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Lennie James Talks The Walking Dead And Save Me Too - Exclusive Interview

It all began in The Walking Dead season 1, episode 1, "Days Gone Bye." A recently comatose Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) roams through the literal hell that is the zombie apocalypse. After being mistaken for a walker, a young boy sneaks behind Rick and knocks him over the head with a shovel. Enter the boy's father, Morgan Jones. He looms over Rick, questioning his wounds as he points a gun in his face, but before he can pry an answer — Rick's out cold. Hours later, Rick awakens anew, but the nightmare is far from over. That's when Morgan and his ill-fated son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) inform him about the apocalyptic occurrences that went down during his coma. They also explain to him the dos and don'ts of the new zombie-ravaged world. Rejuvenated, armed, and walker-educated, Rick is back on his feet and sent on his way, all thanks to his new friend Morgan.

Leap forward ten years later and Morgan Jones is still breathing, although not without tragedy, suffering, and several narrow escapes with death. He's had a fascinating character trajectory, to say the least, and has undergone multiple, and sometimes extreme transformations — some so extreme, they received mixed reactions from the fans. During his second appearance, which would take place during the season 3 episode "Clear," he was a shadow of his former self. Triggered by the tragic loss of his son, Morgan spiraled into a deranged hermit. From there, he eventually found his zen and became a peaceful, monk-like warrior, who had a strict "no killing" rule. This moral code didn't vibe well with other trigger-happy survivors, such as Carol Peletier — someone who has no issues making tough calls, even when it comes to putting kids out of their misery ("Look at the flowers," anyone?). This, of course, led to friction between Morgan and other characters, who ultimately butted heads with the nomadic wanderer. Morgan eventually parted ways with Rick Grimes a second time and set out for Texas, leading him to join the cast of Fear the Walking Dead, where the ever-evolving character has now retired his signature wooden staff and transitioned into an axe-wielding gunslinger.

Morgan is played by Lennie James, who you might also recognize as Mister Cotton from Blade Runner 2049. But James isn't just an actor these days — did you know that he's also a critically praised screenwriter as well as a producer? James recently created and starred in Save Me and its current season, Save Me Too, where he plays Nelly Rowe — a down-and-out lush and womanizer who becomes a child trafficking vigilante after his estranged daughter goes missing. The first season of the gripping crime drama received a 100% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and proving that lightning can indeed strike twice, Save Me Too landed the very same honor. But as if acting, writing, and producing weren't enough, James also recently stepped behind the camera and made his directorial debut. He helmed the premiere episode of Fear the Walking Dead's current sixth season.

Looper sat down for an exclusive virtual chat with the busy writer-producer-actor and talked to him about how Save Me came to fruition and how he had to cautiously research the dubious world of the dark internet and child trafficking. And of course, we also talked to him about his most famous character of all, Morgan Jones. He let us in on how he'd like to see that character's story come to a close, and whether he'll one day cross paths with Rick Grimes again.

No one's untouchable in The Walking Dead universe

How often do people call you Morgan when you're out in public? I would imagine it happens often because you've played this character for so long.

Well, I only get called Morgan on set if we're in a scene. I get it every now and then on the street. I get it a lot less now that everybody's wearing masks. I'm very thankful for it.

Morgan, Rick, Daryl, Carol represent the final ties to the first season of The Walking Dead. Do you feel like the character is untouchable at this point and that he's going to make it to the very end when this whole universe comes to an epic conclusion?

I think what happened to Rick and what happened to Carl has proven that no one's untouchable. I think if you asked me before we lost those two and who was untouchable, they certainly would have been on my list. So yeah, no one's untouchable in this universe.

Michael Cudlitz, who plays Abraham, went on to direct a few episodes of The Walking Dead. You recently directed your first episode of Fear the Walking Dead. What was that duality like? Being both an actor and a director on that set for the very first time?

It's a big flip, actually. I mean, I've said that before it, but going from one side of the camera to the other is a massive change and I wasn't prepared — well, I was absolutely prepared for it, but I was surprised by just how much your perspective is different from one place to the other. So that was one of my biggest takeaways and one of my biggest surprises.

Would you like to direct further episodes of the series now that you have a taste of it?

If they'll let me, I think I have to direct at least one more, just so I can see what I learned from the first one I directed. So, at least one more, but I can't say anything beyond that.

In the current season of Fear the Walking Dead, Virginia is the main villain. The future's been female lately in the world of Walking Dead villains. You have Elizabeth in World Beyond, we've had Alpha in The Walking Dead. For you, what's unique about Virginia and where does she stand on your list of favorite villains in that universe?

I think what's unique about her is how disarming she is; her power, her influence and her control. It's very much in key. It's not based on the big white gun that she carries in her hand or anything overtly masculine. I think that she's up there with one of my personal favorites. I also think the way that [actress] Colby Minifie plays her has completely encompassed exactly who she is and why she has the power that she has.

Morgan's ending should be 'an utter and complete surprise.'

You have played this character for a decade now. At this point, you know him inside and out, so when it comes to the writer's room and they have story ideas about Morgan, do you have a say in that? Do you offer input or make suggestions about the dialogue when a script comes in? I'm just wondering how much creative freedom you have when it comes to suggesting ideas to the writers.

