Lennie James on Playing the Moral Center of The Walking Dead
Audiences may have tuned in to The Walking Dead expecting a zombie gore fest, which is often what they get, but the emotional draw of the characters has carried the story through six seasons. The show reached an emotional high as fans have been left to agonize all summer wondering, “Who did Negan kill?” But the moral and emotional tone was introduced by one of the show’s most beloved characters, Morgan, in the very first episode. Attempting to survive the apocalypse with his young son, Morgan struggled to kill his wife who had turned. Putting to rest loved ones turned zombie was a dilemma shared by many of the show’s characters in mourning including Season 3 villain, the Governor.
Morgan was rarely seen on screen throughout the first four seasons, but was brought back regularly in season 5. Now in season 6, having evolved through a crisis of conscience, he’s developed into the moral compass of the show – something that James says he “resists with every bone in my body.” Morgan seeks to be a pacifist in a violent world, often fending off attackers with only a stick.
Morgan might have wielded the series’ most famous wooden weapon, if it hadn’t been for the shocking season 6 cliffhanger finale. Negan, the new villain fans can’t stop talking about, is so attached to his barbed wire wrapped bat that he named it “Lucille.” Fans are anxiously awaiting the season 7 premiere in the hopes it will reveal which series regular Negan (and Lucille) killed. Morgan was not in the deadly lineup assuring that, as James says, “Hashtag, Morgan Lives.”
We spoke with James about that series defining scene between Morgan and his wife, what it was like on set during the emotional season six finale, his plea to fans tuning in to the season 7 premiere and more.
There is plenty of horror and gore on Walking Dead, but fans have been captivated by the story’s emotional arc. Morgan was at the center of the show’s first moral dilemma. How did you go about creating a tone where people are so attached to the characters in a zombie show?
I wish I could take responsibility for that. I wish I could say that I had thought it through and that particular scene and that particular dilemma I knew would hook the fans and cause them to have the emotional reaction to the show that they now have. But it really didn’t play out like that. In all honesty, we were filming a different scene downstairs, myself and Andy (Lincoln) and Adrian (Turner) who played my son. Unbeknownst to me, Frank Darabont had set up the scene upstairs in the attic where Morgan was trying to shoot his wife. In a break in filming, Frank just said, “Let’s pop upstairs and take a look at what we might be doing later.” When I got up there, the camera was set and he said, “Why don’t we just have a go at it?” I had really no time to over think it or over analyze it. There was very little discussion. Frank just said, “Action!” We did it, he talked me through it, we did it again and that was it. The fact that people seem to have connected to it and people remember it and it’s become the scene that it’s become in the mythology of this show is completely and utterly out of my control. I wish I could claim otherwise, but I can’t.
Now we’ve been through six seasons and Morgan has had a crisis of conscience throughout the series. How do you feel about his evolution?
I love his evolution. It’s one of the things that most excites me about Morgan. Certainly the first three times that you see him, he’s almost completely different people each time. At the beginning, he’s just the guy who is three weeks ahead of Rick’s character and just knows more, but basically is a father who is looking after his son in this crazy world that’s just happened. The next time you see him, he’s a kind of deranged, broken-hearted smashed man. The third time you see him, he’s a man who is trying to walk the way of a peaceful warrior. Linking all of those guys together and making them one has just been a fantastic exercise as an actor. I just loved it.
Morgan has really sought to be a very peaceful character in season 6.
This personification of him, the man trying to walk the road of all life being precious and not taking a life is one I’m really enjoying exploring – the questions that it raises and the challenges that it presents, not just to the characters in the show but also to the audience watching I think are important. I think it’s important that our group that has learned how to survive is forced and challenged to question how they live. Alexandria was a start, although they did it out of ignorance because they didn’t really know what was going on on the other side of the walls. We know what’s going on on the other side of the walls. Now that we know how to survive, we really do have to question and explore by what rules and intentions we live. How tightly or loosely we hold onto our humanity.
Morgan is seen carrying a stick more often than a gun. Did you have to do any kind of training for his combat scenes or stunts?
It’s an ongoing thing. When I came back at the end of season 5 and I had to fight in the clearing with the Wolves, I trained for three weeks to do that particular fight a couple of days a week. Since then it’s been an ongoing thing. Scott [Gimple] was very clear at the beginning when we were talking about bringing Morgan back, the stick was an important symbol of who Morgan was now and what he was using to protect himself. I think the stick is brilliant. I love it. I absolutely love it. I think it’s incredibly perfect for who Morgan is trying to be right now. I keep up with it two or three times a week so that whatever is called upon for Morgan to do with the stick in the show, I’m capable of doing it. Unless I have to fall on something or actually be hit by something, I resist having a stunt double replace me when I’m swinging the stick. I wanted to be as authentic as possible which means Morgan is as good and I am and I’m as good as he is.
