ‘What do you think of this? This is cool, right?’ And I realised: he just is really psyched about his job; he really cares, and he’s deeply invested in every detail and that’s exactly how I feel about my job. When I realised that it allowed me to remove some of the mystique that ‘he’s one of our greatest directors’ and just realise, ‘This guy is a really invested collaborator who is also a really good leader. I feel that, from then on, we had a good relationship.
DB: What did you think of the music on the show?
AM: I thought it was really haunting. I love Holden’s theme which is in some ways like a creepy elevator music. There’s some really unusual choices that I think really paid off.
DB: Without it, it wouldn’t be as good would it.
AM: I think you can say that about so many different departments. It’s a really, really good set, talented crew that runs extremely efficiently, and I think that starts with somebody at the top, with somebody who’s making a lot of really good, detailed decisions.
DB: Which is David Fincher.
AM: Yeah. We did so many takes and that’s because he wants every detail to be right and that’s really cool.
DB: Holt and Jonathan have got really great on-screen chemistry and you can see that in some of their interviews.
AM: They just have a good time together. They couldn’t be more different if they tried! But they really have great chemistry on-screen and also I looked forward to going to work just because they’re just really fun to be around. Jonathan comes in at 5 a.m. every day with a smile on his face and he’s already been for a run, and Holt I think is about on his third cup of coffee. Not that he’s a grouch by any means – Holt’s so kind to everybody on that set – but they have different energies.
DB: Do you think they approach their acting in a different way?
AM: The thing is that Holt has done so much: he has such an impressive career. He is a journeyman actor who is finally getting his due in the part that really he deserves. I did a lot of just watching him work. Little things like asking the cameramen to show the frame size or the way he analyses a scene, and they way he discusses it with the directors…where he’s going to move and when he’s going to make his move. That’s the mark of somebody who’s done it a lot. I learned a lot.
Jonathan may not have the same amount of on-camera experience, but Jonathan is like a thoroughbred horse, he has incredible instincts and can just do it. He’s a very honest actor. I kind of feel that Jonathan’s one of those people who can wake up in the morning and be talented! That’s not to say he doesn’t work hard, but because he does…incredibly hard. But I feel like I have to roll out my back and stretch and do all of these things before I feel in my groove, and I think Jonathan can just show up and be talented.
DB: Moving on from Mindhunter. For anyone considering acting as a career: what advice would you think of offering them?
AM: I think it’s like trying to give people advice about marriage. My brother says, ‘Marriage is like a casserole: only the people who make them know what goes into them.’ What I would say is that: you probably need to prepare more than you think that you do, and it’s important to bring yourself and be personal about your work.
DB: When you’re not acting: what do you have as hobbies and to unwind?
AM: I like to hike. I like the outdoors. I play music. A new hobby that I started just in this last period of unemployment, I started painting. It’s been a nice addition to my life. I don’t really know what I’m doing but it’s very therapeutic and, I don’t know, there’s something kind of nice about not knowing what I’m doing, that there are no rules, that I can just go where the instinct takes me. I’m not doing it really to show other people or display, it’s just a form of therapy.
DB: Is it as much the process of doing it as the what the end product is?
AM: For me there’s just something really satisfying about creating something, whether it’s writing a song or painting a picture or creating a character. That’s why periods of unemployment are really hard because, with acting, it’s not like an instrument where you can just pick it up…you need a project and something to work toward. And I try to do some self-starting and what not, but it’s a lot easier to pick up some brushes and try to make something that wasn’t there before, that you think is cool or beautiful.
DB: You also play guitar and sing. When did you start learning to play guitar?
AM: When I was in college I worked a couple of summers as a backpack guide, in a Lutheran camp in Colorado and I learned guitar from somebody there. I was probably about 21. I feel like I’ve never gotten particularly amazing at it. I’m a rhythm guitar player: I can play with anybody but when anybody looks at me and asks me to take a solo or something, it quickly falls apart. I just want to play with my friends, to sing, and write songs.
DB: Do you play any other instruments?
AM: I play a little bit of trombone but it’s mostly left over from when I was quite a bit younger. I had to play it in a show, and I picked it up and looked at a piece of music and found that I could still play.
DB: That’s really weird, isn’t it.
