AMC’s The Walking Dead ended season six by introducing the new villain, Negan (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his weapon of choice: a baseball bat named Lucille. The season finale left off with key members of Rick’s band of zombie apocalypse survivors kneeling in front of Negan and waiting to find out who he would kill as revenge for Rick’s people killing some of his men. One – or more – of Rick’s group will be meeting their death most likely on the first episode of season seven, and at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con the cast gathered for a press conference to discuss the season six finale and their new cast member, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And while they didn’t spill the beans on who will bite the dust, they did provide details on shooting that scene and Morgan talked about joining the cast of the hit series and being immediately welcomed.
Season seven of The Walking Dead will premiere on Sunday, October 23, 2016 at 9pm ET/PT.
The Walking Dead Press Conference:
What reaction have you gotten from fans? Are they telling you they hope your character doesn’t get killed off?
Ross Marquand: “It’s still ongoing. I think every time you post a photo that’s even somewhat related to the show, I think all of us have had people saying, ‘I hope it’s not you. I hope it’s not you.'”
Josh McDermitt: “I think Eugene has gotten to a great point in his life and the fans recognize that and they say, ‘I really hope it’s not Eugene because he’s got this new amount of confidence and we want to see him continue.’ That’s great to have people rallying around your character. But at the same time, it’s kind of beautiful. Maybe only one or two instances where I’ve ever seen, ‘Well, I hope it’s so and so.’ That was Christian’s Twitter. But what’s going on is everybody has their favorites, but really they just don’t want to see anybody go. So the fan base is rallying around everybody, even though there’s the favorites and stuff like that. It’s beautiful to share that.”
What were the complications of deciding who would be Negan’s victim?
Greg Nicotero: “I think the biggest challenge is you know it’s coming. Ever since issue 100, we were at breakfast four years ago today when that issue was out. I remember reading it and just thinking how brutal and unexpected and senseless it felt. So we’re going into that moment where we know it’s going to happen. I think that is the trickiest aspect of the first episode is living up to, number one, the expectation of that moment and then what’s even more interesting for me as the director of the episode was how that changes the direction of the survivors forever. When we shot the episode, that to me was as critical as the actual moment which is the five minutes after, the 10 minutes after, the 20 minutes after. When the smoke clears in the battlefield sort of scenario. So it’s a fascinating exercise in emotion because shock and denial, all these things play into it. It was a master class in acting from these people right here to watch on a daily basis, but every time you get the outlines of the scripts, or Scott and the writers pitch, you never want to hear that it’s coming. I think the trick with this particular episode is everybody knows it’s coming. So it’s agonizing to think about the fact that we’re changing the landscape of our cast.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “But they’re adding another cast member.”
Greg Nicotero: “I said changing the landscape. I didn’t say taking anybody away.”
Gale Anne Hurd: “So many of us are so familiar with the comic book, know all of this, but for those fans who aren’t, the introduction of Negan is so important because they don’t have the expectation already from the comic book. They get to see him and experience him in the comic books now being expanded from the end of season six into the beginning of season seven. It really sets up just what a formidable, but somehow incredibly charming character Negan is. We just get really up close and personal with Lucille. For those of you who don’t even know who Lucille was, by the end of seven, they will know that Lucille is a very close friend of Negan’s and also an inanimate object, a baseball bat.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “Inanimate to some.”
David Alpert: “This comes up a lot and this has been a serious conversation for us. Two things. One is if a character is killed off the show and it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t upset somebody, then we weren’t doing our jobs making a show that people care about. The other aspect is that we try to make that promise that death is not done for arbitrary reasons. There’s no reason someone is killed off just because we need a plot point. We try to take that seriously but at the same time do it in a way that fulfills the organic nature of the story.”
Jeffrey, how has your experience been with fans?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “Right now, this Comic Con is going to be okay. It has been. I think next year it could be a little different. That’s what I think. I think next year’s gonna be a salute of middle fingers and language when I come out onto the stage but right now it’s been great and being with these guys, because I know it’s a hard deal. It’s what the show is drawn to. It’s been hard. Being the cause of that in kind of a way it also has sucked. That being said, I feel like I’ve been embraced by the cast and I sure embrace them. But it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard until it’s not anymore and I don’t know when that’s going to be.”
Greg Nicotero: “I’ll tell you too, the two nights that we shot that last sequence, Jeffrey was still finishing The Good Wife, flew in, one day of costume fittings. We shot that entire 12 page dialogue scene and you would think about just how you have to prepare for that. He nailed it. It was really amazing to watch. On the DVD, the Blu-ray, we have the alternate dialogue from the comic book which he says f*** every three words. But it was amazing and these guys who were literally sitting on their knees watching them go back and forth, when I would say cut, they’d get up and be like, ‘That was f***ing great, man.’ The cast really surrounded him and brought him in. We’re so lucky.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “Not only are they on their knees but they were acting their asses off. To do that and be that vulnerable for a guy that’s just walking in to turn the show upside down is a testament to everybody sitting up here. I’ve never seen anything like it. Off camera, the extent that everybody up here went to is amazing.”
