Fans of The Walking Dead were surprised in March to learn there would be a new spin-off featuring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan as Negan and Maggie. But just as surprised were the actual Walking Dead cast and crew.
"We didn't know the exact timing of the release of information," says Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang, who was hoping for a little more mystery when it came to two characters' fates for the final run of episodes beginning Oct. 2 on AMC. "I assumed that wasn't going to be announced. So it does change the way certain things are going to play in the season compared to how we thought they would play."
"We were a little surprised," executive producer and finale director Greg Nicotero reveals of the early announcement. "Because we thought, 'Well, that could mean that certain characters are going to live, and now there's a little bit less jeopardy involved knowing that. I think even Jeffrey was a little like, 'Well, okay, I guess the cat's out of the bag and we don't have to worry about anything happening to Negan or Maggie because they've already announced a spin-off.'"
Jace Downs/AMC Jeffrey Dean Morgan on 'The Walking Dead'
Six months later, Morgan remains disappointed in the early reveal."That's not the way we should have gone about it," says the actor when talking to EW for our Walking Dead Fall TV Preview cover story. "But this is how it was chosen to play out. And who knows? Maybe we couldn't have kept the secret. But it seems to me we could have given it a shot. I would've tried to go about it in a different way, but look, that's above my pay grade."
Even as blindsiding as the announcement was, what was even more surprising to the man playing Negan was the fact that he even wanted to do the show in the first place. "If you had told me that a year ago that I would be doing it, I would've said, 'There's no way. I'm going to end this and walk away.'" says Morgan. "The new adventure awaits doing something else.'"
So what changed? The actor pauses and considers: "I think that The Walking Dead ending and walking away from it would've been a noble thing for us all to do. But the story was so good and so worth telling that it simply came down to, I couldn't say no. And I felt invigorated and wanted to continue it."
Josh Stringer/AMC Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a scene from The Walking Dead'
And continuing it they are. Recently rechristened as The Walking Dead: Dead City (from original working title Isle of the Dead), the new series will be set in New York City, and, according to AMC president Dan McDermott, follows "Negan and Maggie's journey onto the isle of Manhattan, where the bridges and tunnels were blown up at the onset of the pandemic, because the walker herd had just overrun the island and it's been left that way for 12 years. And so now it's a two million walker strong herd that is dominating the streets and making it treacherous and dangerous."
In what turned out to be very appropriate timing, filming on the series began in New Jersey back in July at pretty much the exact same time the rest of The Walking Dead cast was out celebrating the end of the original show at Comic-Con in San Diego. Morgan has felt that separation, even while playing such a familiar character. "Lauren and I are deep into this now. And we look around, and we're looking for our castmates. We're looking for their chairs. We're looking for the people we know, because as familiar as it all is, it is also very different. You look behind video village and It's not any of the same faces that you've known forever. We're actively looking for our castmates, and they're not there. It's weird."
Beyond just the new location and crew, Morgan has noticed another big difference between the old show and new — the workload. The Walking Dead has a main cast of over 20 people for its final season, plus other recurring characters, which meant plenty of time off so everyone's stories could be served. Not so on Dead City.
Josh Stringer/AMC Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan on 'The Walking Dead'
"The two of us are on set 24-7 every day," says Morgan. "And that's also odd. We've had such a big cast for so long. You work three days an episode and then you're working on the next one. And now I'm struggling to stay f---ing five seconds ahead of what we're doing tomorrow!"
But, alas, some things never change. "Negan's back to f---ing chatting up a storm," notes the actor about what we can expect from his character on the new show. "So it's been fun and it's very familiar, and yet it's different and it's new. What's really great is that Lauren and I are together, and that [showrunner Eli Jorné] wrote these stories that I think are f---ing outstanding. Trust me, I would not have continued this role otherwise."
Judging by the frenzy currently happening in the Garden State around filming, it would seem Morgan is not the only one enthused about the new take on the old character. "There's been 200 people out to watch us film, which reminds me very much of how it was when I first got on The Walking Dead," Morgan says. "It was that kind of excitement and fan mania. And so to have that again, it's super cool."