AM: It is weird. You have no idea and you look at it and your muscles remember what to do. It’s amazing what is floating around in our brains sometimes!
DB: How important is making music to you?
AM: I find when I have a lot of feelings it’s the best thing, I think because honestly there’s something about singing and vibrating my body with sound, really helps me to… get the emotion out, to express, in a way that even talking doesn’t sometimes. I grew up with my mom playing the piano, me and my brothers would sing in church, (with my grandma too) so music has always been important of my life. I sing to my baby all the time. It’s the best!
My daughter’s name is Mariah and I remember, when we landed on that name, I said, ‘Oh, that’s also a really good tune!’ “They Call The Wind Mariah” and when I listened to it I was like, ‘Oh, it’s even better than I remember! This is a really good song!’ So my War Horse friends and I, we make a little Christmas album every year, and that was one of the tracks this year.
DB: Perfect! Especially for this Christmas, her first Christmas.
AM: She’s going to be sick to death of it by the time she’s a teenager! But when she’s 30 she’ll be like, ‘I’m so glad there’s this great song with my name!’
DB: What was the first single or album that you bought?
AM: It’s really embarrassing: Vanessa Williams’ Save The Best For Last.
DB: Why did you choose that?
AM: I was 9! And I just really liked that song. We got a CD player for the first time and I think we got to choose what albums we wanted. I played it a lot. It’s a very sentimental, emotional ballad.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a special time in your life?
AM: Good question! When I was in high school, one of my close friends was into The Rolling Stones and introduced me to The Rolling Stones, and so I feel like whenever I hear some of the Stones, it makes me feel like I’m in high school. I feel like he’s responsible for helping me develop better taste in music than I had.
DB: Have you got a song that, if you put it on the radio or whatever, you have to play really loudly at full volume?
AM: Tom Waits’ “Going Out West” also “Make It Rain.” There’s a few Tom Waits’ songs that, if they’re on, they’ve got to be loud!
DB: Is there a movie soundtrack, or theme, you particularly love?
AM: I’ve listened to the Jackie Brown soundtrack a lot in my life. All of the Tarantino soundtracks are pretty great. There’s a lot of really good soundtracks this year, I feel like: The Shape of Water soundtrack is pretty cool, the Phantom Thread soundtrack is pretty cool.
DB: What genres of music do you like listening to?
AM: I’m generally most interested in roots music: folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll; that’s my touchstone. I definitely veer outside of that but most of the things I like have some element of roots music.
DB: Do you have any favourite artists?
AM: I’m a Tom Waits junky, that’s my greatest love!
DB: Is that the lyrics?
AM: Yeah, I love the lyrics. I love how different his songs are. I feel like he’s reinvented himself so many times. I feel like there’s something really personal about the way that he writes songs and sometimes in a way that’s surprising. I started out listening to his earlier stuff, and then ordered a whole bunch of his later stuff, and then couldn’t listen to them because it was too jarring, like I couldn’t get in there. And then, the more I listened to it… I feel it’s like drinking black coffee – once you get into it you aren’t going to go back.
He does a lot of really interesting things with lyrics. My favourite album, I think because I keep going back and forth, but I really like Swordfishtrombones… and I read this book that said, before that in a lot of his earlier music, he was trying to impersonate someone else, this kind of beatnik thing, then he was just starting to experiment with heavy drugs and was headed downhill, and then he met his now-wife, stopped drinking and she started playing him records. She was like, ‘You like all this other music too, why aren’t you listening to this stuff.’ And then this album came out of nowhere that is so different from anything he’s ever done before – all kinds of genres and just this explosion of sound and colour. All of his albums, there’s usually the first track of the album like a gatekeeper, it’s kind of hard to access but if you get past that one there’s all kinds of amazing things to find.
DB: Does what you listen to vary according to your mood?
AM: Sure! My favourite thing though is to either hit the random button on my iTunes or just do a random playlist on Spotify or something like that, so I can be surprised by a piece of music because sometimes I feel like, if I try to label what I’m feeling and try to choose the right song, the choice is too intellectual. Being surprised by a piece of music… that’s the thing.
DB: Have you been to a concert that would stand out in your mind as being ‘the best’.
