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No sides, no prisoners

Writer Peter Morgan has made the dissection of powerful people his specialty.

April 22, 2007|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

"What's exciting about Peter's work is there is always someone who is has the ability to seize the moment at the same time there's another with a self-destructive bent," says Sheen, who not only worked with Morgan on "The Deal," "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon" but will also play the charismatic, alcoholic coach in the Frears film. "He's fascinated by the demons in people perhaps because he's slain some dragons of his own."

The playwright also saw the opportunity to demonstrate one of his favorite themes: the elusiveness of truth. The fact that many of the events surrounding the interviews were so well documented only sweetened the challenge. After spending six months in Washington, D.C., interviewing more than 60 people, he let his imagination fill in the blanks. "People constantly ask me, 'How do you know that did or didn't happen?' " he says. "And I reply, 'Even if you just stick to the words that were actually said, the indisputable facts, the published record, you still have disagreement.' " What emerges is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Nixon -- something Morgan says he had not intended, just as was the case for Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth. "I wrote about a stubborn, haughty, narrow-minded woman," he says. "But if you try to understand these people, if you pull it all apart ... well, we're only human."

Morgan's attraction to power may well stem from an early destiny determined by the abuse of it. His father, Arthur Morgenthau, was fleeing the Nazis when he arrived in London in 1933; his mother, Inga Bojcek, emigrated from Poland after the Soviet takeover. His father was a "not successful, not glamorous" businessman who died suddenly when Morgan was only 9. Though the writer acknowledges the death was the most traumatic experience of his early life, he still describes a "happy childhood" that was "culturally, not religiously" more Jewish than Gentile.

But when Morgan was shipped off to a Catholic boarding school, where he was promptly nicknamed Fritz, he felt alienated. "I hated it," he recalls, adding that it was there he first learned to question authority.

The debates begin

WHAT eventually saved him was going to Leeds, a university in north England, rather than the more prestigious Oxford or Cambridge. There he discovered the theater, acting in plays until sidelined by a bad case of stage fright. But his conventional world was shaken when he transferred from the English department to the fine arts department. "It was like gelignite, very radicalized, and blowing up whatever you once thought sacrosanct was the only value of the exercise," he recalls. . "I felt liberated and independent, and that independence is still there."

Morgan excelled in debating, assuming the role of the "attack dog." He used humor to score points. But outside his debating life, he became skeptical of taking fixed positions, and remains so. "I have a friend, Rosie Boycott, who's a pundit. She's called by media day and night. I don't understand that," he says. "I don't have a point of view about anything, it feels. That's why I'm comfortable seeing all sides. I like looking, not espousing."

An odd thing for a writer to say, but, Grandage observes of Morgan: "His greatest gift is the ability to give everybody a fair hearing and still keep a dramatic tension."

What ignited the college debates for him was not ideology but the fun -- and the competition. He's still very competitive. "It's a hideous thing, a curse," he says, helplessly. "It's really vile, a really unattractive trait to possess."

Nonetheless, that may have fueled his rise to the top. After college, he worked in relative obscurity, writing additional dialogue on John Schlesinger's "Madame Sousatzka" and earning sole screen credit with "Shalom Joan Collins," a 1989 TV movie about a North London neighborhood thrown into a tizzy by celebrity. But Morgan hit his stride in 2003 with "The Deal," a TV movie speculating on what occurred in the exchange of power within the Labor Party between Blair and Gordon Brown, his chancellor of the Exchequer.

Today, "get Peter Morgan" is a common refrain in studio executive suites, and, Morgan says, that feels "just great, there's no downside to it." Among the benefits of success are invitations to L.A., which Morgan says he prefers to New York, finding the Big Apple too kinetic. "My mother always tells me to be careful in L.A., since it's so craven and degenerate," he says. "But I always find it much too sober. I wish it were more louche and loose. I'd love to see more mess and chaos!" And, he adds, it's also reflected in eating and drinking habits. "I mean, they frown on you if you eat a pudding. It's a competitive lack of sensuality."

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