“Sometimes in an audition, I’ll genuinely do something I know they’re not going to like,” says Lamorne Morris, who returns as Winston in the upcoming seventh and final season of Fox’s “New Girl,” premiering April 10 and stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in the dark comedy “Game Night.” The trick to his method, Morris says, is to show the directors his ability to take direction and wow them in subsequent reads. Though sometimes his knack for exuberance in auditions has backfired, he’s lived to tell the tale, below.
What has working on ‘New Girl’ and ‘Game Night’ added to your acting skills?
With “New Girl,” it let me know how goofy I could actually be. Season 1 was a lot of figuring out who Winston was. For me, I treated it like sketch comedy; I’m playing a different character every episode. I would try new stuff until Season 2, when it became “Winston is weird as hell.” I left knowing that you have to just go for it. Go as weird as possible and directors may love it. With “Game Night,” it’s kind of the opposite. You have to know when to turn it down and play more honest in the scene. My character in the movie is dealing with a lot of relationship stuff and he has to use certain tactics to get what he wants. For me, it was like, “Oh, you can’t just use anger in the moment.” I was able to keep the performance more grounded.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I rehearse a ton. Usually, I’ll have a buddy come over, or my girlfriend, and read lines as much as possible. Then I’ll go extremely big and play with it, see the funny moments, see what’s obvious on the paper and do the opposite. If I’m auditioning for something, there are a lot of other actors who are right for the role as well. What is it that I know how to do that I’m sure most people don’t do as well as me? I take those things and then I apply those to the character. Even if it’s not what the director or producers had in mind, at least it’s something that will separate you; it could get you a callback.
Have there been any times when that tactic backfired and you had a really bad audition?
Yes, “New Girl.” I went in so weird. I was reading for Coach. In the scene, he was wearing jeggings and a halter top, they were at a Halloween party or something, and I came to the audition dressed that way. I put a bunch of Vaseline on my legs or something stupid, which is a no-no, don’t do that. I did it and they passed on me originally. It wasn’t so much performance, it was what I did. Ultimately, they had me come back in, and that’s the note they gave me: Don’t wear what you wore before, it was too distracting.
I’ve seen some of your rap parody videos. Would you consider that a special skill? What other special skills do you have listed on your résumé?
It’s more a character. Almost an alter ego in a way. I would like to say I do some pretty good impressions. I’m also one of the best basketball players in the world. I just chose not to go the NBA route, but people say I’m better than Kobe and LeBron.
What was your most memorable survival job?
I used to host for BET, and after, I got super broke. I thought I’d move to L.A. and get an agent, and it didn’t work out that way. I got so broke that I had to take a job on a show called “BrainRush.” That was purely for money. I was hosting this game show where it’s like “Cash Cab” on a roller coaster, which is extreme, especially for me, since I hate roller coasters. I had to ride roller coasters all day. I had Dramamine patches, I was taking Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol for headaches. I’m pretty sure I had a concussion every single day.
How did the four-year time jump in “New Girl” challenge you when tackling what Winston would be like in the future?
We’re such a close and tight group of actors and friends, so when you’re playing with your character, it’s not so much of a stretch to say, “OK, now we’re just a little bit older.” The writers did the rest of the work. Just be in the moment and do whatever’s in front of you and have fun with that. It’s not like it’s 40 years and I’m an old man with a walker and grandchildren. It’s still “New Girl,” so it’s still goofy, and we were able to keep it in that zone.
You’re directing one of the episodes, too.
Yes, I am a master director now. I was a little thrown off when you called and you didn’t call me “Director Lamorne Morris,” but I’ll accept it. It was interesting, directing your castmates and telling them what to do a little bit and seeing their reactions. My castmates are assholes is the conclusion I’ve come to. [Laughs] They question everything I say, but ultimately, they see I’m right. I didn’t have to break out my whip, which is good. They were obedient enough.
What advice do you have for actors looking to expand their capabilities behind the camera?
I’ve always wanted to be behind the camera in some capacity. If you get lucky to be on a project, shadow the director of photography as much as possible. Ask questions: Why are you shooting it like this? Why are the characters so close in proximity? Why are we going in close when it’s supposed to be a wide shot? Ask those questions early on so you can get into your own rhythm and understand why a director is doing certain things or why a DP is doing a certain shot. As an actor, you start to develop a rhythm in front of the camera and learn where the director’s coming from. By the time it’s time for you to direct something, it makes more sense to you because you’ve been studying it for a while. Watch as many movies as possible and look at the rhythm. Usually they go wide shot to medium to close, then they play around with medium and close [shots]. It’s something that if you get the opportunity to work on as an actor, you can give yourself free lessons by just paying attention and sitting with the DP and asking questions.
On “Game Night” you’re also working alongside an ensemble cast. What do you keep in mind to make sure that everyone is shining?
With acting, you have to understand the tone of the movie or the project. Once you figure out what the tone is, you can figure out what your place is. The directing can really help that. As an actor, you go in and do your job and have fun, but when you’re working with such a big cast, the script plays a part in who’s really showing off their stuff a little bit. You can take some liberties in improvising as much as you can but it’s all about the improv skill of listening. You have to really listen to what your scene partner is saying in order to give an honest, funny reaction to it. With a large cast, there’s a lot of listening. This movie was fairly easy with the cast that we had, everyone is such a pro. They did a good job of isolating those fun moments and then keeping the [tone of the] movie honest. You’ll notice there’s a lot of comedy, but it’s really dark at some points. You have to have that conversation with the director early on: What’s the tone here? Let me know if my performance fits the movie.
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