Lamorne Morris Is Putting Winston Behind Him. He's a Leading Man.

Evan Romano
·10 mins read

From Men's Health

2020 has been weird for everyone, and Lamorne Morris is no exception. For the man formerly known as New Girl's Winston Bishop, the year started on a high note—filming a brand new TV show, one where he plays the lead role—before being smacked in the face with a global pandemic like the rest of us in March.

6 months later, and Morris is still getting a handle on this new normal with every passing day. Right before Labor Day Weekend offered many a much-needed reprieve, and just days before Woke, the show he filmed at the top of the year, would debut on Hulu, Morris is right where he was hoping to be. A long holiday break can't be too difficult a final hump to climb, right?

"I don’t know what holidays are anymore, so..." he says dryly, sounding exasperated with the hellishness of this year before a laugh sneaks through at the very end. "I think every day feels like a holiday of some sort, because there’s no office that I have to be at, or a set that I have to be on. I guess you could say I’m ready. I’m not even sure when that is."

The year also started with Morris in the best shape of his life after training for a role alongside Vin Diesel in Bloodshot—he even recorded a workout video with Men's Health—but, self-aware as ever, he's not kidding anyone with how that's been going lately, either.

"I’ll be honest with you—I got a little lazy," he says with another laugh. Earlier in the year, he says, he had actually torn his rotator cuff and labrums in both legs. Combine that with his current location alongside family in Austin, Texas—where gyms remain closed—and working out at a high level becomes exponentially harder.

But even when he was at his home, with all his workout equipment, he found it difficult to keep up with his brother and a friend, who he says "work out like fiends."

"They’ll be done working out and I’ll be just getting out of bed," he says. "Like, 'Ehhh, let me go eat first. I’m gonna go take a walk. I think I’m gonna do this…' Before you know it, it’s 10 P.M., and I haven’t worked out yet."

That's not to say he's stopped exercising, though. He still tries to squeeze in 100 push-ups every morning, and crunches where there's time. He loves playing basketball with his friends at his home court. He's also been able to keep his head on straight since July 31—as a huge NBA fan, the league having a summer filled with exciting games to watch and players to root for has created a new and welcomed reprieve (in a year where one of those is more valuable than ever).

He's even been happy to get some time just to relax at home, whether that's at his place in Los Angeles or with family in Texas; prior to the pandemic, he says, he hadn't gone more than two weeks between acting jobs over the last few years, which included roles in movies like Game Night and this year's Netflix comedy Desperados.

"I was just going, and going, and going, and traveling, and going," he says. "So, I needed the break. I needed the relax on my body."

Photo credit: Liane Hentscher
Photo credit: Liane Hentscher

MORRIS HAD gotten some work prior to his 2011 debut on New Girl, but the beloved FOX sitcom was his no-doubt-about it breakthrough. And while he's thankful for what playing Winston has led to over the last decade, after 7 seasons and 145 episodes, it's not surprising that he'd be looking for something new; he wanted an opportunity to be seen as something other than the undeniably likable, fruity-cocktail-loving, cat dad he played in New Girl.

"Initially, I just wanted to get away from the character of Winston a little bit, where people would only see me as that," he says. "I wanted to do something that was a little darker, and had more weight to it."

And he found just that with Woke—also a half-hour comedy, but not one anyone's going to confuse with New Girl anytime soon. He says he read the script and instantly felt an attachment to it because the character reminded him of himself.

In the show, Morris plays likable again as Keef Knight—loosely based on the real-life cartoonist of the same name. A Black man who grew up in Boston, he's not blind to the world around him, but he prefers to keep his head down, keep his work perfectly vanilla—his signature comic is an inoffensive, long-running strip called "Toast 'N' Butter"—and he prefers not to rock the boat.

That's until midway through the first episode, when he's putting up fliers to promote his work, and police officers tackle him to the ground, looking for an entirely different Black person—a mugger on the run.

This is where the "Woke" of it all comes in; from this point forward, Knight hears truths of the world from inanimate objects with hysterical (and often recognizable) voices around him. His trusty Sharpie, for one, is voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm's J.B. Smoove; a trip to a bodega finds a pair of malt liquor 40s with googly eyes telling him the way of the world. Voices of other comedic favorites, such as Tony Hale, Sam Richardson, Nicole Byer, and Lil Rel Howery talk to Keef throughout the show's 8-episode first season.

