Lennie James on Playing Morgan Jones on “The Walking Dead”

Prodigal Son

Oct 09, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Despite having appeared in only three episodes spread over five seasons, Lennie James has managed to make Morgan Jones one of the most iconic characters in the history of The Walking Dead. When we first meet him in the show's premiere episode he was the father and grieving husband who first explains to Rick Grimes that the world has fallen into zombie-fueled chaos. Then, two seasons later, in the episode "Clear," he was the first person to have been clearly driven mad by the realities of the post-apocalyptic world, ending up a deranged survivor living out his days as the only resident in a town full of booby traps set for anyoneliving or deadwho might threaten him. By the time we caught up with him (or he caught up with us) in season five, he was a new man, smiling and confident as he tracked Grimes to Virginia, the first to have escaped The Wolves and their murderous rampage through the countryside. Now, as season six begins, James will experience another first: he's going to be a regular cast member.

Just how long James will stick around this time is unclear. (When asked about it, he is noncommittal, saying that he will be around "for at least part of the season.") Truthfully, the British actor doesn't need the work. An in-demand character actor, the 49-year-old has found it difficult to work The Walking Dead into his schedule, something that has complicated his appearances on the show while inadvertently lending his character an air of mystery he might not have had otherwise. When we last saw him as Morgan, his character was walking in on Grimes as his old friend executes a man in front of a crowd of onlookers, an event which will no doubt serve as a catalyst for the events in seasons six. Here, James discusses how he prepares for Morgan's irregular appearances, what he thinks about the cult surrounding his character, and what we should expect from him during the show's sixth season.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): You've played Morgan for essentially three episodes spread over five years. That must present you a unique challenge as an actor, as far as staying in the mindset of this character.

Lennie James: Yes, it does. But I've chosen to see it as an advantage, or it has become one, as far as trying to achieve what is being asked for in the script, because each time he has come back there has been something monumental that has happened in-between. So drawing the dots but staying true to the original guy that we met in the first episode becomes what it's about to take the audience on this journey that they haven't seen, because they've been with Rick and the group. So they haven't been with Morgan, but they have to catch up each time they meet him, so that becomes what it's all about. That, for me, has been one of the things that has been, so far, attractive and exciting about it.

Do you see him as a different character each time you've played him?

No. He doesn't seem like a different character. Again, that's the trick, I suppose, or what I'm trying to hold onto. If you watch the episodes back to back, you'll see that it's a transition of the same character and not different characters. It's just what has impacted him during the time that the audience has been away. When we first meet him, it is three weeks into the zombie apocalypse, and he's the first person who explains to Rick what's going on. So he's, to a certain extent, just three weeks more experienced than Rick. Then the next time we meet him, he has been through this double tragedy of losing his son to his wife and then having to kill the two of them. Then the next time we meet him, something that is yet to be revealed has happened to him, and he's had another event that has effected how he operates in the world. My job is to make sure that if you saw them all back to back you wouldn't think they were three different characters but the same guy who has had these monumental events take place.

Given that he's lost so muchhis family, his old way of life-how do you get in the mindset of a character like that?

I'm lucky that the writing for Morgan has given me almost everything that I need to know. All I really have to try and do is be honest to what the scripts and the situations they're asking for. When we first meet him, we've established him as a father and a husbandbasically an everyman. I don't think it's that complicated. All it is about is being brave enough and focused enough in the moment. I think we can all think about what it would be like if [we lost] those nearest to us, those who define who we are or are a part of our definitions of ourselvesour wives, our children, our siblings, our friends. If you lost all of those things, it's not hard to imagine that would have a major effect on you. And it's all about how you depict that effect, I suppose.

The episode "Clear" is considered one of the greatest episodes by fans of The Walking Dead. Watching it, it's such an intense episode that I imagine it must have been exhausting to portray Morgan in those scenes.

Yes, it was exhausting, but it was good exhausting. And the crew and all of the rest involved in itDanai [Gurira] and Chandler [Riggs] and Andy [Lincoln]we all were aware of what we were dealing with and where the episode might go, particularly in scenes where it's just myself and Andy locked in the room and we're going toe-to-toe. I have to say that the crew and the director of that particular episode were respectful of the process and what we were trying to achieve. We did long takes, and we didn't chop it up too much. We didn't move the camera unnecessarily. We allowed what was going on in the room [to happen] and we stayed loyal to that. That meant that each time we did it, it was allowed to flow and different things were allowed to come up, so I think it gave them a lot of options in the editing room. And although, as happens a lot, there was much more in [the scene] that we shot, what we ended up with we were all pleased with.

It seems that you and Andrew Lincoln have a pretty unique chemistry on screen. What's it like to work with him?

It's easy. As far as I'm concerned, that's the highest praise that you can give to a fellow actor. We don't talk about it too much; we don't overthink it. If we've got an idea, it's best done by doing rather than talking, and it takes any unnecessary distractions out of the way. We just get the job done and try to have as much fun as we can, regardless of the tone of the scene. Every time that I've been back on the set, despite the kind deep storytelling, what I remember and what I always like returning to is how much love there is.

When you first signed on to do the pilot episode, did you know that Morgan was going to be this character that only would come back every few seasons?

No. I didn't know that it was going to map out the way that it has mapped out, and I don't think anybody did. There was no plan at the beginning. I knew even when I did the pilot that the character had an ongoing storyline in the graphic novel, so depending on how it played out, there was always a possibility that Morgan would return in one shape or form. But the way that it has happened has happened as much out of happenstance as by design, really. A lot of it has been about the availability of myself and the show and when our timetables manage to get together. They've done a remarkable job of using the circumstances that we found ourselves in. The two title sequences that happen in season fivein episode one and episode eightthey literally happened by happenstance because another gig I was doing I had some time off. And [show-runner] Scott Gimple found out I had some time off, and he phoned up and said, "Would you mind flying to Atlanta for a day, so we could shoot a little bit? I've got this idea that I might put in as a title sequence. Would you be willing to do that?" And I said, "Absolutely," and I jumped on a plane from London and landed in Atlanta, and I got up the next morning and worked all day on the two bits. And then I got back on a plane and I flew back to London.

Those title sequence scenes, in particular, got fans really excited about the return of Morgan. That must be really gratifying to know that even though he has only been in a few episodes he's already one of the most iconic characters in the show's history.

I don't know how that happened. I don't know why it happened. I don't particularly want to know. I don't want to overthink it or over-investigate it. But I'm touched by how the fans have taken to Morgan and how supportive and loyal they are to him and how he seems to strike a chord with them. They're invested in him, and as an actor you can't really ask for much more than that from the people you're presenting your stuff to. I'm immensely proud and touched by how Morgan fitted into the mythology of the show. I'm protective of that, and each time there's another chance to return to him, I spend quite a lot of time with Scott or whoever making sure that we're staying loyal to the character we've created and that he's not just fulfilling a story function but that he's always himself.

The Morgan we saw in the season [five] finale certainly was at a far different place than the one we saw in "Clear." And we see his confrontation with The Wolves and can assume that he could have killed them if he wanted. Do you think he has taken on an ethic now that he won't kill human beings?

I think it's something that we're about to find about him. That will be answered in season six. In The Walking Dead, nothing is as simple as "Morgan doesn't kill anymore." There has to be a reason why, and there has to be something that has made him not just be who he seems to be now but look how he looks now and carry himself the way he carries himself now. The explanation of that will come out in some part of season six.

www.amc.com/shows/the-walking-dead



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