James, who plays the pacifistic yet hard-as-nails Morgan in ‘The Walking Dead’, gives us a sneak peek at the concluding part of the show’s current season, which resumes next month
With just under a month of its traditional mid-season winter break left to run, The Walking Dead’s brutal yet divisive seventh season will soon return to our screens. And, ahead of the UK’s mid-season premiere date on February 13 on FOX, fans of the hit zombie show are more eager than ever for answers: with the future of much-loved characters no longer guaranteed and an even greater foe than the living dead haunting Rick and his gallant gang of survivors, where will The Walking Dead go from here?
One of the main players left in The Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic universe is Morgan Jones, played to serene perfection by Nottingham-born actor Lennie James. The aikido-trained nomad’s place in the kill-or-most-certainly-be-killed-by-Negan dystopia appears at odds with the twisted way of life that’s presented in the show, yet Morgan’s philosophical and good-guy nature was a breath of fresh air amidst the gloom and despair of the first eight episodes of season seven.
Morgan’s outlook was encouraged by his discovery of the medieval-tinged Kingdom (which is presided over by the mysterious, tiger-owning King Ezekiel), but the differing strands of the narrative are set to intertwine in the upcoming block of episodes as Rick’s group of survivors set about combating Negan’s poisonous influence. It’s a battle that even Morgan, who lives by the creed that “all life is precious,” will have to play an active and potentially decisive part in.
Earlier this week, James gave NME a glimpse of what to expect from the final eight episodes of The Walking Dead’s unnerving seventh season, while also offering a wider insight on subjects ranging from his character’s unflinching pacifism to why he “hated” filming that contentious first block of episodes.
Morgan and his since-deceased son were the first humans Rick encountered in The Walking Dead’s 2010 pilot episode, ‘Days Gone Bye’, making him one of the ‘original’ characters. How have you perceived the evolution of the show since then?
Just like everyone else, it’s just blown me away. It’s been completely unexpected. This conversation comes around more regularly now because we lost Steven [Yeun, who played Glenn], who’s one of the ‘originals’ – so I keep being reminded that I was one of the ‘originals’! We’ve been talking about the pilot season and that first episode I was in, and at that stage, I swear to God, no one thought we were gonna get a second season, let alone seven of them. At the time, everything was vampires and nothing was zombies, and people were saying “this is never going to work” – and now look at us. So, yeah, it’s taken me and everyone else by surprise. Anybody – anybody – who says that they thought in any way, shape or form thought this show was going to be as successful as it is: they’re a liar, and I’ll tell them that to their face.
If Morgan had gone to Atlanta instead of Rick [in ‘Days Gone Bye’], how would the group of survivors fared?
Andy [Lincoln, who plays Rick] would say that everyone would be dead by now! The thing about Morgan is that he’s not had to lead; he’s not had a responsibility since he lost his kid [revealed in the third season episode ‘Clear’]. He’s only had responsibility for himself. Rick, on the other hand, has had to wake up every single morning with virtually his first or second thought being: “What do I do for my group?” So I think that makes a big difference.
I think Morgan can indulge in the ‘all life is precious’ basis partly because he doesn’t have responsibility for anybody else. But I think if he was responsible, I’m not sure how dissimilar it would be to Rick – though I think he would kill less people.
Is Morgan scared of the world he inhabits in The Walking Dead?
The argument that Morgan is having with our world – and is certainly having with Rick – is kind of misunderstood: he’s not frightened. And if he is frightened, what he’s frightened of is who he is when he’s killing, because he knows [it’s immoral]. So it’s not something that’s done out of any sense of cowardice, it’s a really brave stance and a question all of [the characters] are going to have to ask ourselves at some point from here on in in our world, because we all know how to survive.
The next thing, obviously, is how do we live: and so far how we’ve lived – certainly as part of Rick’s group – is almost to kill first, ask questions after. And Morgan’s saying: “Well, maybe we don’t have to do that. Maybe we can meet people with an open hand, and see where that gets us.” And that’s a scary choice to make. But people die either way, so, as far as Morgan’s concerned, it’s worth trying.
And how does Morgan’s approach differ to how you’d handle being trapped in a world filled with walkers?
I certainly wouldn’t be brave enough to take Morgan’s stance – so I’m probably closer to someone who just kills. I’d argue, actually, that I’d be the person on the first day of the dead starting to walk who just runs down the road screaming like a six-year-old boy: “The dead are walking! The dead are walking!” And then I’d just run straight into a wall and kill myself. That’d be me, almost certainly.
What was it like watching the show before you became a main cast member in season six?
I watched it periodically, because I was busy and I don’t watch a huge amount of TV. I would binge-watch in batches, and I’m good at ignoring what people are saying and not finding out about the story. I was fascinated by the show and the direction it was going. I would try as hard as possible to detach myself from the fan frenzy surrounding the show, because you go on one site and you’re just lost; you put one toe in the water and you’re in this completely different world. So I would resist doing that because it tended to pull me out of the show.
But as the show went from strength to strength, and Scott M. Gimple came on as ‘The Governor’ [referring to Gimple becoming The Walking Dead’s showrunner in 2013], it just jumped a level. It got to a maturity and a scope that was really exciting.
Because of the format of the opening eight episodes of season seven, you only appeared in two episodes as the story kept jumping between narratives. What was that like to film, logistically?
Horrible, just horrible – I swear to God, horrible [laughs]. But it was the same for everybody. Everyone’s had more time off this season than they’ve ever had, but it’s horrible. I hated it, and I complained about it – and I’m not a complainer – every day, like: “How you doing Lennie?” I hate it! “You want tea or coffee?” I hate it! It was horrible, because you just didn’t see anybody.
