Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five finale, titled “Conquer.”
The biggest surprise of last night’s “The Walking Dead” finale wasn’t who died, but rather who returned. Lennie James’ fan favorite character Morgan, originally introduced in the pilot and central to the exceptional third season episode “Clear,” finally caught up with Rick Grimes’ gang. He fought back a new threat (the villainous wolves, who we’re sure to see more of next season), rescued Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) from almost certain doom, and arrived in Alexandria just in time to see Rick (Andrew Lincoln) put a bullet in world class jerk Pete (Corey Brill). Except the peace-minded Morgan doesn’t know what Pete has done, or what’s going on Alexandria, or what’s happened to Rick since the events of “Clear.”
That sets up a tantalizing conflict for season six, and Variety spoke with James the day after the finale aired to get a preview of what’s coming next, who he’s excited to work with, how he’ll balance “Walking Dead” with his commitment to the U.K. drama “Critical” and the theory that Morgan was behind those Ws carved into walker heads.
Morgan popped up briefly twice before this season. Was that always the plan for how to bring him back — the two teases and then a big comeback in the finale?
I knew I was going to be in the finale of season five, but I didn’t know until quite late on that they were going to come up with the post-credits moments. Considering how huge a beast “The Walking Dead” is, it sometimes is very fleet of foot, particularly when it’s being marshaled by Scott Gimple. It just so happened I was working on another job in England and I had two weeks off. Scott heard I had two weeks off and got in contact and asked, “Would you just come over for a day and film these two little bits?” I said absolutely. I flew from London to Georgia, got costumed up and kitted out, shot the two segments on a single day, and got back on the plane to Europe.
Having those segments really built up the anticipation, fans knew Morgan would be coming back but they didn’t know exactly what episode. Did that make it any easier or harder to keep that secret?
I still had to be less than honest to quite a few people that I care very deeply about and perfect strangers who would stop me in the street and ask that question. But they’ve been kind of asking that question for four years in different ways, that part hadn’t really changed. This time around, as has been my relationship with “The Walking Dead” since the pilot, every time I’ve reappeared it has been shrouded in a staggering amount of logistical secrecy. At times I’ve felt like a secret agent or spy.
I saw the story you told on “Talking Dead” about having to stay at a remote bed and breakfast when you returned for “Clear” and the other guest had to sign a confidentiality agreement.
I wasn’t even aware of the levels of secrecy that were going on around me until the lady at breakfast told me. I was like, “Wow, this is really serious.” It took me a little bit by surprise and did teach me a lesson as to exactly where I was and what I was involved in. The secret service could learn a lot from the back room of “The Walking Dead.”
Speaking of secrets, one thing everyone is dying to find out is exactly what happened to Morgan during the time he’s been off the show. Did you find out that backstory right away?
When I spoke to Scott he told me as much as he had formulated for himself about the pitch for (seasons) five and six. I do have a very rough sense and it is — I hope we get to tell the story in the way that Scott said to me he hopes we get to tell the story. I think it’s something that would be a really lovely gift to the fans and the people who have been so supportive and have liked not just the show but Morgan in particular. I think it would be another really good Morgan moment in the show. One way or another we’ll find out what happened to Morgan and why it had this effect on him. The way Scott told me certainly excited me and I think it will excite the fans.
Presumably we’ll see much more of Morgan next season, but you’re also starring in “Critical,” a new medical drama that just premiered in the U.K. What does your work schedule look like? Is it a situation where you’re not quite sure how much you can do with “The Walking Dead” next season or do you just have to keep the extent of your involvement a secret?
At the moment I think I will be able to fulfill the commitment I know “The Walking Dead” wants from me. We don’t know yet whether or not “Critical” is going to go for a second season. At the moment what Scott has mapped out for me I would be able to fulfill. Should anything change on either side we’d have to navigate that. But so far we’ve managed to work it out.
That’s good to hear. Not only is it great to see Morgan back, but he got such a badass reintroduction with that opening fight scene. How much training did that sequence involve and what did you think when you first found out about it?
