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'The Walking Dead' Season 8: Lennie James on Morgan's 'lovely,' 'messed up' friendship with Rick

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

To celebrate the Oct. 22 Season 8 premiere of  The Walking Dead — the series’ 100th episode — Yahoo Entertainment will be posting a new TWD-related story every day through the season opener.

Everyone’s ready to go into All Out War against the Saviors in Season 8 of The Walking Dead, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s happy about the necessity of doing battle. Morgan’s breakdown after the senseless death of Benjamin in Season 7 — which sparked flashbacks to the death of Morgan’s son, Duane, and prompted Morgan to kill Richard — has him dealing with an internal struggle about his “all lives are precious” belief, and it’s a topic that’s going to continue to put him at odds with some of his friends and cohorts, including his post-apocalypse BFF, Rick.

Lennie James, the actor behind Morgan, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about why his character’s philosophy is so important to him, about why he admires Morgan and fellow survivor Carol so much, and how he understands why viewers sometimes get frustrated with his alter ego. James also hints that the struggles — internal and external — will be a big part of Morgan’s story in Season 8, and he previews a “dark” Morgan episode in which he and Rick spend some quality time together.

I have to ask you first about something you said about Morgan during The Walking Dead New York Comic Con press conference, because I can’t stop thinking about it. You said he’s a man who believes that every day of his life is a punishment for what he hasn’t done. You were referring to the fact that he didn’t kill his wife, once she had turned.
Yes. I think that his whole being, his whole belief when he says out loud, “I don’t die,” where we found him when Rick and he came across each other in “Clear” in Season 3… Although he has come back from those depths that he was in in “Clear,” and the even deeper psychosis he was in when Eastman found him, I don’t think that has completely left him. I think he still feels that his life is a punishment.

Where does he get the strength to move forward then, given that?
He finds the strength in the sense that he feels like he has a purpose, I suppose. That, despite the punishment, despite the weight that he’s carrying, Eastman sent him out into the world with a mission. Which was to live by the premise that all life is precious. And he’s decided to take that, first to Rick, and now to the Kingdom. And try to have the conversation, a very difficult and complicated conversation, which is, “Now that we’ve learned how to survive, isn’t it about time we figured out how we’re going to live and who we’re going to be, and start talking about our humanity, as opposed to just our survival instincts?” And that’s going to be sorely tested in the middle of this war [in Season 8].

When you go back to that, that his purpose for moving forward is to honor his friend Eastman, and to really make sure people are considering their humanity throughout everything they have to do to survive sometimes, it really is understandable that he’s been so committed to his decision not to kill. Viewers have been frustrated with him sometimes because of that, but it would really go against what an honorable man he is if he didn’t remain committed to something he considers his purpose for living.
Yeah. I genuinely don’t mind the slight anger and kind of irritation that the audience and fans have had at Morgan. I really don’t mind that at all. One, that means I’m doing my job right, and also that the fans are listening. Because you can’t be annoyed by what Morgan’s saying if you’re not listening to what he’s saying. And also, that is the nature of protest. That is the nature of conflict; he’s presenting an alternative argument, and it’s challenging, and it’s difficult, and I applaud Scott (Gimple, TWD showrunner), in particular, and the other writers who … the storytelling on The Walking Dead, that they persisted with it, and persisted with it in Morgan’s mouth, really, I think it’s an important conversation to be having, and I’m glad I’m the character at this particular moment in time who is most prominent in having this conversation, although, he’s not the only one.

We’ve been following Morgan’s story for nearly as long as we have Rick’s, even if we didn’t get to see it play out in front of us constantly as we have with Rick. But Morgan is the character we’ve known the second longest amount of time across the seasons. At this point, what is your takeaway about Morgan?
The biggest thing about Morgan’s character that stands out for me is his bravery. He’s not the only brave character in this show. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Morgan and Carol have formed bonds, because on one level, they are the most transformed characters in our story. You could argue some others, but they are kind of the most transformed characters in our story, and it’s taken an immense amount of bravery for them to keep on living, really, to keep on going forward, to brave forming new relationships. To brave linking themselves to different groups. To keep on caring and wanting to move forward and make a difference. Without question, the quality that I most admire in both Carol and Morgan is their bravery to keep on going, considering all that has happened to them.

