Jeffrey Dean Morgan was 'nervous as hell' how wife Hilarie Burton would do on The Walking Dead
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday's episode The Walking Dead, "Here's Negan."
Fans of The Walking Dead — not to mention the actor playing the character in question — have been clamoring for years to have Negan's backstory put on the screen. Yet while the former leader of the Saviors has dispensed snippets of his past in small doses from time to time on TV, the "Here's Negan" TWD comic offshoot had never been directly adapted for the AMC series.
That changed on Sunday's season 10 finale, and changed was the operative word. Writers and producers altered much of the structure and storytelling of how Negan came to power, including how he came across his trademark leather jacket and barbed-wire baseball bat, but the heart of the story remained brutally intact.
The installment showed how Negan transformed himself from a terrible husband who was too busy cheating on his wife to even go to the doctor with her when she got her cancer diagnosis to a devoted spouse and caregiver, doing everything in his power to keep his beloved Lucille alive, even as cancer ravaged her body and zombies ravaged everything outside their bedroom walls.
But his power was not enough. After being away for too long while searching for medicine for his dying wife — partially due to a biker gang that held him captive until he revealed the source of his supply — Negan returned home to find that Lucille had already accepted the inevitable and killed herself. The discovery put Negan in revenge mode, taking his anguish out in ruthless fashion on the bikers who held him up, and launching him on the path that would eventually lead to the Sanctuary and a war with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln).
All in all, it was a heart-wrenching installment, with powerhouse performances from real-life husband and wife Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilarie Burton as the doomed spouses. We spoke to the couple to get their take on the episode — one in which, according to Morgan, every take ended in tears. Which was a relief to the Walking Dead regular, who admits to being more than a bit concerned how the addition of his life partner would play on screen. "I'm not going to lie, I was nervous as hell going in," Morgan says. "I didn't know how she would be. I don't f--- around. I go to work. We better f---ing bring it."
And bring it they did. "It was great," Morgan says. "That first day with her, I went home just like, 'Thank God!'" Read on for more from Burton and Morgan on the emotional roller coaster that was "Here's Negan."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, congratulations, you two. You made a grown man cry. I hope you're both happy.
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: I appreciate that. You sent me a text saying it was the first time you've been moved to tears on the show in 11 seasons, so I was happy.
Hilarie, I spoke with showrunner Angela Kang a while back and I said, "Oh, that's so perfect that Hilarie is playing Lucille because you don't need to worry about the COVID situation and they can have close, intimate scenes and you won't have those safety concerns, so that casting makes so much sense." And she said, "Yeah, it worked out perfectly, but me and Scott Gimple have actually been talking for a while, pre-pandemic, about bringing Hilarie in for this." Had they ever shared that with you? Had you all had any talks before the world fell apart?
HILARIE BURTON: No. Certainly not. I mean, it was a surprise to me and I was excited to do it, but also pretty intimidated, because the mythology of Lucille has been built up so much over the years. It matters a lot in the Negan mythology, and so I wanted it to be great.
MORGAN: Plus, if she had f---ed up, it would not have gone over very well in this house.
BURTON: No. Also, like him, the social media would have a field day with us. Those movies that husbands and wives do together, where it doesn't work, that's brutal. I feel really fortunate that, so far, everybody seems to be into it.
What was your take on Lucille? How did you see her and what did you want to come across from your portrayal?
BURTON: It was definitely already on the page. What was great about Lucille is that, a lot of times when characters, particularly women, get diagnosed with cancer, all of a sudden they're written as these ethereal, angelic creatures.
Lucille maintains her edge throughout the entire thing, which was important to me because the people in our lives who have been touched by cancer didn't lose their personalities. They didn't lose their moxie. In most cases, it makes them bolder and braver. Lucille maintaining that edge was really important to me. She's not a flower. She's a brassy chick, and she certainly could hold her own with Negan.
We've been waiting to see this backstory for so long. It's always been there in the comics, just waiting to be adapted. Jeffrey, how excited were you to finally get to put this on the screen, and then also get to do it with Hilarie?
MORGAN: It was probably the coolest thing I've ever gotten to do. I mean, look, you and I have had conversations about doing "Here's Negan" for five years. There's been discussions. Would it be on the big screen? Would it be a miniseries? I've heard every kind of scenario thrown at us, regarding it.
