Well, this looks familiar. Lennie James, with trusty stick in hand, has been practicing a 20-move combo all morning in preparation to shoot a rooftop battle scene in which his character, Morgan, faces off against a pole-wielding baddie. It’s a fight that requires equal parts precision and power, and it’s finally time to start rolling. The combatants lock weapons, trading blows in a ferocious exchange that at one point accidentally bends Morgan’s rubber prop stick perpendicular. (“See, that’s how badass Morgan is!” laughs one onlooker.)
When the action has finally wrapped, James receives an ovation while he doubles over, winded from all the activity. It’s a scene he’s been through countless times before on The Walking Dead, but in this instance, everything is different. James is working in a new place with a new cast and a new crew on a new show after crossing over from AMC’s The Walking Dead to its companion series Fear the Walking Dead. Seeing James do his thing in Austin, Texas, after watching him play Morgan in the comfort and familiarity of Senoia, Georgia, for so long is a bit disorienting, even for a reporter who has covered TWD since its inception.
“We’re here again, but not here again. This is weird,” I remark to James, who chuckles before replying: “You have no idea.”
The arrival of Morgan is not the only big change coming to Fear when season 4 premieres on April 15 at 10 p.m. (right after the season 8 finale of TWD). Garret Dillahunt, Maggie Grace, and Jenna Elfman have also joined the cast; showrunner Dave Erickson has been replaced by Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg of Once Upon a Time (with outgoing TWD showrunner Scott M. Gimple in an oversight role); and the onscreen setting, as well as the production location, has moved from California and Mexico to Texas. But it’s the arrival of James finally connecting the two shows, in terms of characters — that has garnered the most attention.
Continuing to play Morgan on a different show is a move James agrees is “surreal.” But the actor is excited to see his character evolve in his new surroundings. “I think you’re going to see a Morgan who is going to be challenged to try to build a world based on his principle, which is that all life is precious,” says James, who also notes that the drama will come from how Morgan “chooses to be influenced by and influence other people.”
Those people will come first in the form of a gentle — yet deadly — trick shooter named John (Dillahunt) and the armored- vehicle-driving Althea (Grace), and then branch out to the returning extended Clark family (lead by Kim Dickens’ Madison). The Clarks start the season holed up in an abandoned baseball stadium, where they must deal with a brand-new enemy who thrives on the misery of others. This will all happen in a format that, as the new showrunners have put it, will “experiment with time.”
James is the most seasoned Walking Dead franchise player, having appeared in the very first episode of the mothership show, but the actor admits he still felt like the new kid in class when we spoke during his first week on his new set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, this has got to feel weird, right?
LENNIE JAMES: Yeah, it does. I don’t even know where to start with what’s weirdest about it. I think the strangest thing is just the timing of the filming because literally I finished on a Monday and I started the following Monday, so that’s kind of weird. It feels like it’s ongoing and yet, it’s not. It’s completely different.
How did it first come about? When and how did Scott Gimple come to you with this? We had our regular talk at the start of the season about what was going to happen in season 8 of The Walking Dead, which happened a bit late this season, so we may have been three weeks into shooting before I had that conversation with Scott. And then a week after that, he called me up and said, “I forgot to mention something to you. Would you come back and see me?” And I expected that conversation to be, “I forgot to tell you that we’re killing Morgan this season.” And when I arrived at Scott’s, he said, “Just so you know, Morgan’s not dying, it’s much weirder than that.” And that’s when he proposed it.
What was your initial reaction?
It was so not what I was expecting and not what I was ready for, so I think Scott spoke for another 30 minutes, and I didn’t hear a word he was saying. And then at the end of it, he goes, “Do you have any questions?” and I said, “I don’t, but I probably will as soon as I leave, but I need to leave.” So, I left and called home and didn’t know what I felt about it until I heard my wife’s reaction, so it was an odd one. It took a long time to get my head around it.
Well, it’s because you’re an actor and you’re used to moving from show to show or project to project or movie to movie, but to play the same character in a different place with an almost completely different cast and crew, that’s got to be the surreal part, I imagine.
