‘The Walking Dead’ Season 9 Cast Interview: Rick’s Departure, Relationships, and Whether Negan Can Be Redeemed

The Walking Dead Season 9

This year’s trip to the San Diego Comic Con was an emotional one for AMC’s The Walking Dead cast. The upcoming season marks Andrew Lincoln’s final season and Lincoln shared how much he’ll miss being on the set and stepping into the character, Rick Grimes, during both a panel with fans and in the series’ press conference.

In addition to Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and executive producers Angela Kang, Scott M. Gimple, and Greg Nicotero made the trek to San Diego for the sold-out pop culture convention. During the press conference, the TWD gang discussed the time jump, evolving relationships between characters, and what Andrew Lincoln’s meant to his fellow cast members.

The Walking Dead season nine will premiere on October 7, 2018.

Is there a way for a character to leave this world without being killed off and would you want it that way?

Andrew Lincoln: “I think Lennie James is a perfect example of leaving without dying and doing rather well on it. I just saw him about five minutes ago and he looks incredibly healthy. He looks terrific. So, yes, there is that way. And then there is obviously the other way, which we’ve done quite a lot. And obviously I’m not going to tell you which way… I mean, I prefer the Lennie James of it all. But, I think what we have in store this season is truly remarkable. I’m very, very proud of the work we’ve done.”

Is saying goodbye to Rick difficult?

Andrew Lincoln: “I’ll tell you what, at the end of the panel it sort of hit me a little bit. I got kind of choked up. It’s been nine years of coming here; I love this place and I love seeing the fans, and you’ve been such a vital part of this experience. But, you know, as I said my relationship with Mr. Grimes is far from over.”

Can you talk about the relationships between the characters in the new season?

Greg Nicotero: “I will also say that the level of commitment from the actors…you know, there was a particular scene that Andy and Norman shot together and they rehearsed it over and over again. They spent so much time because we have these great opportunities to put these characters together that have great chemistry that we want to see where their relationships are going. This season so far, we’ve really had the opportunity to explore that.

So, we’re always on the phone talking about scenes and, ‘What do you think about this line? How about this? I love where this is going to go’. It feels like the level of collaboration, the level of dedication… I would walk past our screening room and him and Norman would be in there working on a scene and then it wasn’t shooting for a week but they were just really wanting it to be great. I mean, that was amazing to me to know that still after nine years, these guys care. They want it to be great. They want it to be great for you.”

Andrew Lincoln: “I will say Norman, when he’s not here, I’ll compliment him. He is a truly amazing, instinctive, brilliant actor. I came to America to work with actors like him and he is like the Paul Newman that I will never be. He’s the Steve McQueen. The work that he’s doing this season, along with Danai, Jeffrey, and all the rest of it and LC and the gang, it was a privilege. I got to do scenes with all of my favorite people this season and as a farewell it was the greatest present I could have got. And particularly working with Norman was a real thrill.”

Scott M. Gimple: (Norman arrives.) “Oh, he’s here.”

Andrew Lincoln: “He’s here? He’s a piece of shit and I’ve never liked him.”

When you’re performing the scene in which Michonne reads the letter from Carl wrote, what did you imagine was in the letter?

Danai Gurira: “I had actually written what I believed he would have written me. So, I was reading his words that I wrote. […] We preserved it. It’s that personal thing. Like, she wants Rick to have his personal moment with his letter.

It feels personal to share. I don’t know why. But it’s some of the things that you definitely hear him saying to her in those final moments more elaborated upon. Being the strength and remembering moments that he had with her that could keep him alive for her, though she doesn’t need help with that. But there are key moments that he mentions in the letter like the moments of walking up to Terminus together and re-finding each other. And the things he feels she’s done for his dad and how he needs her to be there for his dad in various ways.

So, there are a whole lot of things in there that really fuel her ability to confront [Rick] and really want him to make that connection again, understand his son’s legacy lives on in that letter in the sense of his final words really being elaborated on. And leaving us both with the same vision for how we step into the next phase and keeping that dream alive and the choices we start to make based on those things. So, I think there are things that paralleled in both the letters that allowed us to come to the same place.”

How long were you thinking about Rick’s exit and how is it to finally take the leap?

Andrew Lincoln: “Well, nine years I was thinking about it because that’s where we live. But, I suppose a lot to do with a conversation Scott and I had a few years ago – maybe in season four – about shape and finding some way to complete something that was never going to be completed. And then not obviously disturbing the mothership.

There was a certain sense that the story has been a man waking up and you’ve experienced this world through one man’s eyes and it opens up into the extended family. Now, what’s exciting for me is the fact that the narrative has been freed up. It’s already been freed up from the beginning of the season. You’ll see the trailer is a different tone.

It feels like the show I always thought we would head toward when we wrapped the pilot. And so, yeah, sure it was something that I started to think about as my children got older and less portable.”