Morgan is a very good man who is guided by his values. Is it hard to imagine that he can find peace within a world that forces you to make some really tough choices to survive?
Yes, I do think that it is like the search for the Holy Grail, his belief and his bravery to keep searching for that peace, even though literally in Season 8, he may well have to go through a war in order to get to any sense of his own peace. And that’s a hell of a situation to be in. He doesn’t have the luxury, on one level, of being a conscientious objector. He’s either in it or he’s going to be eaten up by it. So, he’s got to go through it. That’s the only thing left for him to do. And it’s a decision he’s made before in his life about, “I’m just going to walk forward.” After Eastman died, and he decided that he wasn’t going to stay in the cottage and raise goats and make cheese, he went looking for Rick. He went right back into the heart of it. So, yeah, I do think that his search for peace may be unattainable, but that isn’t going to stop him.

(Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Could you envision that Morgan could get to a point, like Rick has with Michonne, where he might be able to start another relationship, maybe even another family? 
On one level, it’s the reason I am still interested in playing him. I quite like, at some point, it could be, you know, years down the road, but it’s still one of the reasons why this guy still fascinates me, and this guy still interests me, and this guy still keeps me honest as an actor. It’s because I think the exploration of the possibility of love with Morgan, and the possibility of a new child for Morgan, just gives me goosebumps and excited to find out those things, because you know they’re gonna be complicated and tricky and awkward and fail and succeed at the same time.

And I was just reminded, I was joking with the guys [on set] the other day, because we just received a script in which Morgan goes to quite a dark place, and I jokingly said, “One day I would like to open a script and for there to be a direction which just simply says, ‘Morgan laughs his ass off.'” I would love to get Morgan to a point where that was a possibility, because that would be some lovely work, and interesting work, and joyful work as an actor, to get Morgan to a place where that scene direction was possible.

Is this one of the favorite characters you’ve ever played?
Yes, I’m very lucky. I’ve been blessed to play a lot of characters that are very close to my heart and that I’ve really enjoyed playing. We are, at the moment, 20 regular characters strong… I think there’s 22 regulars on our show, and that is fantastic. There is a lot of scope for storytelling for our writers and our storytellers. But on the other side of it, it means as actors we have to take more responsibility for our characters. We’ve got to really own our characters. We can’t glide. We have to be there, and we have to be present with our actors and with our characters, and we have to fight in our characters’ corner and give everything we can when our character’s get the moments in the story that they get, because that’s how our story is built, on the back of what we give our characters. And Morgan’s still … if there’s anything I would say that distinguishes Morgan from some of the other characters, it’s that I have not yet gotten to the point where I go, “I know everything about this man now.” He still surprises me, and he still takes me places that I didn’t expect to go. So, yeah, I do like him, and I’m still keen and excited to reveal all that he is.

Have you been surprised by anything so far about Morgan in Season 8?
Well, yes. We’re about to shoot an episode in which I am surprised by how, despite not necessarily being in each other’s company for a while, I’m surprised by how linked he still is to Rick, and how much these men still have in common.

That’s wonderful. Another thing you said at New York Comic Con, you described their relationship as a “Shawshank Redemption” friendship, which is so lovely, because it really captures it. What do you think is at the core of their enduring friendship?
I think it was the timing of when they met. Morgan taught Rick about the new world, the post-apocalyptic nightmare they were now living. And then made a bond. In this new world, it was the first friendship for each of them. It was the first promise that was made: “I’ll open the walkie-talkie at a certain time each day, and I’ll look out for you, and I’ll wait for you.” They happened to bump into each other at really important and strategic times for each other. It is, on one level, happenstance, and on another level, the very nature of what friendships are; those friendships that can only be built by being tested. And that bond between Rick and Morgan has been tested. When Morgan left Eastman’s [cabin] after Eastman’s gone, and he looked around and decided what to do next, at that point he only had one friend in the world. He only had one person who knows him, and who he knows anymore, and that person is Rick. And that’s why he goes to try and find him.

And they trust each other, even when they don’t agree with each other.
They trust the men that they are, the people that they are. They trust that, even if I disagree with Rick, or if Rick disagrees with me, he’s doing it for what he believes to be the right reasons. He’s not doing it to screw me over or because he’s suddenly become a bad person. He’s a good man, we just disagree.

I am really looking forward to this episode you mentioned, where we’ll see Morgan and Rick spend time together again.
Oh, yeah. I will tell you as much as I can, by telling you absolutely nothing, but they go out, they set out… they come across each other thinking they’re going in opposite directions, but actually end up going in the same direction, and they join back up to complete a part of the mission that both of them need to complete for different reasons. It’s lovely, and it’s messed up, and it’s complicated, and it’s challenging, and it’s dark. But it’s really interesting stuff.

The Walking Dead Season 8 premieres Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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