What was that moment like when you stepped out of the trailer as this long awaited character?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “I was a little bit nervous going in but I remember right before I walked out of the trailer for the first time, this weird calm came over me. Which oddly enough I think the character needs, but I remember it was a spot that I don’t know I’ve ever settled into as an actor before. I torture myself. I don’t sleep the night before. Andy, I know, does the same thing. We’re very hard on ourselves and nothing is f***ing right ever. I remember right before I walked out the door, it was okay. I knew what I had to do. Eerily, it was weird and it’s been like that by the way, the whole time. This role for me is something really special and with everybody here helping, it’s finding it’s cool place.”
Andrew and Chandler, have you felt a smidgen of the trauma the characters have been through with all the loss, losing your co-stars?
Andrew Lincoln: “You’re too busy with exams, right?”
Chandler Riggs “AP Tests, yeah. It’s been like that every year for the past seven years for both of us, really. Really everyone on this cast, not even just me and Andy, every time we lose someone, it sucks, really sucks. We hate to see them go but, ultimately, what’s most important for the show is the story and these deaths are what keeps the show moving forward.”
Andrew Lincoln: “Honestly, the cool thing is we get to see them at Comic Con all the time anyway. I’m seeing Jon Bernthal tonight and Sarah Wayne Callies tomorrow night. All the dead ones show up here.”
Greg Nicotero: “It is kind of a cool exclusive club that once you’re on set in your character, you’re never out of the club. You’re always part of it. It’s pretty amazing.”
What did you go through prepping for the big scene?
Christian Serratos: That’s kind of like asking Mickey Mouse to take his head off. I don’t know. I feel like we all have our own individual processes. We all have our own way of doing it.”
Andrew Lincoln: “I think we’re lucky on our show because everybody’s really committed to it. There’s just an atmosphere on set that we want to tell the best story every scene. We don’t want to drop a scene and I think that it’s infectious. I think that you get on set and you see somebody emoting and you start forgetting about cameras. I think that the cool thing about it as well is we have a crew that has been incredibly loyal to the show. They’re all filmmakers. They’re all film industry people and they keep coming back to be brutalized in the Georgia heat. They feel the same focus. You feel it on set. There’s an energy that is about just trying to do your best and also being fearless. I think for me, I don’t talk about it because it’s a sacred space in the same way I wouldn’t go, ‘What inspires you?’ You would tell me what inspires you as a writer. I’m sure you probably would far more eloquently than I would ever say, but it is a sacred space. There’s a uniqueness. And, it’s luck and it’s magic and all the cool sh*t that we do. Sometimes you get lucky. In this show, with the cast that we have and the producers, we get lucky a lot.”
Where is Rick emotionally in those last moments with his sense of responsibility and being too confident?
Andrew Lincoln: “I think hubris was very much part of the back eight in Rick. I think it was probably a good strategic, as Danai [Gurira] said in the panel, it was probably the right thing to do but with too much pride behind it. I think he’s powerless for the first time since he woke up from the coma. He’s truly terrified for his and his child’s life and his fellow family. And everything that he’s fought and bled for and had family members die for and everything they’ve worked for two years to get to has been shattered in 24 hours. So it’s not a good look by all accounts. He’s not in a good space. I think if he makes it through the first episode, he will be a different man. He can’t not be.”
Jeffrey, did you go back to the comics?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “The comics only give you so much, obviously. They’re great to have and it’s a wonderful foundation, but with Negan, I was talking to Gale just before we came out here, it’s given me an opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. There’s just not a trace of Jeff in Negan. Usually I can figure out, put myself in there. It’s a good comfort place for me. With Negan it’s what Andy just talked about being fearless. I found myself having to just be fearless. I’d see glimpses of Negan in a comic book. How can I bring that to life? I change the way I move, the inflection in my voice. It’s just turned into this weird thing. Scenes happen and we’ll look at each other and just be like, ‘What was that? What just happened there?’ It just gets seriously weird with Negan around.”
What can we expect from season seven zombies?
