Morris Chestnut on ‘Rosewood’, How He Got the Role and Maintaining a Long Career
“I try to be prepared. But I think first and foremost, is I always try to get better. I still see acting coaches. I still go to acting classes” – Morris Chestnut
Rosewood is back from its mid-season break and the series picks up where the fall finale left off, with Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) and Villa (Jaina Lee Ortiz) on the trail of a serial killer.
Chestnut (and series creator Todd Harthan) recently sat in on a conference call to chat about the show, getting the role of Rosewood, how he prepares for a day on-set and his secret to maintaining a long career.
Rosewood airs on Wednesdays at 8pm on FOX
Morris, how did you initially get the role? Did you have to audition? And for Todd, how did you decide that Morris was the guy?
Morris Chestnut: I begged and pleaded and bribed Todd for the role. I had some pictures on him that he didn’t want to get out. I was, actually, doing a show on a cable show, but it was a Fox production, and the production was actually going to be going to either London or Prague. And so, they called me one day through my reps, and said, listen, the show is not going to be shot in LA anymore. Would Morris consider doing the show in London?
There were three places in—it was like, London, Chicago, Prague, or Bucharest, or something like that—and then they threw in at the last minute, Miami. And so, I’m like, wow, yes. So, Miami, Chicago, then Prague, London, and Bucharest, and then I was like, wow. I said, “Okay, I’ll go ahead and do at least one more season of the show.” I didn’t want to commit to more than that.
Then the next day, they called and said, “Well, wait a minute, the Miami location, they were thinking about you for this pilot. Would you take a look at it?” And normally, it’s kind of shocking, because normally once you’re on a show, I believe if work on a Warner Bros. production show, they probably wouldn’t even have been able to give me the pilot to have me read it. Since it was Fox, I read the pilot, loved it, and talked to Todd and the director, and I’m here.
Todd Harthan: Yes, to answer your question. How did we know it was Morris? Look, before we even knew Morris was a possibility, we probably auditioned 70 different actors. A lot of them were great. They came in and gave great performances.
The problem we were having was we needed somebody that was a great actor that also had that movie star charm and quality to go with it. Because this was somebody we needed to carry the show and just somebody—we needed larger than life. That is not an easy thing to find.
For us, it just became a pretty big no-brainer. We didn’t even know he was available at the time, because as Morris said, he was on another show. But once he was on the table, Morris jokes to that, he begged and pleaded, but it was actually the flipside where we were skyping with him in New Orleans, it was more of us courting him, obviously. That’s how it really went down, and luckily it worked out.
Morris, this isn’t the first time you played any kind of a doctor, but has previous experiences helped you with this role, and what preparation do you go through to play it?
Morris Chestnut: Yes, I’ve played a doctor before. However, I was okay with medical terms, but I believe with this particular job, it’s just the complete volume of words and jargon and workload that I have that makes it much, much more difficult. The last doctor I played was on Nurse Jackie to where I was in a guest starring role, maybe working two days a week, maybe three days a week, and the brunt of the dialogue and medical terms weren’t upon myself.
With this, it just makes it really difficult, just the complete volume of everything that I have to deal with and dialogue. The preparation, unfortunately, after I got the job, I didn’t have time to go get my Ph.D., so we have a lot of consultants on set each time, each time we have to do some type of medical procedure.
Morris, you’ve had such a longstanding career in TV and in movies. What do you attribute that to? Some actors, you know, have a hard time sustaining their careers, but you’ve had such a long career. Why do you think that is?
Morris Chestnut: Wow, I think there are a number of different factors. I believe, for myself, a) I try to be a nice person. I come to work on time. I try to be prepared. But I think first and foremost, is I always try to get better. I still see acting coaches. I still go to acting classes. Even if I’m not in them, I go to watch them, because, I think as an actor, the more experiences we have, the more we need to be able to incorporate them in our work and use them for our work.