And those voices start pushing him towards making change; not radical change, but the change that's within his control as an artist, and as a person with a platform. It was this aspect of the character, of the script, and of Woke that most resonated with Morris, who says certain things he'd see on TV over the years made him feel compelled to say something—but saying something isn't always enough.

"I’m not a politician by any means, and I’m not a political pundit by any means," Morris says. "But I definitely have thoughts sometimes on different things that happen; that directly affect me, my family, my loved ones, and the people in my neighborhood. So, if I have that voice, then I try to reach out."

Photo credit: Joe Lederer
Photo credit: Joe Lederer

WOKE ALSO has the timeliness factor working in its favor in a big way; the fact that the series' inciting incident is a racially-motivated police assault on a Black man feels prescient given the series of newsworthy and notable incidents that have been in the public eye over the last several months. The show, again, was filmed in January and February, and the pilot was filmed nearly two years ago; no one had an idea any of these things were going to happen.

But like Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, or Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, unfortunately, these stories of injustice might always feel timely. Morris says the team behind Woke was playing around with release dates for a while, but it ended up making the most sense just to premiere it now.

"No matter where you drop it, it’s going to feel like we made the show based off of that particular incident," he says. "We had no idea what was gonna happen with George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, now, Jacob Blake. We had no clue. But that’s the time that we live in, where, with camera phones, we’re seeing it a lot more now."

But the show does a good job—and purposefully—of not being Fruitvale Station, and not being the end of Do The Right Thing (though it does feature a quite funny sight gag directly referencing Lee's 1989 masterpiece). It keeps the tone light, while still keeping the general subject matter around important conversations that people should be having around race and identity.

"More than anything, I want people to laugh, have fun, and keep the conversation going," he says.

Photo credit: Fox
Photo credit: Fox

Subject matter aside, the biggest change from Morris' time on New Girl to his time on Woke was going from supporting to lead. And a lot of what he did while making his new show, from the sound of it, was modeled off seeing what Zooey Deschanel did while making the old one. As a supporting character, he was freer in his time—he wasn't leading the charge. Deschanel, meanwhile, had a hand in just about everything, even though she wasn't the creator or the showrunner—because it felt like she had to.

"If New Girl didn’t work, they would say ‘Oh, Zooey’s show didn’t work,'" he says. "And people would criticize her. So, she made sure that she had her hand in a lot of the decisions that were being made on the show. Because at the end of the day, people would look at her."

So, for Morris, taking those same ideals to Woke meant emulating what he saw from his former co-star. Not only did that mean making sure the funny jokes were, well, funny, but it also meant making sure the serious parts land, and making sure everyone is held accountable for what they're supposed to be responsible for. That could mean questioning character choices in episode scripts, or certain acting decisions that performers made when acting a scene out. When reading those scripts, he also made sure that he wasn't just focused on his own character; everyone's role had to make sense.

"When you’re leading the show, you want to make sure everything works. Because, if it doesn’t work, that’s the last thing I want to do—to be the star of a failed show. It’s an opportunity in and of itself just to be in this position, yeah. But why stop there? Why not make it great? If you have the ability to make something excellent, then do it. The buck stops with me as far as the cast goes."

He's invested in everyone, at every level, in every role, of the show. And that can make for long days, and long nights, that sometimes feel like they need a release. But the desire to make something good can even outweigh that.

"At the end of the day, sometimes you want to go out and have a drink," he says, laughing. "But you just can’t, you know? You get off late, and you wake up early."

Clearly, Morris put his heart and soul into Woke. He loves New Girl, and not only did he learn a lot from his experience and observations while working on it, but he made some really good friends along the way too. (He both praises Jake Johnson's new Netflix show Hoops and compares the comedic improv sensibilities of his Woke co-star Sasheer Zamata to his.)

But he also knows the value of this experience. It's not a common skill for someone to have 7 seasons of observing and learning from the lead of one of the most successful sitcoms of the decade. He knows that, which is why he's setting his own stakes so high.

He might not know what day of the week it is, but after 7 seasons on New Girl, he's got a pretty good idea of what makes a show great.

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