AM: Yeah. When I finished grad school at ACT, I did one of the least responsible things I’ve ever done because I bought a ticket to go see Tom Waits in Ireland, in Dublin. I couldn’t really afford to do it, but I knew that it might be my last chance to see him so I bought the ticket and I went to see Tom Waits in a big circus tent.
DB: What was the most recent gig that you went to?
AM: I went to go see some jazz at the Lincoln Center, there was this woman called Rene Marie, she’s a jazz singer. Usually when I go to see live music I think to myself, ‘I should do this more often.’ I don’t really like big concerts, I prefer small venues. It was an incredible experience and she’s a phenomenal singer!
DB: Is there any artist or band that you have not seen, that you would really love to see, if you got a chance?
AM: I’d like to see Saint Vincent. I don’t get into much pop music but I think she’s done some cool stuff. I really like her. She does some great Tom Waits’ covers too. She does “Big Black Mariah” (also a good Mariah song). (Both laugh)
DB: Do you like dancing?
AM: I love to dance! I wish that I went dancing more but whenever there’s a wedding or an occasion where there’s a dance floor, I enjoy being out there.
DB: Do you have any guilty music pleasures?
AM: Yeah! I feel like I’ve been indulging in them a lot lately too! I really like Gilbert and Sullivan. I feel like I’ve been listening to The Pirates of Penzance soundtrack a lot and it’s because I grew up watching the movie with Kevin Kline (that’s also something that transports me to another time) but really i’m just tickled by Gilbert and Sullivan lately. I also sometimes really like listening to songs from the 1950s – like really stupid songs like “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked A Cake”! (Both laugh)
DB: When you listen to your music how do you tend to listen to it? Mostly digital?
AM: Yeah mostly digital nowadays. I live in New York so having a record collection’s pretty hard due to space so most of my music is digital.
DB: What was the most recent song, or album, that you heard that really excited you?
AM: I like Saint Vincent’s new album and I just watch the Avett Brothers documentary on HBO, it was pretty interesting, so I went back and checked out their most recent album and I don’t love all of it, but when they hit, they hit they really hit; I like a lot of their stuff.
DB: What does music mean to you?
AM: I remember when I was on tour doing War Horse – usually after a show we would go to the bar and have some drinks – and I would walk home to the hotel wherever I was staying, and I would be a little bit inebriated and I would just start to sing. Whatever tune and words would come into my head, I would just sing it or just make up the nonsense words and would record it on my phone and the next day I’d listen to it and be like, ‘That’s kind of crazy but interesting.’ I feel like – at that particular time of my life – I felt very in touch with music because I had a job and was really relaxed. I like to think of it as: when I’m in that place I’m hearing the music, I can hear the songs around me in the world. So I feel like music’s like part of the universe and when I can feel like I’m really hearing a song, I’m in touch with the universe around me. Do you know what I mean? I feels like a kind of real life magic to me.
DB: What’s your favourite word?
AM: I think I’ve got to go with Mariah.
DB: Ah that’s so sweet! 10/10 dad.
AM: I think it’s true though. I love saying her name. It’s amazing! It’s an amazing change when you become a parent. No way can you understand it before it happens to you but it’s really beautiful.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
AM: Hmmm. I think that I would wake up and have a really good breakfast with my family and then I think I would go to work! I think I would go and be in a play, maybe a matinee… no actually I don’t like matinees. The day would end with being in a show with a group of people that I love, and then afterward getting out of town and going to a cabin on a lake or something like that. I like when big events happen while I’m working because it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something during the day, you know. Then afterwards going to a cabin on a lake, with my family, beginning and ending the day with the family.
DB: So a bit of the Lutheran ‘do something productive with your day’ in between?
AM: (Laughs) Yeah. No. If I’m being honest it’s not just being productive, it’s like, it’s what I like to do! That’s what turns me on!
DB: To treat yourself by doing what you love the best.
AM: That’s right and then, because I’m doing that, I relax more when I leave it.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
AM: Right! I was trying to think of a clever answer to this and the only thing I could think of was love. If it came down to it I could be okay without it, but I think, it’s pretty hard to live your life without love. As much as oxygen and water, it’s the thing that keeps the light in our eyes.
[Update: since this interview Alex Morf can be seen in the latest season of NBC’s Blindspot and in the series finale of Shades of Blue. He can also be seen in several episodes of the current season of Gotham and episode 2 of the new Fox show The Passage].
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.