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The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey on the Governor and Severed Heads

David Morrissey. Photo: Getty Images

The Governor of The Walking Dead comics is a brute, an obvious villain who looks more or less like a pirate. But as embodied by British actor David Morrissey, he’s the suave and charismatic architect of the postapocalyptic haven Woodbury. Morrissey tends to play troubled, corruptible guys (who happen to be easy on the eyes), most famously in David Yates’s State of Play as the too-ambitious politician Stephen Collins. “Apparently, it’s my thing,” the actor says, laughing. “But it’s an interesting comparison. Stephen Collins was turned by power, and so now is the Governor.” Only one of them, however, keeps a trophy case of severed heads. Vulture caught up with Morrissey just as production was winding down on the third season of the zombie drama (viewers will have to wait until February to see the final eight episodes), and he tried to make us see things the Governor’s way, even after Sunday’s dark turn.

I hear you’re in the middle of filming the season finale.
Yeah, it’s our last week, so it’s all hands to the pump. Everyone’s out here today, so it’s pretty crowded.

You sound out of breath.

It’s all action today. Emotion as well, and that’s always quite draining. But it’s great. I’m going to miss all of it.

I read you signed a five-year deal, which is pretty standard for series regulars. But since you’re shooting the finale — and presuming you’re not playing a walker today — should I read anything else into the length of the contract?

[Laughs.] No, you really should not.

Your son, who is 17, is a big fan of The Walking Dead. Have you had a chance to talk to him about this most recent episode?
They get it a week after us in the U.K., so he hasn’t seen it yet. He and his friends, they don’t look at any blogs or anything until they’ve seen it. He’s very opinionated about it, though, and has been since season one. He likes how this season has opened up, with the two communities. It’s not just Rick’s group in the quarry or the farm. He loves the heads and the prison and the fact that Rick is going crazy. But, yes, it will be interesting to hear what he thinks of the episode. The Governor certainly reveals more of himself in the scene with Maggie. I felt you could see that the Governor was doing it for the first time.

How so? I’m not sure I got that, specifically.
He doesn’t strike me as someone who is a seasoned interrogator or torturer. He’s someone who is walking into that room and thinking, How am I going to play this? How is this going to work? How is this woman going to react to my interrogation? He’s discovering things about himself and how far he can go. This world is as new for him as it is for everyone else. I don’t feel that in his past life he was in any way a dark, mysterious, sadistic figure. What’s happened to him since the incident is he’s built a community that he’s very proud of and very defensive of, and he has a reason for that and it’s his daughter. He wants to protect her.

Defensive, sure, but the heads on display feel like something he’s very proud of.
I don’t feel like the heads aren’t trophies. This man is trying to desensitize himself to this terrible world he’s found himself in. He’s going to look it right in the face. A lot of soldiers I’ve talked to in the past use this technique, demonizing their enemy in a way that’s very important for them to go into combat. It is freaky, but I don’t think it’s a perverse action on his part.

You might be empathizing with his murderous ways more than most.
I think there is a conscience in there, a slight sense of troubled man. I really do. You see who he was with Penny, and a little bit with Andrea.

Are the actors jealous that you and Laurie Holden have gone dirt-free for so long?
Andrew is absolutely livid. He calls us 90210. All the guys in the prison are so angry, but I just say, “Come on over to Woodbury, friends.”

Glen could saunter around in a comfy postcoitus robe like you do.
Exactly! There are robes, gladiator shows, medical facilities … I get to look good while everyone else looks like they’ve been to Woodstock.

When Sarah Silverman was a guest on Talking Dead a few weeks ago, she said she has always loved The Walking Dead but hated all the characters until the Governor.
I didn’t see that, but that’s brilliant! [Laughs.] She’s right! I bumped into this woman in the supermarket the other day and she goes, “I love to hate him.” That’s the thing about the Governor.

What other kind of feedback have you gotten from fans? Like Michonne, the Governor is an iconic character from the comics.
I’m on Twitter and I get a lot of messages via that. They’ve all been positive, even the negative ones, which are basically, “I hate your guts.” I take that as a positive thing.

You like to do a ton of research for roles. What kind of prep did you do for the Governor?
I read a little bit about cults and cult leaders. I read anything about the corruption of power. The 48 Laws of Power was quite interesting. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West is a wonderful series of essays about the plague and Europe in the thirteenth century, and how towns and villages ghettoized themselves against this terrible plague and how they walled themselves in. I also read The Things They Carried, about a man, who is a good man, in the middle of this hellish situation, and how as an adult he carries that on, trying to square the things he’d done during war. That book was really important to me to see how people turn. 1984 I read thinking about how one is able to manipulate a group of people. I think the Governor’s got some mind control over his populace … I read many things.

Is The Things They Carried required reading this season? Glen Mazzara also recommended it to Danai Gurira.

Yeah, and actually we brought that into the show. There was that scene where Michonne goes into the Governor’s house and she sees the book lying there. Looks like the Governor has read it, too.

Do you have to work on the Southern accent?

I work with Andrew’s coach, Jessica Drake, intensely. Still do, actually, every episode before we shoot. As soon as a script comes in, I work with her via Skype.

It looks like Rick and the Governor will meet up in the mid-season finale. It would be cool to hear the Governor say, “Off with his head!”

[Laughs.] Well, I will say it’s not just about Rick and the Governor. Lots of different relationships within those two communities explode and implode in the next episode. It plays out in a surprising way.

Walking Dead’s David Morrissey on the Governor