Knowing Rick was leaving, did you feel the need to send him off with bigger and bolder stunts?

Andrew Lincoln: “I mean, they put us all on a horse which was quite formative. That was quite exciting. I don’t really know. I think we were just telling a story and trying to tell the best story we possibly can. I’m really, as everybody has said, Angela has been extraordinary this season and I’ve loved this season so far. I love working with all of my buddies. And as people have mentioned already, it’s a big collaboration.

It feels free again. It feels like it’s opened up the story and the performances are more nuanced I think because of this time jump. It’s been really exciting jumping two years and then having this history, this fractured, sort of fragmented peace. I love this season. I don’t think there’s any desire to try and make it anything but telling the best story possible and to continue the story.”

Danai Gurira: “I think the best way to honor Rick and Andy is to stay true to telling a really honest story and not to go some big, bold place that’s out of the realm of that tone that we’ve been trying to connect to since, he set the tone in the pilot. So, I think definitely the thing that was so exciting about what Angela brought as Andy’s mentioned is the fact that we were able to do that. To find those sort of connections through characters being connected in very different ways this year then we’ve experienced in the past. And go to that very key example that he and Lennie set in that first episode.”

With the time jump will we see Rick going up against Maggie in a power struggle of any sort?

Lauren Cohan: “We’re definitely going to see us in disagreements, but we’re still a family. But, we feel very differently about this. It’s definitely been a pleasure for all of us to work together in pretty deep, pretty powerful scenes. We haven’t all gotten a chance to do that.”

Do you think Negan could be rehabilitated? Can he function within this society?

Jeffrey Dean Morgan: “I think there is. I can’t say that we have shot anything near like that but I think there is. We’re going to find out there’s a very different side of Negan quickly as season nine starts. […] I’ve been given the chance, Negan’s given the chance, to kind of get rid of some people, people on the stage here which is kind of thrill for me. I think we’ll see a different side of him as the season goes on. Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. But I think there’s redemption to be had for Negan.”

The Walking Dead Season 9 Norman Reedus
Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in ‘The Walking Dead’s season 9 episode 1 (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

With Andrew leaving, will you be taking on a larger role?

Norman Reedus: “I think like Danai said, to stay true to Andy and to Rick we’re telling you the true story. The truth. We’ve had a season or two of some chest bumping, you know? Two guys chest bumping and shooting each other but nobody really killed each other. You know what I mean? And it’s the conflicts with that.

This is a very female-driven season right now. And it’s nice to have that happen. The stories are told in a different way. It’s less bravado and more real depth this year. It feels like we’re shooting a Western with feeling. I’m loving this season. But, I don’t know. You can’t take Rick’s place on the show. That’s not even possible. Everybody’s branching off and doing different things but everyone’s playing the same character. Nobody is like the lead now. I don’t think we talk like that on the show.”

What are your thoughts on the season eight finale and the characters turning on Rick?

Greg Nicotero: “You’ve got to remember where we left Maggie at the end of last season. They made a deal in the beginning of the finale that Negan was done. They were going to kill him. So, when Rick spared his life, and Maggie broke down, she broke down because all the sheer emotion of everything that he had done to Glenn and everybody around them, all the pain that Negan had inflicted on everyone. So, Maggie felt betrayed.

That last scene when the camera’s sort of creeping in on her and she’s kind of like, ‘Listen, I’m going to bide my time but that’s not what we agreed to. I’m not down with it.’ And then of course Daryl steps out of the shadows and says, ‘I’m not down with that either.’

If you look at season eight, Daryl was not a fan of Negan. So, clearly, that’s something we saw in the (new) trailer. Maggie relays to Rick one of those lines that we shot in the premiere last year which is Rick said, ‘One of these days, I’m going to be following you.’ And in the trailer we saw Maggie say, ‘You know, you said you were going to follow me but you’re not. You’re not letting me do what I believe in.’

Watch the trailer 60 times, you’re going to know the answer to a lot of these questions because I gave you guys a lot of information as to where people are emotionally. We jump forward in time a little bit and some people…they’re not at each other’s throats but they’re still not really down with the decisions their friends made. They’re still friends, but their friends may not have made the smartest decisions.”

Danai Gurira: “You know, it’s interesting though because I feel like there’s so much tension as a result of that. It’s not all-out grown men fighting each other in a pit with two sticks of whatever. It’s more fraught because it’s people who love each other and it’s people who want to be on the same page but really, really aren’t. And, it’s family. It’s a family feud so it’s actually much, in some ways, scarier. It feels much more volatile and dangerous.”

Norman Reedus: “Way deeper.”

The poster released prior to Comic Con featured fewer characters than past seasons. Is that any indication that the stories are going to narrow and focus on these characters’ relationships?

