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The Walking Dead’s Lennie James on Morgan’s Return and How Filming on Set Is Like Zombie Zumba

Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

When we last saw Morgan on The Walking Dead in season three, he had lost his mind to grief and rage. He returns this season a completely different man. This fourth episode connects the dots between the man we saw then and the man we see now, who projects a Zen calm and refuses to take a life. “I’m able to go from crawling to walking to running all in a single episode,” Lennie James, who plays Morgan, said of his character’s evolution. The British thespian spoke with Vulture about how shooting The Walking Dead is like doing a postapocalyptic Zumba class, his character’s evolution into a “peaceful warrior,” and whether he and Andrew Lincoln talk to each other in their regular accents on set.

It’s really delightful to see you back on the show. Did they want you back sooner than this? Or they wanted to have you for a longer time?
Yeah. We [thought about doing] all that we’re doing in season six at least a season earlier, but other commitments made that impossible. But then, because the other job I was doing had a bit of a break in it, Scott phoned me up and said, “Would you just come to Atlanta and shoot these two sequences? I’ve had this idea that I’m going to put after the titles in episode one and episode eight of season five,” and so I did that. So that’s how that came about.

Do you have an abbreviated stay this time as well?
Yeah. I’m here for a minute. But, along with everyone else, you never know how long that minute might be.

What’s it like to be around a larger cast and crew than before? Was it like entering a party where everyone knew who you were?
It’s very weird because I suddenly realized that in episode one of the new season, when I ask Michonne whether or not she stole my peanut-butter protein bar, those are the first words Morgan has spoken to Michonne ever. Because it’s such a large cast of regulars, there are like three-quarters of the characters that Morgan has still not spoken to. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a bit odd. It was a bit like you showing up at a party where everybody has been talking about you, and they know much more about you than you know about any of them.

Sunday night’s episode is about you and your character’s evolution. It’s filling in the gaps between the last time we saw you in “Clear” in season three to where you are now, which is this very Zen state. How did you work to fill the gaps in your character?
The filling in the gaps of Morgan has kind of been my job. You meet him in the pilot, and he’s a regular fellow who is just trying to survive this crazy new world order with his son. The next time you meet him, he’s lost his wife, he’s lost his son, and he’s lost his mind, it seems. In that one, I had to fill the gap between the regular guy to this kind of psycho killer who has turned a town into a booby trap. And the job of filling the gap before we got to episode four was a similar job. I had to play who he was at this particular moment in time, but still have an echo of who he was before so the two people didn’t seem like they were completely different characters. I think one of the gifts of episode four is that the transition plays out over the episode. In one way, I’m able to go from crawling to walking to running all in a single episode, as opposed to splitting them over multiple seasons and a couple of years. So, the hardest thing was, in a weird way, getting back into the mind-set of Morgan in “Clear,” and then taking him further down the manhole before John Carroll Lynch’s character, Eastman, kind of coaches him back to some form of reality.

Did you have to do a lot of physical training?
I did, and I continue to do. The surprising thing about episode four is there was an inordinate amount of running. I was dragging bodies, I was killing walkers. There was one day I remember I spent like five hours in different parts of this huge forest, just killing walkers in different forms and beating them with different implements. And then there are two big fight sequences, one inside the cabin and one back at Morgan’s spiked circle. Plus, all the stick training sequences we go through. So it was a surprisingly physical episode, and added to that, it was one of the hottest points of the Georgia summer. At one point, it was 106 degrees with 100 percent humidity. But it all added to the experience, and hopefully added something to the episode.

This sounds like CrossFit for the zombie apocalypse.
It’s a little like that. It’s the way everyone stays in shape in the zombie apocalypse. It’s a swing-smash. It’s a bit like Zumba, but you kill more walkers.

And you’re carrying bodies around.
And you’re carrying bodies around, and you step to the left — two, three, four, right, two, three, four — and chuck them on the funeral pyre, and light the funeral pyre — two, three, four. And then start all over again.

