INTERVIEW The Walking Dead’s Lennie James, aka Morgan

INTERVIEW The Walking Dead’s Lennie James, aka Morgan

0 comments 📅19 January 2017, 10:53

When The Walking Dead returns to UK screen for the second half of season seven on FOX on 13 February at 9pm, we’re promised a very different feel to the show from the first half of the season, with Team Rick kicking back again Negan and his goons of evil. But where will Morgan fit in with Rick’s plans? He’s often been Rick’s Jiminy Cricket, or trying to be at least, cautioning against a violence-first policy of treating everyone as enemy until they’ve proven themselves an ally, though if he does have to fight, he’s pretty handy with that stick of his.

Lennie James, who plays Morgan, teased Morgan’s role in the upcoming half season at a FOX press junket this week. Here’s what BUZZ learned…


What can you tell us about the rest of the season? Will there be a big battle?

I think it’s pretty clear that the lines have been drawn right from the start of this season! There are lines drawn between the people of Alexandria and the Kingdom and the Saviours and Negan. There are some other worlds that you’ll be introduced to – I think there’s at least one that has yet to appear that will appear in the final episodes of the season. It’s the march towards war, I suppose! And that’s all I can say. All of the questions you ask will have answers that are variations on that… [Laughs]

How do you handle people always asking you about something that you just can’t talk about?

It depends, really. They say that the best way to tell a lie is to tell it as close to the truth as possible. The big one was at the end of last season: who dies? Because they actually filmed, on that last episode, a lot of people dying – they didn’t just shoot Michael Cudlitz and Steven Yeun, they shot everybody who was there. That meant I could literally say, “Everybody dies!” as my answer to the question, and I wasn’t lying – and that felt good, particularly when my kids were involved!

You’ve been in this since the very beginning and it’s gone on to become a phenomenon. How does it feel to be in one of the biggest TV shows in the world?

Well, in all honesty I pay absolutely no attention to it because it means nothing to me. It can’t mean anything to me, because I was working before this gig and I will be working after this gig. But I’m having a whale of a time while I’m doing it. And all I can focus on is the part in this show that I play. It was easier when I just came in to do the odd episode; the tricky thing, since I came back through seasons five and six, has been how much you become aware of the show as a phenomenon. When you’re there for the seven months of the year, it’s unavoidable! This behemoth that’s out in the world.

And navigating that, keeping that at a distance, at least while shooting the product is tricky. Because once it goes out into the world it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the fans and how they take it and how they take ownership of it. But those moments when we are contributing to whatever it turns out to be, we have to protect that, and fight as hard as possible to keep the sense of what the show is in the world away from me as I’m trying to play this fella who’s trying to decide whether to kill people or not.

Given that your character dies in the comics…

Did he? Wow, guys, you could have put a spoiler alert on that one!

How scared are you about dying on the show? Would they tell you beforehand – how cruel are they?

I know they’ll tell me beforehand. You do this thing at the beginning of the season where [showrunner] Scott Gimple will give you a phone call and ask, “Would you like to have breakfast?” We go out and meet Scott somewhere in Studio City for breakfast and he outlines the whole journey for your character for the season… and you listen to none of it, because all the way through, all you’re thinking is: “Am I dead? Am I dead? Am I dead?” And then you get to the end and think, “He hasn’t said I’m dead, so I must be alive!” And you go, “Scott, could you say all of that again because I wasn’t listening.”

And everybody goes through it. You find out at that breakfast whether or not you live or die. It doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but it does come as a surprise to the rest of the cast, because you’re told not to tell them. And then before the episode where you pop off, they all get telephone calls from Scott saying, “We’re losing such and such.”

On the other side of it, it’s the gig. You don’t come into The Walking Dead and expect to live. There are people who can buy a house in Atlanta and feel they’re a bit untouchable, but they’re few and far between.


Do you prefer intense emotional scenes or the kick-ass action stuff?

It depends. One of the things that I love about Morgan is that he gets to do them both. And again, Scott Gimple has taken real ownership of Morgan as a character. So all of his peak moments, such as the “Here’s Not Here” episode with the sexy goat, the one where Morgan first comes back and he’s slightly lost his mind… both were written by Scott, and that’s lovely. He’s a fantastic writer and it’s an actor’s gift.

