SPOILER ALERT: This story contains storyline and character spoilers for the "Clear" episode of "The Walking Dead."
All of the discussions about "Walking Dead" cast members thus far have revolved around their characters' deaths. Happily, we get to talk about -- and to -- a returning face to the zombie apocalypse universe this week, Lennie James, the actor who plays Rick Grimes's pal Morgan.
When last we saw Morgan -- more than two years ago, in the series pilot -- he and son Duane were headed off in one direction while newbie pal Rick went off to find his family. Fans never forgot about Lennie and Duane -- as James will share in just a minute -- and in this week's powerful episode, "Clear," Rick found out what has become of his friend, which proved to be both heartbreaking and eye-opening for the sheriff.
James, already beloved to apocalyptic TV drama fans for his performance on the too-short-lived "Jericho," happily returned to the "Walking Dead" fold for his surprise reappearance. He talked with Yahoo! TV about his favorite moments from the episode, his surreal conversation with fellow British actor Andrew Lincoln during filming, and his upcoming AMC drama -- "Low Winter Sun" -- that sounds like it's going to fit in just fine with the network's showcases of great storytelling and compelling characters.
This episode of "The Walking Dead" was the best episode of the series so far, and you deserve an Emmy nomination for your incredibly powerful performance. What did you think when you read this script?
I was excited, to be absolutely honest. I mean, it was … I thought there was enough there to justify bringing Morgan back after all this time. Because we'd talked about it before, but either my schedule had gotten in the way or it wasn't right for their production. You know, we'd been talking about it for a while, but having not been around for the length of time, the longer it went on, the more kind of pressure in a weird way was put on what it needed to be in order to justify bringing him back. And they needed to be in a place in their storytelling where they felt they could justify the return of the guy, because fans seem to sort of identify with Morgan from the first episode, and there had become, you know, the eternal question of "When is Morgan coming back?"
I mean, in every interview that I've done in the last two-and-a-half years, for films I've done or the other television shows that I've done, in different parts of the world, I mean, in New Zealand and in France and in Mexico City and in London and in Paris, the question that everybody asked … "When are you coming back to 'The Walking Dead'?" or "Are you coming back to 'The Walking Dead'?" And I'm sure that the writers and producers of the show were aware of that. So there was a little bit of pressure. When I read the script, I just thought, OK, this is just, this is fantastic. This is just about the story we're telling.
Lincoln and James examine how the characters of Rick and Morgan have changed and where they find themselves in "Clear":
Were you following the show all this time? Had you been keeping up with what everybody was doing and all the characters?
Yes, I would have days or weekends where I'd do like loads of people and just catch up on a chunk of episodes so I kind of knew what was going on. And when I knew I was coming back to the show, I had one of those sessions just to get the vibe of how the show had moved on and what was the world that I was kind of stepping into. So yes, I did. Andy Lincoln, who plays Rick, is a mate of mine, so I kind of pop in every now and then just to see how he's doing.
Had you started to imagine how Morgan could come back, or thought about if he was even still alive?
I'd think about it. I was thinking about it largely because, like I said, it came up so many times. And not just with [interviews], but, you know, bumping into people, family and, you know, I'd have my brother phone me up and kind of go, "Listen --" you know, from London -- kind of going "Everybody's asking over here when are you coming back to 'The Walking Dead'?" I'm walking down at the beach with my wife and I bump into Ty Burrell from "Modern Family," and he's out walking with his family, and the first thing he asks me is "Are you coming back to 'The Walking Dead'?" All across the board, everywhere I go, people were asking me. So at points I'd be aware of it, and it would cross my mind. Luckily in between, I've been very busy, but also the responsibility of how they were going to bring Morgan back was never mine, so in all honesty, I didn't give it a huge amount of thought in the sense of how were they going to be able to do this. I was just excited when it became a reality, because it's very rare that you get the opportunity as an actor to return to a part that you last played two-and-a-half years ago and bring to bear in one episode all of the journey that the audience hasn't seen. And that's what we were trying to do in this one. And that to be absolutely honest was the thing that was most exciting for me.
What did you find to be the most powerful part of "Clear"?
There was one point when we were running through a particular shot, and it's when Morgan wakes up and attacks Rick, and they have a fight, and it ends with Rick putting the gun in Morgan's face. And it wasn't a kind of scripted moment, although the line was scripted. But the actions weren't. And I grabbed the gun and pulled it towards me and begged him to kill me. And both the reaction from Andy and the reaction from the crew let me kind of think, "Oh, OK. We're on the right road. We're here now, and this is what it's going to be about." So that was one moment.