I know a lot of actors, once they get a movie or once they get a show, they think that, that’s it. They’ve made it, they don’t need a coach, they don’t need an acting class, they’re good, but I feel that every actor can always continue to get better. I mean, Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world, he had a golfing swing coach. Michael Jordan had a coach. So, you know, I would say first and foremost, you’re just continuing to try to get better each day.
Morris, you’ve done a lot of TV, but a lot is put on you for this kind of show. Has it changed the way you approached it, and what about this show drew you to it?
Morris Chestnut: Has it changed the way I’ve approached television or my work?
Your work. Your acting, preparing for something, rather than going for two days, you’re now it.
Morris Chestnut: You know, it changed the way I’ve approached it, most definitely, because, and actually I’m still really trying to really try to figure it out. I’ve heard about the scheduling, I’ve done television shows before, I’ve been part of an ensemble, but playing this character in this role, is really—I’m still really adjusting to the schedule, the volume, and just, even, overall preparation, because in the past, I’ve just been the type of person that I need to have the dialogue in my head.
My rule is, like, four to five days. Here, sometimes, it’s four to five hours it feels like. So, my approach is definitely changing, and I don’t really have one yet. I would imagine by next season, God willing, we get the pickup. I’ll have a pretty strong approach that I’ll be pretty comfortable with.
Morris, I know that sometimes shooting of one single camera show, or something like that, can create long days. How do you maintain your energy, and just keep your health, actually, while you’re doing the series?
Morris Chestnut: That’s definitely a challenge. I’m normally a pretty disciplined person, so when I put mind to something, I just believe anything is possible. I just do what I have to do in terms of coming to work each day and trying to be prepared as much as I can, in addition to eating right the majority of the time. There a lot of times that I binge eat on certain things, but for the majority of the time I think I eat okay, and working out at least five times a week. I have a pretty good regimen. And that’s how I know me, with my discipline, I think I just try to make it work.
What do you enjoy most about working in television, and how does it differ, exactly, from being in a movie?
Morris Chestnut: It’s funny. One of the things I do enjoy the most, is the pacing. There will be times on a film set, especially with emotional scenes, I’ll come to work and I’m sitting in my trailer and we’re supposed to start shooting the scene at 10:00, and I’m doing all this emotional prep work, and then we don’t shoot the scene until—10:00 in the morning—then we don’t shoot the scene till 6:00 at night.
That’s the one thing I actually love about being on a television show, is I know that, primarily, when I come to work and I have an 8:00 rehearsal call, I’m going to have rehearsal at 8:00 instead of sitting in my trailer for three hours before the first rehearsal, let alone to have to do an emotional scene. So, the main thing I do love about it, is the pacing.
Police procedurals have been all too familiar on television these days. We’re seeing unique pairings like cons working with the FBI, taxi drivers working with the police, dead fathers coming back alive to work with their son. What is it about Rosewood’s unique pairing that makes it stand out among those kinds of procedurals?
Todd Harthan: You know, it’s interesting because they conceded this isn’t necessarily any reinvention of the wheel, it doesn’t skew way on the other side of the spectrum where in, you know, it’s an immortal cop, or it’s a pairing you’ve never seen before.
I think my approach to these two characters were, while it may feel traditional on the surface, myself and this writing staff were trying to create a partnership and relationship that felt unique in who these characters were. What I mean by that is, while Rosewood is, yes, a doctor, a pathologist, but what ails him makes him special and unique. That’s what separates his character from your regular doctor. It’s these things that plague him, and the guy that is, sort of, fighting against his own mortality.
Then you pair him up with a detective that, on the surface, seems traditional, but her fear is the opposite of his. Her fear is she’s already met the love of her life, so she’s sort of shut off to the possibility of that ever happening again. So, it isn’t in really like this crazy hook of the show. For us it is was like, and for me it was, I hope the audience can gravitate towards and find something special in the relationship between these two people. I think that’s what makes it unique.
Todd, do you take moments or any qualities from the characters, like Morris, and infuse those into Rosewood’s personality? How do you guys blend the two to make him who he is?