And then they gave me a stick and someone to teach me how to swing it, and I’m like, “That’s great!” On one level, when my job is at its best, it feels as though you’re in the back garden with your mates and your brothers and you’re just making it up as you go along. When I get to swing the stick and there’s stuntpeople and I’m allowed to hit them… I just get giddy! I would do that all day! Then they put me on a horse and said, “You will be riding a horse as well.” I’m like, “F** this, this is about as good as it gets, and they’re paying me!” I get to do them both, and enjoy them for different reasons.

Read what Lennie James has to say about his part in Blade Runner 2049 here

Has Morgan come to the conclusion that he needs to fight?

There’s still eight episodes to go, there’s still bound to be some twists and turns before there’s a conclusion to that. The conversation that Morgan is introducing is that anybody who we meet now in the show has figured out how to survive. I can’t even tell you the time in the show – I think it’s two or three years or something like that, since the virus was released – and in that time, the people that we’re now meeting know how to survive. Whether they put on a meat suit, whether they move a little faster than the slow-walking walkers, whether they know how to stab them in the head – they’ve figured it out. And the next question is, how do you live? And that’s the question that Morgan is introducing. Are we going to meet everybody as if they’re enemies, kill them first and ask questions after, or are we gonna go open-hand? It’s a kind of conversation that our show needs to have. I think it’s brave that they’re having it.

I spend a lot of time in New Zealand, it’s the place I run away to, to get away, and [this is] a very Maori state of mind. When they meet you there, they either touch noses and breathe you in and say, “If you meet me with peace I will meet you with peace.” Or the other one is the Haka, which is: “If you don’t meet us in peace, we will kick the shit out of you!” That’s pretty much where Morgan is.

I’m enjoying the fan reaction as well. I’ve had more than a few fans come up to me and say, “I really hate you now!” I’m like, “It’s alright, it’s a relationship, you’re allowed to hate me for a minute!”

Why are people so fascinated with zombies?

I genuinely have no idea. And I don’t want to know! I’m just glad, as far as we’re concerned, that people are interested.


We’ve seen Rick and Morgan clash a lot over the seasons. Will that affect his decision to remain at the Kingdom?

Yes, is the long and the short answer, but I’m not going to tell you how. [Laughs] One of the things just me, Lennie, is enjoying on the show, is that we’ve got a big cast. We’ve got 18, maybe 20 regular characters. And I’ve probably done scenes with three of them! So I’ve got so many people to play with and explore. And at the moment there’s exploration going on with my character and Khary [Payton], who’s playing King Ezekiel, and Melissa [McBride], who plays Carol, and I’m really enjoying those. In a weird way, Morgan and Rick haven’t really come together yet in the season, or in any significant way. For example, I had my first proper scenes with Norman [Reedus] this season, and give or take, we’ve been in and around each other for four or five years. Outside of saving him in season five in the car, we haven’t done a scene together! Not talking to each other. We’ve got a couple coming up and it was lovely because it was the first time I’ve got to work with this guy that I’ve known forever and hung out with, and we’d never done a scene! [Laughs]

The thing that really annoys me is when they kill people before I get to work with them. Me and Cudlitz were like, “They just don’t want us to work together!”

Do you have a favourite episode or moment?

I’ve got too many to list. When I came back in “Clear” and we have that series of scenes with Rick and me in the room, the way our crew – particularly Mike Satrazemis, our director of photography and sometime director – the way he set up that shoot to make it actor-friendly, and the way he marshalled his crew; when they asked me to come back as a regular, one of the things that made me say yes was our crew and the way they were sensitive to what was going on in those scenes. And they were just lovely scenes to act.

Season six, in one of the early episodes, when I’m surrounded by five wolves and I bitchslap them with my stick and talk to them while I’m doing it, it was so much fun I kept asking for retakes! “I think we should do it again, I think I can do it better!” I just wanted to do that all day. Those are the ones that come to mind, but there’s loads.


You talked about Morgan and Carol… their relationship is interesting; there’s mutual respect. You can tell that Morgan cares about her. How will that relationship develop over the rest of the season?

Again I can’t really say, but I think it’s fair to say that Carol is either going to be Morgan’s salvation or Morgan’s damnation. Whatever decision he makes, Carol’s going to be a part of it. Whether that’s for good, or not for good, remains to be seen , but because this is The Walking Dead it’s going to be a little bit of both, I should imagine. But yeah, I think what passes between them hasn’t really started and certainly hasn’t finished yet. Could I be more cryptic?

You said you only worked with a few actors in this big cast – do you speak with the writers about forging relationships with other characters?