Yeah, that is the surreal part. Also, my first reaction was the idea of exploring a slightly different pace the way we can possibly explore Morgan here that we couldn’t necessarily on The Walking Dead because it’s such a big cast. So your story arc happens over a bigger arc, as it were, and that might be different here. But I also had to deal with the notion that if I said yes, it meant I was leaving The Walking Dead, and that was as much as of a surreal thought pattern as coming here and kind of being the same guy but in a very different environment.
What was that goodbye like, having to say goodbye to everyone? I know how close you all are.
Yeah, it’s as you would imagine. It was in the moment, and it was tricky and difficult and lovely and respectful and upsetting, but you know, Josh McDermitt kind of coined a phrase of being sad that I was going but really excited by what was going to happen and he said that he was “sadcited,” and sadcited was a really good way of describing how it all felt.
What’s it like to be able to look out here and see directing producer Michael Satrazemis, who comes from The Walking Dead? That must be nice to have a familiar face.
It’s good. I’m excited to have a slightly different and prolonged working relationship with Mikey. But this whole group of people who were here now, quite a lot of them are new to each other, so I’m not the only new face on the set, so that’s made it a little bit easier. It’s not quite as fish-out-of-water as I imagined it was going to be.
Does it feel in a weird way similar to some of those Walking Dead episodes in those seasons where you would just sort of pop in? You talked to me back then about how you felt like you were on the show but not on the show in a weird way because you were doing your own sort of thing.
I really don’t know yet because I’m desperately trying not to spend any time comparing one to the other. I’ve got to be focused on what I’m experiencing here, and to be honest, a lot of the questions about here I don’t know yet because I haven’t been here long enough. And even the time that I have been here, I’ve been in every scene every day, so I haven’t had a chance to see Austin. For two days. I didn’t have a chance to go outside, so it’s all very new, and I don’t feel like I’ve landed yet.
What can you say in terms of exploring this character more? What kind of Morgan are we going to see on this show and how is it going to be different from the Morgan we know from The Walking Dead?
I think you’re going to see a kind of a Morgan that is going to be challenged in a new environment to almost build a world, or try to build a world based on his principle that all life is precious, and of discovering who he is, who he can be, who he can make himself into, how other people are going to kind of affect him and force him possibly into a position that he never saw himself taking up and how he chooses to be influenced by and influence other people.
I was shocked when I heard the person crossing over was going to be you, but I also know the way Scott feels about this character. It’s why he always wrote your episodes. So in that sense, I guess it adds up that he would bring over a character that he’s had such a close relationship with to flesh it out even more.
Yeah, I think it is utterly shocking but somehow it makes sense. But if it didn’t chime with Andrew and Ian over here at Fear when they were taken on, then it wouldn’t be happening. I mean, although Scott obviously had an influence on it, it wasn’t solely down to Scott. Really, I had to click with the boys who had taken over the show-running here, and I was as interested to know why Morgan made sense to them. I knew why it made sense to Scott, but I needed to know why it made sense to them and whether or not they were as enthused as Scott was.
Have you ever watched Fear or did you feel like you needed to go back and watch it? Or, since the show’s kind of rebooting, do you feel you can just sort of drop in right now?
No, I went back and watched it. I had watched the first season, but with work and being out in the country I didn’t continue it. I do that a lot with shows, I see how they start off and I just don’t really have a huge amount of brain space because particularly the last couple of years, I’ve been writing, so I’ve been very selective in what I’ve been watching. So I hadn’t seen it, but I have gone back and watched it, and season 3 is fantastic.
Have you had a chance to work with any of the old cast yet? I know you’re working a lot with some of the other new people first.
I had a day with Frank [Dillane] and Colman [Domingo] and Danay [Garcia] and Alycia [Debnam-Carey] so far. It was cool.
No rookie hazing?
Yeah, they gave me a couple of wedgies and trashed my trailer. But that’s okay. That’s how it always ends up, so it was cool.
For more scoop on both Walking Dead shows, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.