Todd Harthan: Yes, we definitely do. My first move usually is, especially if it’s something that is personal to them, I’ll always, sort of, have a conversation with Morris or Jaina about it first. For example, a prime example, is Jaina was a world-class salsa dancer, and we wanted to incorporate that into the show. But while that’s a no-brainer for me, sometimes not necessarily for the actor. So, it was like making sure she was willing to, sort of, infuse that skill that she has in her personal life, into the character and she was and we’ve done it on the show a couple times.
With Morris, yes. I actually—I’ve spent enough time with Morris, obviously. He’s, actually, quite different in so many ways than Rosewood. I think one big similarity, is that I think Rosewood really does have that quality that you can’t really put your finger on where he walks into a room and he’s a doctor, not a movie star. You can’t help but be pulled towards his energy, his outlook on life, his optimism.
And I will say, Morris, as a person, you know in the first few minutes you spend with him, that this is a guy who is, 25-year career, 30-year career, so very humble, works hard on this show as if it’s his first show, and he works hard as if it’s his last show. I think those are certain qualities that he shares with Rosewood that we’ve infused in the character. Rosewood doesn’t take anything for granted, and I don’t think Morris does either.
Style is a very important component of Dr. Rosewood’s character, Morris. How much of that is Dr. Rosewood’s look, and how much of that is yours?
Morris Chestnut: In terms of the style of Rosewood, you know that’s interesting because we have wardrobe designers on the show, and for the most part it’s somewhat of a collaborative process. When we first started trying out different outfits for the show, discussing things with Todd, and the director about the vision, yes, I personally—sometimes I do wear a t-shirt with a blazer and some jeans. Or I do like to wear suits with no tie and a button-up shirt opened down to like the second or third button.
However, now that it’s—and I would do that from time to time—but now when people see me with a blazer and some jeans and a t-shirt, now they say, oh, you’re dressing like your character. So, there’s a little of my style in there, but the designers have their ideas and we kind of collaborated on it. I like all the stuff that he wears.
Now that you have had the phenomenal success with this series, can both of you gentlemen describe how that felt, and did that put any additional pressure on you when it was time to start filming the next set of episodes?
Todd Harthan: You know what’s interesting, is for me it didn’t become more stressful at all. For me it was exciting that we had more hours to sort of explore the characters and continue to get our legs even stronger underneath us. It’s happened with me and my writing staff, which has been great.
I feel like episodes, especially in this back half, each passing episode, I feel like they get stronger and better, and that’s a testament, also, to this cast that I have who I feel like they’re just comfortable. I think that once you know that you get a vote of confidence from your network and see that you’re going to be on the air, I think people relax into the role, and you’re not worried about, oh my God, are we going to get cancelled? Are we going to get more episodes?
Once we got that vote of confidence, I feel like everybody really hit this sweet spot, and that’s why every time an episode comes in, I watch it. I go, “Wow, we really are doing something pretty great down here,” and that’s what’s so exciting. For me, it’s actually gotten less stressful and more exciting.
Morris Chestnut: Yes, and I have to agree with Todd. It gets to a certain point, say for instance if you take the pilot for instance, you start working with people that you really don’t know. I didn’t know Todd. I didn’t know the director. I didn’t know Jaina. I didn’t know Pippy, who’s supposed to be my sister. On screen, you’re supposed to convey these relationships that have years of history with a person that you don’t even know.
So, the relaxing aspect of that is we had an opportunity once we got the order for the back nine, to, like Todd says, relax and settle in more. What I felt with that is, okay, now we’ll have time as our onscreen history grows, our off-screen history is going to grow, and we’re going to feel more comfortable with each other, and it’s going to show on screen.
I was just as happy and relieved with that. But, I actually love pressure. I like to be able to function and operate when it’s most important. When it comes to the numbers, when it comes to shooting a scene, and those things keep me going. I really like that feeling that I get inside. I enjoy the pressure.