Short film and TV stardom thrust former Anchorageite James Morrison into the spotlight.
by T. Massari McPherson, April 25, 1996, for The Anchorage Press

From the ancient legends of Homer to the modern day Rocky, the theme of the man who, after facing enormous challenges and overcoming huge odds, returns home in triumph, is common in fiction, daydreams and, occasionally, actually happens in real life. James Morrison lived his own version of the myth last weekend when he returned to Anchorage to attend the local screening of PARKING, a short film he wrote and directed.

"From the age of 9, I grew up here and this is where I think of as home," he said emotionally to the overflow crowd at the E Street Theater. "I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for the people here. It has always been a dream to come back home with something I had done that I thought was substantial. I wanted to show it to my friends. To say, 'I did this and I never could have accomplished it without the sense of community I found here.'"

The success of the 10-minute film -- it has been accepted by 11 of the most prestigious film festivals across the country and has won several awards -- is impressive. However, coming on the heels of SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND, the film is frosting on the cake.

Morrison plays Colonel Ty McQueen, a genetically engineered warrior/worker 70 years in the future. Earth forces are fighting an intergalactic war against an alien species determined to annihilate all humans. As the intense and enigmatic leader of a squadron of young marine pilots, Morrison as McQueen plays a central role in most of the storylines.

"The original concept was that it was a story about three, young, white, eye-candy rocket jocks," Morrison said. "The network was after a formula they felt would appeal to their demographic, which was this sort of MELROSE PLACE in space thing. It's an entirely different creature now than it was when it was conceived."

Initially only a secondary character, Morrison's role as McQueen has grown dramatically during this evolution. "I recognized his potential right away. The archetypal, enigmatic, mysterious stranger has been a popular character in dramas through time," Morrison said.

It did not take long for the show's creators, Glen Morgan and James Wong, to agree with Morrison's assessment. As writers of THE X-FILES for two seasons, Morgan and Wong, had gotten in the habit of checking the Internet to gauge the reactions of the audience and to get ideas for developing the show. They were astounded by the amount of attention McQueen received. Responding within weeks to viewer demands, they enlarged McQueen's role to one of the leads. His became the voice that sets the stage and introduces the action for the show each week.

"Sometimes fans will get in huge debates about plots or basic premises on the Internet," Morrison said. "If the argument is particularly vehement, Glen and Jim will present their side of it in the show, usually through me discussing it with the 58th (Squadron), but actually acting as their mouthpiece to the fans. The show is turning out to be an interesting hybrid, defining itself as the fans react to it. I never would have anticipated this character would be as popular as he has become."

With his interesting contrast of short, clipped, gray hair and his tanned, unlined face, Morrison, who just turned 42, has the eye catching good looks of the standard leading man. However, like so many "instant" successes, he has spent more than 20 years achieving the status.

"James is one of the hardest working actors I have ever met," said Carol Carlson, the owner of Carlson's Company, a local talent agency, and long-time friend of Morrison. "He is someone who works very hard at his craft and has paid his dues. He is immensely talented. I don't know if SPACE will be renewed for another season, but even if it isn't, the popularity James has as a result of it will continue to fuel his career."

A strong work ethic, humility and a willingness to serve the story are fundamental elements in Morrison's approach to acting. Learning self-sufficiency is the core of what he teaches actors, says Ken Parham, a local actor now living in Los Angeles and one of Morrison's pupils. While other acting classes are filled with fluff and throwaway "wonderful darling" compliments, Morrison rarely praises his students, training them instead to depend on self-evaluation. "He can be brutal," Parham said, "but never more on us than he is on himself."

"I make the story the most important thing," Morrison explained. "I don't make the story serve me. I serve the story. To do your job the best, you are going to be as selfless and as thorough as you can be. The task is more important than your own ego."

One in a family of six children, Morrison remembers only rare fishing trips with a father whose road construction job kept him away from his family much of the time. He credits his Little League coach Felix Martinez, for "everything I learned about sportsmanship, discipline, self-respect and respect for others." Their enduring affection was obvious at the premiere of PARKING, as Martinez teased Morrison from the audience and Morrison lovingly introduced him as one of the most important people in his life.

A loner as a teenager, with disdain for authority, Morrison discovered theater at West High and found like souls with a similar bend for pretend. After graduating, he acted with Alaska Community Theatre and Anchorage Community College before working as an apprentice for the Alaska Rep. He moved Outside to work, returning in the early '90s to appear in one of the Rep's final productions. During the years since, life in California has yielded enough parts in films, theater and television to keep him in the business.

An intense, quiet man, Morrison does not make friends easily, but once made, values them for a lifetime. When he has projects, they are developed as ensemble collaborations shared with people he knows and trusts. For example, all the actors in PARKING are friends, the two lead characters for more than 10 years. Actress Riad Galayini, who recently married Morrison, is the producer. Even the logo for his Fireweed Films was designed by an old theater buddy from Anchorage.

"This business tends to be a place where unhealthy egos converge," he said. "The biggest lesson I have learned in this television series is that a hard worker, someone who is there to serve the higher purpose, the greater good, is rewarded equally with the one who is only vain-glorious and self-serving. That was the biggest lesson and the most disheartening thing about it actually.

"At first, I didn't identify with the warrior in McQueen. The worker, yes, but not the warrior. But, then I realized to be an artist, you have to be a warrior. You have to fight through the rejection. The battle to find proper validation, which hopefully would come from within anyway, that battle is eternal with the artist."

T. Massari McPherson, formerly arts editor for the Anchorage Times and The Next Stage, is a free lance writer.

Back to The Lobby
To Lobby To Movies