Did you learn Aikido?
To the degree that it can be learned in that span of time and can be learned in relation to the bow staff. Most of all of my training is about the bow staff. It’s not so much about the general principles of Aikido. It is about where Aikido is relevant for how you work the bow staff. That’s Morgan’s weapon of choice, and it’s a weapon that beautifully fits into the that he’s trying to walk, the path of the peaceful warrior. And the stick is great because at one moment it is simply an implement to help you walk, or to aid you in your walking, and then, if it is swung in the right way, it’s a deadly weapon. But, it’s also a weapon that can keep people at a distance. It doesn’t have to kill you. So it’s perfect for Morgan and where his mind-set is at the moment.

The stick is really interesting as a metaphor because Morgan represents a really different philosophy we haven’t seen on the show so far. I really like the moment in episode two where you intersect with Carol at the crossroads. Is that metaphor something that will continue to play out?
Well, it’s something that is going to play out for a number of characters. It’s not so much whether or not you do what Rick says and what Carol says, or you do what Morgan says. It’s much more, which one of those can you live with. It’s not necessarily about the body count. It’s about which one of those is going to protect your soul. Which one of those is going to remind you that ultimately what you are is human. Both of them have inherent dangers. And I think a number of people are going to have to choose. As long as they remain as absolutes, if it’s Rick’s principle of, “I don’t take chances anymore,” or it’s Morgan’s principle of, “All life is precious.” As long as both of those lines keep as absolutes, then there is going to be conflict and confrontation. It’s about whether or not it is at all possible, not just between those people, but whether it is at all possible in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world to not have absolutes, to not decide one or the other. To not take the blue pill or the red pill. Maybe there is a third way. Maybe there is something that isn’t Rick and isn’t Morgan. Or there is something that will happen externally to them that will mean this argument needs to be put on the back burner because everybody is going to pull in one direction.

The episode was a break from the general narrative. It reminded you of the kind of trauma that happens when we lose someone dear to us. Was that difficult? How did you go to that place?
I think it was a very brave choice for the show. To a great or lesser extent, most, if not all, of our characters are suffering some form of posttraumatic stress. And to give it a name and to take a minute to explore it was very brave on the show’s part. I took a real responsibility for that, and I found testimony of people who were suffering from posttraumatic stress, and listened to and watched and spoke to people who deal with people who are suffering from posttraumatic stress, and one particular person who was related to someone suffering from posttraumatic stress. What I found most useful wasn’t necessarily the stories of these people, but actually how it manifests, how the illness and the trauma manifests itself.

There’s this one radio show about soldiers who have posttraumatic stress, and one of the soldiers who they were exploring was unfortunately no longer alive. His sister talked about the fact that he would say there were always shadows following him. That there were dark, shadowy figures following him who sometimes he would shout at to go away. And then another sufferer of PTSD also spoke about dark figures and shadows following him, and they would shout back. So there was this kind of sense that the trauma was physical, that they felt it, but that it was also visible around them. They were constantly aware of that. I tried to put that into the context of our world, where there are literally shadowy, undead people walking around you, and that you have the memory of the people you have lost. I’m just trying to stay true to the basics, really, and then let the script and the story take over from there.

I’m sure a lot of American fans are surprised to hear your British accent, as the show is so huge here. Did you have any specific tricks on how you get into an American accent for Morgan?
I don’t think of it at all. I’ve worked in accents ever since I’ve been an actor. My family is from the West Indies. When I came out of drama school, quite a lot of the plays I was doing at that point, I would either be asked to play West Indian — I’ve done Jamaican, Dominican, Trinidadian. My other most frequently used accent when I was doing a lot of theater in London was American — southern American, New York. I’ve always worked in accents, and I never really thought of them as, I’m just going to put on an accent and that will be my character. Morgan is not me with an American accent. Morgan is a man of different influences. The fact that he’s a father, a husband, a widower, the fact that he lost his child, the fact that he was a man who, in my mind, ran his own business, and then a man who survived, and found a way to survive the zombie apocalypse on his own, all add to who this character is. And one of the things that adds to his character is where he’s from and how he sounds. So I don’t think about it as putting on an accent, I think about it as, this is how Morgan talks. Once I’m dressed as him, that’s how he talks, that’s how I talk, and that’s how I spend my days on set.

So in between takes, you and Andrew Lincoln don’t speak in your English accents?
In between takes, we don’t. Very rarely do we slip back into our English accents. Once I arrive, the minute I get out of my car in the morning, I am speaking with an American voice, working my way toward Morgan.

Walking Dead’s Lennie James on Morgan’s Return