If you can’t help but see a little Negan in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Rampage performance, then you’re not alone, because The Walking Dead star sees it too.
In his most high-profile film role since throwing on the leather jacket and picking up the bat for the hit AMC drama, Morgan stars as Agent Harvey Russell (the film’s “best character,” according to the unbiased actor) opposite Dwayne Johnson and some even larger-sized screen partners in director Brad Peyton’s adaptation of the Rampage video game franchise.
“I grew up watching like Godzilla and King Kong, so one of the reasons I became an actor was so I could do a monster movie,” the 51-year-old tells EW. “I hadn’t gotten to do a monster movie yet, and then, you throw Dwayne into the mix and I know his track record, he’s got a little bit of a Midas touch going, so it seemed like a no-brainer.”
But Russell — an eccentric government operative with a cowboy’s swagger, who’s tasked with taking down the genetically mutated gorilla, wolf, and crocodile terrorizing Chicago — was a role that almost didn’t happen for Morgan, who spends eight months out of the year filming Walking Dead. Luckily, though, the series and Rampage shot at the same time in Georgia, which meant Morgan could do both, jumping back and forth between productions. And while he knew he was tired due to the busy schedule, the actor didn’t realize until seeing the film that some “Negan-isms” might have snuck into his Rampage performance.
“When I was watching the movie the other night, I saw a couple body movements that look kind of familiar, a little lean here and there,” admits Morgan with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh man, there could have been a little slop over there between Negan and Russell.’”
Despite Negan finding his way into the film and what the trailers may suggest, Russell isn’t the villain of Rampage, something Morgan knows people expect. But, at least for the time being, he hopes to stay away from playing any more bad guys. “I think now as soon as I walk onto the screen, people are like, ‘Uh, oh, he’s going to be the baddie,'” says Morgan. “I don’t know that I would want to be a villain right now in anything other than what I’m doing. I worry that with The Walking Dead, people will only know me as Negan because it’s such a pop culture phenomenon of a show and character. People have forgotten about all my other work as soon as I became Negan and they seem genuinely surprised that I don’t carry Lucille around and torture people in real life. So yeah, let me do something different.”
Unlike Walking Dead, where he routinely gets the script the day before shooting, Morgan had time to sit with the Rampage script and was given freedom by Peyton when it came to dialogue and developing the character. With that responsibility entrusted to him, Morgan knew he had to “embrace the ridiculousness of it all.” “It’s absurd,” he says of the film that features a 30-foot wolf. “And if you can embrace it, that’s what makes the movie work. And I absolutely embrace all that — it’s f—ing killer.”
And for Morgan, who has often been a leading man, it was refreshing to be a supporting player and have the pressure land elsewhere. “Obviously, this movie is riding on one man’s shoulders,” he says, referring to Johnson. “And for me to be able to come in with zero pressure and just have some fun and kind of chew up a little scenery, that’s a great time for me. It really is a dream gig, just come in and have fun. That’s what moviemaking should be. I don’t know, I think this might be my deal. I like doing monster movies. I don’t need to win an Oscar [laughs]. I like having fun.”
Having a good time wasn’t the only benefit Rampage afforded Morgan. The film’s recent world premiere marked the first time his young son with actress Hilarie Burton could watch anything he’s been in.
“He’s not going to enjoy like P.S. I Love You or The Good Wife,” jokes Morgan. “I didn’t even think of this when I was shooting the film, but the coolest part of anything was that two hours spent lost in this massive movie through an 8-year-old’s eyes who gets to see his dad do something different — that’s cool.”
Rampage, which also stars Naomie Harris and Joe Manganiello, is in theaters now.