The Walking Dead: Jeffrey Dean Morgan Is Batting Clean Up

Actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Melissa McBride and showrunner Scott M. Gimple welcome The Walking Dead into a brave new world.

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here.

The Walking Dead season 7 premiere may be the most anticipated hour of television this fall. Who did Negan kill in last April’s finale? Ask any crew or cast member: They’ll all tell you they don’t know. And if they do, they won’t say. Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, argues that fans have lived without the answer long enough to hold out just a few more weeks.

“People will ask, and then I’ll say, ‘Do you really want to know, though? Do you really want to know?’” McBride says of the question she’s had to dodge all summer. “And they get all jittery thinking I might tell them, actually. Of course I’m not going to. I mean, when it comes right down to it and they think, ‘Here’s my chance, I could really know…’ They don’t want to know.”

It’s a good point. The cliffhanger is a narrative device as old as storytelling itself. It keeps us focused, keeps us talking, makes us want to consume more. McBride asserts that even the fans who were angry about the cliffhanger will ultimately tune in to the premiere in a few weeks. But the cliffhanger is not just a gimmick. Let’s not downplay the importance of opening the new season with the show’s most violent death. A single swing of the bat (or several) will change the lives of all of these characters, taking them to dark places. In fact, the story in season seven is reactionary: The first death sets everything else in motion.

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The premiere will hand over the victim early on, according to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who’s about to become the most hated man on Sunday night television. He plays Negan, The Walking Dead’s new villain, an adversary unlike anything Rick Grimes and his people have ever faced.

“I think he’s a very special character that’s got this irreverent sense of humor and this charisma,” says Morgan, who has been following the comics for years. “His use of the English language, I find rather brilliant. I view him as a guy who’s survived this long in this apocalyptic world. If this show, seven years ago, had started following Negan instead of Rick Grimes, then he would be the hero of the story. I don’t think he’s necessarily a hundred percent evil. I think he’s just done what he has done in order to survive this long.”

But even Morgan can’t hold in his laughter when he hears himself trying to redeem his character: “I’m constantly making excuses for Negan. He’s a fucking asshole.”

Morgan is actually a little worried about how much people will hate Negan: “It’s a definite concern. I did some ADR yesterday for [episode one], and I saw a little bit of [the episode]. It’s a lot. I’ll be interested to see how the fans handle it. It’s going to be a lot more than the people are expecting. You’re about to see someone that you love just fucking take it. It’s violent. It’s more than violent. It’s gut-wrenching.”

Negan does seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity for an actor. After all, it’s not every day you get to play the biggest asshole on television – a title most recently held by Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon. But underneath his concern, Morgan is relishing the part.

“As soon as the cameras are rolling and I get Lucille in my hand, it kind of just transforms me,” Morgan says of stepping into the villain’s shoes. “This character in particular has been such a joy to play for me. Put the dark stuff aside and the horrible things that Negan does… As an actor, it’s just been so much fun. We’re kind of midway through filming season seven, so I feel like I’m pretty locked in.”

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There’s a chance that series creator Robert Kirkman always knew that Negan was meant for great things, that this highly intelligent, foul-mouthed sociopath would become one of the most infamous villains in comic books. Why else would he introduce the character in such a big milestone issue? Negan first appeared in The Walking Dead #100, in which he killed off one the book’s most beloved characters.

Since his introduction, Negan has been a whirlwind of violence, and that’s exactly how he’ll be portrayed on the show. Morgan promises that a bloodthirsty Negan will get to swing Lucille more than once this season. In fact, the actor hints that Negan will begin his reign of terror in fine form. The villain will take more than one life in the premiere.  

“Negan’s not just going to kill one person in [the premiere],” Morgan says. “He’s not afraid of bashing in skulls.”

It was widely reported right before last season’s finale that filming the episode had taken its toll on the cast. Cast members threw their scripts, cried, and were late for work on the day of the Negan scene. McBride says it’s always very sad to say goodbye to a co-worker. As one of the few original cast members left on set, McBride has had to say farewell to a lot of friends.

“There’s just that very somber undercurrent,” says McBride. “But we have a lot of very funny people in our cast. Even though it’s somber, there’s still laughter. I don’t know, it’s maybe something about some actors that grow up trying to deflect sadness. I guess I call them ‘tap dancers.’ There’s laughter, but you’re also going to miss the people when they go away, you know? I miss everybody that’s gone, and it doesn’t get any easier.”

Morgan was a little nervous on his first day, too. He didn’t know the cast very well, yet he was the guy who was about to kill a member of their family. It had to be at least a little awkward.

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“You know, this was a big, emotional time for everybody. Someone that was part of the Walking Dead family was going to have an untimely ending. So to be the guy wreaking that kind of trouble, I was a little bit nervous about how I would be received,” Morgan says of his now infamous first scene. “But this thing happens—and it’s been like this with Negan for me—it doesn’t matter what I’m doing as the character. This strange calm comes over me just as they say action, which is very weird. I can’t say that’s happened to me a lot in my career.”

Showrunner Scott M. Gimple, who took the reins of the show back in season four, says Negan’s first scene irrevocably shakes the show’s status quo and transforms the characters.

“It sets our story into motion – that death is the start of a new reality for Rick and our characters,” Gimple says. “The old world, where Rick was in charge of his own life, is over. Alexandria lives for Negan and the Saviors now, and it’s not an easy transition for everyone to make.”

