This Walking Dead article contains spoilers for the show and the comics.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is about to become the most hated man on Sunday nights. He’s about to take the life of a beloved character on The Walking Dead, and the fun doesn’t stop there for the show’s new big bad. Negan will change the show like no other villain has in the past. He’s a force of nature, a cruel dictator with a dirty mouth and a twister sense of humor, and undoubtedly the comic book series’ greatest villain.
Morgan first brough the character to life in the season six finale, where he had the main characters lined up on their knees while he decided who he was going to beat to death with his barbed-wired bat Lucille. While the big scene from the comics ended in a cliffhanger, we’ll absolutely see it play out in the season seven premiere. And it will only be the beginning. Negan is poised to become one of TV’s most dastardly villains of all-time, and Morgan is ready for the hate.
I talked to Morgan about becoming Negan, how the villain has completely changed the show, the season premiere, and much more! Check out the interview below:
Den of Geek: How do you prepare yourself to play a character like Negan?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: You know, I read a lot of Kirkman’s stuff. A lot of the graphic novel stuff. Really more than anything, the preparations for Negan that all kind of comes with the scripts. A lot of it is on the page. As you know, we pretty much are following the comic books as far as dialogue, so for me it’s about learning the dialogue so well that I can kind of say it backwards and forwards in any way.
I’ve been around long enough that I don’t need to dig too deep in the… Well, I do, but I can do it more usually other people that are in this business, I think. So there’s no method or anything attached to it.
The thing that puts me over is as soon as I get Lucille in my hands and put on the leather jacket I think that’s sort of when I walk in. Because I’m a bit of a shitster and prankster off set, and even on set, but as soon as the cameras are rolling, and I get Lucille in my hands, it kind of just transforms me. This character in particular has been just a joy to play for me. I’m having so much fun with it. You know, put the dark stuff aside, the horrible things that Nega does… As an actor it’s just been so much fun.
We’re kind of mid-way through filming Season 7, so I’m feel like I’m pretty locked in. It’s really just a matter of knowing the dialogue and all that.
I know your first day on set must have been really crazy, especially since you didn’t know the other cast members that well and you were about to kill one of them off. Were you nervous that first day?
Sure, I’m nervous on first day of every job I’ve ever done in my life. It just kind of comes with the territory. It doesn’t matter if it’s a show that I’ve been doing for a couple of years or people that I know. I think it’s just part of the deal. I think if I ever showed up and I wasn’t nervous, something would be wrong.
But I remember – and I’ve talked about this a little bit at Comic-Con – as nervous as I was, I mean you’re looking at a – I can’t remember exactly how many pages it was – easily fifteen page monologue as the introduction to Negan. I think I only had the script… They’re so top secret they don’t want anybody to have them for, you know, even now. So I only had a few days with the material, and wanting to get the words right, certainly. And yeah, being around these new people who are obviously… You know, this is a big emotional time for everybody. Someone that was part of the Walking Dead family was gonna have an untimely end, and so to be the guy wreaking that kind of trouble, I guess I was a little nervous about how I would be received. That being said, everybody was awesome.
This thing happened, and it’s been like this for Negan. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing as the character, but this kind of strange calm comes over me just as they say, “Action,” which is very weird. I can’t say that happened to me a lot in my career. But I remember that first day, I was nervous, and I was just in that RV kind of going through the countdown in my head, waiting for Greg [Nicotero] to call action. As soon as I heard action, and I open that RV door, it was all good. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but there was just a calm that came over me, which really kind of works for the fucking character when you think about it. I felt like I was in control of the situation and the scene and all that stuff, so it worked out really well.
Besides that strange calm, is there anything else that’s surprised you about playing Negan so far?
I think he’s a special character. He’s got this irreverent sense of humor and this charisma, and his use of the English language I find, you know, rather brilliant. And I think I’m surprised every day I get a new script or I get a new scene. I get kind of giddy with excitement about what that opportunity is going to afford me, and so it’s been that. I don’t know, man. It’s just such an original character, I think, and it’s certainly an original character for me to play – and I’ve played some baddies in my life. I can’t compare Negan with anybody so, really, it’s just sort of the joy of playing him is the surprise.
I mean, every day I’m super exciting to fucking put on a leather jacket and wreak some fucking havoc. And I think that’s been the thing that puts a smile on my face the most. And, you know, with these group of people – I don’t know if you’ve talked to any of them before, but it’s just an exceedingly special group of folks here. Cast and crew. I feel like I’ve been accepted into this family regardless of the character that I’m playing, so it’s been a really cool experience. One that I’m super looking forward to playing for a while. I hope that everyone doesn’t fucking hate me after the premiere.
I’m sure that won’t be the case.
It’s a definite concern. I did some ADR yesterday for 701 while I was here in LA with [showrunner] Scott Gimple. Boy, I saw a little bit of it. And I think it’s a lot. It’s a lot. I’ll be interested to see how the fans handle it because it’s going to be a lot. It’s going to be a lot more than people are expecting.
