Warning: this interview contains season three spoilers.
I’ve extolled the virtues of The Walking Dead at great length here and offered my take on why there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the newly started season four, but the only character to get a sole entry was The Governor. David Morrissey’s performance as the ruler of Woodbury was a real stand-out in a show where everyone’s at the top of their game and his character, more than most, proved to be as fascinating as he was contemptible.
The beauty of The Governor was in keeping so much of his character motivation a mystery. While we understand that the traumatic loss of his daughter affected him deeply, that still didn’t explain the eerie sight of his fish tank full of zombie heads – an obsession as to what makes Walkers tick is one thing, but using them as a nightlight is quite another. There’s still certainly a lot to discover about him going into season four, but with talk of flashback episodes, the chances are that we’ll get a further exploration of his rise to power and a welcome one at that.
We caught up with Mr David Morrissey for a transatlantic phone interview, which suffered from being cut off a few minutes in and took a while to get sorted, so I’d like to extend my thanks for his patience and time while we got reconnected – it was very much appreciated.
Without further ado, I’ll let The Governor himself take it from here…
Firstly congratulations on your performance as The Governor, he made for an incredibly powerful part of season three of The Walking Dead – when you signed on to play him did you have any idea exactly how much of a complex character he’d turn out to be?
No I didn’t know. I knew the ambition for him and had an idea of where we might be going as the character and I certainly knew the first episode I was in, which was episode three, but no, I did not know the details of where he was going and how he would evolve. I had a lot of hopes and ambition for that and they were realised, I mean the writers delivered and that was about it for me really, I was very, very happy with how it all panned out and also how people listened – there’s a collaborative effort in that as well – so I was really pleased, but I did not know the details going in and I hadn’t read the comic books so I didn’t know them.
I think so often in the horror genre that there are seldom shades of grey, characters tend to either be good or bad, but The Governor’s villainy is much more fleshed out and relatable in some areas, was that an aspect that appealed to you?
Yeah, I think one of the things for me is I didn’t know the comic, but one of the things I read was – Robert Kirkman wrote a great book called Rise of the Governor – and what I really wanted to do in season three was to show where this man had come from. In the comic books you start with him being very, very evil right off the bat, you know he’s doing terrible things that we see and I wanted to show a bit more complexity than that, show a man and you see his psychopathic breakdown if you like and how that emerges.
And there’s tipping switch all the time – there’s a man before his daughter is taken from him and there’s a man that’s after his daughter is taken from him and who is still wanting to listen to the good side of himself, rather than the bad side of himself and I feel that even the final act of season three – it’s not a man who’s happy with that, it’s not a man who’s dealing with that type of massacre in a very cold, calculated sort of sadistic way, it’s a man who’s lost it and lost it big time.
And so going into season four, will we get to see what impact that’s had on him and where he is now?
I tell you it’s going to be a really difficult actually to promote (the new season of) Walking Dead, because I can talk endlessly about what’s been on, but I can’t really talk about what’s coming really. I think what’s important for me is that at the end of season three we saw a man not in a very happy place, you know he’d done this terrible thing and it’s really taken its toll on him, it’s not something he can just let go, he’s not sadistic and psychotic in that way, it’s a different form of psychosis to that. So it’s going to be interesting for people in season four to see how he deals with this terrible act and it can affect him in many, many different ways so it will be interesting for people to see how he develops… it’s just that it’s hard because I don’t want to give anything away!
And we appreciate that! In season three, a lot of your key scenes were with Laurie Holden (Andrea), is it strange when you’ve been acting with someone in such an intense dynamic when you discover that your character is going to kill hers?
Yeah it’s awful [slight line break]… as a group where we never know what’s going to happen at the start of a season, because we’re not tipped off in those ways, we know when the script is delivered that some of your great friends just have to go. Likewise Michael Rooker, he’s a great friend of mine and I was sorry to see him go as well and Dallas Roberts who played Milton, these are all people I’d become very close to.
It’s a really hard thing and it’s very difficult to explain without sounding flippant really, you know it does take its toll on you because you get circumstances of where we movie and the conditions we movie in where we have a lot of friendships and look after each other and trust each other, so when one of us goes it’s a really horrible time.
It’s such a great cast too, with uniformly strong performances that really must be a great environment to work in…
I think the show is brilliantly cast, I think they do that very well, but also they write it very well so the material you’re given to do is very challenging and wonderful. I would also say that that really is from the top, so number one on the call sheet is Andrew Lincoln and he sets the tone for the show and he sets the tone not just from a performance level and what you need to do, you know with Andrew that he’s going to be turning up on set and he knows what he’s doing and he’s got himself jacked up for whatever scene he needs to be in, he knows his lines, he’s got everything there and he’ll give it a hundred and ten percent – although that’s an expression I fucking hate! [laughs] – but he gives it a hundred percent all the time and he’s absolutely on it.
And not just other actors, but the rest of the crew, looking at Andrew – he sets the benchmark really, really high and you have to come up to that, so you know you have to be on your game and you have to be looking after your cog in the machine really, that that’s your responsibility that day and Andrew does that totally, so he sets the bar for all of us really in his professionalism and his talent. So he’s the man we should look at for that’s why I think the show works so well.
I think that’s why great actors want to work on the show, because they know they get a chance to do their stuff and it’s a show that takes acting very seriously and knows what actors need.
You’ve also known Andrew Lincoln for many years, so it must’ve been great towards the end of season three when you two finally had the meeting together and had a chance to face your characters off?
Yeah, I mean the other thing about season three was we sort of only had that one big scene, in episode thirteen, where we were around the table – we had little scenes around it, but that was the big scene and it was great to have a chance to work with him on that, to really go for it in that scene – but we socialise all the time and our families are great friends, so we’re in and out of each other’s houses in that way.
But at work it’s a different thing. In those days when we did have to work with each other and we had to scenes together, we didn’t really socialise on those days, I would sit in my trailer, he was in his trailer, we’d get up and do the job and you know we kept a little bit of distance between us.
I think the investment as a viewer, in turning against The Governor, especially when his actions resulted in the deaths of well-known and loved characters, made the show’s decision not to kill him off at seasons’ end even bolder – it must be great to be involved in a show that defies conventions and expectations?
Yeah it is, I think it’s a show that has a tradition of killing off big characters and I think what’s great about that is it has its frisson with the audience in that very respect, that the audience know they’re never safe and likewise I was very happy [to survive]. I think that’s the case with all of us in that when we get a script we all, very quietly – not many of us read those scripts in public – we take them to our trailer and we’ll read them quietly just to see if we make it, just to see if the adventure is going on for another eight days because that’s how long we have to shoot an episode .
Everybody in the show wants to be in the show and that’s not always the case you know? I’ve worked on shows where people have gone “I’ve got to get out of this!” and that’s not the case on The Walking Dead, everybody there wants to be there a hundred percent and they really love it. I think that’s inclusive of the crew as well on the whole, it has a great family atmosphere and we’re treated very well and it’s a cool show to be in and the production value and the standards of set are huge, so it’s a great ride.
Andrew and I and the other actors, they often turn round to each other and say “I can’t believe we actually get to do this!” [laughs] and it’s really cool. You can be standing there in a field full of zombies and thinking [in hushed tones] ‘it doesn’t get better than this!’ [I laugh and he says] It’s true, I feel it all the time, every day I go to work I think it, because we get to do great stuff!
David Morrissey thank you very much!