"It was a way of leaving without leaving": Lennie James talks about Morgan's crossover into 'Fear the Walking Dead'
Morgan's cross over from 'The Walking Dead' into 'Fear the Walking Dead' still has many wondering, but actor Lennie James insists the decision was one taken after careful thought.
The ninth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic horror television series, 'The Walking Dead,' will premiere on October 7 this coming month, though the event is likely to be a bittersweet one for most fans. Andrew Lincoln, who has led the flagship show for its first eight seasons as the ever-reliable Rick Grimes, has announced he will be departing after this season's conclusion, leaving many pondering who will replace him as the moral compass, as well as the series' general direction.
Lincoln's exit is just one of many changes, however, with 'The Walking Dead' also getting a new showrunner in Angela Kang after former head honcho Scott Gimple took on the role of Chief Content Officer to oversee the entire Walking Dead TV Universe.
That universe also happens to be home to 'Fear the Walking Dead.' Once very much the side act, the spinoff has come to its own in its fourth season, with critic Charlie Mason writing that "it's gone from being an adequate stopgap between seasons of 'The Walking Dead' to a show that's as good or arguably even better than the one from which it was spun off."
The series underwent a major makeover for its latest season, with an action-packed first eight episodes featuring two timelines, a time jump, and most surprisingly, the death of mother-son duo Madison (Kim Dickens) and Nick (Frank Dillane); the franchise's proclivity for killing off major players aside, even the most ardent fan will admit writing off two major leads is a bit of an anomaly.
A more pleasant shock came in the form of the introduction of Morgan (Lennie James) into the mix. Following sporadic but noteworthy appearances in the first five seasons of 'The Walking Dead,' Morgan had finally come to become a mainstay and had taken on a significant role inside the Kingdom.
However, he would suddenly find himself plucked out and plopped right into the midst of an entirely new group of survivors in 'Fear the Walking Dead.' The decision did throw up intrigue amongst both the series' vast fanbases, and Meaww managed to catch up with Lennie to pick his brain on how this crossover came to fruition.
But first, I couldn't help but point how big of a deal Morgan had become in the fan community after his cameo in 'Days Gone Bye,' the critically-acclaimed pilot of 'The Walking Dead.' The character would become a central talking point in forums and internet groups, spawning dozens of theories on how he could potentially be crucial to how the series shaped up.
Lennie admits he knows how important his character was to these fans, and gushes over how paramount they have been to Morgan's existence. "I'm very grateful that a large part of Morgan's journey in 'The Walking Dead' universe is down to the enthusiasm the fans had for the character," he says. "When I did the pilot, there was talk that if the show came back, there was a possibility that Morgan's character would return because he does so in the comic books."
"The timing and the way Morgan came back was very much down to the fact that the fans kept asking where he was, and when is he coming back," he confesses. "In the first five years of the show, I only did three episodes but to hear how the fans talk about it, it's almost as if I was there all the time, and I'm grateful for that."
Lennie also addresses a more particular aspect of his character's existence: of how he continued to live on despite facing a rather more unfortunate ending in Robert Kirkman's comics. "That they kept Morgan on the show long after his character had been killed off in the comics is large parts in thanks to the affection the fans had for him," he says. "And then for him to the spin-off and cross into Fear is anything beyond anything I could have expected or planned for, really. I mean, playing this fella and being involved in these two series has been like a rollercoaster ride and it's a huge amount of fun, but I'm very aware and have a lot of gratitude for the enthusiasm of the fans."
Coming to his leap into 'Fear the Walking Dead,' Lennie insists the decision was not one that was just taken on a whim. "Well, it was Scott's [Gimple] suggestion," he reveals. "Scott came up to me and said, 'This is the thing I would like to do, and I would like to cross a character from 'The Walking Dead' to 'Fear the Walking Dead,' and I would like for that character to be Morgan. What do you think?' And my response was, 'Why do you want to do it?' and Scott explained to me why he wanted to do it."