“You’re going to see your heroes, the people that you’ve grown to love, in a place that you’ve never seen them before,” Morgan says. “Negan’s taken over and it shows. You’re going to see the characters that you love going through hell. There’s never been a shake-up like this on the show. I want to say that I feel bad, but at the same time, it’s my job and I’m having a blast doing it.”

But despite all the bloodshed in season seven, Morgan and the writers still had to rein in Negan just a bit, specifically when it comes to the way he talks. In the comics, the foul-mouthed villain is very fond of expletives, but a chain of f-bombs in a single line of dialogue doesn’t fly on cable television.

“It fucking sucks. That’s part of who Negan is. He swears like the best sailor in the world,” Morgan says. “What we’ve had to do for broadcast television is completely take out his favorite word. I’d love to be able to sneak one in. But the flipside is that the big iconic scenes, we do two ways. We do a broadcast version, and I can still throw in some ‘shits’ and ‘goddamns,’ but it still doesn’t have the same impact as a good ‘fuck.’”

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Fans who want to see the most unhinged version of the villain will have to wait for the blu-ray release, which will include uncensored scenes filmed alongside the broadcast ones. Morgan says the cast and crew lovingly call the alternate scenes “the fuck takes.”

Negan isn’t the only comic book character being introduced this season, though. Fans will also meet King Ezekiel, the leader of a settlement called the Kingdom. He’s played by Khary Payton, who’s best known for his voice acting on several DC animated series. Ezekiel’s entrance is set up at the end of season six too, when Carol and Morgan encounter a group of armored survivors from the Kingdom. The men offer to take Morgan (the character played by Lennie James) and a wounded Carol back to the settlement.

“The Kingdom is a really cool set,” McBride says. “The set design is just really creative over there. The Kingdomites really got it going on! It’s a very interesting place with interesting characters. Of course, there’s King Ezekiel. I’m excited that the fans are going to see him, finally.”

All of the settlements introduced in the Washington area thus far have had something unique to offer, whether it be the residential Alexandria, the rural Hilltop, or one of Negan’s fortified bases. The trailer shown at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con gave fans their first glimpse of the Kingdom, which is made up of school buildings protected by a wall. Inside the community, you’ll also find gardens and stables. It’s a living, breathing place full of people trying to build the new world.

“The Kingdom has its own personality and it’s a very, very different one from the other camps/settlements we’ve seen,” Gimple says. “They’ve lived a different life there — not an entirely easy one, but they’ve built a place that works. A place that works much differently than any other place we’ve seen on the show.”

The Kingdom even has its very own tiger.

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Ezekiel’s pet tiger, Shiva, will undoubtedly be one of the major talking points of season seven. This hulking predator sits at the side of the King’s throne, ready to maul anyone who comes too close. We first see Shiva in the trailer, roaring at someone off-camera who probably runs right out the door. But the actors don’t actually have anything to worry about. Shiva isn’t a real tiger. She was brought to life through the magic of CGI and animatronics.

McBride says that Shiva’s inclusion on the show is a marvel, although she expressed a little disappointment that there wasn’t a real tiger on set.

“I think having a live tiger would’ve been really nice. I like cats!” McBride says. “But having a live tiger would’ve been a liability. Animals are unpredictable. And I mean, we weren’t standing around saying, ‘I wish we had a real one.’ We were all going, ‘Jeez, how did they do that?’ This tiger is really amazing. Just the animatronics alone. I’m anxious to see, once they get the special effects added to it, how neat that’s going to be.”

Both McBride and Morgan describe season seven in short, ominous answers. “Welcome to the new world” is all McBride will say on the matter. Morgan simply laughs and says, “Brutal.”

McBride also won’t say if she’ll reunite with Rick and the group or meet Negan, but she does laud Morgan’s performance in his first scene.

“It was pretty amazing watching that finale when he first got there,” she says. He’s such a pro, he was so prepared. Also, he’s just great to have as part of the gang now. He’s got a really cool personality. He’s well-liked among the cast and crew.”

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Yet, McBride can’t help but turn Morgan back into the villain he becomes when he’s in front of the camera: “He’s the worst we’ve ever encountered, and it changes everything. He’s got our people at his mercy. I don’t think we’ve ever been at anyone’s mercy like that.”

She echoes what Morgan said about Negan, that the first death comes quick, and that the violence is unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before: “It won’t be long into the first episode that we find out what happened from the finale. But a lot of people were saying that the network didn’t have the balls or guts to show [the death], that it was just too much. I’m just thinking ahead to the premiere and I’m just kind of speechless when I think about it.”

It’s hard to imagine Morgan, Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, and the rest of the cast taking pictures together, laughing, and being chummy. But they’ve actually done a ton of that. They’re always smiling, fooling around, acting like a happy little family, even though Morgan is currently in the process of slaughtering them on the show.

Some fans are certainly having a difficult time compensating Morgan’s character on screen with who he is in real-life—a charismatic (in his own words) “shitster and prankster.” The actor has had people stop him on the street to tell him that they hate him. One angry woman in Georgia pulled over when she saw Morgan having a cup of coffee with Reedus on a sidewalk, walked up to the actor, and insulted him. “‘I want to know where you live!’” Morgan recalls the woman saying. But that’s just the kind of impression Morgan knows Negan will have on the fan base, and he suspects they will hate the character even more after the premiere. Yet, Morgan just can’t stop talking about how much fun he’s having. “Bring on the hate,” he says.

The Walking Dead returns on October 23 on AMC.

Don’t forget to listen to Den of Geek’s Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell!

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John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.