I was really excited by it to be absolutely honest. One of the things I like most about the job that I do is the learning of new skills. Usually when you’re a grown-up part of the prerequisite is you stop learning stuff. You can drive now, you can cook. I think when people start getting old is when they go, “I’ve got nothing left to learn.” To do the job I do, I’m constantly learning new things. I’ve learned to scuba dive, mountain climb, ride a motorbike, drive cars at speed, use different weapons — so when Scott sent through an email saying, “We’d like to organize some stick fighting for you, when’s a good time?” I’m like, “Anytime! Anytime is a good time to learn stick fighting.”
In the end with my work commitments and being out of the country, I did about a month of quite intensive, three times a week and sometimes more, training with a fantastic guy called Steven Ho, who was one of the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He was utterly fantastic and got me up to speed in a very short amount of time. Or at least I could look as if I knew what I was doing. And I had a fantastic stunt guy in Atlanta who made the bits that I looked bad, look good.
After the fight, Morgan decided to leave the two “wolves” alive in the car. Do you think he’ll regret that decision?
I have to go with my character. I think it’s the right decision for Morgan, it might not be the right decision for Alexandria. He’ll have to deal with that as it comes along.
Considering that decision and the look on Morgan’s face when he arrives in Alexandria and sees Rick shooting Pete in the head, it seems like Rick and Morgan could be at odds next season over their conflicting worldviews. What do you think about the place Rick is in now versus the place Morgan is in?
I think it’s beautiful storytelling. In that one moment there is so much that can be read into it, what we know of the two men and the last time they met. It’s almost as if literally the tables have been turned. We know there’s much more going on. Although Rick may be making stark and cold and clinical decisions about what this world is and what you need to be in order to survive, he might be blinkered but he’s not as crazy as Morgan was in “Clear.” But Morgan doesn’t know that. When Morgan arrives he thinks he’s looking at himself. He couldn’t have a clearer, more stark example of the journey he’s made from the last time we saw him to where we see him now than the sight of Rick standing over Pete and Abraham holding Pete down when Rick pulls the trigger. When (Morgan) arrives in that moment I think he feels shock and fear, and he’s presented with the image of who he used to be.
Morgan found the map with Abraham’s note, “The new world is gonna need Rick Grimes,” which sounded encouraging. Do you think when Morgan arrives at Alexandria he’s thinking, “I’ve made a huge mistake”?
Yes. He’d probably say, “Whatever Abraham was thinking, he got it wrong.” I think that’s true to say.
In your past episodes you’ve worked with Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Chandler Riggs and now a bit with Norman Reedus. Are you looking forward to getting to work with the rest of the cast?
I am, yeah. It’s weird really, although I’ve worked with Danai we never exchanged any words in “Clear.” I was either shooting at (Michonne) or unconscious. We never spoke to each other, so I’m looking forward to that. The last time I interacted with (Carl), there was a moment that passed between them and so it’ll be interesting to see where that goes. Morgan and Daryl will be an interesting situation to explore, but Morgan and Carol will be an interesting situation, Morgan in Alexandria will be an interesting place to be, Morgan and Deanna… There’s so many possibilities for this man who has spent the vast majority of this new world situation, this zombie apocalypse, on his own. He’s never been part of a group. The biggest his group ever got was him and his son. It will be very interesting to see who he is, who he’ll become, what he might do and what he might not do in the company of others.
There were a lot of theories that popped up during the season about the Ws carved into various walkers’ heads. Were you aware that one of those theories was that Morgan was responsible and the W was actually an upside down M?
It isn’t something I’d heard but I’m gonna say, just because I want to see what would happen, that they’re absolutely right. It is Morgan upside down. Let’s see how much we can drag this out and turn it into something: It’s Morgan upside down because he is no longer the person he was in “Clear,” he’s now formed a cult where they tattoo the living and the dead with Ws on their forehead. I leave it to the fans to guess where Morgan’s W is tattooed…
That’s gonna set a lot of people off, and I have a feeling you’d be excited about that.
Yeah, I gotta do something now. The other secret is out — I’m back — so… [laughs] That’s the long answer. The short answer is no, it has nothing to do with Morgan.