Also, the last exchange [Morgan] has with Carl, at the end, where he says to him -- "Don't ever apologize." I think he sees a lot of his own son in Carl, the kind of the new boy soldier. I think that was a very small moment that became a big moment, because it was, for Morgan, a moment of clarity in an episode where there wasn't much for him; his reality, once somebody else had shone their light on it, came off as insanity. And actually that one moment where Carl comes up and apologizes to him and he says, "Don't ever apologize," was a reminder of who Morgan used to be, or who he was with his own son. And finding that moment was something I enjoyed.
What was it like returning to the set, after all that time, seeing the cast again? Though it was mainly you and Andrew Lincoln.
Yeah, I mean, it was almost a mirror of the same thing. The bulk of it was just me and Andy in a room. And so that was good to see, to go back and be on set with Andy and see how he's kind of grown into that role, but also both the role on-set and the role off-set, as it were, both the character in the show and who he is as the leading guy of an incredibly successful show. And seeing that was lovely, really. But also it was very weird, because it was like returning to something that I was familiar with and also returning to something that had completely changed.
One of the things I found most interesting and enjoyable was how many members of the crew that we shot the first episode with were still there, and just how many of the people who work on the show are fans of the show. There's no sense that anybody's kind of going, "Oh, God, we've got to make up another zombie," or "Oh, God, I've got to do another explosion to the head," or "Oh, God, I've got to wipe up some more blood," or "Oh, God, I've got to shoot this scene." Everybody had a real enthusiasm for it, and a kind of … they were still having a lot of fun on the show. And because they were fans of the show, they made me feel incredibly … they were incredibly welcoming, because, you know, even for them, it seemed to be a return of a favorite character. It was lovely.
See how the "Clear" episode of "Walking Dead" was made:
You know from "Jericho" how devoted TV fans are to a show they really love. In that case, they had even mounted a massive "save our show" campaign. But were you surprised how much people love Morgan from that one episode, years ago?
On one level, it's surprising, but it's also very gratifying. You do your job, and you're hoping that it reaches people. And when people, like with "Jericho," when people go out of their way to take time out of their real lives to buy peanuts, spending their own money and shipping them to CBS in order to fight for a show, you kind of go, "Well, that's incredible." Actors, people who do work in the industry … they can be incredibly cynical, and every now and then you're reminded of what's possible with what you do. And people taking the time out to save a show is staggering, and like I say, very gratifying. And it's the same with "The Walking Dead," because there have been buckets of episodes and a whole bunch of characters who have passed through the show since I did the pilot, and some of the actors that have come in to do those gigs I've known or I've kind of met subsequently, and they say, you know, "People still talk about your character in 'The Walking Dead.'" And I think a lot of that is a testament to the writers and the directors and the producers of the show, that they, even for characters that you're not going to see for another three years, they take the time to put everything into them.
And it is, yes, I'm always staggered. And also because it kind of catches you by surprise. You're out doing something that is very ordinary, you're out emptying your rubbish bins or you're hiking up at Griffith Park or you're putting petrol in your car at the gas station and someone will kind of tap you on the shoulder and go, "Sorry to interrupt you, but when are you coming back to 'The Walking Dead'?" And you just go, "Well, I wasn't expecting that today."
This is obviously a routine part of your job, but we're always particularly impressed with the way you and your fellow British actors on the show, Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey, nail the Southern accents. How tough is it to jump in and out of that?
It's not difficult. I mean, it's difficult in the sense that it's, certainly, working in America, it's become part of my job. So I don't think of it as being kind of difficult. I just think of it as a part of my job. I have to find a way of incorporating something that I don't necessarily have to think of when I'm working back in England or when I'm working in my own accent. This is one thing that I have to consider all the time. I don't have any hard and fast rules about it, except that I don't think of it as putting on an accent. I very much think of it as how does this character talk … what does this character wear, or who does this character love or what does this character drive or what does this character want? Part of that is, how does this character talk?
