With The Walking Dead season 8 about to land on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US on 21st August, we got to sit down with Leenie James for an interview on his character Morgan Jones, who has now become the official cross-over character into Fear The Walking Dead.
In focus was the direction of the character, changes to him over the last season and what went into preparing the character for his increased presence in the shows...
WC: Hi Lennie, thanks for giving us some time.
LJ: Hello, thank you for having me.
WC: How much do you think Morgan has changed by the end of season 8?
LJ: Over season 8, Morgan has reconciled himself to belonging. I think he has found people. Once he has put on the armour of The Kingdom, it's a statement about where he's placing his allegiance and who he's fighting for. And the decision to fight at all, I don't think Morgan is fighting for himself, he's fighting for the people that he has come to care about.
And as much as he dislikes it, I think he believes the only way out of the situation he is in is to go through it and to take part in the war. And that's a big change from where he was at the start of season 8.
WC: And what about generally? How different is he from when he first met him?
LJ: He's a completely different man. When we first met him he defined himself by whose father he was and whose husband he was and the job that he did and all of those things were taken away from him and he's had to rebuild himself from scratch. And he's not always necessarily been successful at it.
WC: Has anything surprised you about that?
LJ: I think he's gone on a journey that, if you'd told me right at the beginning that this is the journey that this character is going on, I would have said, that's not possible. For me, it's been a pleasure playing him and I have a lot of admiration for him as a man. I'm very protective of him and take a real responsibility for his legacy and his story.
WC: It's interesting you should say that, how much say did you have in Morgan’s characterisation over the season? As a writer yourself you must have some ideas…
LJ: I don't presume to write Morgan. I play him. I don't overstep that mark, I have the same level of input as all of the actors on the show in the sense that if something comes up in the script that I have questions about, I ask the questions, but I always wait for the script. If there's anything where I feel like we're repeating ourselves, we're completely at liberty to raise those issues and those issues will be accepted or clarified - whichever is the best way forward.
So, do I decide what happens to my character? No. Do I have an input into where he is or what he does? Absolutely. For instance, something might come up that makes perfect sense in the script but doesn't necessarily jive with the character's history and they are very few and far between, but there have been a couple of occasions where you go "actually, he can't be that person or make that decision unless we are saying that the decision he made before was wrong, a lie or we're just forgetting about it. And that has happened once, that I can remember and it was easily dealt with.
WC: What sort of preparation went into portraying Morgan’s PTSD? That's got to be a challenge...
LJ: It is a challenge.... I tell you, talking about your process... I saw something that Paul Bettany said the other day... I read it, I think I was on a plane... He said acting is a bit like sex: it's absolutely fantastic fun to do, but it's slightly embarrassing to talk about!
"I'm aware that Morgan is going through PTSD. I'm aware that he is trying to figure out whether he is going to be a PTSD survivor or a PTSD victim and I studied that in the way you'd imagine. I didn't sit down with PTSD victims because I think that would be odd and too much to ask of them. But anything that I could find that was written, I would explore. I did speak to a few people who work with PTSD sufferers and asked what they knew and what they do to get people on the way to recovery.
I haven't actually said this before... I bumped into some counsellors who I had spoken to in Atlanta - actually at an Atlanta United football game of all places - and it was somebody that I'd met before and... the counsellor who works with military vets had said to me that he actually uses The Walking Dead as part of his material in helping PTSD sufferers.And that a couple of the episodes that he uses are ones in which Morgan is particularly prominent. And the reason he uses them is because one of the things PTSD sufferers have to deal with is finding some kind of realisation that it's okay to feel frightened without feeling that it means that you're in danger or that you need to fight or run. That you need to attack or hide.
And that it's okay to be frightened, that it's okay to let those feelings loose in your body without feeling that you are in actual danger or that something imminent is going to harm you.The way that they do that is by showing them things like The Walking Dead in a controlled environment where they can stop it and where they can talk about it. And it seemed like a very kind of gratifying and satisfying circle it had gone in, because I was asking them for help and they were using what I was doing in order to help real people with that real condition.
WC: What have you enjoyed most about Morgan’s journey over the season?
LJ: The thing I've most enjoyed most this season about Morgan is the thing I always enjoy about playing him and one of the reasons I'm still connected to the character - much to my surprise let alone anyone else's. That is on any given day when a new script arrives, I genuinely don't necessarily know what Morgan might be doing or what he might be dealing with. Even after all this time, there's still a freshness to it. It's not procedural, he's not locked into "you are this guy and only this guy and will be this guy forever and ever."
He still has the ability to challenge and surprise me and that's rare. So I don't know how much longer it will last, but it's good for now.
WC: Have there been any points where you thought Morgan might be killed off?
LJ: Well always, particularly because that's just the nature of the show. If I'm absolutely honest, there was a point, just because Morgan is dead in the comic books and I've outlived him by a long time. So in reality, with The Walking Dead - even though we are doing very different things to the comics - there are still characters who are coming and stories that will happen from the source material that Morgan is just not a part of because he's dead.
So everything becomes an invention and I was getting to the stage where I was realising that there was only so much room left after all of the things they HAVE to do for the stuff they might want to do with Morgan. So I was kind of getting to the point where I was thinking that maybe I'll be getting the tap on my shoulder sometime soon. I didn't imagine that it would be what it's turned out to be. At all.
WC: What should we expect from Morgan going forward, broadly?
LJ: I think you've got to - as I will, because it was the request that I gave to the writers and show-runners of Fear... is I want to be surprised by Morgan. I want to find him in situations we haven't seen him in before. I want him to be challenged, not necessarily just by new dangers or new catastrophes to get out of, but also just emotionally. And mentally, to be challenged in who it is that he thinks he is and not just to be sending him back into a kind of mental crisis.
I say it only as really a sort of generalisation, but what would it be like if somebody entered into Morgan's life that offered him the possibility of a relationship? He is so defined by the loss of his wife. He is so defined by the loss of his son. All the time that we've known Morgan, there has genuinely never been the possibility of love. Of intimacy in that way with him. In fact, it's a part of him that has been completely shut down as far as we can tell. I think it would be interesting to see what might happen should someone enter his life that offered that possibility and how far he would either go to stop it or what it would take for him to embrace it.I think that is a fertile area for us to explore with Morgan now that we know him as much as we know him.
And not just a will-they-wont-they but actually the price... that box has been closed for so long, what would it take to pry it open? I think it would drive him absolutely crazy. I think it would be his biggest adversary. I think it would be his biggest challenge. I think it would rock him to his core more than anything else he's come across. He would much rather dive back into a hole surrounded by walkers than he would face the possibility of being happy with another human being.
WC: How does the experience of making Fear The Walking Dead differ to The Walking Dead?
LJ: I've already said this a few times, but i really resist comparisons because it's a bit like comparing your new girlfriend to your mum. It's a bit weird.
I've been associated with one show for ten years and I've been associated with the other for less than a year so it's not a fair comparison. What I can say for Fear The Walking Dead is we moved around a hell of a lot more than we have on the recent years of The Walking Dead. Every other day and sometimes every day was a different part of Texas and we wouldn't necessarily return to the same location ever.
So we were constantly setting up camp and taking down camp and moving. And that was very different to what I'd got used to on The Walking Dead. That's a comparison I'll allow myself. It also meant we were picked up and driven to work almost every day because a lot of the places we were going were off the GPS grid and that wasn't the case for the Walking Dead, where we drove ourselves to work.
WC: That's great. Thanks so much for your time!
LJ: Thank you!
The Walking Dead Season 8 is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on 21st August.