Every day, Start TV fans get sucked into Cold Case, the stylish, award-winning crime drama starring Kathryn Morris as Detective Lilly Rush, which originally ran on CBS from 2003-2010. After flashing back through history episode after episode, we tracked Morris down to give us an inside look on how the series started – and what stepping into Lilly's shoes meant in her career.
She told Start TV how she leapt from a kid in a gospel choir to a household name – a journey that rapidly accelerated when she caught Steven Spielberg's eye in The Contender and he cast her in his 2002 neo-noir sci-fi film Minority Report. Her other movies include Mindhunters, Paycheck and Resurrecting the Champ, but there's much more to look into when it comes to the famous TV detective's career.
Famous for emotional character work, Morris had an unusual training ground where she honed the confidence that helped her go from her very first pilot season to starring in Cold Case. As a child, she and her family traveled the southern Bible Belt as a popular gospel group called The Morris Code.
It was the first time Morris felt the creative spark of the spotlight: "When I started to notice that the crowds got bigger, then I started to realize, wow, we're really performing here."
Once her family moved The Morris Code north to Connecticut, Morris was quickly encouraged to join drama in high school, already having experience performing for thousands of fans.
Acting seemed the natural next step. Morris said, "When we finally settled in Connecticut, we were these Texan kids with very thick accents and we were very out of place in a very white bread, preppy, wealthy community. And so I auditioned for some small school plays, and I didn't understand why everyone was so nervous, because [the family band was] doing events that [drew] like 500-1,000 people and I was 6, 7 and 8, traveling around in a bus. We recorded a small album, and... I just wanted to kind of change it up a little bit, and I thought, 'Oh, maybe I can try to do a little acting that doesn't have any music.'"
After high school, Morris attended a small college and studied the dramatic arts, then transferred to Temple University. This is where filmmaking became her focus, with the young actor focused not just on her craft, but on building skills in writing and directing. The whole time she lived in Philadelphia, while her agent believed a tiny fib that she was based in New York. This is how she landed her very first auditions, telling Start she "... would say that I lived just over the bridge because they don't take you seriously unless you live in New York."
Morris deserved to be taken seriously, and each agent she encountered recognized that, helping the actor grow beyond her little-white-lie lifestyle in "New York" to her first-ever pilot season in Los Angeles.
That moment came about when she was called in to read for the TV movie Long Road Home. She was there to play a sobbing woman who saves her baby from a fire, but her audition was so sensational, the casting director asked, "Who are you?" and pulled her into a bigger part. It was enough for that movie's star Mark Harmon to tip Morris off to how to find much more work:
"I'm at the end of the project," Morris recalled. "Mark Harmon said to me, 'So, are you coming down to L.A. for pilot season?' And I said, 'What's pilot season?' And he just laughed and said, 'You should come down for pilot season.' I said, 'Oh, I'm not ready. I'm not, I don't have enough experience.' And he says, 'The fact that you're willing to have that kind of emotionality and be covered with dust and look like this... You're ready for pilot season, you should come down.'"
Ever driven, Morris did come down, but that didn't stop her from also doing odd jobs, from working for chocolate maker Ghirardelli to the Guinness Museum of World Records. She even might've once been your hostess at a Houlihan's. On one of her last shifts at the chocolate company, Morris remembered failing to juggle these responsibilities, but not failing to land the part: "I actually was supposed to go to the chocolate factory [during] the final call back and they said, 'hey, we want you to come down'. And I had to ask a friend to drive me down to Santa Cruz for the audition, and I didn't have any the correct shoes with me. So I just went in there barefoot and I auditioned."
Nothing could keep Morris from chasing roles, even a string of "fluffy" parts she took on to get through the 1990s. She was willing to walk in barefoot with her head held high to these auditions because she'd been through it enough to understand the highs and lows of Hollywood's yeses and nos. Looking back today, Morris sees her credits in a unique light: "I believe certain roles are destiny. I believe certain roles just have your name on it. And that's happened to me time and again."
It happened with Spielberg's Minority Report, and then it happened again with Cold Case. Morris said after traveling for movie roles, Cold Case changed everything for her, "I knew we were going to go on for a long time. I just had this feeling, and I never realized how much I would enjoy coming to the same parking place every day. And I felt this amazing connection with the cast and we were so committed to having a positive experience together."
Morris explains how Steven Spielberg changed her life:
To capture Cold Case's Lilly Rush, Morris dug deep, spending time with Philadelphia police officer Tim Bass who served as inspiration for the character to the point where he's billed as a tech advisor on certain episodes. Morris said, "I just shook him down for psychological information, tried to get really, really deep secrets out of him. And I didn't really think about him being a man or me being a woman."
This dynamic led to more than dramatic TV, but also one of the biggest compliments of Morris' career: "Tim said to me, 'Wow, Kathryn, it's like you're playing me on the screen, but you're a girl.' But he says, 'But I feel all those feelings, but I'm not allowed to show those feelings that way because I am a man, but I feel like I'm validated [on] why I do this because of how you're playing the character...'."
On Cold Case, Lilly Rush's motivation to keep victims from being forgotten drives the action on the show. Behind the scenes, Morris began taking charge as a talent who proved she was more than just a star. Morris said, "Cold Case has afforded me a lot of opportunities personally and professionally. I had the opportunity to have a production company at Warner Brothers. I learned how to produce and to set up shows and sell shows..."
Her success on the show also gave her time for the family she wanted. Morris said, "I took some time off after Cold Case and had twin boys, and I wanted to actually be their mom for a little bit and for them to know that I was their mother and then introduce work in a more natural way, so that they would know that I was their mother first and that acting is not as high of a priority as being their mom."
It's no surprise the actor behind one of TV's most sympathetic detectives sought such security for her own kids, but Morris also became a role model for all the young girls at home watching Lilly Rush put decades-old homicide cases to rest. Morris said, "A lot of parents would approach me and say, 'My daughter now wants to be a forensic scientist,' or 'my daughter wants to be a detective because she never saw a character like that on television.' And that's a real credit to [Cold Case] creator Meredith Stiehm, because that was what she wanted to do as a writer and as a woman who was working on shows like NYPD Blue. And so it's been a nice side effect to see that girls see that they could do that and that those doors have opened."
Watching what Morris did with her career as an actor can help pretty much anyone investigate the next level of their own passions, what the Cold Case star calls "ultimate dreaming." For Morris, it all started when she turned one particular head:
"Working on [Spielberg's] Minority Report was so incredibly important to me, because I knew that I was being annointed by somebody who had that kind of level of ultimate dreaming and creativity and power and presence and kindness. A lot of directors are powerful, a lot of studio heads are powerful, but there are some artists and filmmakers that kind of greenlight your way to your destiny and give you permission to follow through with what your dreams were as a little girl."