And because we filmed The Kingdom in a completely different area to where they were filming Alexandria, the Hilltop, or the Saviors, it meant that no one was close to each other. When we starting filming the first episode, there was a moment where everybody sort of came together – and then everybody split up. I didn’t see Andy for six weeks because we weren’t filming in the same place. We live kind of close to each other [in Atlanta], but we weren’t either filming at the same places or at the same times, and in the end the only time I did see him was when we were both on a plane back to London to see our families. I hated it, it was horrible.
If you speak to anyone from The Walking Dead cast – and if you say this on another job, it’s a lie – then you know that everyone just gets on, and that you want to hang out and be around one other. But they were filming stupid hours, and because you have so much time off – there was one point where I had three episodes off – I just went off to see my kids. What could I do in Atlanta for that amount of time – and I love Atlanta – so I would leave town, as everyone else did [when they weren’t shooting]. I hated it. I said to Scott: “I see what you’re doing, I respect what you’re doing, but don’t ever do this to me again because I hate it.” I just didn’t see people.
And then there’s whole bunches of people that you meet at the wrap party who you’ve never met before! You’re like, “Who are you and what are you doing on my show?” There were just loads of people going: “Hi, I’m such and such and I play…” I don’t know you, go away! Where’s my mates? It was horrible, I hated it – meeting people at a wrap party and they don’t even look like themselves. It’s just stupid.
There was some criticism that the first half of season seven was a bit slow to get going – will the second half be paced at a more breakneck speed?
There’s certainly more action in the second half. But I’m sorry that people felt that the first eight episodes were a bit slow. I think we’ve earned the right, to be honest. I’m always going to defend the show because I think it in itself has earned the right to go: “Let’s just take a second, because we know where we’re going.” There were a lot of people who needed to be introduced [this season]. If they’d gone, “Oh, by the way, this is Ezekiel, he’s got a tiger, let’s go!” then people would be saying the opposite. There’s characters to introduce, there’s people to get to know, and we need to spread the worlds [of the story] – introducing us to Negan isn’t just about us meeting Negan and meeting the immediate Saviors around him. His influence is massive, and we are becoming aware of how far his influence has spread – even people that we haven’t met yet are already paying their dues to Negan. So we need to take time to do that. And yes, shit happens in the second eight episodes – but it’s in keeping with the tone [of the first half].
I hope people aren’t disappointed by the end, but there’s one point in the finale that myself and Melissa [McBride, who plays Carol] were reading as we sat next to each other on a plane, and both of us kind of screeched when we got to this one point. It’s such a sexy moment, on all levels – it’s huge, it’s just so lovely. And both of us, when we got to the point of reading it, were like: “Oh my God!” Like kids, excited by it. And to still be at that stage seven years into the show is a testament to the writers. It’s about the arrival of a character, and it’s lovely – really lovely.
What can you tease about the second half of season seven?
On one level, it’s very obvious that we’re getting ready for war, and everyone who knows the comic books knows that we’re about to go into a couple of years of war. I don’t know how long that’s going to pan out in the television series, but it goes on for a while in the comics. So we’re about to go to war, and the second block [of eight episodes] is about meeting the protagonists and certain events that are going to decide what sides people take. And it’s not going to be a clear division of labour, let me say. There are some people who go to the dark side who are going to take you by surprise, and there are some people who are going to come over to the light – and that’s all a matter of perspective.
As with this show, nothing’s going to move in a straight line. But one of the things that’s inevitable is that we’re heading to war.
Have you heard about the #MorganisBritish hashtag?
I was staggered. It’s something that clearly happens in people’s brains – and I’m glad of it, but it’s very strange – because when I was first on The Talking Dead [in March 2015], Chris [Hardwick, the host] went, “Oh my God! Morgan’s British!” when I started answering a question, and that started the hashtag. There were loads of people who didn’t know I was British, like: “We really loved you in Snatch, but we didn’t know you were British!” And I’d go: “Dude, really?” They just didn’t equate the two. It would come out in the same conversation.
But there’s still people, usually at the meet-and-greets with the fans who maybe know but forget, who’ll begin a conversation where they’ll say, “Oh, we really love your character.” I’ll say thank you, and they’ll be like, “Oh right – you’re British, right?” And then we have the conversation. I wish no one knew, and that I could keep it secret longer. But that’s one of the problems of the success of this show, in that the shows around the show – like The Talking Dead, the Comic-Cons – have helped The Walking Dead get so taken to [by fans] and you therefore have to speak as yourself. I’m one of those actors who, knowing me – Lennie – is kind of a detriment to the job I’m doing. I don’t want the people to know me, I want them to know me through my work.
Is The Walking Dead just one big allegory for Donald Trump’s America?
We were here before Trump. He’s what happens if you watch too much Walking Dead! You start thinking, “Well that guy looks like he could be President!” Although all good shows, art or drama talks to and from the world in which it exists, so there is something of [Trump] in The Walking Dead, but I don’t think it’s deliberate. Negan was there long before Trump, and hopefully will be there long after.
Will Trump turn his tweets on us? Maybe he will, maybe he won’t – I don’t know. Trump is at one extreme of something that is happening not just in the US, but also in Europe. My own country voted Brexit, and you just go, “Really?” And the divide between the Remainers and the Leavers are not that dissimilar to the divide between the Pro-Trumps and the Anti-Trumps – both of them are in a position where they literally cannot understand the standpoint of the other side. Both sides are so divided, and it’s happening across Europe in different shades and scales as it is in the US. I just think it’s more dazzling in the US because Trump is such an odd choice! [laughs]
And finally – what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in life so far?
That all life is precious.
The Walking Dead continues Monday February 13 at 9pm on FOX