By Zoe Stagg
photographer: Scott Witter
“I remember the day she called, and just going ‘Fuck, man. What the fuck am I going to do now?’” Ten years ago, Jeffrey Dean Morgan got dumped. “I remember being so angry.” His voice still carries the head-in-hands disbelief, the same sort tone of horrified confusion you associate with standing in an empty parking spot once occupied by your stolen car. Except on that day, Morgan thought he’d been robbed of something much, much bigger.
The voice on the other end of the phone was his manager, telling him they were through. And there was nothing gentle about the break up. It was, “I’m expendable, that I’m too old, whatever it was, that I didn’t have the talent. That was it for me, and I was like, ‘Shit,’” he recounts. “It was crushing. But I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got no other option, here. What the? I can’t give this up now.’ I had a roommate—I’m a grown man and I still had a roommate. I was like, ‘Fuck. This is it. I’m not giving up yet.’”
And so the actor who rode into the industry in the back of a buddy’s U-Haul, embarked on a fight for the only livelihood he’d ever known, proving that lucky people get a break, but lucky people with grit get more than that. The next day, Morgan signed with a new manager and hit a triple, scoring high-profile gigs on Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds, and Supernatural. “She was wrong, and it’s a good thing I didn’t take that phone call to heart.” That was just the beginning. Sitting on the other side of a packed decade of projects, studded with high-profile turns like The Comedian in The Watchmen, Ike Evans on TV’s Magic City, a packed year filming episodes of Extant with Halle Berry, and attached to the wildly anticipated Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, the success spurred from that one phone call “was sort of like this redemption.” Jeffrey Dean Morgan is living a miracle career—a second time.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Morgan had no idea he’d wind up in Hollywood. He moved to downtown Seattle the second he graduated from high school and got a top-notch education in music history, in an admittedly alternative way. “We all hung out at the same two bars, a place called The Oxford and a place called The Vogue. You know, I knew the guys from Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam; I saw Nirvana play, Soundgarden. I knew those guys. For us, they were just our friends.“ It was the 90s in Seattle, and being surrounded by what he remembers as being a vibrant and crazy arts scene made Morgan realize he wanted to create. The only problem was, what?
“I had friends who were musicians, and a couple who were actors, and there I was in the middle of this trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.” One of those friends is fellow actor and Twilight star, Billy Burke. “We were best friends and roommates, we lived with his dad and then we got our own little apartment on First Avenue. He’s the closest thing to a brother I’ll ever have.” Burke didn’t start out acting, and Morgan tried to fit into his Seattle scene. “[Billy] was a musician first and foremost when we were kids, and trust me, man. I tried to be musician.” He laughs. “I played, like, lead synthesizer. I had the cool look, but man, I had no frigging talent whatsoever.”
His look might not have landed him album covers, but it landed him attention from a casting agent the second he set foot in LA. One minute he was helping his buddy move and the next he was cast in a Roger Corman movie. “I thought, ‘Well, shit! This is fucking easy—and I love it!’ I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know about hitting marks. I didn’t know anything about anything.” He figured he was set, starring in his own modern-day grunge alternative to being discovered at the counter of the local soda shop. “Cut to 30 years later,” he tosses off ruefully, “and I can barely pay my rent, and I don’t know what the fuck I’ve gotten into. I’ve got no education, and I’ve put all my eggs in this one stupid basket.“
One of the gigs that revived his career, was playing Denny Duquette on Grey’s Anatomy. “I give all the props in the world to Shonda Rimes.” One of the biggest star-makers in today’s television landscape saw something worth saving. “She took a chance on a guy who apparently was too old and not talented, and she was like, ‘You’re my guy!’ That was it for me.” The Shondaland universe has come to use its giant audience to feed modern debate on issues from race and gender to politics. “Television has a big impact on a lot of people, and a lot of people will believe what they see. Someone like Shonda is pretty damn responsible when it comes to what she’s putting out there. She is very aware of race—and something like Scandal, the political aspect of what she’s doing. Especially a show that’s being watched by so many people, it can open up a discussion, and hopefully people will become more educated watching these shows.”
While Morgan spends much of his time making television, he doesn’t have a lot of time to watch it. “I have a five-year-old boy, and if I’m home, I’m usually watching the Disney Channel.” But he recognizes the other great power of reaching people in their own homes. “I think the first thing to realize is that it’s entertainment. And a lot of it is 100% fiction. But there is a certain responsibility, because people are a product of what they’re watching.” The true power of the medium then, might not lie solely in its ability to educate, but in its ability to entertain. He riffs on his current work on Extant and puts the two pieces of that puzzle together. “Man, I’m doing this because I think we’re making a fun television show, and maybe it will entertain people for 13 weeks and they can not think about fucking Ferguson and whatever else fucking race shit is happening in this world. Are there going to be similarities, is stuff going to be put on there that’s current? Absolutely. Because that’s what good writers do.”
Morgan is almost pathologically affable, peppering his easy, West-coast patter with tells of his effortless accessibility. No one knows just how approachable he is better than his fans. The Internet is full of photos of Morgan with his arm draped across well-wishers, an easy smile cracking his square jaw. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for fans. On those occasions where I do go out there and get recognized, I will be the first person to be gracious and sign whatever, and I will make sure the last person standing in that line will get my signature. I just don’t do it often.” Though he’s got a thriving Facebook page in his name and a charity that acts on his behalf, you won’t find him tapping out 140 characters of any part of his day. “I’ve never understood the celebrity aspect of—people bitch about, ‘I get no fucking privacy, and shame on the paparazzi for fucking following me around,’ and yet they’re tweeting, ‘Hey! I’m having dinner at fucking so-and-so restaurant right now!’ and putting pictures up on whatever is popular right now, I don’t even know. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, in that world.”
Only onscreen does he get to play any kind of duality like that. He launched from playing the “nicest guy in the world on Grey’s,” to “the sickest fucking superhero in the history of superheroes,” in The Watchmen. He’s drawn to that contradiction. “That’s the sort of yin and yang of every person in the world. We all want to be good—“ He stops himself. “No, that’s not actually true. We don’t all want to be good. I would love to be just a good guy, but sometimes I know the villain is in there.” He considers his words for a moment. “I think we all have certain battles that we have every day with making the right decision or the wrong decision. I’ve embraced that.” Just the way the fan-loving Morgan wrestles with his true nature.
“I’m a little bit of a recluse. I don’t give a lot of interviews, I don’t go to any red carpet things. I bought a farm out in the middle of fucking nowhere with alpacas and llamas and cattle and dogs and I work. That’s what I do.” Just like good and evil, he draws a clear line between actor and celebrity. “I just don’t have any interest in that. I’d rather be a farmer. A farmer who makes movies. And Dad.” That line defines his perspective. “I keep what’s important, number one, which really is my family and my little man.” But with a schedule packed full of roaring fan favorites, he puts his inner recluse on hold for the sake of the project. He heads to ComicCon and fan conventions and promises he’ll be the last one there greeting fans. “Those are my people. These are the people I love, they’re so passionate.” And so with that, his career starts to look less like a filmography, and more like a love story. “They’re the ones who go to watch the movies, who turn on the television, and make websites and start charities. I love them. I’m just quiet in my love. I’m just quieter than most people.”
It’s a career he fell in love with at first sight. A career he reconciled with, and it came back stronger than ever.
And that’s how you know it was meant to be.