We're lucky here. The writers are very collaborative and open and they're all aware that we have a shared knowledge of the character. Some of us have a shared knowledge of the characters that we're playing because we'd been playing them as I have or connected to them for a long time. So, there was always a consultation period, a meeting, a phone call, a Zoom. If there's going to be something big or not even big, actually. At the beginning of most seasons, we sit down with the show runners and we talk about what's going to happen to the characters over the season and you're part of the conversation. And then, when the episode or the episodes come up, where there is something that's focusing on your character, you're included in the conversation.

Do you have your own vision for Morgan's ending? Do you want him to go out with a bang and have this big, heroic death or do you want him to have a happy ending?

I'd like an ending that's in keeping with the character and in keeping with his legacy in this universe, really. I don't know what that is. It's not really my job to come up with it, I don't even know how he goes in the comic books or how he went down, but I hope it's something that keeps in line with who he's been to this universe. If anything, I'd quite like it just to be an utter and complete surprise that comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with anything. He wakes up in the morning and forgets where he is and bangs his head and that's it.

He's had a very fascinating journey so far. He started off as a seemingly normal man at the beginning of the zombie outbreak and then we went through the crazy Morgan phase. Then we saw this peaceful monk-like version of Morgan and now we're kind of getting to this cowboy version in the latest season of Fear the Walking Dead. What's been your favorite iteration of the character so far?

They're all the same guy. They're all different facets of the same fellow. I mean, when he is, for lack of a better phrase, crazy Morgan, he is keeping the peaceful warrior at bay and when he's the peaceful warrior, he's keeping crazy Morgan at bay, and so, everything is part of the same guy. They're not different. My enjoyment of playing this guy is that he has so many facets to his personality.

Lennie James wrote and produced Save Me

I was really impressed with one of your latest projects, Save Me, which you wrote and produced. How long was that story brewing and gestating in the back of your mind before you sat behind the keyboard? Did it flood out all at once or was it this a lengthy writing process?

In all honesty, the first episode happened quite quickly. I mean, everything takes its time, but I was asked whether I had an idea on something like on a Wednesday and we were coming up to one of the long weekends. I was filming in Detroit. I had some time to think about it. I came up with the idea, sent it back to London. I think either on the following Monday or Tuesday, after the long weekend in Detroit, I spoke to Anne Mensah, who was the head of Sky, who makes Save Me in the U.K. She liked the idea. She commissioned the first episode. I wrote the first episode in between filming. That maybe took a couple of months, maybe three or four months, because I was splitting my time between acting and writing and then it just kind of happened quite quickly. I think door to door from when I first came up with the idea to when we finished the first series' season was maybe three or four years.

Save Me deals with a lot of heavy subject matter like child trafficking. Did you do a deep dive into that world and do research about the dark internet or read stories about parents who are going through the torment and anguish of losing a child? How much research went into getting you in the mindset of Nelson Rowe?

I put in as much research as I could safely do, as much research as I felt was necessary. You have to be very careful about what you put into your search engine because of what you might get back. So what I did was I would read already written articles around the subject matter. Anything that had a missing kid, anything that had a raid, where people who were being trafficked were mentioned. I would read those articles and then I would extrapolate for what mattered in the telling of my story, because it is a harrowing subject matter but at the same time, I didn't want our telling of our story to be in any way exploitative, either to the subject matter or to the people portraying those subject matters. Our rule of thumb in Save Me is that it doesn't have a direct effect on one of our main characters. We don't see it and if it does... And if one of our main characters doesn't see it, we don't show it and I think we stuck to our rule and were successful in what we set out to do.

We haven't seen the last of Nelly Rowe

Not only do you star in Save Me, but you're also writer and executive producer. With Fear the Walking Dead, you got your first taste of directing. Do you see yourself doing all of it next? Directing, executive producing, writing — doing all of it at once?

I'm surprised because quite a few people think I'm already doing that, but I'm not. I don't know. I mean, that's not the reason why I started directing, it was mostly just a new adventure, something to discover, something to challenge myself and not to get lazy, not to get complacent. So, to see if there's anything more in this fantastic industry that we're in, whether there's anything more I can do, but if an idea comes to me and it comes to me in pitches, then I suppose there's a sense that maybe it's something I should direct. At the moment, I feel like I'm figuring out the actor that I want to be and I'm just figuring out the writer that I want to be and I don't know that I've got the bandwidth to take on boards, trying to navigate the path to being ultimately the director that I want to be, but who knows. Maybe.

Will there be a third season of Save Me? Could Nelly's story go on as long as Morgan's decade-plus journey in The Walking Dead?

Save Me is never going to challenge Walking Dead for longevity. It probably isn't going to even challenge Fear the Walking Dead for longevity. We are talking about a third season. There were a number of other moving parts that may affect it and we haven't come up with the right version of season three yet, but that's not to say that we won't.

There's all this talk about the big Rick Grimes trilogy of movies. Would you like Morgan to reunite with Rick Grimes one day — perhaps in that movie?

I would love to work with Andrew Lincoln again. I had a fantastic time working with him. He's one of the actors that, whatever it is, I'd enjoy doing it again. If it was something in The Walking Dead universe, then absolutely. If it was something outside of the The Walking Dead universe, I'd be equally as keen.

After you transitioned from The Walking Dead to Fear the Walking Dead, what was something you missed the most about being on the flagship series?

The obvious answer is I miss the family and I do, but I also really miss Atlanta. I had a good time in Atlanta and I made friends for life, both inside the show and outside the show and so — I miss Atlanta.