Easily one of the most recognizable character actors in the business, David Morse has been a solid presence in movies and on TV since his breakthrough as Dr. Jack Morrison in the 1980s series “St. Elsewhere.” Since then, the Massachusetts native and Philadelphia resident has appeared in a slew of major films (“The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker”) and TV shows (“Treme,” “House,”). Morse, 62, can currently be seen in theaters playing tortured ex-Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster in “Concussion,” and on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 10 p.m. he stars as the leader of a mountain-dwelling, violent Kentucky clan in the new WGN America series “Outsiders.”
You’ve gone into some fairly dark places with your latest two roles. How come?
I seem to get asked to do a lot of dark roles. “Concussion” is really a part of a cultural conversation, and knowing Will Smith was part of it, [and] it was a good script, I just wanted to be a part of it. It appeared Mike Webster was at the heart of the story.
What about “Outsiders”?
“Outsiders” I guess is sort of dark, but I don’t really think of it as dark. The world up there on that mountain, it had the potential to have a lot of fun, as well as a lot of drama, these guys raiding the town in their ATVs, with their tattoos. It seemed like something different. When I read the role . . . the one thing I didn’t like was that it was one-dimensional. It seemed like he was there to be bad, but the world interested me. I said to the creator if you’re interested in me being more than a bad guy, let’s talk. I had thoughts about it, and he said that’s great, so that became the job, let’s get this guy a real reason for his existence. . . . And he really goes in different places than when we’re introduced to him. He’s afraid of his own vulnerability.
What got you interested in acting?
It literally was in eighth grade, being called upon by an English teacher. We were going to read a play out loud, and I was terrified. We read it, and I was thrilled, it just lit me up. It really just sparked something in me, and when I went to high school, there was another teacher who recognized it in me.
When did you realize you could make a living as an actor?
My first summer at a repertory theater I was making $20 a week. I was making a living, as far as I was concerned, and I was doing theater. And next season I made $40 a week. But I don’t think anyone in my family would have considered that making a living.
You’re 6-feet-4. Has your size ever been a problem for you in the business?
There’s been one movie star that would not work with me because of my height. I had so many people who had to stand on boxes when they do scenes with me. One year I went to Cannes with the film “The Indian Runner,” that Sean Penn directed. Everyone else in the film was all the same height, and on the red carpet when they were taking photos, none of them would stand next to me, and I totally got it.
When did you stop having to audition for roles?
It was about 10 years ago. There was one big comic book movie, they wanted me to audition for it. It was a big money job, but I knew the director didn’t want me anyway. And I thought, I’m never gonna do this again.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about the business?
The best advice was when I was doing theater in Boston. I had a friend who was acting there, and she went to New York to study. After her first year, she said I had to leave Boston and study with her teacher. I went to meet him, and he said if you study with me you’ll have to stop acting and study with me. It was the best thing I had done for myself, to take those two years and study with him.
You live in Philadelphia. Is that advantageous or disadvantageous in terms of the business?
There are no advantages to the business other than we have a healthy family that has grown up in a place they love. In terms of getting work, it’s close to New York. I’ve been able to do plays in New York, meet with people. It’s a great life in Philadelphia.