‘Woke’ star Lamorne Morris talks reality of new Hulu series, shares his own experiences with racism

“Woke” takes inspiration from the life of cartoonist Keith Knight, but it’s a walk series star Lamorne Morris has taken as well.

In the Hulu comedy (now streaming), Morris, who played Winston Bishop on Fox’s “New Girl” and appeared in this summer’s Netflix’s rom-com “Desperados,” stars as the fictionalized Keef Knight, who has found success with his comic strip “Toast and Butter” but is not “woke,” or aware of the racist acts and inequality surrounding him.

Morris, 37, tells USA TODAY there was a time he paid less attention to the world around him.

“I didn’t want to be bothered with any of the things that were going on in the world,” he says. “I just kind of wanted to keep my head down.”

In one “Woke” episode, Keef shrugs off a compliment about the way the comic strip broaches race and color.

“Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something or, you know, say something in our work?” he says. “I’m just a cartoonist.”

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Well, that’s how he feels until cops draw their guns because Keef fits the description of a “6-foot-tall Black male,” and he is violently shoved to the ground.Although his white roommate Gunther (Blake Anderson, “Workaholics”) insults the cops and with profanities in his defense, and even pokes one cop’s chest, Gunther isn’t treated with such aggression. Following the incident, Keef decides he can no longer ignore injustices, some of which are highlighted by inanimate objects that speak to him.

Morris recalls a time, almost two decades ago, when he was berated at an early acting gig. “I just remember the director screaming at me at the top of her lungs to smile more,” he says, “while (other actors) got to just kind of mean mug and look cool and she kept going, ‘Smile, Lamorne! Smile! Let’s see those teeth! Let’s see those teeth!’ And it was just really aggressive.”

Morris says in a room of at least 50 people, he was the only Black person and says he shed tears over the incident, which had lasting effects.

“I later learned that I was subconsciously – post that incident – smiling every time I would pass a white person on the street or have a conversation,” he says. “I’d always have to be in a good mood,” even when he wasn’t. “I wasn’t allowed to have emotions. If I was sad, I had to pretend to be happy just to make sure I didn’t come off as threatening.”

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In time, he learned this was unfair. “I should be able to have a bad day and frown, if I need to,” he says. “I should be able to be sad when I need to, and then I kind of adjusted and changed my ways.”

He says that, as he continued to work in Hollywood, he “started noticing a lot of racist actions that happen in a culturally-biased business.” On one set, he was told there wasn’t a budget for him to have a barber, although other actors had a stylist.

A decade ago, “I started becoming more vocal … when I just couldn’t take it,” he says. “I just thought, ‘This is stupid!’ (laughs) This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. And not saying that it’s intentional on their end, more so it’s just so systemically rooted that that’s just how it’s always been.

“So, probably around that time, I started feeling more compelled to be aware and say something and stand my ground,” he continues, “because it wasn’t as if I was being unreasonable. I just wanted the same treatment as everybody else, and why should I expect less?”

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Morris marked the end of production on “Woke” with an Instagram post in late February, months before the May 25 death of George Floyd, which spurred nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

“No matter where you put this show – no matter what era, no matter what year – it’s gonna be relevant,” Morris says. “It’s going to feel like, ‘Oh, perfect timing.’ You don’t want to have to make a show like this. You don’t want this to have to be the state of our nation, but it is. Hopefully, fans can just take away a sense of understanding from this show (and) they’ll leave motivated to maybe do something, stay active, but if nothing more, just keep the conversation going.

“I just want fans at the end of the day, not only to just have fun and be entertained,” he adds, “but take a message away from it that this is the walk that a lot of people have.”

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