Greg Nicotero: “There’s some amazing stuff coming up. We came up with some pretty amazing gags that, again, all serve the story. Anything that happens in the show, we never stop the show to do an elaborate special effect. Everything is very important to the storyline and intrinsic to the storyline. But we also don’t want to see the same zombies every single episode. So my team and I spend a lot of time just finessing things and fine tuning things. Any artist that has an opportunity to revisit something and tweak it and see what they thought worked and didn’t work about it. We’re seven years of doing it. We did a walker on Wednesday on set and my guys were like, ‘This is my favorite walker we’ve done ever since the beginning.’ They still bring the same enthusiasm to the job and that’s critical. I would’ve thought at some point that they were like, ‘F***, do we have to do another zombie?’ But they’re still in it and they’re still committed every day. We take great pride in continuing to push the envelope and put stuff on television that seven years ago, there was nothing like this on TV. From a storytelling standpoint, from an acting standpoint, from a makeup effects standpoint, to me the thing I’m most proud of is when someone will come up to me and say, ‘I want to be a makeup artist because I watch The Walking Dead.’ That’s how I got into it, because of the movies I watched when I was a kid. And the fact that I get to pay that forward to an entire new group of filmmakers is the greatest compliment for me.”
Gale Anne Hurd: “And they’re nominated for an Emmy as are our visual effects guys.”
How does Carl feel about Negan?
Chandler Riggs “He doesn’t like this guy at all.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “Come on!”
Chandler Riggs “Nope. As of the finale, Carl highly dislikes Negan. Just from the Saviors just being jerks of people to begin with and trying to kill his friends and kill his family, they kind of got off to a bad start. I think Carl is one of the only ones in the group in that scene that stands up to Negan and wants to fight along with Abraham and Darryl.”
How much of the war from the books will you bring on screen?
David Alpert: “I think from season one, the goal was always to use the comic as a road map but never make it so that if you read the comic, you would be bored in the show. So that the show has to have a life of its own, the actors, the writers, the directors all bring things to the show that allow it to live and to breathe. What I would say is this season and the plan to come is very much the same in the sense that we’re going to be hitting a lot of the milestones that those of you who are familiar with the comic will recognize. If you saw the trailer, Ezekiel coming is a big thing. Having Shiva, that’s a big thing. That’s not going to play out exactly the same as it did in the comic. There’ll be a lot of swerves. There’ll be things that you don’t expect. There’ll be things that you’ll be like, ‘Oh, I recognize that beat. It was Hershel who had his head cut off outside the prison. That’s a different take on having Tyrese.’ So it’s the same moment done in a different way. There’s going to be a lot of that type of stuff, but it’ll be the same sort of strategy of zigging and zagging around the milestones of the comic.”
Have the two of you talked about how Negan mirrors Rick?
Andrew Lincoln: “I think the blurring of lines between who’s the hero and who’s the villain is part of the DNA of the show. In the same way that the first zombie that I killed, seeing the human behind the monster and the monster behind the human, I think that those are great themes that play out. I would never dare to riff about someone’s character choices when they’re just arriving on set. That’s his business. Of course, you can read into things what you want but I tend not to do it. I tend to react to what’s in front of me. I don’t know about Jeffrey, but that’s my way.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “We talk a lot but not directly about character stuff. That being said, you helped me a couple times through a speed bump or two. It’s been nice.”
Andrew Lincoln: “That’s because it’s hot and you’ve had so many lines to say. It’s like, ‘Dude, what about…?’ It is a collaboration. It feels like everybody’s intention is just for everybody to be frigging awesome every day. That’s what we do for each other. If that means emoting off camera as much as we can just to help their performance, that’s what we do. Hopefully you guys get to feel as well. There’s a quote that’s very pretentious but I’m going to finish upon it. Bertolucci said that film is a very sensitive medium. It captures not only what’s in front of the camera, but all around it. I think that’s true of this show. It’s a good atmosphere. We link arms, we look after each other but we dare as a result, hopefully.”
Christian Serratos: “Yeah, we definitely look out for each other. I remember in 616, I hadn’t even had a conversation with Jeffrey yet. I hadn’t met him but I think we just went straight into it. The camera was going past me and Steven, our little group at the end. As soon as we cut, Jeffrey gave me his hand and helped me up. Even though he plays such an aggressive character, I hadn’t even met him. Maybe if it was a different set or situation, maybe we would keep our distance. I think that really resonates with what family we are and that you were going to fit in so well, that you accepted us so well because we hadn’t said words to each other but we already had that trust. You gave me a hand and I recognized even though he had traumatized me, we still had each other’s back.”
Greg Nicotero: “Jeffrey was kinda geeking out a little bit the first moments. He’s like, ‘That’s Rick Grimes over there.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know who it is. You’re going to ruin his life.'”
Andrew Lincoln: “I remember the first time we were there and he’d just come on set and everybody was kneeling down. We shot this way. The camera’s just set up and there were like eight cameras on you. You just went, ‘Are we doing a rehearsal?’ I looked at him like, ‘You’re on your own, kid.’ And he nailed it in one take. It was amazing. It was so exciting. When you see good actors kicking it, that’s what I love. I don’t watch the show but I get to live it with you guys and it’s beautiful, man. Jeffrey said sometimes you have scenes and you see people breaking down and doing work that is so cool, man, it’s so cool. That’s why I do it. That’s why I get up in the morning.”