"One, because he feels the point they got Morgan to in 'The Walking Dead' and the character they created would bring a good energy and would be a very good addition to where they had brought Fear or wanted to bring Fear to at that particular point," he continued. "Scott wanted me to continue to explore the character of Morgan at a slightly different place, in a slightly different world, and he thought Fear would be a good place to do that."
However, Lennie states he had just as much say on whether this crossover would become a reality or whether it would be shelved. "Scott told me Morgan would be a good addition to the storytelling they were doing and planning to do at Fear, and my questions was whether it was going to be a gimmick. I wanted it to be genuinely riped for Morgan as a character, but also for myself. And this didn't happen over one conversation."
"Scott told me what he wanted to do and then asked me what I felt about it and over the shooting of season 8 of 'The Walking Dead,' we went back and forth talking about it to make sure it was the right thing for everybody involved," he says. "In the end, I thought it did work for Morgan, and it did work for myself, and that's why I said yes."
He shoots down the nonsensical rumors that claimed he had forcefully demanded that he be shifted over to the spinoff. "I think in some places they made it sound like I walked into the office and said, "We need to cross my character into the other show!" he explains. "But it didn't work like that. It was a decision we came to over much exploration and much time, and eventually, I warmed to the idea even though I hated the notion of having to deal with leaving 'The Walking Dead.' This is a way of leaving without leaving so, that's kind of why I went for it."
And while 'Fear the Walking Dead' started off as a spin-off that was out of the spotlight, it has now come to the fore. I wondered whether that fostered a sort of healthy competition from the two shows to see which could one-up the other. Lennie asserts that isn't the case. "When I'm doing my work on Fear, I'm in all honesty — and I say this in the nicest possible way — not thinking about 'The Walking Dead' at all. And I think on a number of levels, we would be setting ourselves up for failure if we try to take on 'The Walking Dead.'"
"Without 'The Walking Dead' there is no Fear, but it's about what we're doing on the show in Texas," he says. "We don't have our eyes over our shoulders looking back at what they're doing in Atlanta. We are part of the same family but we are kind of separate entities even though we're in the same world, and I think that's the most productive and best way to go about it. 'The Walking Dead' is a behemoth and a very huge show in the world — few can compare to its popularity, its fandom, its international appeal — and you know, if we get halfway there on Fear, then we'll be doing a really good job."
Lennie's character finds himself in a unique situation in 'Fear the Walking Dead.' It's the first ever that Morgan has come across someone 'new.' No member of his new group is aware of his history or his past, but one can't shake the feeling that his tether to the past remains and thrives underneath. The actor agrees and describes how the change in scenery has proved to be a very fulfilling experience.
"It's one of the things I'm really enjoying about playing him because it's a first for him," he says. "And considering how long I've been associated with this character, at this late stage he's in this situation we've never seen him in before. I mean, we know that when we saw him in 'Clear' in season 3, he talks about being around other people. But those people he was around, he killed all of them because that's where his head was at that particular moment in time."
"The closest we've seen him be in this situation is when he spends time at the Kingdom, and all those people were new to him, but there was the specter of Rick and Carol (Melissa McBride) kind of being around," he continues. "Whereas this new group of people he's come across have no knowledge of his past and they have no idea what pain and experiences he carries with him. Likewise, he knows very little of their backstories. It's invigorating and refreshing to get a chance to explore a whole new side a character you've been associated with for eight or nine years."
"So, yeah, I'm really loving it, and I'm looking forward to people seeing the faces we are about to take, not just Morgan, but all of this new group of people he's found himself in the middle of," he adds.
With only three more episodes before Fear's blockbuster fourth season comes to a close, what can fans expect, I ask. "You can expect — as you can always expect — expect that the group is going to be tested, that the group is going to have to make a big decision about what direction they go in, and that they will come back together but they might not stay together," Lennie discloses.
"Ultimately, Morgan is going to have to decide whether he stays or whether he goes," he adds. "And if he stays, why does he stay and who can be trusted, and if he goes, why does he go and where does he go? In the broadest possible, that's what you can expect. All of the characters both individually and collectively will be tested in the next three episodes."