‘The Walking Dead\': Lennie James Breaks Down Morgan’s Gut-Wrenching Journey
After the insanity of the past three weeks, it’s probably fair to say “The Walking Dead” calmed down this week. The extended episode filled in the gaps between series high-point “Clear” from season three and when Morgan (Lennie James) showed up again, decidedly more sane, at the end of season five — before joining as a series regular in season six.
“Here’s Not Here,” written by showrunner Scott Gimple — who also wrote “Clear” — fills in those blanks, with the help of a surprise guest star, “American Horror Story” vet John Carroll Lynch, who plays Master Splinter to Morgan’s Ninja Turtle, teaching him the calming art of Akido. Though, as we find out by the end, not all of those lessons may have stuck.
To find out more about what went into making this unique hour (and change) of television, MTV News hopped on the phone with James to discuss how he approaches Morgan’s insanity, what that end scene means for Morgan’s future — and why Tabitha the Goat was such a surprising scene partner.
MTV News: When did they first approach you with the idea of doing what’s essentially a Morgan mini-movie?
Lennie James: There were different stages to it, really, so I didn’t know that there was going to be an episode in the form that it’s taken. Scott Gimple had said that in this season we would find out what had happened — in some way, shape or form we would find out what happened with Morgan between “Clear” in season three, and his return in the finale of season five.
I didn’t know that it would take the form of a whole dedicated episode, and then when we finally got down to shooting the episode, at that point we didn’t know that AMC was going to release it as an hour-and-a-half episode, so those things happened at different stages.
Scott said that they had submitted the first cut, the cut that they were happy with, as a 90-minute and they were hopeful that AMC would support that decision. And AMC did. That’s how we ended up looking like a bit of a mini-movie.
MTV: It’s an interesting challenge as an actor, because you channeled Morgan’s madness in “Clear,” then his sanity this season… And then you have to go back to the crazy for this episode. How did you tackle that? How did you approach it from an acting perspective?
James: I think that there is a sense — and it’s amongst the viewers, and the fans — that at the moment, Morgan, as seen at the end of season five and the beginning of season six, that somehow he is sane. I’m not sure he is.
I’m not sure that he’s in the position that Eastman is in, who was his kind of guru and savior. I don’t think Morgan could stand up and say, “I’m at a peace with myself, and I have decided not to kill, ever again.” I don’t think he’s there.
But that’s the journey of the apparently Zen Morgan. What’s happening under his surface is for the telling of season six; but in joining the gap between “Clear,” and the end of the finale in season five, for me it was tough. It was realizing I had that job to do from the first time I returned to do “Clear.” After I had done the pilot, there was about a two year gap before I came back to do “Clear,” and Morgan was a vastly different human being than the man we had seen in the pilot.
So I had done that job once before, and it was another continuation of that job: trust in the writers, trust in the writing, and trust in Scott when he said to me, “We will fill that gap.”
Playing the moment, who he is now, remembering who he was then, and knowing we will fill the gap… That was much of the decisions that went into [making] Morgan who he is right now. It’s a lot to do with trust in our storytellers.
MTV: There’s a cool effect, particularly towards the beginning of the episode — which I think is actually taken from the opening credits — where we’re sucked into Morgan’s madness. The frame shakes around the edges, and the camera is right up in your face… What was it like filming that, with the camera so close to you?
James: For me, I quite like the camera being close, I like the intimacy of that! That doesn’t really bother me. I don’t have to project too far, it keeps you honest when the camera is that close. The effect wasn’t there while I was shooting it, it’s something they added later. So while I was aware of it, because it was in the script — and I knew there was this particular moment when it was going to be there, and when it wasn’t going to be there — but it was something that actually I enjoyed, because it was almost like the camera was moving inside my head. As much I enjoyed it, it was still a challenge… But it was a challenge that I relished.
MTV: Once you get past that initial madness, the episode is essentially a two character play between you and John Carroll Lynch’s Eastman… How did you two work on developing a relationship, both on set and off?
James: We didn’t have the luxury of shooting with any sense of continuity. That’s the nature of film-making… We’re kind of used to that, but one of the things that really helped was we filmed quite a long way out in Georgia. We filmed just outside of the town of Gay, in Georgia, and it was certainly a long way from where I was staying in Atlanta.
It was a good long way from where John Caroll Lynch was visiting, at the hotel when he was with us. So we both moved down to the town, and John was staying in the farm house on this plot of land, and I was staying in a lodge just outside the property. So virtually the whole time we were filming — and because we were the only two people from the show who were In the vicinity — we hung out, and that creates a bond.
