David Morrissey interview: The Walking Dead, the Governor, Doctor Who & more…

We chatted to The Walking Dead's David Morrissey about season three, the Governor, terrorism, and Doctor Who...

This interview contains spoilers for anyone not up-to-date with season three, episode eight of The Walking Dead.

He’s dealt with Cybermen in Doctor Who, political conspiracy in State of Play, and a singing David Tennant in Blackpool… Currently though, David Morrissey is the man behind The Governor, Rick Grimes’ chief antagonist in The Walking Dead‘s exemplary third season.

A few weeks ago, we chatted to Mr Morrissey about The Walking Dead, which returned to AMC last night in the US after its mid-season break, and comes to Fox in the UK this Friday the 15th of February. As is to be expected from any actor wishing to keep hold of a great role, Morrissey was reluctant to speak about AMC’s recent removal of showrunner Glen Mazzara, but he did talk to us about the Governor’s future, his relationship to the comic book character, and all things Woodbury…

How’s the eye?

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[Laughs] It’s okay, it’s on the mend.

Presumably episode nine picks up immediately where number eight left off? The Governor is injured, grieving Penny, and out for revenge…

Yeah, it’s a direct continuation, there’s no time difference really, so we’ve seen him in the arena with the Dixon brothers and the crowd baying for blood and Andrea is at the side line just wondering what’s going on and it takes off right from that moment.

And you’re returning from the mid-season break with the iconic eye-patch. Does that signify the genesis of the comic book Governor?

I think the look is certainly there from the comic books, but I still think the Governor has a little bit more complexity going forward than in the comic. He is someone whose humanity is closing down very rapidly and I think he will act on that. But what’s been great for me so far in the series is how it’s surprised people. They both hate him and love him and they don’t know where they are with him. They find him repellent but also they’re attracted to him [laughs] and I think that sense of uncertainty about the character will continue. I don’t think he will ever become, hopefully, totally evil.

Would you agree that the Governor and Rick are two sides of the same coin, both with the same mission, just taking different approaches?

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I think the difference really, certainly at the beginning of this season, is that the Governor has time. What he’s done by creating this oasis of Woodbury is he’s bought himself time, time to think about the future, time to enjoy what they’ve got. They can have parties and gatherings and they can eat and they can drink and you can leave your door open and your kids can run outside without you having to freak out about what’s happening, so that security that he’s created buys him time to relax and plan.

Rick is constantly on his toes, he doesn’t have time, he’s just trying to get through that day. That’s the difference between the two men. But as far as looking after their people is concerned, they’re both similar, that’s their priority, to look after the people around them. The ‘Rickocracy’ that Rick talks about at the end of season two, I think that they governor has a sense of that as well, in that sense of saying ‘It’s my way or the high way, this is how you’re going to be, you can take your chances in Woodbury with everything we have or you can go out there and basically die amongst the undead’, that’s what he’s saying. So it’s a stark choice that people have with Woodbury, but in that world, I know where I’d rather be. 

What’s the Governor’s scope of ambition would you say? Is he content with Woodbury, or does he want to expand the empire?

He’s managed to secure himself and give himself breathing time, certainly at the start of season three, and I think he would be thinking of expanding that, not just geographically but being able to bring more people in, but he has to be careful about that because his real thing is to contain, and continue to be the leader of that community. He doesn’t want to bring anybody in who’s going to be…

A threat?

Yeah, threatening his authority at all. So it’s a very fine balance between keeping what you’ve got and expanding, he’s got to be very careful for that. I’m sure he regrets bringing Michonne in…

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Understandably! Talking of threats to his authority, we’re going to be seeing your first scenes with Andrew Lincoln soon aren’t we?

I don’t know about that. I don’t know whether you are actually. I think you’re going to have to wait and see with that.

There’s a whole sense that that’s what people want. They feel that the stars are aligned for these two people to meet and they may do, they may not, but what I like about the season so far is that it surprises its audience, not least of all by killing off its leading characters sometimes, so you never know. There’s a sense of ‘what will that meeting be about?’, ‘what will be the outcome?’ and do they even meet at all? The main thing for me is that it’s definitely not going to be what people expect.

So we’re not looking at a big confrontation from the off as the posters have been teasing?

