• Interviews

Iona Morris-Jackson: “Directing is where my true path lies”

It is never too late to find your true passion. This is what Iona Morris Jackson found out when she got the opportunity to direct. Having been an actress for several decades with over 100 credits on IMDb, she discovered her true path when the opportunity to direct an episode of the popular ABC series Black-ish came up. Today, she is nominated for a 54th NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Director in A Comedy Series category for her Black-ish episode If A Black Man Cries in the Woods. Winners will be revealed during the 54th NAACP Image Awards telecast on February 25 on BET. Iona Morris Jackson spoke to the HFPA via Zoom from the View Park neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Congratulations on your NAACP Image Award nomination. How did you celebrate the news?

I may have screamed a little bit. I called so many friends and said: ‘Hello, hold the phone away from your ear, I am going to scream.’

Was there champagne involved too?

Yes, there was. I am a Buddhist and I had just finished chanting. My phone went off. Someone said: ‘Congratulations on your nomination.’ I thought they had received an email about me submitting the episode. Then, a director said: ‘You have been nominated.’ I went to check if it was for real. It was. It was a ride that day. 

Black-ish is a very popular show and you worked as a dialogue coach on the show. What made you interested in directing an episode?

I had directed a wonderful comedy called “Sassy Mamas” in the theatre, with three women. I was one of them. It was so good. One day, I looked and went: ‘I just directed a sitcom.’ I was looking for that connection again because I have something to say here in front of the camera.

I had never worked crew before, only as an actress. I went to lunch with a girlfriend who told me about the job as dialogue coach at Black-ish. I interviewed and met two of the producers. I felt that, if I got back on a set and learned what it was to be crew, I could shadow while I was getting paid as a dialogue coach. I could watch what all these brilliant directors were doing. Every week there was someone different. I watched them succeed and I watched them fail. I watched how they worked with the crew and communicated. In theatre, it is me and the actors. When you are directing television, you are working with a lot of other people. So, I watched and learned.

You directed a short film Celeste’s Dreams to prove that you would be able to do the job, right?

Yes, they recommended that I make a short film. I spent six years on that. I wrote, directed, and executively produced a short. I spent a lot of money on it so the quality would be good. They liked it. Then, in our eighth season, I sent an email and said: ‘Don’t forget about me’. They said that Tracee Ellis Ross just decided that she is too busy to direct her episode. That was my in. 

Celeste’s Dreams was screened in 14 Short Film Festivals, garnering 3 nominations and the Award for Merit from the Canadian Short Film Festival. What was that experience like?

It took six years to change my brain. When you are used to theatre, you need to get used to the fact that it is the camera that is telling the story. I even remember the day that it flipped and I went: ‘I have got it now.’ So, I started writing the short. I called my dear friend Sherri G. Sneed. Got her to produce it. I got most of the crew from Black-ish. Hired some actors and spent two days shooting. The first moment I said ‘Action,’ I knew I was home.


What was the transition from acting to directing like?

I had written a one-person show and performed it. Another actress came to see it and asked me to direct her one-woman show. I said: ‘Absolutely not. I am an actress.’ She bugged me for three months. I went to her rehearsal. That first day, I realized that there was something there. I had the whole picture now. And it wasn’t just me as an actress. I realized that I had had that vision ever since I was a kid – that I should direct shows. I had not remembered it at that time. It just snowballed from there on, for me. After directing that show, I started directing other shows. There was no shift in that. Or, actually, there was one shift that was really surprising to me. That was when I was no longer interested in acting. To have that full picture and detail is just exciting to me.

For the episode you directed, If A Black Man Cries in the Woods, you went on location with the great actors Laurence Fishburne and Laurence Fishburne and Anthony Anderson. What was it like working with them?

It was wonderful. Anthony and Laurence were great with me. They listened to me and we had a great relationship. When you have great actors, you don’t have to explain a lot. It is just a few words and they have it.

I also had director Todd Bierman with me, who was given to me by the Disney ABC / Directors Guild of America program. He was there to make sure I was learning as much as possible while I was directing and to make sure that I was clear about everything that was happening. So, being in the woods with them was terrific. It was really a dream come true. The crew was incredible and the actors were incredible.


In the episode, three generations of men a going on a man trip with Marcus Schribner playing the youngest generation and here they show a lot of vulnerability. Please talk about the emotional intensity of this episode.

Marcus came fully loaded. He was waiting to be able to tap into this part of himself and that was beautiful. Laurence is a brilliant actor. It is like an acting class just watching him. He was so open to sharing props with me that he might use to feel that he could accent the moment. He was so open with me in terms of what this moment meant. We had some dialogue about that. With Anthony, I did not have to use these chops. There was one scene where I ended up asking him to just look at him and be still. It was powerful. I was well aware that, because of the depth of emotion that these men were pulling from, the thoughts, the stories, the memories, we had to make sure that these shots were set. So, when they came to the stage, we were ready to go. I did, maybe, three takes. At the most.  The loveliest thing for me was seeing the crew being touched. I knew we had hit something. Because the crew sees it all.

You have over 100 actor credits on IMDb. Does it help you in your role as a director that you are a veteran actor yourself?

It helps me communicate. It helps me see when I need to step away for a moment and give the actors some time. Sometimes directors want to tell you what you need to do and how to get there. A good actor does not need that. They need their time. Then, they do their take. And I will throw a little spice in there. Actors can be so emotional. I think I will get more out of them because I know where they are coming from.

What was your reaction the first time you saw the completed episode?

My girlfriend Mary was in town from Chicago. She and I had written a show together in the past. We sat in my dining room with my laptop and we watched it and we cried. I was so proud and I felt so blessed and honored that they had given me that script written by Robb Chavis. They handpicked it for me because they knew of my emotional connection to the cast. It is a rare gift to work on a script like that. So, we sat there and I drank wine. She does not drink so I had her wine. That moment was very emotional. 

Do you plan to direct more in the future?

Oh yes, I do. I am counting on it.

How do you commemorate Black History Month? Is February an especially meaningful month for you?

I am planning to put together a show for Black History Month, next year. About single fathers who are successful with their children. At this time, my brothers and sisters and I are getting together tonight. We are going to have a wonderful time together. My father, who was the actor Greg Morris from the TV series Mission: Impossible, used to make us kids read Black history books during the summertime. I remember that. That is pretty much what we do during this time: remember the people who came before us. My girlfriends and I talk a lot about it. I feel like we talk about it more in this month. We talk about who is coming up new and fresh. I feel more sacred in our conversations, grateful to the people who truly gave blood so that you and I can sit here together.