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X-Men ’97 new team member JP Karliak talks about his Morph

X-Men creators confirm Morph is non-binary

As far back as I remember, I’ve always known the X-Men.

As a child, my father had the entire X-Men: The Animated Series on VHS, and we watched every episode together. My dad liked X-Men; he related to the group of heroes being ostracized for being different. He was born in Jamaica but moved to Canada in his teens and felt connected to their story. While my father and I are very different people, I always shared his love for X-Men, and as a Black gay man, I identified with being different from my peers.

So I jumped at the chance to speak to the new member of the X-Men, JP Karliak, who’s taking over the role of Morph in X-Men ’97. Disney recently announced that Morph is non-binary, so throughout the interview, Karliak and I chat about him and the shapeshifting X-Men being 2SLGBTQIA (LGBTQ+) and how people reacted to the character coming out. We also touch on mental health, as the last time we saw Morph, he was dealing with PTSD and other mental health concerns due to being killed by Sentinels and brought back to life by Mister Sinister.

MobileSyrup’s Brad Shankar also interviewed several legacy members of the X-Men team, which you can check out here. 

Question: Firstly, you’re replacing a Canadian voice actor, Ron Rubin. How does it feel to step into those big shoes?

JP Karliak: I mean, difficult, of course. Ron’s portrayal of Morph was iconic. I think, and as somebody who’s played a number of legacy characters, there is always that discussion of how much do we want to adhere to what’s already been done before, or how much wiggle room do we have. I think the giggle is there with Morph. We’ve done the giggle. But as far as trying to emulate Ron’s performance specifically, this is Morph — he doesn’t sound terribly different from my natural speaking voice.

I just ground him in reality because there’s so much stuff happening in the X-Men show all the time, and having those really genuine relationships between people, I didn’t need to put on extra character voice. Morph’s got enough going on. But we do pay homage with the laugh and all of that.

Q: JP, you’re part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. How does it feel to be representing a non-binary character?

JP Karliak: Thank you for using all the letters; I appreciate them.

[And] oh yes, absolutely [it feels] amazing. I mean, there’s certainly been characters I’ve played in the past that, at least from my opinion, were ostensibly queer, but it’s rare I get the studio agreeing with me where they’re like, “No, yeah, [they’re queer].” So it’s awesome.

Morph is truly dear to my heart on so many levels. As somebody who has undergone a whole traumatic experience of being killed and then being revived by Mr. Sinister and having his mind taken over and controlled and turned into a villain, then overcoming that and then having to go through like all sorts of rehabilitation to figure out who he is and get over that trauma… I truly identify with a character that has undergone so much trauma but also tries to push through the pain and overcome it through laughter and cracking jokes. It’s a very queer experience. It’s also a very personal experience for me, so I love that about him. I love that I get to do that.

Q: So Morph uses he/him pronouns. Was that an active decision?

JP Karliak: Yeah, the reason being, it was the ’90s, man. I think there’s been a lot of the people who are scared of the ‘woke’ folk, and they are like, “Oh, they’re gonna make a whole episode where it’s just all gonna be about he’s non-binary.” Well, for starters, it’s in 1997, we didn’t have the term non-binary. We didn’t say that. So while that is the understanding of who Morph is, and if Morph lives to, like, the year 2015, 2016 [crosses fingers], that would probably be the word he would use to describe himself.

It’s not something that was part of the vernacular, nor was using they/them pronouns. That came later. So it’s not to say that Morph isn’t those things. It’s just that he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to be able to describe who he is, which is also like somebody who came out as genderqueer in their late thirties. Like, I’ve always been that; I never knew how to describe it until I heard others say it. And then I was like, “That, that, I’m that, that’s the thing.” You know, even though Morph is that and has always been that, he, himself, and the people around him in the ’90s don’t have the term to describe it.

Q: You kind of say it here, but Morph would always tend to change back to a typical white male beforehand, but now their face is all just gray and Morph-like; you don’t find that you’re changing the character at all?

JP Karliak: Not really. I don’t know if we saw Morph enough in the original series to say that he didn’t default to that gray-headed, neutral person; who knows?

He wasn’t in it a ton; he got killed off in episode one. But I think as far as who he is and the truth of Morph, yeah, he’s the same guy. And this person might wake up one day, look in the mirror and be like, ‘I don’t like how I look today. I think I’m gonna go do this’ and can; he has the freedom to be able to do that. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that all of a sudden, he’s this gray-headed person.

 

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Q: How do you feel about the anti-woke backlash about Morph? And what do you say to those people?

JP Karliak: I live for it.

All publicity is good publicity.

No, I think the funny thing is that I expected it. I mean, from auditioning for the character and knowing that this was the direction they were going, it’s like, “Well, we’re gonna get that.”

But I think what’s been surprising in a very pleasant way has been the backlash to the backlash and seeing all the people just speaking up. Like, “Have you actually watched the X-Men? Have you actually read the comics? Do you know what the X-Men started from and their whole purpose?”

And when I read things that have been like, “JP Karliak is a radical queer activist, and he started this organization that fights for queer people,” it’s like… “Yes, and?”

So it truly doesn’t bother me at all. And if I can deflect some of the arrows that people are throwing at trans kids across the country who are freaking out about the rights that are being taken away from them, go for it.

Q: On the flip side, how have the positive comments been? How does it feel to receive people standing for Morph’s ‘non-binary-ness?’

JP Karliak: It’s been great because I think it shows where we’ve come since the ’90s. When I think of the representation of gender nonconforming in the ’90s, I think of Jerry Springer.

[Karliak points out that I’m too young to know about Jerry Springer, which was true, but I know about Maury, so close enough.]

And he would bring on transgender humans as sort of like “wooooo,” [spooky sounds] and the fact that we’ve gone from there to these people who are winning awards, who are being recognized, who are being treated like human beings, who are being seen on TV shows and heard in the animation? And so when people stick up for Morph, it fills my ’90s kid’s heart with joy because that would not have happened then. It’s such a wonderful change to see.

Q: So is Morph coming out of the closet? Or is that not going to happen because it’s the 90s’?

JP Karliak: Again, if Morph didn’t have the terminology back then, what would he say? I think what’s interesting is that I was reading the interview with the creators of the original series. And they were talking about Morph’s non-binaryness, and how he’s always been that, we just didn’t know how to say that back then, but it completely makes sense with who he is.

Although I will say that I don’t want to conflate shapeshifter and non-binary is the same thing. [Karliak is referring to the piece with the original creators where they mentioned that they believe being a shapeshifter is akin to being non-binary.]

With all respect to the creators, I want to be clear that while it does make a lot of sense that someone who is a shapeshifter might identify as non-binary because they could inhabit the bodies of people of different genders, they’re not the same thing. I fear that this makes it sound like somebody who’s nonbinary wants to ping-pong between male and female.

While somebody’s gender could be fluid, that’s not always the case. It’s usually like a fixed point. And also, it sounds like something that can flip with a switch. Like, “I woke up today, and today I’m a woman; tomorrow I’m a man.” Like, it’s not a choice. I just don’t want people to hear shapeshifter and think like I can do tricks or the idea that it’s meant to deceive.

We’ve seen a lot of coming out stories, and it’s not to say that they’re not valid. They’re important. We should see them. But there have been a ton of them. And I think there is also a lot of validity in what we, as the audience, know because they told us their identity. But as far as how they walk through the world and what they navigate and do things that actually have nothing to do with their gender identity or their sexuality, it’s just like who they are. We don’t need to see every queer character focus on their queerness every minute of every day. It can also just be, ‘I’m hanging out with my friends, I’m playing basketball, I’m eating, drinking beer and eating chips with my friend.’ It doesn’t have to be a thing.

Q: Because Morph went through a lot of difficult stuff in the original series, manipulation, PTSD, dying, even, how is that being reflected in this new series? And even though it’s the ’90s, considering the show is coming on now, do we address his mental health?

JP Karliak: Will we deal with it? I think in ways. I don’t think it’s any spoiler to say, but we won’t see Morph enter therapy.

I know I am at liberty to say that Mr. Sinister does return. He’s the source of Morph’s trauma. So there are elements that could come into play, and some of them Morph pushes through and plays off, and some of them really affect him. And you’ll see that it’s all still wrapped up in there.

Q: Considering there’s going to be a lot of teens watching this show, and even younger, do you think that they’ll be able to recognize and say “Morph did that for his mental health, maybe I should do that too?”

JP Karliak: I don’t know if we’ve got specifics in that regard, but I do think overall, the dynamic that the original series, but also this series, really plays well into is the support system of the team and really checking in on each other and being like, “Are you okay?” Nobody goes to their room sulking for long before somebody else checks in. And I think that’s so important.

There’s a montage in one of the episodes that just shows there’s a degree of little signs of them caring for each other and making sure they’re doing okay. And I think that that’s so beautiful. And we all need to be doing that. We all need to check in on our friends and family and make sure they’re alright.

Q: It’s kind of a similar question, but back to the LGBT of it all. Do you feel that teens or younger people watching the show will be able to identify with Morph’s character even though it’s not expressly said that they’re non-binary — that there’s something different about this Morph character that I see in myself?

JP Karliak: We’re not going to ‘convert’ anybody if that’s what anyone’s worried about.

But it reminds me of the incredible series Star Wars: The Bad Batch. And one of the Bad Batch, his name is Tech. He has an experience where he talks about how his brain works and the way he processes thought. And even though it’s never said, I know a lot of people who heard that felt that he was coming out as neurodivergent.

And even though the benchmark words one would expect around that or any specific diagnoses weren’t used, there are people from the community who resonated [with it and thought] ‘Yes, that’s how I feel as well. That’s how my brain works. And people think it’s odd. It’s not. It’s just how my brain works.’

And I think similarly, Morph, while he doesn’t say it, he doesn’t need to say it, just by being who he is — by virtue of that alone. And also, he’s being played by somebody who also identifies that way, so there’s going to be just those little benchmarks that people will be like, ‘Wait a minute, I feel that, I understand that, that’s something that I go through as well.’ But also, I have friends who were obsessed with the series when they were growing up, like a Black cisgender gay male who would find kinship to Storm and her journey, even though they’re not the same gender. And even though there’s nothing ostensibly queer about her, there is that journey of hers that a gay person would identify with. I love her strength within and, paired with her femininity, it feels very true to me, even though I don’t identify as a woman.

So, all of that’s in there; it just doesn’t have to be explicitly said for it to be true.

(This struck a cord for me as I’m someone who absolutely loves Storm — she’s my favourite superhero ever and I am a gay cis Black male.)

Q: What other Marvel character would you like your Morph to meet?

JP Karliak: Mystique. I think it would just be like:

“So, you.”

“Oh yeah.”

“And you do too, right?”

“Oh yeah, I do.”

“Cool.”

Just sort of trading notes, funny stories, and be like, ‘did you ever have this experience where like you’re changing into one person, but then you kind of got stuck,’ and then it was like, ‘does that ever happen to you? Oh yeah, this is what I do to get over it. I just drink tomato juice. ‘Oh, neat. That’s cool.’ I just want them to compare notes because it’s so rare that you get two people in the room with the same power. So I would love that.

Although I feel like, character-wise, the two of them would get in the room, and Morph would say, ‘Oh, this is so cool’ and she’d have no patience for it.

Q: Do you think Morph would want to meet anyone from the DC universe? I know you are now part of the DC universe as the Joker in Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League.

JP Karliak: Oh, the crossover question. I think my Morph and my Joker would get along really well. I’m not shipping them or anything. But I think my Joker being an Elseworld Joker brought into a new universe, he’s also a younger Joker who’s sort of figuring out who he is and what his level of psychopathy is.

I think he and Morph have that in common, just figuring out where they fit in their world. So who knows, they might be able to have a drink over that, but that’s maybe that’s as far as it goes. He’s still the Joker. Yeah, he’s still pretty bad.

This interview has been edited for language and clarity.


X-Men’ 97 is now streaming on Disney+. 

Image credit: Marvel Animation

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