A lone figure crosses one of Babylon 5's deserted docking bays and make his way to the station's customs area. A security guard checks his identicard-it's out of date. "I've been out of circulation." the mysterious man explains. "I spent the last few years doing some exploration out on the rim." "Find anything interesting?" The man smiles. "Yes," he replies cryptically.
That was the introduction of Morden, an agent of the ancient Shadow race who began to make their presence known during the first season of Babylon 5. One by one, Morden approaches the station's alien ambassadors, asking them a simple question: "What do you want?" The result of those conversations would dramatically change the series' direction over the next several seasons.
For Ed Wasser, who plays Babylon 5's shadowy master of machination, what helps make Morden interesting is his amorality. "He watches people; he lets them go where they're going." says Wasser, "and then he plays them like a fiddle. Morden knows everything. But he's not evil. He thinks what he's doing is for the good of all. He believes that the Shadow Men are the winning team."
According to Wasser, a major difficulty in playing Morden is that the character has too much ice water running through his veins. "Emotionally, he's somewhat vacant; he has the whole picture, but can't tip his hat to what really makes him tick. What happens for me with the character is that line memorization is very complicated, because there is no real emotional connection to them. It's very iced, very controlled. The more I play the character, the more difficult he actually becomes. I have the confidence of knowing what I have to do for Morden, but the more I understand him, the more I understand his emotional mechanism and know that I can't let it out. It's really a challenge."
One trick the actor used to flesh out his character was finding some sort of talisman that connected Morden with his dark side-possibly an object given to him by the Shadows. "I started going to crystal shops and playing with crystals, and found one which was a black stone but if you hold it up to the light, it turns translucent green. I fell in love with that stone, and brought it to the producers, wanting to wear it around my neck as the emblem that Morden wears. I wasn't sure if they would pay for it, so I just shelled out the money, and showed it to them and they liked it. When those elements aren't there for the viewers, they're there for me, because I have contact with the Shadow Men."
After attending S.U.N.Y. Purchase in New York, Wasser did a large amount of regional theater, but his head for business nearly derailed a promising acting career. "I did a little bit of soap work, on Loving, Another World and All My Children, but I was unwilling to put all my eggs into one basket, so I started a company called Ad Skates. We had a fleet of roller skaters dressed in bright orange outfits, who wore billboards and fins on their helmets that said Ad Skates; they would skate all over Manhattan, passing out flyers. That went well, and then I started producing corporate videos, in-house training tapes and business-to-business communications. My grandmother said to me. 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Well, I'm making an investment in this company.' and she replied, 'Why don't you make an investment in yourself, and start focusing on what you want?' So I came out here in '91 or '92, that's when my career really started."
After moving to California, Wasser began to do more television, with appearances on Murder She Wrote, Quantum Leap and Life Goes On. "Most of the work that I had done previous to Babylon 5 was in film work. I did a movie called Stormswept, then Royal Affair and a few movies for HBO and Showtime, but this is my first regular television gig."
Wasser's relationship with Babylon 5 actually started when casting agent Dorrie Zuckerman asked him to be a reader on the pilot. That's the person who reads opposite the auditioning actors, giving them someone to bounce off, as opposed to a casting person delivering those lines without any inflection-hardly a confidence builder for any actor trying to do his best.
Being present for the auditioning process gave Wasser a unique perspective on the actors who became part of the Babylon 5 crew. "I was mesmerized by Mira Furlan-I don't know if I thought she was the best person for the part-I'm not a casting director. All I knew is who I thought was talented. I wasn't mesmerized by Jerry Doyle, but he had a lot of attitude and cockiness, which was absolutely right for the part. The ones who really stick out in my head were: one guy who read for G'Kar had done Cuckoo's Nest and he was pretty incredible. I can't honestly say I read with Andreas Katsulas, but he's very powerful, and I think he's brilliant. I liked Michael O'Hare's work; he had the presence of a commander."
Having read with most members of the B5 cast, it may have seemed a natural progression for Wasser to join them at some point, and in fact, that's just what happened. Oddly enough, the actor's first visit to the space station wasn't as Morden, but as a tech named Guerra who appears briefly in the pilot. "The funny thing is, when I first got involved, I said 'Listen, I really want to be on the show every week.' At the time, they said they didn't want to repeat people on the bridge in every show, in order to give it the feeling that there are many people on Babylon 5. I was disappointed by that, and certainly in terms of finances, it would have been nice."
The transition from briefly seen operative to all-powerful Shadow agent took place over several months, beginning just before the two-hour pilot was shot, "After they finished casting the main characters," Wasser relates, "[director] Richard Compton handed me me the script and said, 'Go home and read it, and other than series regulars, let us know what part you want.' I said OK, thinking about the part that's going to have the most exposure, not the best written part, not the most lines; I'm just thinking of the combination the most lines and the most exposure, who'll be brought back if this thing goes. I thought, somebody in the observation dome of course, so I picked that part, and they gave it to me, no questions asked.
"We did the pilot, and it got picked up for the first season, and six episodes in, I asked, 'When is my role going to come to life?' Of course, I didn't want to wear head gear; I wanted to look like me, so it would serve a purpose in my career, and a few days later, Joe Stracczynski said, 'How would you like to be the maitre'd in this really classy restaurant?' I thought about beggars not being choosers and trying to be polite, so I said OK, but really I was thinking, 'Yuck!'
