Jeffrey Dean Morgan has always been a very busy actor, but as 2015 came to a close, his career warped into light speed hyperdrive.
Most fans remember him fondly from his twelve episodes on “Supernatural” playing John Winchester, but while he was shooting the CW record-breaking show, Morgan was also filming “Grey’s Anatomy.” Both shows put him on the map where fans would recognize him. He frustrated “Supernatural” fans as the Winchester Brothers never could seem to unravel all of their father’s secrets, but who could resist that grin?
You’d think that would have been reaching the pinnacle of his success, but that was only just the beginning that kept Morgan busy becoming that guy you sometimes got confused with actor Javier Bardem.
His luck was getting better as he landed quite the juicy role on the New York set of “The Good Wife” where he played Alicia Florrick’s funloving cad who loved flashing that devilish grin at his co-star Julianna Margulies. He was on that series for nineteen episodes, but things were changing as AMC’s huge hit show came calling for him to play the over the top bad guy Negan.
During his “Good Wife” time he was also jetting down to the Georgia to sink his teeth into that pure evil role for the Season 6 finale of “The Walking Dead.” Not to mention getting acquainted with Lucy.
After years of fans wondering who would play the role, Morgan had landed Negan, that grinning, swaggering bully who, with his co-dependent worker bees, began terrorizing Rick Grimes (series star Andrew Lincoln) and his crew.
While Morgan didn’t know who he would be killing, he knew that it would be a “Walking Dead” favorite meeting their end at the end of Lucy, Negan’s barbed wire wrapped baseball bat. That scene was a two-night shoot, but the producers weren’t about to film who was killed this early in the game as it was of utmost secrecy…although it did slip out before the premiere which we had to report.
It wasn’t until May 2016, when Season 7 production started (just four weeks after that season horrifying Season 6 cliffhanger) when they were back filming that same bloody night did Morgan learn of the shocking reveal. He knew that he would be getting hate mail and plenty of online hate once it aired.
Then 17 million fans watched the Season 7 premiere to witness two of their most loved characters, Abraham and Glenn, get their skulls pounded beyond recognition. The reaction was as expected and then some as many felt the show had gone too far. The scene with Glenn’s eye was extremely gruesome, even for “The Walking Dead.”
The producers said they needed to establish Negan as one hardcore nasty guy that could tear tough guys, Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, down to levels they’d never felt before. This one scene divided fans, and they are still split on their feeling of Negan.
Some feel he’s too cartoonish now, while others can’t find themselves wanting to hate Sam and Dean Winchester’s father. Some “Supernatural” fans aren’t ready to let go of Dean Winchester yet.
Ratings have dropped since the premiere episode with some wanting Negan gone, but for that group, Morgan’s going to be around for a while yet to keep the carnage going. Producers have said the violence won’t be as extreme coming back, but it’s not just the violence that makes Negan’s actions so uncomfortable.
Playing such a polarizing character can be a blessing for the actor who plays him, but it can be mixed.
“There are people out there who hate my guts, and I hear from them, too,” says Morgan with that knowing laugh in a recent interview. “But overwhelmingly the fans have welcomed me as a part of this weird, dysfunctional family.
“The relationship this show has with its fans,” he adds, “is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”
Morgan officially began acting in the early 1990’s, but he’s not forgotten his very first role and the struggle that all actors go through on their way to landing that role that changes your life.
“It was in third grade, and it was a fairytale, the guy that falls asleep forever … I remember I played the character that was asleep the whole time. I was the big leader of the show, mind you. But I spent the whole time lying on the floor asleep. It was awesome. That was first little theater thing in third grade. A friend of mine, Billy Burke, was my roommate in Seattle for a big portion of my life, and he’s an actor—he was in all of the Twilight movies, and now he’s on something called Zoo—and he was doing a movie in Seattle, I think it was the late ’80s, and I was an extra as his best friend. That was my first time on a movie set. I had no intention of being an actor ever. I was an artist—I fancied myself an artist—I sold paintings at bars to pay my rent. And then four years later, I moved to Los Angeles and met a casting director named Eliza [Roberts] and went from there. Then I spent 20 years struggling trying to figure out how the fuck I was going to make a living and feed my dog. And now we’re doing okay. Now we’re Negan.”