Angela Kang: “I think this season there were just some really exciting opportunities to feature this core cast that has such deep relationships that we’ve seen develop over years and years and that audiences were really invested in, and that we are invested in as storytellers. There’s this kind of instant emotional history when you see any of these actors in a scene together. This group is the group that has risen up as the leaders of these communities. So, a lot of the story that we’re talking about is how do you rebuild civilization. Like, how do you move on from war?

We’re telling a lot of stories between these people because they are having some differences of opinions. You know, they still love each other as people have said. But, how do you move forward when you really, just fundamentally disagree about how certain things should happen? So, yeah, we delve deeply into these core characters. The scope of the show is huge, it’s epic – just even the art direction alone blows me away. And of course, we’ve always tried to tell great stories for all of our characters. We have an amazing ensemble.

But, you will see a lot more screen time for some of these relationships like Daryl and Carol, and Rick and Maggie, and Michonne and Rick. It’s just really interesting triangulations that we just wanted to dive deep in to some of these relationships because there’s a lot of emotional weight to them.”

Will we ever find out what happened to Heath?

Scott M. Gimple: “The answer to that question is yes, if circumstances play out right.”

What can you say about Alpha and Beta?

Greg Nicotero: “We talked a little bit about the trailer today, knowing that Alpha has been cast. It’s probably safe to say Beta will be close behind. But, I think we’re just concentrating on the new group of people that you saw in the trailer, the new group of folks that are coming in.”

Norman, what’s the state of Daryl and Carol’s relationship?

Norman Reedus: “The two of those characters are so similar. They go on a journey that’s not about them. They interact with each other but it kind of goes down a rabbit hole into something else. It’s funny. When one of those characters goes to ask a favor of one character, the other character needs the favor too. They’re like two magnets; they connect.

It’s a complicated story and one of the episodes this year has a really sweet, heartfelt moment with them. It’s one of my favorite things we shot this season. Those two will forever have each other’s backs forever.

I’m glad we didn’t do an episode early on where we make out behind the bushes. You know what I mean? I’m glad we made it real. I think we played that the right way. We got a lot of heat in the beginning, like, ‘When are they going to hook up?’ But, I’m glad we played it real and it’s turned into a real relationship. She’s one of my best friends, just like all these guys. She’s an amazing actress, super talented and super honest. You can’t go wrong when you’re in a scene with Melissa.”

Can you guys talk about what is your favorite moment of Rick and Michonne’s relationship? And what can we look forward to in season nine?

Andrew Lincoln: “We touched upon it already the fact that we’ve got these combinations of characters together and because of the time jump as well it’s kind of interesting because we’ve had almost two years of peace since the end of the war and that has changed their dynamic, their relationship. And that was, for me, some of my most satisfying scenes with Michonne have been this season just because they’re much deeper, more grounded. It’s just in that new phase of a loving relationship and there’s so much knowledge of one another in it.

I was going to say, I rarely get happy a season. Once a season, I’ll drive home happy with the day’s work. But in the last two weeks of my filming, I drove happy four times. Which is just, I couldn’t believe it. That’s because I got to do scenes with all of these guys here – and Melissa McBride and a few other surprises. The reason I became an actor is to work with…I came to America to work with people like these people here. We don’t get actors like this in Europe. I’m not joking. There’s an ambition. There’s a kind of desire to keep changing and keep pushing themselves which I’ve learned so much in the nine years that I’ve been working with people like this.

Yeah, I love this relationship. Sarah Wayne Callies said that was the hardest thing for her, and I’m realizing it now, is when you put the job down and your deep, loving, friendships stand. They continue but the characters relationships on screen, that’s the depth that you regret.

That’s the bit I’m in shock about. I’m sort of still numb. But yet there’s some great stuff we got to do.”

How tough is it going to be to say goodbye to Andrew Lincoln?

Danai Gurira: “I would say this and I truly mean it and I say it to him as well. Though this is the only show I’ve worked on as a regular, I will say that I truly believe this is the best leading man on television. I do believe that he has made us all better. His leadership, his character, his discipline, his heart, his generosity, his kindness have really paved a path for all of us to understand how to carry on without him, even though it’s extremely painful to as he said, the death of the relationships that happen when Rick exits are very real but at the same time, he’s so equipped us to carry on. Which is what a great leader does.

I just couldn’t be thankful enough for the time I’ve gotten to work with him and learn from him and understand him. It’s been a true joy to get to explore my character’s growth. She grows basically in connection with him, really from the second she meets him. And, you know, saves his ass a bunch. Because she can see the goodness and the strength and the power in this man. How he takes on – this is Rick and Michonne now – how he takes on what he has to take on from a place of understanding what he must do versus any sort of ego or pride. Michonne respects that so much.

I love how nuanced we got to be, even more so in this season. Because of a time of peace, we were able to find moments that we hadn’t really been able to explore before. I’m excited for you all to see that. It’s all heartbreaking as Walking Dead always is, but this is a special kind of heartbreak. The biggest yet, really. It’s been an honor, sir.”

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