I’m always shouting, “When am I going to work with such and such and when can I do that?” I’ve barely had any scenes with Danai [Gurira] as Michonne, I’ve barely had any scenes with Sonequa [Martin-Green] as Sasha… there’s so many people! I didn’t have any scenes with Steven and then they killed him. I’m pissed every day I go on set about that!

I don’t really give the writers a hard time as they’ve got enough to get on with, and they’re fragile people. [Laughs] Working with Norman this season and actually getting to do scenes with two of them in a room has been a revelation about their characters. And also partly because of where they are this season, the stuff that Norman’s character has gone through. I don’t think either him or Rick have been challenged the way they’ve been this season. And the work Andy and Norman have done has been staggering.

• Morgan objects

Will we ever get The Walking Dead: The Musical?

We do Walking Dead: The Musical about three times a season! Suddenly, the whole day, everybody is just making up songs. It is my mission to do that thing where everybody bursts out dancing; a flash mob. Chandler, who plays Carl, it was his 16th birthday, and his mum asked us if we would all send a recording just saying “Happy Birthday” because they were going to cut it into a video to play on his birthday party. He’s an amazing young man. It was when we were in season six and the walls had come down, and all the walkers had come in and we had hundreds and hundreds of extras as walkers. And I wanted to get them all together and do a flash mob for Chandler, doing the dance routine from “Thriller”! But you can’t, you need a choreographer.

We got them all to sing “Happy Birthday” in the end, 200 of them, all singing “Happy Birthday” to him as walkers. And on our blooper reel there’s always someone who bursts into song based on the scene they happen to be doing.

Have you been on the receiving end of any pranks?

Most of the pranks go on between Norman and Andy, but they don’t spill out. It’s like gang warfare – they don’t touch civilians! Even on the last day of filming last year, in November, Andy was just standing there with a big smile on his face. I said to him, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Nothing.” We’d all come down because we lose someone in the last episode, and we all came down to say goodbye [Who? WHO? …Ed] And he’s just standing there with a smirk. When we go to leave, and everyone’s getting in their cars or on their motorbikes, Norman is standing there going, “Where’s my helmet?” And Andy had thrown it on the roof of one of the studios and then just waited for HOURS until the joke paid off.

morgan v carol

How many fighting sticks have you broken during the course of the show?

I’ve broken two so far – that’s not many! But they’ve really made them harder now, because before they were made from mahogany, and that’s not good for a fighting stick, it snaps. But because it had been established as a fighting stick made of mahogany, now they’re made of ash or almond or something like that, but they have to paint it mahogany. So that’s kind of annoying.

Have you broken them on anybody?

No, I haven’t broken one on anyone, although I did start to get a bit of a reputation of not being able to pull my punches with the stick. In my defence, they were all on the stuntmen, and the stuntmen were asking me to hit them! “No, you can actually hit me, just touch me a bit, it’ll help.” So I did!

Have you borrowed Lucille at all?

Naw, I want nothing to do with Lucille!

Speaking of when you open a script to find out if you are dead, any time I open a script and it’s a scene with Negan, I’m like, “I’ll never survive in this scene. There’s no way! Why am I in a scene with him unless he’s killing me?” As much as I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan, I don’t want to be in any scenes with him because someone always dies!

How is it working with Ezekiel and his menagerie?

It’s brilliant, actually. I have to say, Khary has come in and done an amazing job. We’re into season eight when we go back, and it’s going to be his first full season. And I think that’s part of the enduring quality of our show: (a) people die and (b) new people come in, with a new energy.

Khary had a difficult job coming in, I don’t think he’d mind me saying this. All of the focus was on the arrival of Negan, the big baddie guy, and Khary had to come in and introduce this risky, complex character with a tiger! And he’s a king! And he kind of speaks in Ye Olde English and is slightly heightened and he’s a good guy! It’s a difficult thing to pull off, and in the hands of a lesser actor… but he just landed it, with all the focus on Jeffrey and less focus on him.

But Negan is no less theatrical than King Ezekiel. He does all this strutting around with his baseball bat wrapped in the barbed wire going, “Lucille wants some blood!” He’s a strange man, right? But he’s a baddie, so he can get away with it. Jeffrey’s very much playing him like he’s not a baddie… but Khary’s had to come in and introduce this character who doesn’t have have the ‘out’ of being a baddie. He’s a good guy and a good king and he has to make you understand why he’s there and why his people need him to behave like that. He’s there, he’s family, and yet he’s been there a minute and a half. That’s a testament to his acting. They’ve brought in a lot of fun.


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