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Rob Morgan plays Herbert Richardson, right, a psychologically troubled Vietnam veteran who was executed in 1989 for the pipe-bomb killing of an 11-year-old girl, in Just Mercy.Jake Netter/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The new legal drama Just Mercy presents a curious challenge for a character actor: How do you stand out in a high-wattage cast that includes two of today’s top leading men and a genuine Marvel superstar without resorting to chewing the scenery? Somehow, long-time supporting actor Rob Morgan figured out a way to steal the show from Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson without plumbing the easy performative depths of “look at me, look at me” actorly eccentricity.

Playing Herbert Richardson, a psychologically troubled Vietnam veteran who was executed in 1989 for the pipe-bomb killing of an 11-year-old girl a decade earlier, Morgan has to balance both regret and sympathy, solemnity and catharsis, all while knowing that his character’s final day on Earth is just around the corner. The result is a quietly devastating portrait of a man who has become lost inside himself – a turn that lingers far longer than those of Just Mercy’s top-billed stars.

Ahead of Friday’s release of Just Mercy – which is based on lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name – Morgan spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about opportunities, expectations and justice.

You’ve been working steadily for the past two decades, but I couldn’t find many interviews with you during my research for this interview.

Well, I’ve been in this industry for 24 years now, and I do feel just now people are beginning to discover me. I’m thankful that I have an opportunity like this, to work with a stellar cast, but also to play this character, because he’s the only one onscreen here who is actually guilty of his crime. I was honoured to be asked to take on that responsibility, of conveying this particular man to an audience that displays humanity, compassion, but also asks if this man is [deserving] of that kind of punishment [death by electrocution].

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How did you balance Herbert’s guilt, then, with the extenuating circumstances of his history? How do you take a complicated character, who has a limited amount of screen-time here, and imbue him with a complex sense of humanity?

We’re all trained as actors to approach our characters with no prejudice, and take on the mindset and the spirit of the character in a way that allows the vulnerability and the truth to come out naturally. I relied on that training, but also once I got some ideas as to how to convey that, I met with my very first acting teacher, Keith Johnson from the American Theatre of Harlem, and I showed him what I prepared. Afterward, I felt comfortable enough to go on set and play, and [director] Destin Daniel Cretton created such an open environment that allowed us to play our most vulnerable selves.

Do you often go back to your teacher to consult on new roles?

No, but this particular job, because the culture of jail is very serious to me and in our community, that's not something you want to toy with or fabricate. I wanted to take the delicacy and care to convey this character in the most honest way that I could. I wanted to use all my resources.

How much research did you conduct on Herbert’s life and case?

Unfortunately, we don’t have any video or archival footage of Herbert, or audio of his voice. Really, we only had two photographs of him, so I would take those pictures and literally stare at his eyes, and try to imagine how he would walk, how he would hold his position. I dissected the pictures to the point that I thought I was tapping into his spirit and mindset.

Has working on this film and getting to know Herbert’s case altered your view of the U.S. justice system?

Well, being a black man in America and growing up in this society, my view of the justice system is pretty much set. I've been exploited and abused by it myself, so I feel it's broken, it's biased.

Is that dismay and anger over the state of the system what fuelled you to take on this project?

I don’t know if it’s anger more than it’s confusion. It’s more a feeling of this is all unnecessary – why can’t you leave me alone and let me be? “Anger?” I don’t want to describe it as that. What made me want to get on board with this project is the necessity of it. This film can potentially create a conversation that could make our justice system better for everybody. And as an actor and artist, that’s what we thrive to do – to use our talents and presence in ways that can help our condition in society. If I as a storyteller and performer get to participate in something that can potentially elevate something in society, morally? I’m all for it.

Morgan had no video or archival footage of Herbert, or audio of his voice, to go off of – just two photographs.Jake Netter/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Before you filmed Herbert’s execution scene, what kind of emotional state did you have to put yourself in?

That was, oh man … that was a challenge. This is your very last day on Earth and you know it. You know you’re about to die in three minutes, and there is nothing that you can do about it. I relished it. I was only able to perform a slice of Herbert Richardson’s life. I was only on set for four days. He had to do it his whole life. So looking at that, I had to go all in. I can solidify this man’s voice forever, so I tapped in. It’s just breathing and relaxing and imagining the circumstances. And trusting that Destin was getting everything that he needed to in order to tell the story. And trying to have fun with it, in a way.

It was fun? Playing that kind of role?

You know how I was trained, Barry? If I’m not having fun, then you can’t have fun. If I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, then the audience isn’t. It’s called “playing” for a reason. We’re paid to play. It helps, too, because a lot of the time I’m doing more than one job at a time. I only did four days on Just Mercy at the same time I’m playing a cowboy in another movie.

Since Just Mercy’s premiere at TIFF, there’s been considerable talk that you might get an Oscar nomination. How do you handle that kind of conversation, and expectation?

We had the same conversation about me with Mudbound, so I’ve had that talk before. Honestly, I can’t eat an award. But what fills me most is that eight-minute standing ovation that we got in Toronto. That was my Oscar. I feel like I’ve already won. I don’t get wrapped up in the awards conversation because I can’t eat it, you know? When I won a SAG Award [in 2017 for Stranger Things], I didn’t work for 8½ months afterward. And that was only because my friend was directing an episode of High Maintenance and he was like, “Hey, give Rob that job.” Our job is always what’s next. When this is over, I have to look for the next one. So I have PTSD from awards.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Just Mercy opens on Jan. 10.

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