Spoiler alert: This interview contains storyline and character spoilers for the “Conquer” episode of The Walking Dead.
The return of Morgan Jones — from his handy dispatch of the Wolves to his rescue of Daryl and Aaron to his jaw-dropping reunion with Rick in Alexandria — was definitely a highlight of The Walking Dead Season 5 finale. Morgan’s portrayer, Jericho alum Lennie James, talks to Yahoo TV about why the new Zen Morgan came looking for Rick, how producers have been trying to bring him back into the mix throughout the entire series, how Morgan and Rick need a deep catch-up chat in Season 6, and his interest in sticking around for a regular stint on TWD.
You must be relieved not to have to play the secrecy game any longer.
[Laughs.] It is good not to do that, although it was still secret right up until the finale and all subsequent conversations [on Talking Dead], but I’m glad not to have to lie to people I care about. Obviously a few people, people who live inside my house, were aware of the fact that I wasn’t there and where I was, but to almost everybody else, I had to be either dishonest or slightly unscrupulous. I’m glad that that’s all over and that I’m allowed to say that yes, I’m there.
This Morgan we meet up with in the finale is very, very different from the one we last spent any significant time with, in Season 3’s “Clear.” What can you say about Morgan’s journey between “Clear” and “Conquer”?
I can say that there has been an insightful incident in Morgan’s life, as there was between the [series premiere] and “Clear,” in the sense of how he lost his wife and how he lost his son. Something has happened to Morgan since “Clear.” He has come across someone who has had a profound effect on him, and we have seen the results of that effect, and what it has done to Morgan, and the path that he’s trying to walk, and the reasons why he has gone in search of Rick.
It did seem obvious that he’s made time for some serious introspection, and that perhaps he found the only still operational martial arts school in the post-apocalyptic world, because he definitely has some skills that we were not aware of before.
[Laughs.] Yes, he has acquired some skills and a change of weapon of choice. That change of weapon of choice is as much about the change in Morgan as his appearance and his sense of himself now. There has been a big effect on him, and I think in Season 6, there may well be a telling of that transition in Morgan in one way or another.
We saw him earlier in Season 5, briefly in the premiere, and then in the mid-season finale, arriving at Father Gabriel’s church. There’s that moment where he’s standing at the front of the church, looking around, taking things out of his pocket, and he starts to laugh. Why?
It is part of the change that he’s made, but also, it’s a measure of, I think, for him, how far that change could go. I think he laughs because in the world that he’s in, it’s absurd to pray. I think his realization in that single moment in time is that — because he closes his eyes and he opens his eyes, and everything’s still the same — and that’s when he’s aware that there’s only so far down this new road that you can go.
At the church he finds the map that helps lead him to Rick. What did you think when you found out about that plot detail?
I think we got away with it, but I didn’t want it to be a moment which was, “Oh, and then he just happens to find a map that points him in the right direction. How lucky.” I think there were other pointers… he had found his way to the church, that he had got that far, so he was already on the right path. He probably could have found his way on to the next bit. He may well have had to go through Terminus to get there, but he would have ended up moving in that direction. I liked it because, even though he just happens to step past it, when the map passes between Abraham and Rick, at the point when that happens, you don’t think, “Oh, and Morgan’s going to find that map.” When it comes along, there’s still an element of surprise.
At what point did Scott Gimple let you in on this plan for Morgan, that he would come back into the story at this point?
It’s been an ongoing thing all the way through [the series], really. Before I came back in “Clear,” there were two or three attempts to bring me back, but just because of other work commitments, it couldn’t happen, and the same kind of thing happened with coming back for my participation in Season 5, and what could possibly happen in Season 6. It’s been an annual conversation that we have, and they’ve been ongoing since the start of the show in all honesty.
That makes it even more amazing that it fit in so perfectly with where they are in the show right now.
I think that’s down to the brilliance of the writers’ room and Scott and Gale [Anne Hurd] and everybody involved, really. I think it seems seamless because they’ve made it seem seamless. It’s got little or nothing to do with me. It literally is that they’ve cut their cloth accordingly. As it were, they go, “Well, if we can only have Lennie for this amount of time, then we’ll do this, this, and this in Season 5, and we’ll do whatever, the other bit that we wanted to do, in Season 6.”
It certainly has a lot to do with you, though, how much impact Morgan has had on the show. Are you surprised at what a fan favorite Morgan has become?
Yes, absolutely. If you actually break it down, I’ve done three episodes of any kind of note. The two in the premiere of Season 5 and in the midseason finale of Season 5 are tiny little bits, but in the actual episodes over the five seasons, I’ve done three episodes. For the fans to recognize him and focus in on him in the way that they have is… just the luck of the circumstance and the brilliance of the story, really. I have to say that each time I’ve been on the show… they bring the party. In the first one, it’s me and Andy Lincoln locked in a room. In “Clear,” it’s me and Andy Lincoln locked in a room. Then they start to introduce me to the rest of the people in “Conquer.” I think it’s down to good storytelling, and right from the character in the graphic novels, he’s a very interesting guy to play, and I’m lucky enough to play him.
Those final moments of “Conquer” are such a juxtaposition of where Morgan’s state of mind was the last time Rick saw him, and now where Morgan sees Rick, shooting another man. What’s going through Morgan’s mind when he sees that?
The only part Morgan sees of that fantastic last scene and Rick — Andy’s fantastic performance in that last scene — and the speech he gives, the truth that’s behind it and the mess that he’s in, despite the fact that he has quite obviously made troubling choices and difficult choices within himself, he’s still trying to reach out, trying to help people and trying to teach them about what is his reality and the reality of the group… Morgan’s not party to any of that [scene] until Rick pulls the trigger and shoots Pete in the head. All he sees is the man that he’s walked all this way to try to find shoot a man in the head, a man who’s being held down by another man while a group of other people stand around and watch and do nothing. Morgan’s first reaction is one of shock and wonder and concern for this man that he cares about who is quite obviously not in the position that he last saw him in.
You said on Talking Dead you’re definitely back for at least one episode in Season 6, so can we assume that one episode will include a big catch-up session for Morgan and Rick?
Yes. I think we can safely say that, that Morgan and Rick will have a catch-up. How long that catching up will last is not up to me.
Are you open to being a regular part of the series or for sticking around longer than one episode next season?
I would really like to see what would happen to Morgan, should he be around the group for an extended period of time… what effect they would have on him and what effect he would have on them. This is a man who, for better or for worse, has spent most of the last few years on his own. He may well think that he’s found a belief system that will help him in this world, but he might be wrong. Also, it might be hard to sustain that belief system when you’re around other people’s belief systems; they may well not accept yours, and he may well not accept theirs. I think there are a lot of interesting scenarios that could come up between Morgan and Daryl, and Morgan and Carol, and Morgan and Michonne, and Morgan and Carl, and Morgan and Rick, and Morgan in Alexandria. I think all of those could be really interesting places to play.
How would you feel about spending a whole season or more in that hot Atlanta summer for filming?
I’m more than willing to be open to the possibility of it. I enjoy my time on The Walking Dead. I’m very protective of Morgan. I don’t want him to be diluted. If that can happen over a protracted stay in the series, then that’s fantastic, but if it feels like he’s becoming less than himself, then I’ve got no problem in going back to popping in and out in short bursts. I want to tell his story in whichever way it is best for him as a character and the show as a whole.
The Walking Dead returns this fall on AMC.