SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “The Damned” episode of The Walking Dead.
The latest episode of The Walking Dead featured the alliance working to procure guns at a Saviors armory while also attacking various outposts. But the most shocking moment happened in the final seconds as Rick — distracted and despondent after finding a baby — had a gun turned on him by one of the Saviors. And the man holding that gun was none other than Morales, last seen in season 1 departing from the group with his family for Birmingham, Alabama, while the others made their way to the CDC.
Time (and future episodes) will tell what has happened to Morales and his family since season 1, and how and why friend has now become foe. But we spoke to the actor who plays him, Juan Gabriel Pareja, to find out how his return to the show happened and what it was like coming back to the set seven years later. (Also make sure to check out our episode Q&A with the man who plays Jesus, Tom Payne.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how and when did they reach out to you about coming back to the show?
JUAN GABRIEL PAREJA: As many people know, throughout the years there’s always been speculation and the rumors every year that I was making a return. I also tweeted a picture as kind of a joke side-by-side to Negan saying, “The only thing that’s going to stop a bad guy with a bat is a good guy with a bat,” with a picture of Morales from season 1. But then, I think it might have been in April, I got a call from the casting officers up in Canada reaching out and basically testing the waters to see if there would be any interest on my part to return to the show.
And as I continued as a watcher and a fan of the show, I perhaps a little too eagerly accepted! [Laughs] After they spoke with my reps for a little bit, it was still kind of an up-in-the air thing. It was not a conclusive done deal. It was basically just kind of like, “Well, maybe in two months we might be giving you a call, we just wanted to see if you would be interested if that were the case.”
So we left it at that. It was kind of up in the air, and with that two-month leeway and hoping for the best, I decided to hit the gym hard. I got a trainer, who rocked my world and just transformed me into a new person altogether. I was able to get about two months of hard work in the gym to get ready for that moment, and then sure enough, as the date approached, we got the call saying that yes, it is a done deal. But I was still very much in the dark about to what capacity and to what degree, so it was just a blind step in that direction.
Were there any other points over the past seven years where you thought you might come back?
Back in the day when [Glen Mazarra] was our old showrunner, I had heard that they were working on a possible return story of mine, but it was very informal, kind of casual conversations here and there. And there might have been one other time when it came up, but this was definitely the first official out in this capacity.
So what was it like going back to that set seven years later?
It was pretty remarkable. From the moment I stepped foot on the ground, it was just all the familiar faces, and the production on down to the cast, so it was remarkable to say the least, and a totally brand-new location. Andy had a very welcoming, generous spirit that made us feel like we were picking up from where we left off. It was really nice.
What was it like working with Andrew Lincoln again?
It was terrific. It was like old times. We had several scenes that were just Andy and I early on in the first season, and he just always had such a generous spirit, and a kindness, and an openness that hadn’t changed, and hadn’t diminished or faded whatsoever, so that was really nice to pick up with that dynamic. If you know Andy, you know that he’s got just the kind of sweetest energy, so that was nice. That was very nice to be welcomed by that.
What’s it been like keeping the secret that you would be back on the show?
It’s been borderline unbearable. It’s been really something. That’s been the hardest part, honestly, having to bite my tongue for as long as I have, and then also just seeing the episode myself just a day or two ago. That was really something to actually see that moment up on the screen that had been so many years in the making and so many years coming.
It’s been seven years. How do you get back in the headspace of this character again, or is he so different now that it really doesn’t matter because it’s almost like a completely new character?
I think in many regards that it is a brand-new character ,because as you saw in the episode, the recognition kind of starts to settle into Rick’s eyes and he’s like, “Your name is Morales.” The only thing Morales has to say to that is that was a long time ago, buddy. So he is indeed a different guy, and honestly, even as an actor, there wasn’t a whole lot of prep that I could do because I was kept pretty much in the dark myself until it was go time. And then I had to really just learn the material in that way and just make it happen. There’s not much I really could have done to prepare for that seven-year transition. It’s just a whole new guy altogether.
So before you got this call, had you made up your own story in your head for what happened to Morales?
I had always assumed that Morales was surviving out there and making it work, always hoping for the best, definitely being a survivor. I think we saw that streak in him in the first season. Other than that, man, I just figured he was out there surviving and doing probably some really nasty things in order to survive. I’m kind of naive and optimistic that he was still being a family man, and taking care of his family, and surviving out there in the awful world of The Walking Dead.
Was it nice to get back in that Atlanta heat?
Oh, man, let me tell you: That’s one thing I did not miss.
I know you can’t say much, but what can you tease as far as what we’ll learn about Morales moving forward?
I can’t say too much, but we’ll definitely learn a little bit of a backstory from Morales and what’s been going on with him over the years, and a little bit of what’s lead to his transformation and transition into one of Negan’s men as a Savior.