Would you say that season 7 goes above and beyond the violence we’ve seen on the show before?
I mean, it’s a different kind of violence. We’ve seen all sorts of blood and guts, but it’s usually kind of relegated. I mean, there are examples of the humans getting kind of wasted on the show. But you’re about to see someone you love just fucking take it, you know? It’s violent. It’s more than violent. It’s gut-wrenching in its violence, so it’s going to be a lot. And Negan’s on the other end of that bat, so we’ll see how people respond, man. I’m a little bit nervous, I’m not going to lie!
Stepping into the Walking Dead world for the first time, kind of getting the taste of it at Comic-Con, for instance… You know, we live in a bubble in Georgia. You know, other than if I’m hanging out with Norman [Reedus], and we go out for a motorcycle ride. You know, that guy can’t go anywhere. But it’s really a little bit of a bubble, and I think that’s going to change. It’s going to change drastically when the show starts airing, and people start getting more familiar with Negan and what he’s about, so we’ll see. I’m a little anxious to see how it goes, man. It’s going to be something.
Not only is Negan one of the greatest villains in comics, but he also comes with what I think will become one of the greatest props in TV history. Will you get to swing Lucille more than once this season?
Oh, fuck yeah! Yeah! Lucille is an extension of him, man. He doesn’t go anywhere without Lucille. If you see Negan, you’re gonna see Lucille. And Negan’s not just going to kill one person in 701. He’s not afraid of bashing in skulls, certainly.
We can both agree that Negan is a bad guy, but do you view him as truly evil now that you’ve been in his shoes?
I view him as a guy who has survived this long in this apocalyptic world. I’ve often said, and I talked about this with Andrew [Lincoln] and with Scott, that if this show seven years ago had started following Negan instead of Rick Grimes, then he would be the hero of this story of The Walking Dead. So, I mean, in our world, yeah, Negan is the villain. But as we find out more about him, and we will, he’s going to be around for a little while, I think the similarities between him and Rick Grimes are strikingly similar. You know, there’s something about him. There’s something about him that as evil and as a villain he is, there’s something about him, and he’s a man in there somewhere. And hopefully, we’ll flesh that out a little bit as time goes on, but I don’t think he’s necessarily 100-percent evil. I think he’s just done what he’s done to survive this long. I’m constantly making fucking excuses for Negan. He’s a fucking asshole!
You mentioned the similarities between Rick and Negan. Could you talk a little bit more about what those similarities are?
Well, we follow the story of Rick. We followed, you know, what he’s done to stay alive, and keep his family and his followers alive. Negan’s kind of done the same thing. Mind you, there’s a different approach to that in some ways. I mean, I think Negan outwardly enjoys what he does, maybe more than Rick does, but there are still a lot of similarities of how they got to be who they are in this world.
Negan kind of stands alone in personality. I don’t know that anybody’s going match him personality-wise, but he’s not, say, what the Governor was. He’s not a nutball. He’s a very smart guy. He’s a smart guy that has a sense of humor. In this world, I think that’s something I enjoy as a viewer. And I’m certainly enjoying it as an actor to play that. But I think as a viewer and a fan of the show, people will, if they can sit back and get past what Negan does, they will understand the similarities of Negan and our survivor heroes because there are some similarities. So, you know, we’ll see if the viewers can figure those out or if they’re going to be pissed and angry and hate Negan, which can very well happen.
Yeah, you seem very worried about that.
I don’t think I’m worried. I think I knew immediately that in taking the role and having been a fan of it, you know… Bring on the hate. It’s gonna happen. I think what has happened is I’ve seen a little bit of what people are going to see in October and it’s a lot. It’s a lot. And I’ve also gotten taste of The Walking Dead fandom, and you know, some of these people have a hard time separating actor from character, and so I think there’s going to be an initial backlash, but we’ll see. I mean, maybe not.
As long as you’re having fun.
That’s it. I’m having the best time of my life playing this guy. I think that’s kind of, for me, the highest compliment I can say about this show and these people and [Walking Dead creator Robert] Kirkman and Gimple, is that I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. As an actor you can’t ask for me. I’ve been given, you know, the crown to the kingdom here, and I’m just having a blast doing it.
What can you tell me about Negan as a leader? How would you say he leads his men?
I think the people that follow him, some are following him begrudgingly. I think some are with him, you know, 100-percent, but Negan keeps his people alive, and I think that’s what needs to be remembered, and I think a lot of the people that follow him do so out of a necessity to stay alive in this world. But he is, you know, he scares the shit out of people. But he also has this charisma that people, I think, are… Well, they follow. They follow this charismatic man in this world where there’s not a lot of fucking humor anymore. And Negan sees a sense of humor in stuff that other people don’t see. I think that’s where he gets a lot of his folks to follow him. But let’s not forget Lucille. Let’s not forget doing, I don’t know, a certain iron or two. You do that around enough people and they’re going to start following you. They don’t want it to happen to them.
