Few characters have been on as up-and-down a story as Morgan has experienced in The Walking Dead, going from serial cameo appearance-maker to reliable lead. Now, in the wake of Negan’s rise to power, he enters Season 7 as one of the few major players guaranteed to actually still be alive.
We spoke to actor Lennie James about his experiences on the show far, living in the Kingdom with King Ezekiel, and whether he felt left out by not appearing in that scene…
How have you found the experience of The Walking Dead since your return?
It’s been a trip really, the whole experience is a new one. I’ve been associated with the show right from the very beginning, but the last year or so I’ve been on the show all the time, and that’s very different from just popping in and popping out every now and then at my own convenience, so it’s obviously a little more all-encompassing.
When you’re on this show, you’re aware that you’re on this show, because it has such worldwide appeal that sometimes it feels like there’s nowhere to hide. But it’s very enjoyable, and I’m enjoying the work, and Morgan’s a character that I have a real affinity for. I enjoy playing him and love what the writers do with him, and at the minute I’m happy where I am.
Did you have any idea that Morgan would have this much mileage as a character?
No. From my first appearance, at that point no one had any idea that this show was going to be what it turned out to be, and anybody who says they did is lying.
The fact of the matter is I remember very clearly one of the conversations people were having over and over again: how this show probably wouldn’t go because it wasn’t about vampires. At that particular time when we were shooting the pilot, everything was vampires; everything was Twilight and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Vampire Diaries was being talked about, and everything was sexy long-haired vampires, and no one thought that a zombie show would catch on.
Within that context, there was some mention that my character might come back as he does in the comic books, but it was a tertiary kind of mention; nothing was confirmed and nothing was contracted, so I did the pilot and went on my merry way, really. My character’s involvement in the show – and certainly my involvement in the show – is as much down to the fans’ reaction to my character as it is to anything that was planned or thought about at the beginning of the show’s inception.
Since Morgan’s reintroduction, he has had a black-and-white worldview that he was forced to compromise in order to save Carol by killing the Savior. Is this a permanent change for him?
So far, one of the things you can say about Morgan is nothing is permanent as far as his character is concerned.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about playing Morgan in the early seasons was that each time you met him, he had gone through what seemed like a massive character transformation, and it was my job as an actor to make all of those leaps seem like he was still the same person at his core.
Being around more regularly has slightly changed the nature of how I play him, but at the moment this path that he’s on – the way that he’s trying to live his life – the way that Scott [Gimple] and the writers are exploring it is really smart and intelligent. It’s a lovely kind of journey for me as an actor, kind of navigating this man’s past, because one of the things that I love about The Walking Dead – not just for my character, but for other characters – is that all of the characters are able to change, which very rarely happens in long-term television shows; mostly characters start as one thing and remain as that all the way through.
In our show, characters can change, but you’re always aware of the characters’ history in our show. You think about Melissa [McBride]’s character Carol, if you’re a fan of the show you remember she was a woman who was in an abusive relationship, she’s a mother who has lost a child, she is someone who was deemed to be work who has become strong. She was someone who was not necessarily capable of surviving in this world, and now she’s just a super ninja.
All of those things are true of that character all of the time, and Morgan is very much in this world: he’s lost all the people he’s ever cared about, he is a man that has gone to the depths of despair, and has almost lost himself to this world, and is trying to pull himself back, and all of those things as well are true of him each time you meet him.
That’s just a lovely place for an actor to get to play, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Like everybody else I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.
What’s the relationship like between Morgan and Carol at this point, after all they’ve been through together?
At the end of Season 6, Carol’s not in a good place really. She’s been shot and battered, and she wants to get away from everybody, so that conversation between Morgan and Carol is going to continue.
As is true of The Walking Dead, just because they’re not knelt in front of Negan, it doesn’t mean they’re not living in testing times, that danger isn’t just around the corner, and that peril isn’t just about to knock on their door.
So all of those things will be part of their journey in Season 7, and it may well bring them closer together, or it may well split them further apart.
This season will see Morgan and Carol visit the Kingdom – how does it differ from places we’ve seen before, like Alexandria?
On one level it’s kind of the same: one of those things that The Walking Dead sets up is its iconic leaders: Rick was a sheriff in a previous life, and he runs the group that we’ve been following for the last six and a bit seasons very much still as the iconic sheriff– he still wears the python slung low on his hip.
Deanna, who was a senator before the apocalypse, very much ran Alexandria from that kind of iconic position, and the Kingdom just adds to that mythology really.
Ezekiel is a king; he talks like a ye olde king, he exists within this kingdom as a king, he is treated by his people as if he were high royalty, and that’s how they’ve survived.
I think one of the things that Khary Payton does fantastically is that he explains and carries with him a sense of why he is playing this role, and how it is that his people need him to do that, and he does it fantastically
He has a pet tiger, which I think means he rocks!
And Ezekiel is such a larger-than-life character. What kind of dynamic does that produce with someone like Morgan?
It’s a dynamic that it’s interesting to see how it plays out. Ezekiel is ostensibly a man trying to take care of his charges, and Negan is in his own way would argue that he’s doing the same, but he’s a little bit more brutal in the way that he goes about it.
So the dynamics between them are very different, and it’s one of the things that’s, again, fantastic about the show. You have these larger than life, dynamic characters, and then you let them loose in a world of our characters, and you see what comes of it.
That happens quite a bit in Season 7, and it has made it a very exciting season to be a part of.
The big talking point has been the aftermath of Negan’s scene in the Season 6 finale – does part of you wish that Morgan was there, or are you happy that he’s been removed from the whole ‘who lives, who dies’ debate?
It’s both and neither to a greater or lesser extent.
As an actor, I would like to have been part of the scene that introduced Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, because by all accounts it was a scene that people are still talking about how amazing it was to be a part of and how brutal it was to shoot. People still carry some of the scars from that couple of nights of shooting, because they were all-nighters.
It was a tough one, and I’m glad I wasn’t out in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night in Georgia, because that’s never fun.
But that said, I’m sorry that I wasn’t part of that scene, but then again, there were certain aspects of my storyline in Season 7 that I can talk about, and the guys involved in that scene are just on a lockdown. They can’t whisper a word for fear or giving anything away, and it’s a bit like that for the rest of us, but ten times worse for everybody involved in that scene.
The Walking Dead: Season 7 will air on Fox from 24 October 2016. Read our full feature on Season 6 in issue 124 of SciFiNow.