James Morrison has led a long and diverse career in show business, acting, writing, directing…not to mention being a clown in the circus. Now playing Bill Buchanan on the FOX hit 24, Morrison has become a familiar face to fans, having now been a regular for the past three seasons. James was kind enough to stop by and talk with us here at BuddyTV, as we discussed his career, the role of Bill Buchanan and what he has in store for the future.
Below you will find the written transcript as well as the full audio for the interview.
I’m reading your bio, and it says you began your career working as a clown…is that true?
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know why you’d want to lie about a thing like that, but yeah, I started in the circus as a clown. I had done some acting before that in college and in university productions and high school and stuff, and some other gigs here and there. But that was my first job.
How did you then make the transition from theater to film and television? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
Well, I always wanted to make my living as an actor, from the first time I decided to enter the field. I said, what’s the use of doing this if you’re not going to do it as completely as you can? And I decided I wanted to be an actor for a living, and I spent about a year in New York, and because I was raised in the west, I guess I felt like a fish out of water, so I ended up back in LA. And because LA is arguably the center of the television and film industry now, and always has been, I guess this is the place to be if you want to make your living. You can make your living on the stage, but, I just ended up here.
Can you tell us how you landed the role of Bill Buchanan on 24? Was 24 something you were familiar with before you got the role?
No I wasn’t really familiar with it at all. I’ve heard that it was a really well made television show, but I had never seen it until the night before I auditioned, and I got the call at the last minute right before I was planning a vacation with my family and I wasn’t too keen on going in as you can understand because I had to send my family on to Hawaii without me and stay behind and audition. One of the things that happens to you when you become an actor is your personal life sometimes takes a backseat because it’s so fickle and arbitrary and unpredictable. And so when you decide to make a move like a vacation, you say, basically you’re guaranteed if you plan something to do like a vacation, you’re going to get a job or you’re going to get an interview. So that’s what happened.
You’ve done a lot of guest appearances on big TV shows like West Wing, CSI: Miami, X-Files…is it nice to settle into a role, like on 24? Or do you enjoy the challenge and flexibility of doing one-off characters?
It’s really exciting to do an extended run with a character. It’s almost like a long run of a play. You have a chance to every time you suit up and step out, you have a chance to deepen your experience and more is revealed each time you explore it. And depending on the depth and your willingness to have…the willingness you have to go deep in your exploration a lot can be revealed. So yeah, there’s reward there. There are challenges too in being in a role for a long time, and I guess one of them is…especially in a role like this…you’re just given a new thing everyday, you’re not doing the same thing over and over again, yet the person is the same. So there are challenges there. You are sort of more reliant on the willingness of the writers to take you deeper, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
For the most part, your character has to remain at CTU headquarters. However, during part of last season you got to go out of there for a little bit…do you ever wish you could go into the field with Jack and kick a little ass?
Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. And I haven’t been as active as maybe I could have been in terms of going upstairs and saying, “Hey, let’s get Bill out so he can kick some ass.” But, you know, because they’ve got their story, they’ve got a lot on their minds and they’ve got their plot to deal with without whiny actors coming up and snibbling all over them. But, you may be surprised…one of these days Bill might get out there and blow some minds.
As Bill Buchanan, you spend a lot of time acting as sort of the straight man to the eccentricities of those around you at CTU, especially with people like Chloe and Jack…is that ever difficult being the steady hand at CTU? Do you ever wish you could let loose a little bit more?
You mean; do I wish I could play the Jerry Lewis role instead of a Dean Martin role?
(Laughs) If you want to put it like that; yeah.
You know, the real challenge in being Bill Buchanan is like…I sort of liken it to trying to make origami in the middle of a hurricane…
(Laughs) I ask this to all the 24 people we’ve interviewed, but…is Kiefer as intense a guy on set as he seems? What’s the atmosphere around him on set?
Kiefer puts 110% of himself into his work. So, part of that, is that when you’re playing a character like Jack Bauer, who is one of the more focused, arguably one of the angriest characters on TV, sometimes we all have the tendency to take the moment into the…yeah there’s an intensity there that can’t be denied. Kiefer has a huge heart and he’s an incredibly focused and dedicated actor and producer, so yeah, he challenges everybody to rise to that level. And I think that’s one of the biggest reasons the show is as successful as it is; is that, not only does everybody else feel that way because they love the opportunity that they’ve been given and they value the opportunity to show the best sides of their craft, but they’re also able to rise to that challenge.
Especially lately, people have been extrapolating political messages from 24…do you think 24 is trying to make some political statements, or, do you think people should even be watching the show looking for those?
Well, I think, you can’t chose to do a show with a political narrative and not make some kind of political statement. It’s almost like saying we’re going to do a show about gardening but we’re not really going to talk about the dirt and how plants grow and what photosynthesis is. I mean, you have to be willing to go where you have to go to tell your story. But at the same time, to look any deeper than that, I think, to look at this as more than a television show, I think is kind of foolish. It’s almost like people have been reacting to this like it’s the first time there’s ever been a show on TV that discussed politics or torture, or, subjects that are pertinent to our time and are current. I just think it’s absurd to make more of it than that.
Looking at your bio, I know you do a lot of other things outside of acting…you do a lot of writing; can you tell us about some of the things you do and anything coming up in the near future that you’d like to talk about?
Well, in fact, I am a filmmaker. My wife and I have made several films together, short films. She’s a wonderful director, Riad Gajayani. And we are working on our latest project, which is our first documentary; we’re examining the audition process in a way that sort of moves it outside of the realm of simply being about actors auditioning, because we’re exploring the audition process as more of a process that we all go through to obtain whatever it is we want. Then it becomes a metaphor for life, rather than just for some actors who want to succeed in show business. And what we’re finding is that as we talk to these actors and a couple of directors, we talk to Jack O’Brien and Terrence McNally the playwright, we’re getting sort of a wide…more of a perspective on life’s tryout mode that we’re all in to get what we want. So it’s really an interesting process, and we’re in the middle of shooting it now, it’s called Showing Up.
I know this might be a shot in the dark, but can you give us any hints for upcoming episodes, and maybe more importantly, will we be seeing you in season 7?
As far as season 7 goes, I don’t know about that. We sort of take it a day at a time around here (Laughs) …literally. I certainly would love to be a part of this family as long as I can, it’s a wonderful group of people to work with, and it’s a really fun part to play. Who doesn’t like to be the boss? And not only that, the boss in a situation where you might actually – and this is my goal by the way – to help people understand what it means to be a boss, you don’t have to be a dick to be a boss. And so, I think that’s an important point to make about how much fun it is to be Bill Buchanan. Although, they could very well make Bill into Satan Incarnate and we’d get whiplash watching it happen…they’ve been known to do that on this show. What was the other part of the question? Sorry, I got off on a tangent.
Any sort of hints on what’s coming up on upcoming episodes?
Oh yeah. It sounded like that might be a hint when I talked about making Bill evil and making him the bad guy, but it’s really not. It’s just a…I don’t really know if that’s in store. All I can really say is that, because of the complexities of the familial dysfunction that we’ve explored thus far in the show, I think we can say safely that Bill will continue to help Jack figure out how to best solve the problem at hand and that I will happily play the Dean Martin role to Jerry Lewis any day.
(Interview Conducted By Oscar Dahl)