Morgan’s stick is a very stark contrast to Negan’s stick, Lucille. They’re used in very different ways.
There’s nothing passive about Negan’s Lucille. Even at rest, it’s a dangerous weapon. You’re not picking up that particular piece of wood for any other reason than to inflict pain. Whereas, most of the time, what Morgan is using his stick for is just to lean on. That’s what I really like about it. At rest, the stick is an incredibly passive piece of wood. Held one way, it remains so and swung another way it really becomes something else. That’s what I love about it.
The Walking Dead is famous for its death toll. What do you think has contributed to Morgan’s six season survival?
That he hasn’t been there. That he runs away. That he vanishes. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s one of the things that I’m most worried about, the fact that he’s around so much. I’m afraid he’ll outlive his usefulness and be killed off. I dread it when people come up to me and go, “We really like Morgan.” He’s become Rick’s conscience and moral center of the show. I resist that with every bone in my body because that way Hershel goes and that way Shane goes and that way so many people who have tried to be Rick’s conscience or the moral compass of the show. They just end up dead. I’m resisting being either of those two things. I’ll take leaving the show for an extended period before I get to a point where they go, “We really do have to kill you now, Lennie. You really do have to go.” I expect it’s inevitable at some point, but I will hold it off with my stick for as long as possible.
Morgan and Carol have an intersecting story arc in the 6th season. How did you and Melissa McBride approach developing your characters’ relationship?
Very easily. It’s one of the things that I love about working with Melissa is that it’s easy. Nothing is put in the way. No questions are asked that don’t need to be asked. Both of us love working it out in front of the camera. Both of us like working it out by doing it and not spending a huge amount of time talking about it. By the time the scripts are written and you’ve done the rehearsal and all of that, all of the motivations and your intentions are there. I hate the idea of working out what you’re going to do before you get to the set. I like it happening while it’s happening and building on that. That’s how I like putting things together and it seems to me that Melissa is the same way.
Morgan was not in Negan’s lineup in the final episode of Season 6, so we assume that he lives.
Hashtag Morgan Lives.
Where do you want to see Morgan go in season 7?
That’s not really up to me, and a bit like Morgan himself, he’s at a stage where he’s just trying to put one foot in front of the other. He’s still trying to walk this path that he’s set himself on. I have no specific idea of “I want Morgan here.” I’m not sure I want him to be at peace or that I want him to conquer his demons. I think there are two things that I want Morgan to do in season 7 and that’s more horse riding and a little bit more smiling.
How did you feel about season six’s controversial final scene involving Negan?
I have lots of feelings about it. There was no way, even though I wasn’t in the scene, that I wasn’t aware of what the results of that scene were going to be. It is going to be and it has been a traumatic time in the family of The Walking Dead, both for us on set and for the wider family and this show out in the world. The first couple of episodes of our new season are going to be traumatic. There’s no two ways around that. It’s going to be tricky. When I’ve met the fans, I’ve made them promise me that none of them will watch the first episode on their own. They need to watch with someone next to them that they can reach out and hold onto because they’re going to need each other. I’m not revealing anything, it’s just going to be tricky. It was tricky and painful to film, both physically and emotionally.
Do you wish Morgan had been in that scene?
I have a very strange relationship to that particular scene because there’s been a bonding, in a weird way, with the cast who knelt in front of Negan. They had an experience that I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish I was part of and had been there with them. Having said that, they filmed at four in the morning out in the woods and it was freezing, and they were on their knees and it was relentless and they had to throw themselves into the scene over and over again. People came away from it battered and bruised and hurt and not feeling very well. That part of it, I’m glad I was away from, but the other part of how it brought those cast members together, I wish I was there. Whether we were there or not there, that scene has had a telling and lasting influence on the show. Also, it’s fantastic. They got it right. That’s going to be painful and traumatic and laid some things bare, but also is a testament to how brave and complicated and entertaining this show is.
Who has a better chance of surviving an apocalypse, Morgan Jones or your Jericho character, Robert Hawkins?
Dear God, that’s a difficult question. I just want to say…I would imagine that it would probably be…I don’t know. I have a loyalty to both of those characters. Morgan is the character I’ve played longest in states and I’m still in the middle of being him. I really like him and I’m impressed by him and on some levels I wish I were certainly as brave as he is. And Robert Hawkins was the guy who brought me to America. He’s a lot more accomplished in the world of survival than Morgan is, but everyone is stripped of who they were in this world. I’m not sure. I would feel I was being disloyal to one or the other of them and I’m not yet ready to do that.