I’m sure you’re aware that Negan curses like a sailor in the comics. How have you had to tone that down for television?
It fucking sucks! I mean, it does. It fucking sucks, because that’s part of who Negan is. You know? He swears like the best sailor in the world. What we’ve had to do for broadcast television is completely take out his favorite word, which sucks. I’d love to be able to sneak one in. But the flip side 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” and that kind of stuff, but it still doesn’t have the same impact as a good “fuck.”
I’ll do a couple of takes. I’ll do a broadcast television way, and then we do what we affectionally call on the Walking Dead set the “fuck take,” and I will throw in every “fuck” that’s ever been written by Kirkman, and maybe add in a few extras. And I’ll also do that off-camera for the other actors on the show, and I will just go off, and so they’re reacting to something that we’re not necessarily going to see on broadcast television, but they’re getting the full Negan experience on their side, but we’re shooting their coverage. But we’ll get to see it. We’ll definitely get to see it.
I know they released the Blu-ray, which we did that for. You know, the Blu-ray introduction of Negan is all fucks included, and now in season 7 and moving forward, we’re going to try as many of those big iconic scenes that we brought from the comic book certainly, make sure we get that, so everyone can see it who wants to see it.
And you talk about getting the actors “there” by doing the explicit version. Do you film the explicit version first or the censored version?
No, I usually film that second unless I am off-camera to begin with. But when the camera’s on me the first go-round I will give the TV version because it’s important that we get the TV version right because that’s obviously what the people are going to mostly see. But also if I start just going nuts with my language, it’s hard to reel that back in. And I’ll inadvertently throw in f-bombs when I’m not supposed to be, and so I try to ramp up to the “fuck take.”
You’re a guy used to fandom. You’ve been in superhero movies, horror movies, TV shows, you name it. What’s the fan reaction for Negan been like so far?
Awesome. It’s been great. I mean, I get funny reactions, too. I get people that are already just like “I hate you” and all that kind of stuff, which is okay. I take it with a good laugh. But it’s funny. The other day, Norman and I took a motorcycle ride. We were in some town in Georgia just having coffee on the sidewalk, and this lady gets out of her car, and she was probably 75 years old, and came up and put her finger right in my face and she goes, “You fucking asshole.” Norman falls off his chair laughing thinking it’s hysterical, and her next thing is, “I want to know where you live,” and I was like, “No, no, no, no!”
You know, I get plenty of that. Or people just say “I’m going to fucking hate you!” They’re supposed to! I’m the bad guy of the show. I get it!
An interesting thing about The Walking Dead is how the introduction of a new villain really shakes up the status quo for the other characters. How do you think Negan has changed the show?
The first half of season 7, you’re going to see your heroes, the people that you’ve grown to love in a place you’ve never seen them before. Ever, ever, ever. You know, Negan has kind of taken over, and it shows. And you’re gonna see the characters that you love going through hell, and Negan’s going to be putting through it, so… It’s a big shakeup. There’s never been a shakeup like it on the show.
We talked about it a lot on set, and it’s hard! It’s a hard deal. And talking to a couple of the actors who’ve worked so hard getting these characters to who they are, and it be kind of flipped on its ass… It’s fun as an actor, but you know you have this pride in your characters, and to have to start from scratch or from a place you’ve never been before… It’s tough. It’s a tough thing to go through, and I think some of our actors have been going through that certainly for the first part of the season. I want to say that I feel bad, but at the same thing, it’s kind of my job, so I’m having a blast doing it.
It must be great to be the guy that just destroys the foundation these characters have built…
Yeah, it is great. I know that I’m doing my job, and I’m serving my character well if between takes, I can work Andy up. And he’s fucking just going off and screaming in between takes. A certain kind of satisfaction I get as Negan and as an actor that I’m doing my job and pushing the right buttons. So it’s been tough for some of our boys and girls. We’ll see. I’m anxious for people to see it. I think it’s gonna be different Walking Dead experience for people. And again, I’m having a blast doing it.
You mentioned working with Andrew Lincon. Is there any specific character you’ve enjoyed working with the most on the show so far?
Uh, nah, I can’t answer that question. I like working with them all. It’s an extraordinary group of people. Each and every actor on this show is – I’ve never seen people more passionate and dedicated to a show. To be in season 7 of a show and this kind of passion… It’s insane. It’s a hell of a group. I’m having fun with everybody.
How would you describe the first half of season 7?
Brutal. That’s all I’m going to say. It’s fucking brutal.
Thank you, Jeffrey Dean Morgan! The Walking Dead season 7 premieres on Oct. 23 at 9 pm on AMC.
Don’t forget to listen to Den of Geek’s Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell!