Jennifer Morrison plays Dr. Allison Cameron on House M.D. One of House’s (the brilliant Hugh Laurie) original fellows, Cameron now runs the Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital Emergency Room. In addition to her House duties, Morrison is featured in this spring’s Star Trek feature film. The busy and gracious Morrison kindly took time out of her hectic schedule to talk with me by phone about House and working on Star Trek.
When the series premiered in 2004, Morrison’s character Cameron was a naïve ingénue. But over the course of five seasons, Cameron has continued to grow and mature. Morrison feels lucky that her character has been able to grow, and not remained static as characters often do on long-running series. “I think that’s one of the fears doing a TV show.” If the series was going to run for a long time, “I wanted to make sure that the character would grow just like a normal person would over the years. I feel very lucky that the writers totally built that into the story.”
Morrison credits executive producer (and director of the pilot) Bryan Singer (“Superman Returns,” “X-Men,” “Usual Suspects”) for setting Cameron on the right path from the beginning. “By allowing her to show more of her vulnerability and insecurities about her herself at the beginning,” she noted, “It gave a lot more room for her to grow over the years. I really agreed with that and thought that Bryan was right on about it.”
In the series first season or two, explained Morrison, Cameron was “a woman who had worked very hard to get to where she is. She is very smart and always at the top of her class. But she still hadn’t had an opportunity to prove herself.” Working under someone as hostile and abrasive as House “brings out your insecurities rather than your confidence,” not exactly an easy environment for Cameron to overcome her vulnerabilities.
Morrison reminded me that Cameron even began reading self-help books on assertiveness (remember season one’s “Control” and Cameron’s “soft positional bargaining?”). But she still had a long way to go. As time went on, reflected Morrison, her character found a sort of “shaky middle ground where sometimes she could find it and assert herself, and sometimes she’d kind of falter.” By the time she resigns from House’s team at the end of season three, “she’s standing her own ground and running her own department in the ER.”
No longer under House’s thumb, Cameron doesn’t have to answer to him or subject herself to his often harsh manner. Morrison views Cameron as sort of an emergent butterfly during the last two seasons. “She was a caterpillar for three years and now she’s out of the cocoon. It’s been really nice to watch her sort of grow into herself over these five years.”
Although Morrison said that she has little input on her character’s overall storyline (“that’s the writers’ domain”), she feels that she now has more input into “what happens with Cameron,” in her scenes. “I’ve been living with her for five years. She’s obviously very close to me.”
One of the great things about the show, Morrison added, is that “most of the writers have been with the show since the beginning.” That’s a real advantage, she noted, because,the writers are also are very close to the characters. She appreciates the sense of "real collaboration in each scene between writer and actor in crafting just how a scene will play. It’s a nice way to continue to have these characters grow,” she added.
With Cameron no longer under House's influence, I wondered what Morrison thought her alter ego took away from her experience as one of House's fellows. Morrison thinks that Cameron has become a better diagnostician from House’s influence. “Cameron can get past the wrong answers and get to the right answer quicker now.”
And knowing House so well allows Cameron to understand how House's mind works, which comes in very handy from time to time. Morrison reminded me that in “The Itch” (the episode about the agoraphobic patient), Cameron was able to anticipate the sort of mind games that House was likely to play. So when House surreptitiously switches the patient from morphine to saline (which would have caused the patient more pain–and be more likely to agree to leave his house and come to the hospital for treatment), Cameron, anticipating House, switches him back, allowing the patient to remain pain-free and in his home.
In the recent “Big Baby” Cameron assumes House’s reins from Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) so that she can spend more time with her new baby. Cameron’s experience with House is both an advantage and a disadvantage in “controlling” her brilliant but sometimes reckless old mentor. Although Cuddy warns her not to engage House, because she cannot win against the master, she does try to outwit him to varying degrees of success.
On the other hand, Morrison explained, knowing House so well, Cameron also understands why House wants to do seemingly insane and dangerous tests. Ultimately, she couldn’t say "no" to him and couldn’t effectively manage him because she knows that however crazy and risky the test may be, House is probably right. “She knows when he gets to that point and he really thinks he needs to do something it’s really hard to say no.”