"I went home and thought about it and then came back days later and said, 'Joe, I've been thinking about the part, and it just doesn't sound exiting. Isn't there something a little more responsible, something that has a greater responsibility to the arc of the show? Isn't there something a little on the dangerous side, a little dark?' I didn't really know what I was asking for, except that I wanted to be more involved in uncovering mysteries and the dark stuff. I never thought he would come up with the villain.
"When I asked that, they didn't call me in to read for two months, so I thought I had stepped way out of bounds. Then, Joe called me up and said, 'We have a script for you.' He handed it to me, I read it and was blown away; I couldn't have been more ecstatic."
Morden made his first appearance in "Signs and Portents," luring the Centauri Ambassador, Londo Mollari, into a Faustian bargain with the Shadows. Ironically, while "Signs and Portents" marked the characters debut in the series, Wasser had already shot "Chrysalis," the season-ending cliffhanger, several weeks earlier. As a result, the actor had to consult with writer Straczynski to keep Morden's chronology in order, "He handed me a couple of unfinished scenes from "Signs and Portents" to give me an idea of where I came from."
Wasser's job was also made easier by two key people who worked with him on both episodes; Peter Jurasik, who plays Londo, and director Janet Greek. "I was so lucky to to be able to work with the two of them. Janet was just incredible, and really took care of me. She knew what she wanted for the character, and really helped me define Morden. Peter was a sweetheart, and unassuming. He's very gentile, and I continue to love working with Peter.
It wasn't until late in the second season that B5 viewers finally began to find out more about Morden's mysterious origins. In "In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum," Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers a link between the destruction of the Icarus-the science vessel on which his wife Anna was stationed-and Morden, a crewman from that ship, also thought to be dead. According to Wasser, "It was a super episode for me. We definitely know Morden's connection is even stronger now, although we don't really know why he did it. Everybody was pleased with the episode's intensity. There is a lot of passion coming from Bruce in that one, because it concerns Sheridan's wife."
The actor points to the emotionally charged interrogation scenes between Morden and Sheridan as among the episode's highlights-with one small reservation. "I thought they were excellent, although I didn't like the lighting, of course. It was not favorable lighting, and when you have somebody like me who has strong features, you have to light me carefully. I looked like I had a nose the size of Brooklyn, and I don't; it's only the size of Staten Island!
"That was just embarrassing to me, but of course I thought the work was wonderful. I was proud of the exchanges that Bruce and I had, which were really strong when you got past the lighting. I enjoyed working with David Eagle, who's really a nice guy, and I thought that he got some good work out of me."
Wasser returned to Babylon 5, kicking off the third season in "Matter of Honor." By this time, Londo has decided to terminate his secret alliance with the Shadows, only to find that Morden has a few book keeping matters to be resolved.
"I was pleased with everybody's work and the way the show turned out, so no real complaints about that," says Wasser. "I'm getting fan mail saying, 'Every show needs a great villain, and Babylon 5 is lucky to have you.'
"I thought it was a good episode. If I worked every other week and had one or two scenes like that, it would be great, but I don't, so when I work for them, I want it to be substantial. They called me to do a voice over for an episode ["Voices of Authority"], and even hired me for one day to do a sentence ["Ceremonies of Light and Dark"]"
The last of Wasser's B5 episodes to date is "Interludes and Examinations," which he considers a major turning point for Morden and for the series as a whole. "It's very important episode, in my opinion. I don't have as much dialogue as I did in 'Z'Ha'Dum,' but I'm all over the place in that one. There are lots of visuals in that one, a couple of really fun scenes, and you see Morden's ability to really manipulate. In one scene, I don't even use Morden's body and voice, in a way, I do something different with one of the vendors.
"I got to work with Peter and Stephen [Furst] again, and a couple of Rangers, as well as a nice little scene with a vendor. I also got to work with Kosh, so it was fun. Jesus Trevino directed that. My hat's off to Joe for this one, which adds another piece to the puzzle."
Despite his characters less-than-regular status, Wasser has become an active member of the Babylon 5 family, with several convention appearances, and a thriving fan club. As for his time off-station, the actor has been keeping busy with a number of diverse projects, "The N.Y.P.D. Blue piece, in which I play a bad cop, was pretty good. I got the lead in a play called The Misanthrope, by Molie're, very challenging. There are lots of other irons in the fire right now, and so many other things going on, which is nice, but then again, nothing is for real until you get a paycheck. You just work on staying gracious and trust that the universe is going to take care of you."
While no one has actually turned the tables on Ed Wasser yet, asking him, "What do you want?" his answer would probably involve being around for the duration of Babylon 5's projected five-year story arc. "Of course, I'm always hoping that Morden will come around more often, but Joe has said his mystery will be blown if we see him more often, although I don't know if I agree to that.
"I don't think Joe has any plans to get rid of me any time soon, but I may be surprised. I don't know what his plans are, and I'm no sure I want to know." And if Straczynski decides to do away with the Shadow's soft-spoken, ever-smiling agent? "If he kills me off as Morden, I'll talk him into putting me into prosthetics and do something else!"
Copyright Starlog 1996