He’s played many memorable characters on tv shows that got fans worked up. John Winchester had so many secrets, some “Supernatural” fans and critics would get rather frustrated trying to figure out exactly what he was about. Morgan is still such a fan favorite that “Supernatural” Executive Producer Andrew Dabb let it be known that John Winchester could return to Sam and Dean’s world.
“I don’t really worry about that because by the time he comes back, I’m sure [Supernatural] will have been on for 20 seasons at that point, and The Walking Dead will be long over,” he says with a laugh before noting that “Jeffrey’s an amazing actor… He plays such a great bad guy. But at the same time… if you give him really good material, he can go back to being someone we know and love and someone we can empathize with.
“I have full faith in him as an actor,” the EP adds, “and I’m excited to see [him return as John] if it ever comes to pass.”
Since he’s played his share of villains, some people have forgotten that he’s also played many good guy roles too.
“If you look at my résumé, I’ve more often than not played a very solid, decent human being. I’ve got back-to-back things that are super villainous right now with Desierto and this. I love playing a villain. I think that there’s something freeing about that, and it’s a different kind of challenge. More than anything, for me as an actor, it’s about challenging myself and doing as many different things as I can. I don’t know that I feel comfortable playing a villain; as a matter of fact I probably don’t feel comfortable, which is why I like it so much. It’s just an opportunity to try something different. And Negan, in particular, is unlike any character I’ve ever played. I don’t ever look at these guys as villains per se; I always try to figure out, I wouldn’t say the justification of them, but look for the reasons that Negan is Negan. I have to understand that, otherwise I don’t think it works if I just play him as a bad guy—I think that’s pretty one note and it would be boring for you as a viewer, and it wouldn’t be that fun for me to play. So I just try to get into that character’s skin as much as I can, and understand why he is who he is. Negan is a trip though, man. He’s a brutal son of a bitch, but there are also parts about him that I find kind of endearing. We’ll see if the audience responds to it. I think that the first episode is going to be rough, and people aren’t going to be real fond of me or Negan, and I think as time wears on and you get to know him a little bit more and understand his way of thinking, there could be a shift in that. Maybe they’ll love to hate him as opposed to just hating him.”
His many credits include love-her-and-leave-her freelance gumshoe Jason Crouse on “The Good Wife,” a memorable stint on “Supernatural,” two seasons as the harried Miami hotel mogul on “Magic City,” and – keeping “Grey’s Anatomy” devotees sobbing – as Izzie’s bedridden lover who was desperately awaiting a heart transplant.
Not one of these roles prepared him for “The Walking Dead” fan base.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” says Morgan, who comes across much like you would expect with an easygoing manner and quite the magnetic smile. “I can’t walk down the street anymore. I got to look in my rear-view mirror to make sure I’m not being followed home. Now, that’s all part of my reality.”
Morgan was quick to learn that “Walking Dead” family can work as tightly, sometimes ever better than, the CIA when it comes to keeping things under wraps down in the depths of Georgia.
“Everything,” he marvels, “is shrouded in secrecy. We kind of live in a bubble. I hang out a lot with Reedus—Norman—we spend a lot of time together. Literally, we go to a fucking gas station in the middle of nowhere and within three minutes of us stopping to get gas, a couple of phone calls that people make, and there’s 100 people blocking us, and we can’t get out. We take pictures with everyone, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that. That being said, we do live in a bubble, as long as we keep our motorcycle helmets on and go about our business. ”
Since Morgan knew he was entering a very tight-knit cast that would soon be minus two major ones, he also knew there would be a shift in the dynamic upon his arrival.
“Obviously, they’re such a tight cast, and we’ve all heard stories about it and read about it for the last six years—even I had heard it was like that—and they certainly are. I knew that immediately walking in, and knowing what I’m about to do, there was a little bit of separation at first, but it was very brief. I can’t tell you how great this cast is as far as bringing me into the fold, regardless of what my character has done and done to this show. They’ve totally embraced me and been nothing but supportive, on and off camera. Look, we’ve had some hard times—just as actors it’s been hard—and I understand that there’s been a great deal of pain for these guys as people. They’re losing a friend that’s been with them for a long fucking time. So it was a hard time initially, at first especially, and this year we’ve had some speed bumps as far as that kind of stuff. But I’ll tell you, as soon as we say cut, there’s lots of hugs going around for everybody, and we’ve managed to get through it. But it was a little a weird going in initially when I didn’t know anybody really. I was careful not to be a dick, I guess. [laughs] Like, “Don’t say anything inappropriate, Jeff.” Now I can be inappropriate and tell jokes, and it’s fine, but I was careful going in, because it was a fragile time for everybody, and I was very aware of it.”