Then at the same time, in the back of my head, I kind of thought, we're never going to be able to do it. It'll just never happen. We've still got a Rick movie to do, for God's sake. By the time they ever got around to it, they'd have to recast the f---ing thing.
I think the one great thing that came out of COVID were these COVID six episodes. It was a perfect time to put this story in there. It fit, because I don't know how it would have worked in the course of this season, if it would've got in there and being that this is the last one, that would have been kind of the end of it. It worked out. I'm so f---ing thankful, because this is the story I want to tell. I thought it was so important.
I think it's just great to have a character that's three-dimensional. This gives that final side to Negan, that puts the pieces together. Now I think going forward, you've got a character that shouldn't be trifled with. This makes him more dangerous than he was before.
It's an interesting story structure too. It starts in the present. It keeps working backward, so you almost have flashbacks within flashbacks. What was it like getting to play him at a few different stages in this one episode and having to calibrate your performance to all these different situations?
MORGAN: Yeah. It was a challenge. I mean, everything about it was a challenge. The fact that we shot this pretty fast and we had the COVID restrictions that we were battling with. The first thing f---ng thing I shot, the first scene up, was the scene in the bar. The big Negan speech to that guy, so he's back. He's now Negan. He's now season 7 Negan. He has just been born. It was that whole monologue to the bad guy.
That was the first thing that I had in this episode. By the time I got to week 2 of this with Hilarie, we shot all of her stuff in three or four days, I think. We never left the basement that we were in. That was a joy. I couldn't have asked for a cooler deal of working with Hilarie. I'm not going to lie, I was nervous as hell going in. I didn't know how she would be. I don't f--- around. I go to work. We better f---ing bring it. And it was great. That first day with her, I went home just like, "Thank God!"
Look, you're a professional actor and can summon up the feelings you need to summon to make a scene work, but as you're sitting there filming these scenes and watching your onscreen wife die while having your actual wife there across from you, did that make it that much more emotional for you?
MORGAN: I think so, yeah. It definitely helped conjure the emotion. But you know, the thing is, is that when we shot this, I feel like we were just all on the verge of an emotional breakdown anyway, just because of the last year of our lives.
BURTON: It was during the election.
MORGAN: We were f---ng primed and ready. You know what I mean? We never rehearsed. We couldn't even look at each other without like tearing up. It was very interesting. It was weird. Laura Belsey, that directed it, she realized very quickly that "We can't even read the scene with these two." They would just go in and they'd go, "Okay. Where do you think you're going to sit?" That would be it. We wouldn't rehearse. We wouldn't do anything. Then they'd turn the cameras on. Luckily, they would shoot two cameras at the same time, so we would capture the performance in real time with two cameras. We only did one or two takes of everything that you saw. It was great, because we couldn't have done it anymore, by the way. We were just wrecked.
BURTON: I'm going to brag on my husband, because he plays three totally different people in this episode. Three completely different versions of Negan.
MORGAN: I'm like Sybil.
BURTON: You're amazing, and you had to do it with COVID restrictions. We were only allowed to film like 10 hours a day. There was no working the scene out and workshopping. He showed up for every single scene, ready to pull the trigger. I don't know anyone else who could do that. You're extraordinary. I'm proud of you.
Hilarie, why do you think Lucille does takes her own life? Is she just wanting to end this thing on her terms?
BURTON: Yeah. I think she's a really bright woman. I think the second she was diagnosed, she did a whole bunch of internet research, like any of us would. She knew what was coming. Even though she was going through the motions of treatment, she absolutely knew what was coming and had indulged Negan's fantasy that everything was going to be okay, but they'd reached the end.
So rather than force him to make a hard decision, or force him to watch something that would be unbearable, she made a very difficult decision and took it out of his hands. Which, man, there's so many layers to that decision, but being human is tough sometimes. Yeah, these two are an example of that. Everything is tough for these two.
What was it like getting the zombie treatment as you sit there and are trying to eat the love of your life?
