Jeffrey Dean Morgan talks 'petrifying' shoot for The Unholy, Walking Dead season finale
The actor speaks to EW about his new horror movie, which was shut down for months because of the pandemic.
In horror film The Unholy (out Friday), Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a journalist who stumbles across the story of a girl (Cricket Brown) who's seemingly channeling the Virgin Mary. This scare machine was directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos and produced by Evil Dead overlord Sam Raimi but, for Morgan, the real frights took place off-screen when the pandemic broke out during the Unholy shoot last spring.
"We were scared — scared to leave the house, much less be on a set with 150 crew members," the actor tells EW, Zooming in from Atlanta, where he's shooting AMC's The Walking Dead. "Everybody was in this boat. It wasn't just me, it was the whole crew. We were all showing up every day petrified."
Below, Morgan talks more about The Unholy, his starring role in Sunday's Walking Dead season finale, and that time he appeared in a zombie musical.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can horror fans expect from The Unholy?
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: I play a guy named Gerry Fenn who is a kind of disgraced journalist — we don't know any of those! He is sent to small town outside of Boston to cover some story. He's working for kind of a rag magazine, and he has gone from doing stories of social importance to now stories where he's trying to get a couple of dollars in his bank account. But what he stumbles upon is something much bigger and he knows it. And so begins the tale of meeting this young girl who has channeled "Mary" somehow. All we know is that it's Mary and we all jump to one conclusion as who that Mary can be. He witnesses what he views to be a miracle and, though he's a sceptic, it turns [out] that it's not bulls---, and then, this is a horror film, obviously things will take a turn, and that's the rollercoaster ride that is The Unholy!
What was the shoot like?
We shot it outside of Boston and the shoot was great, it was very uneventful, until suddenly it was very eventful and this pandemic hit. We'd heard rumblings of COVID but we didn't think it was going to change the world. I remember the first hint that I got that things weren't going to be the same was the NBA canceled its schedule. That was the first thing where I was like, well, that's crazy. I think our film was the last movie on the eastern seaboard to still be shooting. At this point, it was fear. Finally, the movie got shut down. I remember being on the phone with the producers and Sony — we were all on a phone call — and it was, look, we're going to get back in three or four weeks and we'll continue. Cut to eight months later and we finally got back and with many many Zoom calls in between.
When we did go back to finish I wasn't even thinking about the movie, to be honest with you, I was way more concerned with safety protocols. We were also so early back, the only thing that had been shooting at that point was like Jurassic Park, and we kept hearing that people were getting sick, and they were having to shut down production, and so there was all of that. As safe as we were, we still had a positive test when we went back, and so we shut down for another week, and it was a lot of craziness. Somehow, in all of this, was, oh s---, I've still got to do a performance and put it on screen! It was much more COVID-based than it was film-based for a while. But then we got back into the flow. And now, by the way, the only place I feel safe is on sets. They're the safest places to be right now. I mean, here, in Georgia, I test two times a day, every day, for COVID. Back then, though, when we were doing Unholy, it was people in like Hazmat suits running around, and we were very separated. We couldn't get Cary Elwes and Diogo (Morgado), we couldn't get them back for the second half of filming, they were both overseas, and stuck. And so, Evan had to devise a plan to shoot them in their location — Portugal for Diogo and I think Cary was in Scotland — and then put all the actors together in one scene.
That does explain why Cary is wearing a kilt for half of his scenes.
[Laughs] If you know Cary, that's probably a character choice.
The last time we spoke was for another Sam Raimi-produced horror film, The Possession. Are you a fan of the genre, generally?
Yeah. I'm a fan of film, period. I see pretty much everything as it comes out. But I love horror, I love horror. I've got an 11-year-old boy who is absolutely fascinated with horror and so I try to show him things that are okay for him to watch. His mother showed him his first Hitchcock movie yesterday. They watched Psycho yesterday when I was at work and I came home to an 11-year-old talking 500 miles-an-hour about Psycho. He's a future filmmaker, so he's always got his camera out or iPad with him, and has learned to edit. He writes and stars in — as every character — these little horror movies that he makes.
So, yes, I'm a fan of horror, but the horror that I'm more a fan of is Rosemary's Baby, Exorcist, Omen. I'm not a big slasher film guy, even though I do see all of them. I think there's a couple of people that do them really well. Occasionally, I'll stumble on a new filmmaker who has done this brilliant movie of that kind of genre. I just recently saw a movie called Uncle Peckerhead. I've become friendly with the filmmaker. He did it for a budget of like $150,000 and it is brilliant. I don't want to give much away. You should check it out.
I think your first horror credit was a 2004 zombie musical called Dead & Breakfast, which I have not seen. Should I?
[Laughs] It's a very funny movie. This was something a friend of mine, Matthew Leutwyler, directed. Everybody in that movie, we were — we still are — really good friends. We shot it in a house outside of San Francisco. The house was owned, oddly enough, by John Madden, the football guy. We just destroyed this house with gallons and gallons and gallons of blood.
It's got this kind of an amazing cast. It's Ever Carradine, Jeremy Sisto, Erik Palladino. Oz Perkins — Anthony Perkins' son. This is before he really started directing, so we shot this a long time ago. He's so good in it too. It's half-musical, half-horror, all comedy. But it's a very funny movie. It's different to anything you've ever seen before. At one point, all the zombies start doing like a line dance that's reminiscent of a bad Thriller. It was absolutely just some friends getting together and having some fun. And we did.
This Sunday's season finale of The Walking Dead is a big episode for you. Could you tease that a little?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm very proud of it. It's the "Here's Negan" story. If you're a fan of the Walking Dead, or know anything about the Walking Dead, you probably know who Negan is, the character I play. Robert Kirkman, who created this world, this universe, and created Negan, he has a separate story of "Here's Negan" which is how Negan became the man that he is. It's sort of the parallel story to Andy Lincoln's character, of what happens at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. So, we're going to go back in time on Sunday and showing what Negan was doing when the apocalypse first hit.
And a lot of that story revolves around his relationship with his wife Lucille — it's not the baseball bat, it's who the baseball bat is named after — played by my real-life lovely wife Hilarie Barton-Morgan. I always wanted to tell the story and I always wanted her to play Lucille. I had been talking about it for years, and the one benefit I guess of this whole COVID situation was we got to go and tell that story. This was someone I was locked up with in a house for the last year, and we could be together, and tell that story without worrying about someone coughing on me. It was just my wife coughing on me and it worked out great. But it's a great story. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a fun weekend, I hope.
The Unholy stars Katie Aselton and William Sadler and is released Friday. Watch the film's trailer above.
The Walking Dead finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.