By Marcus Jones
September 09, 2020 at 10:30 AM EDT
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Credit: Joe Lederer/Hulu

Lamorne Morris is happy to provide a new show for audiences that have run through everything there is to stream, but he knows there are more important things to pay attention to as well. “Entertainment is a good way to kind of take your mind off things for a second, but obviously in our social climate, you don't want to take your mind off of it too much. You do want to stay active in helping fight whatever cause you're fighting for,” the former New Girl star tells EW.

Keef Knight, the character he plays on the new Hulu series Woke, might’ve not shared the same sentiment at first, but after the San Francisco-based cartoonist is tackled by cops in a case of mistaken identity, he too begins to exhibit a heightened level of social consciousness. Unfortunately, Knight’s newfound woke-ness comes with a peanut gallery of inanimate objects roasting him as he awkwardly navigates the current racial climate.

Read below to see what attracted Morris to the darker comedic role, how he feels Knight compares to his character Winston on New Girl, and what voice actors he was excited to see haze his character.

Woke season 1 is now streaming on Hulu.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it like to be on a run of interesting roles in this specific moment? New Girl, Bloodshot, Desperados, have been fairly popular these past few months, and now you have Woke.

LAMORNE MORRIS: It feels good. As an actor, we like to take our shot at every type of character.  New Girl was a blessing because even though it was one character, I kind of got to play multiple characters within that. Every week was some weird trait, or -ism, or quirk that my character developed randomly. Sometimes he's endearing, sometimes he's insane, thinking harming people's health is a great prank. But then you grow from that, and when you take on other characters, you want to expand. Doing seven years on a show, you find yourself in one particular genre, and so you want to try new things, exercise your muscles as a performer. Just for me and my team, we thought it would be a great idea to try a variation of different things, try it all, in hopes that the industry will see we can do more than just slapstick comedy.

How would you describe Woke, and how did you get involved with it?

Well, maybe a year and a half, two years ago, it came up as a script, and I read it, and post-New Girl, we were looking at a lot of different projects that we wanted to be a part of, and reading scripts, and trying to develop scripts, and writing, and creating, and just seeing what the next game plan was after New Girl. I read a lot of scripts that were comedies that were very similar to New Girl — that were a group of friends, similar scenarios — but Woke came about, and it meant something more to me just because it mirrored certain parts of my life. It echoed what friends and family have to deal with [regarding] race in this country, [or] all over the world. I gravitated towards it immediately. Page one, I was just hooked. The animation element of it is brilliant. I think the real Keith Knight, the person who I play, is brilliant, and I love his comic strip. I love his art. I love everything about what he does, and he and I shared similar political energies, if you will. We're very aware of what is going on, but for a long time, I'll be honest, I just kind of coasted. You're so focused on providing for your family, and work, and achieving goals, that when things happen, you may say something about it, but it doesn't really activate you. You'd notice the injustice happening, but it doesn't really activate you. 

This time that we're living in now has activated me. It's activated a lot of people. And I think this show showcases that. What do you do when you have a voice, but you're kind of scared to use it? I think that theme of the show would resonate with a lot of people. It got an immediate reaction out of me. When you're done watching comedies, a lot of times you just laugh and go, “Man, that was funny,” you can remember a couple jokes here and there. When you're done watching something like this, you leave with something. I remember watching Ramy and thinking, "Wow, this is really funny." And the acting is great, everything's great, but I [now] understand more about what Muslim culture is. I understand more about the stereotypes that they're put under, and about sex in Islam, and all kinds of stuff that you're like, “Whoa, I didn't know that, that's interesting. Their walk is not all that different from ours,” but also you laugh. With our show, I think you'll get similar energy. You'll leave with something. There's a message in every episode, and when you watch it, you'll notice it only gets better. The show gets better and better and better and better and better, and it gets deeper and darker, and so yeah, that's what gravitated me towards it.