When Cameron resigned from House’s team at the end of season three, she took a position running the hospital’s emergency room. It was a move that left some fans scratching their heads about how immunologist Cameron made the dramatic switch from diagnostics to emergency medicine (of course, fans were equally perplexed about Chase moving from House’s team to the surgery department).
Morrison laughed, acknowledging that this isn’t “technically the normal way that medicine works” (On the other hand, in what real medical setting would House still have a tenured faculty position at a major medical institution?).
In the fourth season episode “The Right Stuff,” Cameron told House she had switched to the ER to help people. “She has this deep-rooted sense of wanting to do good for others and House has given her a lot of crap over the years for that,” Morrison explained. “But that’s a part of her being. She tells House that she wants to get that out of her system.” After treating one patient a week for three years, Cameron thinks “You know I’ve been spending three years treating one patient a week; how many people can I help in a day in the ER?”
In addition to get the “do-gooding” out of her systems, “working in the ER is also a way for her to stay where she wants to be.” And she “feels very satisfied” in her new position. Morrison thinks that Cameron wanted to find a way to stay in Princeton, where she can be with Chase, with whom she’s had an ongoing relationship for two years.
Starting out with a “friends with benefits” casual sex agreement mid-season three, their relationship now appears to be loving and stable, and, as Chase points out this season’s “Unfaithful,” seems to have beaten the odds for “office romances.” I reminded Morrison that the Chase-Cameron relationship is a rare bird in House’s universe of mostly unhappy campers.
“I know! I keep waiting,” she laughed “Nobody’s happy on this show. A happy relationship? How long can that last? Their relationship had a very interesting start to things. Started out very casual.” Although it’s only been obliquely mentioned on the show, Morrison pointed out that Chase has a history of being a bit of a playboy.
“So here’s this woman who keeps saying ‘no’ to him,” Morrison explained. “Of course it sort of sucks him in more and more while working so closely together on the team. But I think it is interesting for us to show how often Cameron does have her guard up with Chase — and how hard it is for her to just be at ease in the relationship.”
Although things appear to be going along well, Morrison added there are those incidents like her reluctance to let Chase stay the night and feel comfortable in her apartment (“The Itch”) that show the real complications. “No matter how much she wants a happy relationship, it’s hard for her to be vulnerable in a real way.”
Morrison recalled the third season episode "Insensitive" in which Foreman points out that as hard as it was to watch her first husband die, she knew that the commitment would be short lived. “Foreman tells Cameron that real commitment is when you know you could spend 30 years with somebody, make the sacrifices. It was a jarring thing for her to hear.” Cameron had probably never considered that before, Morrison noted. “And I think that’s a lot of what haunts her in trying to get close to Chase. If they keep getting closer, what does it mean? How long do they have to be close? How much of herself does she have to give up? This is uncharted territory for Cameron.”
And, of course, Cameron is still within House’s orbit (if no longer on his staff). Morrison thinks that’s another barrier to Cameron’s long-term happiness with Chase. “Still working with House, although she really isn’t in love with him, she’s always going to be drawn to him. That will always make the relationship to Chase a little more complicated even if she won’t admit that to herself.”
In season one (and even in season two, to a lesser degree) Cameron seems to see in House a real humanity, which she expresses so beautifully in the late season one episode “Role Model.” After five seasons, I wondered if Cameron still senses that sort of “wounded nobility” in him.
“I think so. I think ‘wounded nobility’ is a really good way of phrasing that,” agreed Morrison. “I think that is what Hugh Laurie does so beautifully. During some recent interview panels, reporters have asked Hugh how it possible to be so great at playing such an asshole? But House isn’t an asshole,” Morrison emphasized. She suggested that although “he’s aggressive and he’s abrasive when he has a point, and he probably hurts people’s feelings,” there is much more than meets the eye.