BURTON: That was the thing that scared me the most. Jeff knew that, of all the stuff in the script, that's what I was most terrified of, because my biggest fear was that he was going to pull that bag off my head and I was going to be a s----y zombie and he would burst out laughing. I didn't want to ruin the scene by being a tacky zombie. He actually made a phone call, and they gave me a coaching session, and they told me just to act like a drunk toddler, which is like a good vibe. You know? Just kind of wiggling your head around and chomping at stuff. We've got a toddler, so we just studied her. Yeah, that's what we brought.
Lucille asks Negan not to go looking for the medicine. He goes anyway. JDM, do you think he goes because he just needs to try absolutely everything to save her, or is it as he says later when he's talking to that broken baseball bat that he couldn't handle being there to watch her die? Or is it maybe both?
MORGAN: I think both. I certainly understood both scenarios. One being, he's going to do everything and he's not going to stop. He's in a lot of denial. Look what her death does. He needed her, obviously. It would have changed the course of the series had she lived, but he needed her for a lot of different reasons. One, that he loves her and that's sort of the key. He's going to do anything. I think that there's definitely a part of him that didn't want to be around and see her death.
We were talking the other day about this, and every important thing that Lucille was going through, that we see her go through, Negan's not there for. When she goes to the doctor, she's by herself. She has to take her own life, she's by herself. Negan had a way of not being there for the big moments. I think that that dawns on him much later on in life, that he screwed the pooch and he failed the one that he loves. I think we see that at the end, that he understands that he failed her.
I think also, Negan is Negan. He's bullheaded, stubborn, not the brightest guy sometimes. I think at the time, when he leaves that basement, he does think he's going to get the medicine and he's going to keep her alive. I don't doubt that at all, but I think it's important that I acknowledge both, because I think they're both true.
It's such a heavy episode. We know it's going to be a heavy episode going into it, knowing the backstory, which even if you don't read the comics, Negan's spoken about it on the show. But Hilarie, how much fun were the wigs? I hope you were having lots of fun with those wigs on set.
BURTON: Honey, I brought a wig home! Yeah, I did! That was a lot of fun, and that was Jeffrey's idea. We really needed some levity in there. After I kicked his ass in darts, I think he wanted a do-over. The wigs came into play, because when you've been locked up, as we all were for a very long time, before we filmed this episode, you have to find new ways to interact with each other and find levity and the little things. It was a really great set. They gave us a lot to play with, and Jeff looks good in a red wig. That was my favorite.
MORGAN: It was so heavy. Every scene we did, it ended in tears. Every scene was heavy. I just thought that it was important that we could find anything that would show these two laughing.
BURTON: Honey, we were in bed one night and we were like, "Shouldn't we show them liking each other in some way?"
MORGAN: Even in the scene that she's calling him out on the affair and stuff, there just needed to be moments where you see why she liked him. You know what I mean? We were both kind of keenly aware of that. I think we tried to play against a lot of the f---ing drama. Mind you, we still got there, but we tried to play against it as much as we could. We still ended up in tears at the end of each scene, but we certainly were aware and we were trying to make it, in a limited amount of scenes, show this full relationship. That's hard to do in like four scenes, really.
What does it all mean at the end, as Negan's looking back at all this time? Because at the very end we see him come back to Alexandria, he stares down Maggie [Lauren Cohan], and there's that little smile at the end. What does that smile mean?
MORGAN: That has to be wide open to interpretation. I got to say that that really came about because me and Melissa [McBride] were f---ing having fun in that little bit. I was laughing at her. We were just having a good time, in between takes and the whole deal.
My feeling is, Negan's not going to be the guy that can be out in the cabin by himself. So when he goes back and he makes a decision to go back, he's not going to bow down to Maggie. He's going to face this f---ing head-on. I think that little smile to Maggie is just his way of letting her know, "I'm not running from this. I'm not running from you, and here I am." I don't know if there's anything malicious to it. It was just, I was having fun.
And I think after everything he had just gone through, reliving his past, I think he was itching to get a smile out. Negan is f---ing inappropriate at times. That probably was an inappropriate smile, but it somehow worked. I did it other ways too. I did it a lot less jovial as well, but the editors kind of felt the same way I felt. Angela decided that a smile there kind of leaves it a little bit more open to interpretation.
AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.