That one horrific kill scene that Negan strutting and brandishing his bat, “Lucille,” as he taunted Grimes and company with “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”: Each character was separately filmed being kill which was to help keep the “real” victim’s identity a big secret, according to Morgan.
Morgan learned that “The Walking Dead” producers also enjoy the art of misinformation too, “we leaked footage of me killing Maggie,” whose quite vibrant and ready to take over. “That’s a lot of time and effort to go through to try to save your story. But the cast and crew, they’re all used to living in this world.
“There’s a real sense of family when you go through an experience like this,” Morgan says. “It’s why the cast is so tight. We put ourselves in this bubble while we’re shooting – and while we’re NOT shooting. Even now, I have to watch every word I say. I’m still not used to that.”
Speaking of family, have you felt Norman’s pranks yet?
[laughs] “No. Little stuff, but that’s really the two of them, Andy [Lincoln] and Norman. I drive a motorcycle, and Norman will respect the motorcycle more than anything else. We’re more in cahoots than anything else at this point, although I do kind of feel bad for Andy. I feel like I need to get Andy’s back and help him get Norman at least once real good.”
Like many actors coming on the show, Morgan was a huge fan of the “Walking Dead” comics as well so he was well-versed in Negan before he even knew he’d be part of the family.
“I’d watched the show for years. It was one of the few shows that I would DVR and pay attention to; I’ve been working so much the last few years that I don’t watch anything very regularly, but that was one of them. I’ve also been involved in lots of comic book stuff; I’ve done numerous films based on comic books and TV shows. I remember five years ago when they had written the role of Negan—when [Robert] Kirkman first introduced Negan in the comic books—I was at a Comic-Con actually, I think it was in San Diego, when somebody came up to me and said, “Have you seen Kirkman’s new book?” I said, “No,” and they said, “There’s this character Negan. You should be Negan.” Probably three or four months later, I actually did pick up a copy of The Walking Dead comic book, which at that point I hadn’t read; I had only followed the show. I picked up the introduction of Negan and thought, “Oh yeah, that would be fun to play.” Cut to five years later, I was doing The Good Wife and got a call one night from my agent who said, “The Walking Dead is offering you the role of a villain.” I said, “Well, what’s his name?” And they were like, “You know, they won’t tell us, it’s a secret.” And I knew immediately—I knew because I watched the show and knew where we were—and I’m like, “It’s fucking Negan! And I’m going to fucking do it.” [laughs] And really that was it. Then it was just about working that last episode last year into the schedule that I was doing on The Good Wife, and clearing a couple of days so I could go do it. We managed to do that and now here we are.”
Many fans still don’t realize that Negan’s backstory is he was a high school teacher and ping-pong coach.
“That’s right. That changed; Kirkman originally had said he was a used car salesman previous to the zombie apocalypse, and that made sense to me too. Then after I was cast, Kirkman decided he would do a kind of prequel—Negan’s life before the apocalypse hit—with a little background on him. He became this PE teacher and ping-pong coach, married to a woman named Lucille, and it gave a good foundation for me to work on. I kind of like the ping-pong coach aspect; it somehow fits, and I don’t know how because Negan is a weird character, but it fits.”
“I find him fascinating,” Morgan says. “The most important thing to realize is how smart he is. That’s easy to forget, because you see him come on with his bravado and the smart-ass quips. But whatever you’re thinking, he’s already two steps ahead of you. He’s always poking at your rib cage and wearing that grin. Remember those assholes in high school? He’s that guy! But on this show, you can’t run home to mama.
“He’s a larger-than-life character,” Morgan sums up with pleasure. “Still, at some point, Negan’s gonna have to get his head cracked by Rick. I can’t say when, or how, or even if I know. But he’s gonna HAVE to!”
This really makes Morgan light up as he knows it’s going to be a killer scene to shoot shrouded in plenty of “Walking Dead” secrecy.