“Underneath it, his intention is always to get to the solution because he wants someone to get well. He and Cameron both want the same thing; they just have a different way of going about it. And I think she recognizes that similarity in him.” Morrison believes that “no matter how difficult House can be or rough around the edges he may appears, there’s that look in his eyes he sees someone saved, or he sees someone have the life they’ve always wanted to have.”
In “The Right Stuff,” House treats Greta, a female astronaut who experiences visual disturbances and other symptoms. If NASA becomes aware of her symptoms, Greta would likely be grounded and her life-long dream of space exploration would be destroyed. Cameron anonymously refers Greta to House, believing that he would be willing to help her “off the books,” as she insists she must be.
After diagnosing and treating Greta, House lies to his team to prevent Greta’s secret from getting back to NASA- something that would appear to be completely out of character for House. In the end, Cameron asks him why House, of all people, would lie to protect the aspirations of a patient. It’s a rhetorical question, because she knows the answer: “You couldn’t kill her dream,” she tells House. “Cameron recognizes that, and knows that she’s safe sending this woman to House because first he’s going to like the challenge of everything being a secret. But she also knows that at the end of the day, he’s not going to be able take this woman’s dream away from her.”
Morrison feels that Hugh Laurie is wonderful in bringing out this side of the character. “I’m just guessing because I’m not Hugh — and I’m not playing the character — but I would guess that there’s a certain element of wanting to save others because he can’t save himself.” Sharing her own sense of House as a character, Morrison explained that perhaps House “can’t get his dreams back, but maybe he can rescue others’ dreams. And whether he admits that to himself or not, that might be a deep-rooted decision that he made for himself years ago.”
As so many fans of the series realize, much of House’s more vulnerable, human side is expressed between the lines of dialogue. “Hugh does such a beautiful job of infusing the character without saying anything about it. It’s always with a little look. It’s always in his eyes. I’ve had the honor of getting to work with him and seeing it up close, but you know it’s always so heartbreaking and so beautiful that he can find both things at once. That you can find something so harsh and so loving at the same time.” And it’s what makes so many female (and probably a few male) viewers fall in love with such an outwardly heartless character!
Morrison teased a bit about what’s in store for Cameron as the season begins to wind down. “It will be really interesting to see. There are a lot of things coming up in the next few episodes that I can’t talk about,” she said, declining my plea for a scoop. “We’ve hit a sort of critical turning point within the next few episodes that air. House has always been a show where everything happens a little bit at a time; but at the end of season five a lot happens for a lot of the characters all at once. I think the end of the season really drastically affects the way a lot of the characters are going to continue to grow and change over time. I’m trying to be vague and specific at the same time… I can’t quite answer that in as much detail as I’d like to.”
The details of the final several episodes are being kept super-secret, apologized Morrison, sorry that she could not be more specific about details of the upcoming series of episodes. “We’re on lock down right now. We have to sign out our sides every morning. They even have watermarks!”
So, not even a tiny morsel? “All I can say is there’s a lot happening for all of us. There are things that are going to happen that every character is impacted by. There are several things that are going to happen in the last five-ish episodes that kind of re-direct all of us.” She explained that giving more of a hint would risk giving away the entire game. So we will all just have to wait. And speculate.
Morrison has been a busy actress, and in addition to her role on House, she has been working on the highly anticipated Star Trek movie. Directed by JJ Abrams, the movie, a prequel to TV and film versions of the classic Star Trek, it is due to be released May 8. Morrison plays Winona Kirk, Captain James T. Kirk’s mom! “The whole experience was phenomenal. JJ Abrams is just incredible to work with. I can’t even put it into words. I came out of that a better actor from working with him. It was, by far, one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in the industry so far. I feel so lucky to be a part of it.” Not having seen the film yet, she was hoping to attend a cast-only screening this week, if her House duties didn’t require her on-set.
As we said good-bye, the delightful Jennifer Morrison told me to be sure I conveyed her appreciation to her fans. “Please tell them I said hello and thank them for watching!” Be sure to catch the next episode of House, Monday March 9 at 8:00 p.m. (Eastern Time).