And again, I don't have any hard and fast rules about staying in the accent or staying in his voice or dropping his voice when I'm having lunch. It just depends on how I'm feeling. There was one kind of slightly surreal moment on set this time around, because Andy stays in the accent all the time. And so there was one time where we just had a break in the scene. He was staying in his [Rick] voice, I was staying in my [Morgan] voice. We both support English football teams that are arch rivals. He supports Arsenal, which is the North London rivals to my football team, Tottenham Hotspur. And we were talking football, and I suddenly realized that we are two English guys, in Atlanta, speaking in Southern accents, about two North London football teams. And I had to take a moment just to kind of go, "This is surreal. This is a very surreal moment, and I don't think I can continue. So let's do something else." (Laughing)
Will we see Morgan again this season?
I don't know. That's the absolute honest answer to that. Like before, I have very little control over whether that happens, other than when they phone up and say, "We'd like to do it now," and me say, "I'm sorry, I can't because I'm busy doing something else," or "Yes." Outside of that, all decisions or desires are down to the production team on "The Walking Dead."
At what point did you find out that you were coming back for this episode? Was it before Season 3 began?
They phoned me in something like March or April [of 2012], and said, "We're putting together the next season. We'd very much like you to be a part of it. Might you be willing and available to do that?" And we sent back saying "We're certainly willing to. Do you have any idea when that might be?" And they got back to me a couple of weeks later saying, "We'd like to book you for certain dates in September." So I knew for about five months that I was going to be doing it, and I knew when I was going to be doing it. And I apologize to all the people I lied to after that, telling them that I didn't know or that I wasn't [returning]. I apologize to all those people who may now feel that I was less than honest with them.
That's really a testament, though, to how they can keep things under wraps on the show, because that's a long time for something this big to remain a secret.
It was, yeah. And I wasn't actually aware until after I had finished shooting the episode just what lengths they had gone to to keep it secret, to the point where I didn't stay where other guest actors were staying, and when I was in Atlanta, that when I went outside between scenes, strange things would be moved in front of me so that those fans who were gathered at our location couldn't quite take a photograph or see me. I wasn't aware of all those things until much later on, you know, the kind of lengths they went to to keep it a secret for as long as possible, until they were in control of letting the story out.
Tour Morgan's Season 3 apartment:
And now you are starring in a new series coming up on AMC, "Low Winter Sun." What can you tell us about it?
It's very different from "The Walking Dead." I play a guy called Joe, who is half of [a] police officer [team] that kills another police officer. And it's about the fallout for both of them, on their precinct, on their fellow officers, and on the city of Detroit, from that killing. It's a remake of a British [miniseries], and myself and Mark Strong play the two cops, and Mark is reprising his role from the British series. And it's something I'm very, very, very excited about. It was a fantastic script. It was a gig that people were very … actors were very keen to get. I'm very happy that I was one of the actors chosen to do it. It's a really good cast and has the potential to be a very exciting television series, I think. And we got a pickup of ten episodes from AMC, and I start filming that at the end of April. We've shot the pilot. And now we're going back to do the next nine episodes.
And will you film everything in Detroit?
Everything gets shot in Detroit, yes.
With everything going on in Detroit, the state of the city, that sounds like the perfect setting for that kind of story.
It is. The original was shot in Edinburgh, and it's … they have of a lot in common in the sense that they're cities that are less than their working past used to be, and cities of great buildings, but impoverished neighborhoods. And I think Detroit very much lends itself to the level of desperation, shenanigans, bad decisions, and wrongdoing that this story … the potential for wrongdoing that this story needs and will kind of feed off. And certainly in the pilot, Detroit is very much one of the characters of the piece. It's a thriller, and a kind of a morality tale. And it's a lot of fun to shoot. Detroit's a very exciting city, and like I said, we've got a very good cast and crew who were there for the pilot, and I hope as many of them as possible can come back for the show. I think AMC is excited about it and is backing it very strongly.
It sounds fantastic -- like the exact kind of great storytelling they do.
It is. And my character is a guy who originally trained to be a priest, and who has now become a Detroit cop. And I think he's … in some way, he thinks the killing that he takes part in is an act of redemption, but I think it turns into something completely different for him. And that's exciting to play a man with a very clear moral code who finds himself not just breaking the law, but breaking his own rules.
Do you think that we might see the series by the end of the year?
There's every possibility. I mean, I was told when it might be on, but I don't know if it's going to be on for sure, so I don't want to say. But if it goes on when I think it may well go on, I think it's got a really lovely lead-in, and again, I think it shows AMC's commitment to the show.
It sounds like it might be a good lead-out from maybe the "Breaking Bad" series finale …
It's entirely possible, but I couldn't possibly comment. (Laughing)
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 PM on AMC.