[It] keeps you in the mindset. We would practice our stick, training together; and we ate together on a couple of occasions. And as you said, because it’s a two-hander, we’re just there together all the time. We were in that fantastic location that we were filming in, so all of those things just feed into the relationship. A lot of it you take in my osmosis, you’re not even aware of it, you’re not even deliberately going, “I must like this guy.” You’re just sitting, and chatting, and laughing together… And that feeds into your work eventually, if you’re lucky.
James: I was training with a martial artist, to teach me how to, as I say, swing the stick. He’s very much aware of it as being Akido.
A lot of it — the real specific training — because John was being my kind of sensei, my kind of master… He was very much focused with the sense of Akido, of defending yourself and not necessarily harming the other person. Morgan’s slightly taking it to a different level in which he — as with other characters and their specificity of their weapons — Morgan’s bow staff is mostly a passive weapon, but sometimes when he swings it, bad things can happen.
MTV: I said it was a two character play, but that’s not strictly true… There’s a third character in there, too: Tabitha the Goat. Be honest, was she a total diva?
James: Tabatha the Goat was — and it’s a very strange thing to say — but firstly, it was a beautiful goat. It was like a supermodel. It was like a supermodel of goats. Everything was… All of her definition and face, she was — I never thought I would ever say this out loud — but my god, that was a pretty goat. And she got looked after almost better than we did. She had a friend who came down with her just to keep her calm, so she had someone to talk to and graze with.
She wasn’t very talkative, she didn’t hang out much in between takes, but it was good when she was around and she was a fine performer.
MTV: Last week fans were freaking out about whether Glenn was alive or dead… Do you think we’re going to have the same heated debate about Tabitha?
James: I think they know that Tabitha is dead. It’s whether or not Tabitha will return! But yeah, I think that if they met her, in real life, they would be happy that she’s not really dead in real life… I’m not sure whether or not the camera did her justice.
MTV: Okay, let’s skip to the end of the episode… Morgan tells his story to the Wolf, and as he leaves he thinks for a moment. I read that as him thinking back to Eastman’s choice with the locked door… And in this case, Morgan locks the door. So calling back to what you said earlier, he’s not quite in the same place Eastman was, is he?
James: I think on one level you’ve read it perfectly well, which is, it’s a double hander. Is the Wolf man in the same place that Morgan was in — and will he be receptive? And the second thing is, is Morgan, Eastman? Is he at the stage that Eastman is at?
The answers to those questions are in the decision. You have to remember that when Eastman said to Morgan, “The door is open, I didn’t lock it,” the thing that Morgan did once he stepped out of that door was attack. He didn’t go, “Oh, wow, okay, great, that’s a fantastic thing, that’s made me a better person,” and then sit down on the table. He stepped out of the cage and he attacked him.
That’s also in Morgan’s memory, and he’s not going to do exactly what Eastman did… But he’s going to try to get the same result.
MTV: We’re starting to see that things this season, even for Morgan, aren’t as simple as “Morgan’s side” and “Rick’s side.” But where do you, Lennie James, fall? Do you believe, in the world of the show, that you can’t hesitate like Rick; or that all life is precious, like Morgan?
James: I don’t believe in any kind of absolute, so as much as I have to fight Morgan’s corner, for me, life is precious… But not necessarily all life.
As far as Rick’s position is concerned, I don’t believe you have to kill all the time, I think there are situations where you don’t. I was having [this] conversation with somebody the other day… The argument is about two ideologies, but ultimately the argument is about two men’s souls.
Do what Rick does, people still die. You still lose your wife, you still lose your friends, you still lose members of your group. Do what Morgan does, and people still die… So ultimately, the argument is, what is it that you can do so that you can survive — not just so you wake up the next day, [but] so that your soul is still involved?
And that’s the ultimate argument. Rick’s way of doing it ultimately turns you into The Governor: a soulless, merciless killer. What Morgan purports to everybody may just turn you into a victim waiting to happen. So, who walks this Earth now, more content?
Ultimately I believe that’s what the battle between Rick’s position and Morgan’s position is about. It’s about something inside them, not necessarily who wins, or which ideology creates the lowest body count.
MTV: At the very end of the episode we hear a voice yelling, “Open the gate!” who certainly sounds like Rick… What can you tell us about that?
James: I think it’s somebody who sounds like Rick, who is shouting, “Open the gate, open the gate!” and that you’ll find out who it is, and why the gate needs opening. I would imagine if not in the next episode, sometime very soon.
MTV: And on that note, I assume you’ll tell me if Glenn is really dead or not?
James: Oh, I’ll absolutely tell you… But I’ll tell you later.
Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.