Were you a fan of Keith Knight before having to play a version of him? The show makes a meta-joke about people thinking he's Aaron McGruder because that's the one Black cartoonist they can name.

I knew of his work before, but I never studied it. You see it all over the place and I would always go, “Oh, that must be that one dude,” and I never put two and two together until I read the script and went, “Oh s---!”

Do you see the show as reflective of the conversations that are happening right now, where white people are asking for book lists and black people are talking about their levels of wokeness?

Absolutely. I mean, this is a conversation that I've been having with people for a while. Maybe not that specific, but I think nowadays it definitely is a conversation that people are having, people are more aware today of what's been going on than they've ever been. In our pilot, I believe the marker says to me "the fog has been lifted." I feel like people can see clearly that a lot of people are in denial, which is okay. It's just all a part of the growing process. I'm excited to see people activated and having these conversations because these conversations couldn't be had before. I'll still have conversations with friends that get a little frustrating or eye-rolly, they don't really want to hear it, or they're not willing to talk about it, but over time you can see it piercing a little bit. Those same friends who didn't really want to talk about it, kind of bring it up now. “Hey, what about this?” Or, “What about that?” They still may be on the other side of the fence, but you can see the change happening. And I think winning people over is not a hundred percent our job, but if you can, great, we need allies. This is an all hands on deck fight. I'm not gonna sit here and shame somebody for maybe not getting involved so much, but if you're not involved then get out of the way.  I see the conversations happening constantly. When they were creating the writers' room, a lot of those conversations were just happening in the room, so they started writing towards those basic conversations. We had white writers, Black writers, all types of people that were in that writers' room — very creative room. They were having these conversations with the women's movement, gay rights, all kinds of stuff that was being addressed. And I assume that they wanted to bring that to the page.

Do you feel this role is at all in conversation with your character Winston from New Girl? Some would say he served as a symbol for racial harmony within that show.

You're right, New Girl had some of those undertones, but at the end of the day, Winston just smiled and figured it out. He was more harmonious whereas Keef becomes more militant in his approach, more direct. Where Winston's objective was family, friends, relationships, being a good police officer, Keef's objective now is dealing with this PTSD, and dealing with what he thought the state of affairs was. Realizing that they're different and having to overcome that and address that. That's his objective, to find some sort of clarity and peace in all of this. That wasn't Winston's objective. Winston just was hit with stuff, with certain realizations and revelations of things. I think Winston was always more aware than Keef. He just didn't live in that environment. If you see his roommates, they're white, and so he didn't need to. I will say, yeah, I just feel like Winston is a magical Negro. He's always helpful and smiley and all that stuff. It's always stuck in my head that [he's] always willing to help, and that's kind of how Keef was, but then the fog has been lifted, and so he shifted his point of view and his perspective. He's more so activated in a militant stance. Towards the end [of season 1], he crosses some lines, and I think the audience could really identify with it. Maybe it's jarring to some people, but I think a lot of people can identify with it.

On the show, Keef speaks to a lot of different inanimate objects voiced by people like JB Smoove, Nicole Byer, and Jack McBrayer. Did you know what voices would be talking to you, or was that a surprise watching the final cut?

Some of it's a surprise. We had done a lot. We filmed a lot before we cast some of those voices. I knew of Tony Hale, Sam Richardson, they are Toast and Butter. I knew of Eddie Griffin and Nicole Byer as the 40 ounce bottles, and I knew of Cedric the Entertainer as the trash can. I think Wes Studi is the spoon that I'm talking to on the television [in the pilot], but I don't think I knew of anyone else. JB Smoove came after, so that was definitely a pleasant surprise because JB, that's my guy, man. There's more to come, so I'm excited for people to see it. Even watching it after the fact, I was like, “Oh s---, I had no idea. Oh my God, that's funny.” Like Jack McBrayer, I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” He's one of my favorite people too, so I was really happy to have all the people on board.

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