It’ll be interesting [laughs], I think people will just have to wait and see with them. It’s a really hard show to promote because there’s obviously the whole ‘spoiler alert’ and stuff like that but I think they are the two big alpha males of the piece, so it will be interesting to see what the writers do with them.

Did the choices Andrew Lincoln made with Rick influence your choice as to how you approached the Governor at all?

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No, not at all. I think the Governor character for me came right out of Robert Kirkman’s two books, Rise of the Governor, and The Road to Woodbury, they were the two books I read, much more than the comic books. The person I discovered and worked on was that character that came out of there so I didn’t really look to see how Rick was doing and how he was performing, I was still a big fan of the show but I wasn’t trying to…

Play off him?

It didn’t influence me in any way. 

Your character calls Rick’s group ‘terrorists’. Is that how he sees them, or is that more rhetoric for his people?

No, that’s definitely how he sees them, because that’s what they are as far as he’s concerned. They are people attacking his security and his freedom, they are people who have infiltrated his town and killed his daughter, killed his people, they’ve brought devastation. I don’t see how you can present them in any other way; that’s what they are. They are a threat to his security, terrorists are a threat to our way of life and that’s how he sees them.

He has kind of a ‘bread and circuses’ approach to Woodbury doesn’t he? Keeping the populace distracted with spectacle and security. Would you compare him to any real-world political leaders?

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He doesn’t distract his populace with security, you know, that’s it. Security is everything.

What we do sitting here in our world is to make choices from a much more advantageous point of view, and I think if you can provide people in that world a place where you can open up your door and your children can run out into the street and they are safe, that’s not a tactic, that’s a reality.

But it does come at a cost and I think all leaders are playing a balance with their people where they’re saying ‘Only I can provide you this, only my party can provide you this, the other party will create instability. You’ll be less safe with them, you’ll be poorer with them, you’ll be more unhappy with them’. What the governor is saying is that everything that you’ve got that is secure, good, that represents freedom, you’ve got via me, purely me, so he has to create in himself the embodiment of security and I think he’s done that very successfully until he literally and emotionally let his guard down and let people into the community that he shouldn’t have let in, primarily Michonne.

But I think there are parallels in leadership all the time with that, with our own leaders and around the world, and not just cult leaders, I think someone refers to the Governor as a Jim Jones-like character but I think it’s not just cult leaders, party political leaders do that all the time. You look at any of our leaders in the past and present and they do that all the time. Turning up the gas on our sense of insecurity as well as our sense of security in order to manipulate us.

He’s new to power though…

He’s definitely new to power. Before, he wasn’t in a position of power, but the circumstances have thrust power on him and he is slightly making it up as he goes along and because of that he is being corrupted by power.

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Are you playing a character who is playing a character then, would you say?

I don’t think he’s aware that he’s playing a character. I think what he’s doing is he’s finding his way into a new self, there’s a sense that he is walking in shoes that aren’t naturally fitted to him, that’s true. That’s where sometimes the mistakes he makes come from, the fact that it’s very new, it’s a new jacket he’s wearing. 

Presumably when you came aboard, you discussed the Governor at length with Robert Kirkman…

Yeah, but also the showrunner Glen Mazzara, that’s who most of my conversations were with. The way American television works is that you sit down with the writers really, which is a team of writers led by Glen and that’s what was talked about really, is how the Governor can manipulate people and how this world is new to him. Is this a natural place for him to inhabit, or an unnatural place for him to be? We’re finding that answer in the season.

Appreciating that you can’t reveal anything about it, have you had a conversation with Glen about the Governor’s eventual exit?

No. I haven’t actually, because I don’t really want to have that conversation. I love being in the show, it’s such a great place to be so it’s a conversation that, you know, I’d like to avoid! [laughs].

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But you’re contracted for five years, so that shouldn’t be an imminent threat?

Well you never know, I think the other thing about The Walking Dead is that no-one’s safe. That’s what creates a frisson with the viewers and the fans really, it’s a character-driven show and they care about the characters, but they don’t know whether they’re going to be safe. We’re not in a Star Trek world where the leading character is beaming down with one guy you’ve never seen before, so you think ‘Well, he’s going to die’, we’re not in that world, we’re in this world where people we love dearly and we love to watch and care about, can be killed. I think that’s what gives the show its frisson.

That instability is reflected in real life isn’t it, with the many changes in showrunner in the last three years [Scott Gimple has replaced Glen Mazzara, who replaced Frank Darabont]. How do changes upstairs ripple down to the set?

I think in any industry, things do ripple, but what’s wonderful about The Walking Dead is that there’s such a professional atmosphere, led chiefly by Andrew Lincoln who is just one of the great leading actors. He reminds me of David Tennant in a way as he’s the first guy on set and he’s the last guy to leave. He knows everybody, he cares about The Walking Dead from the bottom of his heart, it’s not a job for him and that sort of professionalism filters down to not just the other actors but everybody on set. So, while decisions are happening higher up the food chain from us, it’s our responsibility to get on with the show on a daily basis.

Having directed in the past, is there an opportunity for you to tackle an episode of The Walking Dead from behind the camera?

I’d love that, but you know, I’ve said in the past that if they wanted me to make the tea I’d do it! I really love the atmosphere of being down there on that set. It’s like doing a sixteen-hour movie because you have all the equipment there, you have the budget to be able to do great things and have your ambition pushed and challenged in a visual sense and so from a creative point of view, it’s a wonderful place to be. I would love to direct an episode, but just being part of it is great. 

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Having brought up David Tennant, I have to ask, when you were playing along with those ‘Is David Morrissey the Next Doctor?’ rumours, was there a part of you that would have loved them to be true?

Yeah, there was a bit. Again, it’s a great show and I was slightly thrown by that. David announced he was going and this rumour mill began and I couldn’t say what I knew but it was a very fun place to inhabit for six months, when people thought it was going to be me, that was great. And also I think that Russell [T. Davies] is just a wonderful person, so it was great to even be associated with that, but I think it’s in good hands.

Were you a fan of Doctor Who growing up?

No, not at all. No, I was really not, it was not my bag. I was also slightly suspicious of people who were. I had one great friend who could quote passages from the books, you’d go into his house and he had all the books, and he wore a Tom Baker scarf and I loved him dearly but I was also slightly… Apart from Liverpool Football Club, I’ve never been in love with anything in that way. I was in love with acting and drama and film and theatre but never one specific genre in that way and Doctor Who, I thought it was alright, but it never got in my bones in that way.

Saying that, the relaunch did, and I watched it because my kids watched it, so I suddenly got into it in a different way, but no, I was never really into it as a child. It was always on at the wrong time for me, I was always out playing football.

The Doctor’s former companions often find themselves back in the TARDIS for an episode or two, is that something you’d be open to?

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Ah, I’d love that. I would absolutely love to do it again. I had such a ball doing it. Mark Gatiss says, you know, there’s nothing more blissful for him to write than “Interior TARDIS: Day” or whatever on the top of one of his scripts, it’s living the dream. And for me, when I went down and worked on it, I thought ‘This is great’, it’s a really well-run show, people take it very seriously but you have fun on it. And l loved that character, I really loved Jackson Lake, I thought he was a really interesting man, he was in some sort of trauma himself and the Doctor liberates him from that…

He was another troubled parent, like the Governor…

[laughs] Another man going down the toilet, I wonder why! But also at the end he’s full of joy so I’d really jump at the chance to do that. 

Having been involved in Russell T Davies’ press rumour machine must have been good preparation for taking on the Governor role, something very high profile role that requires such secrecy?

Yeah. Like The Walking Dead, Doctor Who‘s a very well-loved show, so the press was excited about it and it was very positive. But when I did State of Play, when I did The Deal, there was always that sense of press interest around it, which is great for me, but I don’t live my life like that. It comes from my work, which is okay.

The Walking Dead is different in the sense of that Twitter world, and I’d never been to Comic-Con before and that was a very interesting world to step into, so that’s all a bit new for me, that sense of the world.

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Did you follow the fan reaction on Twitter?

Yeah, a little bit I did. It was all very positive so I was very happy about that. I followed a little bit of it and then there was so much of it, I thought I’d better spend some time with my children [laughs].

You have Comic-Con again this year I suppose, that’s going to be twice as crazy…

Yeah, I mean, that was such a blast, both of them actually, the one in San Diego or New York both were such fun so I have no problems doing that again, it was fantastic.

David Morrissey, thank you very much!

With thanks to our resident The Walking Dead correspondent, Ron Hogan, whose review of episode nine, The Suicide King, can be read here.

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