Warning: contains spoilers for The Walking Dead.
Lennie James has to be one of the few actors who can completely camouflage himself in a role, no matter how familiar you are with his work. His recent appearance on The Walking Dead companion series, Talking Dead, sparked a joke about him being British, due to there being no sign of his London accent present in his portrayal of Morgan Jones. Yet while it’s nothing new to have home-grown talent seamlessly adopt an American voice (especially in The Walking Dead), it’s rare to watch an actor move from role to role and continually be amazed it’s the same person.
Back in 2012 and 2013 our household played host to a variety of James’ work. There was his outstanding performance in Line Of Duty, a fun supporting role in the magnificent B-movie gem that is Lockout (a film played to every house guest we had on its home release), a re-watch of Snatch and then his reappearance in The Walking Dead’s third season. Each of those roles a complete separation from the next, yet all made memorable by Lennie James’ skilful portrayals.
After years of teasing and minor glimpses, we finally have him back on The Walking Dead as a major player. Already the character of Morgan has proved to be a divisive one, as we root for both his Zen-like calm and exciting bo staff ass-kickery, but then wave arms in the air and shout when he’s letting members of the Wolves walk free with a stern telling off and a few large bruises. How Morgan’s part in the grand scheme of things plays out remains to be seen, but it’s fantastic to have the character back at last. With that, let’s get perspective from the man himself, Mr Lennie James.
Like many fans of The Walking Dead, I think it’s great that Morgan is finally back – without spoiling anything, can we expect him to be an important part of this season and a proper part of the show?
It’s proper as far as Morgan’s concerned, yeah. He’s there for a bit.
Did you have any idea when you first appeared in the pilot, that it would lead to such a slow-burning character, who we’ve seen develop gradually over six years?
No and I think that answer covers everybody involved, certainly in the pilot episode and almost certainly in the first season. No one envisaged that The Walking Dead was going to turn into what it’s turned into, no one could possibly have known because no other television show – certainly in terms of viewing figures on cable – no other television show has come close. So no, I had no idea and neither did anybody else.
It seems to me that Scott Gimple has orchestrated Morgan’s gradual arc since he appeared in season three for an episode, is that right?
Well Scott wrote Clear in season three and when he became showrunner, yes, one of the things that he was determined to do was to bring back the character of Morgan. So certainly, since he’s been in the big chair, along with lots of other fantastic things that he’s brought to the show, one of the things that he wanted to do, for whatever reason, was to bring back Morgan.
It’s interesting to me, because although we’ve only just started the sixth season it was Scott Gimple who killed off Hershel and since that point Rick has almost been without a moral conscience, he’s not really had a calming influence. And yet in the first episode with Morgan back, he very much seems to have taken that mantle and is trying to talk Rick down from a ledge…
Ahh…okay! (laughs) If that’s what you see, that’s what you see really. I mean it’s difficult for me to comment, partly because Morgan has no idea of Rick’s relationship to Hershel, all Morgan is doing is outside of… basically what Morgan is doing is trying to figure out – after spending virtually the entire new world apocalypse that he’s had to live through, having done all of that on his own he’s trying to figure out whether or not he can do that amongst other people and it so happens that one of those other people is Rick.
Actually it’s not that it ‘so happens’ it’s important that it’s Rick, because Rick is Morgan’s last link to who he was before, or just after the apocalypse and they were the first two men who met each other and made a bond and that bond has lasted all the way through to here. So the effects that Morgan will have on Rick remain to be seen, whether he ends up being his moral compass remains to be seen. What I do know is that both men when we meet them stand at, arguably, with opposing points of view – one believing that in order to survive you have to kill and the other believing that you can survive without killing – and I think that’s going to be an ongoing conversation in season six, but who convinces who and who wins over who? I couldn’t possibly say.
No of course not! And I’ve always said that one of the show’s greatest strengths is the character play, it’s the dynamics between them – the horror and the zombies happen around what is great character work.
Yeah, absolutely. You’ve hit why the show is popular on the head really. I think people have been attracted to the show and in some cases put off by the show, because of the notion of it being a zombie show, but those people who watch it and become fans of it, I think they stick around to find out what happens to the characters and that it’s about people and it’s what good storytelling can sometimes do, which is if you set it against a heightened backdrop, the emotions and the conflict and the drama have a different kind of resonance and I think that’s what happens with The Walking Dead. Because even the simplest thing like the group arriving in Alexandria and turning on a tap and water running from the tap, or flicking on a light and the light coming on, or music being played and people being social with each other – just the simple notion of that, against the backdrop of The Walking Dead, is high drama and I think that’s where we play and I think that’s why people come and watch us.
When you mentioned that at the start of the show no one could have predicted the success it’s achieved, is it then strange for you to come back properly so many years down the line to act alongside Andrew Lincoln again and see how he’s developed both his character and as an actor? I know from interviewing other cast members that they speak very highly of his devotion to the show and how he very much leads from the front.
Yes and no, I mean I think because we were there in the pilot and Andy kind of threw himself at it, right from the off really and also because there’s been irregular, but kind of regular returns for me, I’ve seen the development happen each time I’ve come back. When I came back in Clear it was in season three and it was obvious that Andy had really taken up the mantle of being number one and had a real responsibility for the show, but he had that right from the beginning and now that has kind of fed through everybody, although Andy is very much the kind of almost Rick character to the company, the company as a whole has a collective responsibility to the show and yes it’s being led by the front.
But as a group of actors and has fed through the crew, everybody is doing their damnedest to pull in the same direction and take great pride in the work that they’re doing and the show that they’re putting out.
I think that level of devotion is what sets it apart. And that must be a great environment to be immersed in as an actor?
Yeah it’s a fantastic place to go to work and it’s an easy place to go to work on one level. I mean the elements you just have to battle against are incredibly… it gets incredibly hot, it gets incredibly humid, there’s thunder and lightening, there are all manner of bugs, there are snakes, there are beasts… and there are zombies! So you put up with all that kind of stuff and the rest of it is just gravy, really! But it is genuinely a fantastic place to come to work and I’m enjoying my time on the show immensely.
Now we’re almost out of time so I was going to ask our usual site question of ‘What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?’ but figured you might have a slight bias on that front, so slightly left of centre can I ask if you have a favourite memory from filming Snatch?
Do I have a favourite memory of filming Snatch… I remember one time at lunchtime – it was very weird, Snatch, because it was a very boys-y set, there were very few women on the set, which consequently meant that at lunchtimes and breaks strange things would happen and I remember at one point I think we were filming somewhere that had a gym… like a school gym.
And suddenly two ropes appeared, side by side, hanging from the ceiling and all of a sudden it turned nto a huge, big competition about who could climb the rope to the top and come back down the quickest and I remember Statham being very good at that, because he used to be a diver and a gymnast and all of that, so it all became about who could beat Statham. And basically nobody could. I’m not sure if that’s a favourite memory, but it’s the first one that comes to mind!
That’s perfect, thanks so much for your time and the best of luck for the future, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to the fans and people who like the show seeing it, I think this season is going to be worth the watch!
Lennie James, thank you very much!
The Walking Dead airs on Mondays at 9pm on FOX