Phil Morris has played a Jem’Hadar, a Martian, and a lawyer. Quite the interesting combination. Yes, you’ve seen him in several Star Trek incarnations, but most fans either know him as John Jones (Martian Manhunter) from Smallville or Jackie Chiles, the fast-talking lawyer from Seinfeld. But the actor has a lengthy voice acting career under his belt as well and most recently took on the role of immortal Vandal Savage in the Warner Home Video release, Justice League: Doom, in stores today. The Mary Sue recently got a chance to speak with Morris about the role, his career as a whole, and his huge comic book collection.
Morris played Vandal Savage before, in the 2002 animated Justice League television series but said he was honored to be asked to step into the role again. “It was just great that they want you to recur as a character you played before because it means they like ya, they liked ya and you were doing something right,” he told journalists at the premiere of the film at New York’s Paley Center for the Arts. “For me as a comic book fan as well, it also means that I’m doing something right for the rank and file and most of all for myself because I’m as finicky and particular about these representations and the voice of these comic book creators who then puts them out in a marketplace as anybody.”
For those not familiar, Vandal Savage is a supervillain in the DC Universe who first lived during prehistoric times. After being bathed in radiation from a meteorite, he went from caveman to super-intelligent immortal with the power of healing. He’s been shown to be the impetus, or at least present at, significant events in human history. So we asked Morris, what would he do if he found himself in the same position as Vandal?
“[Silence] Wow, that’s a pretty deep question. Even for me,” he told us. “Show that we are all from one tree, show that we are all from one root. Because Vandal has that knowledge and many people do not. And as we understand the similarities of our species we will stop with the disparity and the distinct differences that we seem to hold onto to keep hate alive. I mean, that’s really my thing right now, look what’s happening in the Middle East, and I think you know, if you just realize, we all want to live, we all want to eat, we all want to breathe, we all want to survive. It has nothing to do with the Koran, the Bible or any of this, it has to do with humanistic compassion and our specieal understanding of who we are. We get it, we’ll be much better off. So hopefully I could do that if I was around long enough.”
Justice League: Doom, written by Dwayne McDuffie, mirrors the Mark Waid-penned Justice League arc from the comics, “Tower of Babel,” with a few alterations. In the animated feature, Vandal and the Legion of Doom are the main villains, as opposed to Ra’s al Ghul in the comic. As a comic fan himself, with a collection of around 20,000 issues, does Morris ever get critical of how these works are adapted?
“Yes. [laughs] Yes, but again, that’s not my area,” he said. “I’m lucky enough that they decided that they’d use me in this show so it’s my job on screen to try and answer those questions or those issues, but it is not my place to tell James Marshall [director of Smallville] or anybody else how their show should be run or how their show should be depicted.”
In Smallville, Morris played John Jones, the humanoid version of J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter. In the series, we only got a quick flash of the character in his usual Martian form, but Morris said he absolutely would have sat in makeup for eight hours every day if they wanted to visually depict John that way. Why? “Just to legitimize the character and to bring him into the place that most of the fans know him as. I would have done it and happy to do it,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of Star Treks and I’ve been Jem’Hadar and Klingons and I don’t mind that. I meditate during that stuff so it would have been a wonderful place to go but it’s not my show.”
Speaking of which, we had to ask Morris if he’d heard Warner Bros. announcement that they’d be continuing Smallville in comic form in a kind of “Season 11.” “Somebody just tweeted me that,” he told us. “Yeah, that’s great, that’s great. And you know, for John Jones, I don’t think that we really got as much as we could out of him in Smallville. Now, it’s Smallville, it’s not John Jones, it’s not the Martian, but I thought he had so much more to give to Clark Kent and to that kind of storyline and his path than we saw. I’m interested to see what they’ll do in the comic book.”
Morris had some really interesting things to say about a potential spin-off for his character that would also serve as an outlet for other DC characters. “I really thought that we could have done John Jones as kind of a Rod Serling of the DC Universe,” he said. “Every so often it’d focus on John but then we bring out these characters that live in the DC universe that aren’t in the movies and aren’t in the films right now that you can kind of do the same due diligence with that they did in Smallville, but you feature them for a three episode arc.” The actor said he might just have to pitch the idea to Warner Bros.
As for taking on more comic book roles, Morris is absolutely ready. He said he’d be interested in voicing Victor Von Doom or playing a live-action John Stewart. “That was what Smallville was for me and playing John Jones,” he said. “I really thought that we could have taken on our cast, with a little rejiggering here and there, and thrown them on the big screen and we give this Avenger thing a run for its money and we get DC to start to approximate what Marvel is doing in the live action, where they’re stomping them. As far as I’m concerned.”
Morris admits he was at first a Marvel guy (“[They]had the first representations that I could relate to.”) but that he quite likes the DC Universe now, even if he isn’t currently collecting. We asked him to choose which summer superhero blockbuster he’d go see if he could only see one:
“One?! That’s all I get?! You ask tough questions! Batman,” he decided. “I met Christopher Nolan at a function and I thanked him as, not an actor, but as a comic book fan. And I think he thought I was a little geeky. That’s fine. I don’t care! Bring it, dude! And bring Batman with you! What? [Laughs] But I thanked him for getting it right. Getting it right in terms of the integrity of this medium. They’ve played comics small and I think to their detriment. Comics have done, for me just personally, they taught me to read, they taught me to visualize, they taught me to roleplay, they taught me to draw, they taught me about compassion, good versus evil. Morality tales! That’s all comics are, morality tales. So for Christopher Nolan and those guys to get that so right, I think gave me hope that the industry is not playing it small anymore and not just because of the bottom line. They’ll play it as big as they want when the box office numbers are huge but you know, the Dark Knight, I mean, that’s art. And I don’t think we could have said that before.”
Among his other acting work, Morris has continued with his Seinfeld persona with skits on FunnyOrDie.com. When asked if he’d be doing more, Morris said, “There could be.” Morris personally wrote and produced the videos with approval from you know who. “I was very fortunate because they ran them by Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David] and they didn’t change a word of dialogue. They said, ‘You go with yourself young man and god love ya,’ and I was really honored that they did because they’re very very protective of their legacy and for them to allow me to do that was just incredible.”
And if it came down to it, who would Jackie represent in Justice League: Doom? “[Laughs] You know the answer to that,” he said. “He has to represent the villains because they never win, they need help, [in Jackie voice] and Jackie would help them. See, a lawyer always wants someone who’s in trouble because then there’s always billable hours.”
You can see Morris in his regular gig on the show Love That Girl!, as well as an upcoming Disney film, Shake It Up and DC fans will get to hear him next in Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Justice League: Doom is in stores on blu-ray and DVD now as well as available for digital download. Keep an eye on The Mary Sue later this week for interviews with Andrea Romano, the dialogue/casting director of the animated film and Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman!