The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey on keeping secrets and surviving as the Governor

The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey on keeping secrets and surviving as the Governor

The Walking Dead heads into a mid-season finale for season four on December 1, but not without briefly checking in with a character last seen retreating from the show’s third season: Philip “The Governor” Blake. David Morrissey’s return to the show was kept under tight wraps, and The Walking Dead has devoted its last two installments to reintroducing Morrissey’s one-eyed tyrant, filling in the blanks between his disappearance and sudden arrival outside the abandoned prison occupied by the show’s protagonists. As for Morrissey himself, he spent his time outside of zombie-ravaged Georgia filming the AMC pilot Line Of Sight, recording the audio version of a book written by another Morrissey, and informing no one (beyond his wife) about when he was due to strap on the old eye patch again. The A.V. Club spoke to Morrissey about keeping that secret, what the Governor’s recent escapades mean for the character, and the strange thrill of being booed by a crowd of thousands.

The A.V. Club: When did you find out the Governor would be returning for season four?

David Morrissey: Not until the last episode [of season three]. That’s the way it works on the show: You never know until you read the episode. They’re eight-day shoots—we get the next episode four days into our shoot, so on that fourth day, we all disappear to our trailer and read the next episode. I tend to read it backwards to see if I’m still alive. So I didn’t know until they delivered episode 16. I always felt I was going to die, so I was so happy to make it to this season—and hopefully make it to the next.

AVC: How long did you have to keep that secret?

DM: We’re sworn to secrecy until the episode hits the screen. I told my wife, because plans needed to be made for next summer. Everyone wanted to know; it was the one question I got asked—particularly taking my kids to school. The kids didn’t know—I wouldn’t tell them if I was coming back or not.

AVC: What’s it like to keep that secret for so long?

DM: It’s hard. With the fans, a lot of people ask me, but I know they don’t want the answer. They want to spin theories at me, and they want to ask questions about where it’s going. I don’t think they really want the spoilers—they want to find out when everybody finds out. They want that element of surprise, so asking the question isn’t really someone asking for the answer—it’s about them telling me how much they love the show. It’s quite fun, though, people asking me the question—it means that the show is working. People tend to think of The Walking Dead as a “young” show, but that’s not my experience of it walking around the streets. The demographics both from age and class are phenomenal. It’s a show that transcends—and I think its viewing figures show that. It has a broad range of appeal and that was very encouraging to me.

AVC: In spite of the character’s despicable nature, the reaction is typically positive?

DM: It can be positive [Laughs.] in a negative way. I walked out at Comic-Con this year and 10,000 people booed me. And I thought, “Brilliant!” That’s a testament that I’m doing a great job.

AVC: Of the different shades and sides the Governor has shown, which do you find the most compelling to play?

DM: The interesting thing to me as the actor is that it’s the whole package. He does things that are very, very questionable: At the end of season three, I think he went into a traumatic space—he went into a blackout and fired on his own people, and that’s an unforgivable act. But to be able to then take him to a place contrary to that, a man who’s behaving well and doing the best by people and falling in love with people—the fact that both those places are the same man, the challenge for the actor is making sure they’re consistent in his head. Do you believe that the same man could behave in such opposite extremes? I believe you do with the Governor. No one is all wise; no one is all bad. It’s so easy to put people into boxes and champion them or condemn them, but I think that everybody’s got a little of that together.

AVC: So what’s the glue that keeps those parts together?

DM: His desire to survive and protect the people he cares about. His moral decisions inside that are very questionable—what he will do in order to survive and what he will do in order to protect the people he loves. It’s human nature. When you see [“Live Bait”], you see a man who’s given up on humanity, and given up on himself. He just doesn’t have the wherewithal to kill himself. He’s a man who doesn’t want human contact—he’s isolating himself and punishing himself, really. And it’s only until he gets a connection with that little girl—who reminds him of his daughter—and with this woman, that he finally starts awakening and wanting to care and wanting to protect them. And as soon as he wants to do that, and as soon as he engages in that, he’s slightly lost. He knows he will do anything to keep these people alive, and that question of what is the “anything” he will do is where his moral code gets very, very muddy.

AVC: Is that what pushes him to fill the power vacuum in “Dead Weight”?

DM: It’s about where your natural character is. You see it on the sports field all the time. You’ll see guys who go out there and the coach has said to them, “You hang back, you’re playing here, don’t go out here. Stay on defense, don’t go out on offense.” And then you get them out on the pitch, and suddenly they’re right up the field and you’re like, “What are you doing?” It’s impossible for you to be on the back foot sometimes. Some characters have that thing you see in the workplace: Sometimes people are natural leaders. Sometimes people are not natural leaders, but they want to be the leader, and you’re like, “Ah, God, can’t this person tell?” I think the Governor is a natural leader. He’s someone that people will look at and go, “I’m following this guy.” Because he’s a survivor, he’s a winner. And although he’s morally suspect in everything he does, if you want to survive in this world, he’s the one that you might follow.

He sees two things: He sees that Martinez isn’t totally confident in the camp. He’s not totally confident in being able to protect people. You can’t have that little chink of doubt in your mind. He knows that, so he’s got to take control. He doesn’t want control, but he has to. The guy who steps up is just not up to it at all. The Governor just has to step in. He does everything that he can to escape—and he can’t escape. It just keeps dragging him back in, and in the end he has to take the reins and say, “Okay, this is me now.”

AVC: There’s a point in “Dead Weight” where the Governor tells Lily, “Things are about to go very wrong here.” Do you think he can recognize the qualities in other people that he doesn’t like about himself?

DM: Absolutely. I think when he says that, what he means is, “If we stay here, things are going to go wrong with me. Things are going to go wrong with us, because I’m not going to be able to stand aside and let this community fall in danger.” He can’t do that anymore, so let’s get out of here. When he jumps in that car with the girls to drive away, he’s absolutely trying to escape himself. He’s trying to run away from himself—but of course you always take yourself with you wherever you go. He wants to get away from those thoughts, but he’s not allowed to in this world. He’s got to step up to the mark and do what he needs to do. And I think that what he does is very shocking.

AVC: You’ve played a lot of leaders, some who assume power, some who are anointed with power, and some who’ve been elected to power. How does playing the Governor compare to playing Macbeth or a politician like Gordon Brown?

DM: Leadership’s a very interesting question. It’s a mixture of guile and luck and intelligence, but you definitely need the opportunity to open up in front of you. You look at somebody like Lyndon Johnson, who, he’s on his way out, he’s never going to be the president of the United States, the Kennedys want him out—the next minute, Kennedy’s assassination happens, and then there he is. He takes on the mantle and he has to be the president. And those things, there’s something where the opportunity opens up in front of you whether you want it or not, you have to fill the vacuum. Some people can step into that role; other people can’t. You can have all the plans in the world, all the trajectory of “this is what I’m going to do in order to become the leader of this company or this football team or this political party.” But when the opportunity opens up in front of you, how do you take that opportunity? Can you recognize it when it lands at your feet? That’s what makes great political leaders. With the Governor, he recognizes the opportunity—he fights the opportunity at times, but he’s the only man that’s being called up. 

The other question is once they gain the power, how they use the power. The Governor gets really drunk on power. In State Of Play, Stephen Collins gets really drunk on power. For all the good decisions they make for the benefit of their people, sometimes they have to do terrible things in order to keep their overall goodness intact. That’s a moral quicksand. Do I have to kill this guy in cold blood to save these hundred people? They’re the decisions our political leaders are making on an hourly basis, I’d suggest.

AVC: As an actor, how do you get into the headspace of a man convinced he’s a born leader? 

DM: There’s two things to that. The first: It has to be in the writing of the piece I’m in. You can’t shoehorn those things into a bad piece of writing. What’s been very good for me in my career is that I’ve worked with good writers. So what you’re doing is you’re illuminating what’s on the page. And I read a lot of books about leadership. I read a lot about cults: Jim Jones, David Koresh, people like that. But I also read a lot of political biographies, people like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Lincoln. All those things inform you about what it’s like to be a leader. 

Also, the interesting thing about the Governor is that even though it’s a modern-day piece, he’s a leader without Twitter and spin doctors—he’s much more like leaders from bygone days who have to stand on a box and address 200 people in a marketplace. He’s much more of an orator—that’s where his gift suddenly lies, this new situation where he can stand up, make a speech, and the populace will say, “I’m with this guy.”

AVC: The look that the Governor takes on in his days of wandering—long hair and a beard in addition to his eye patch—had people comparing him to Snake Plissken from Escape From New York. You told Rolling Stone he looked like a “thin version of Jerry Garcia.” But there’s another visual analog there, given the Wild West feel of the sequences: Rooster Cogburn from True Grit. Did you feel the Governor becoming a bit of a Western antihero?

DM: There’s certainly an element of the Western to this show. The fact that we all have guns on our hips—it is a gunslinger-like place. Civilization is shutting down; the rule of law has gone out the window. So there is an element to that. But, you know, all stories now you can think of it as the Western antihero—the great, John Ford’s Searchers sort of thing—but you can also think of it as Kurosawa, you can think about it as the British medieval stories. It’s all about those wandering men coming back into town and sorting things out. There is an antihero thing there—but all stories have that, and all legends have that.

AVC: Do you think those archetypal qualities factor into the show’s popularity?

DM: It’s a survival show—it’s about characters surviving. The reason the show’s so popular is that it hasn’t rested on its laurels. It’s pushed the envelope as far as its storytelling is concerned. That sense that no character is safe—that’s what I think the show is really brilliant about. You’re never having the Star Trek moment on this show: Four guys beaming down, three of which are lead characters plus one guy you’ve never seen before. I don’t think he’s making it back to the Enterprise. With our show, you really know that no one’s safe. It’s about asking the fundamental questions: What would you do when the chips are down? How would you survive? Who would you save? What moral decisions would you make? [Those are questions] we all tend to ask ourselves a lot. They’re big questions, and I think The Walking Dead is a forum to explore those big questions.

AVC: You recently recorded the audiobook version of Autobiography, by singer-songwriter and former Smiths frontman Morrissey. As a longtime fan of his, what were you most surprised to learn while reading the book?

DM: He’s always had that tag of “miserable Morrissey,” and he certainly can indulge that side of himself. But his humor is unbelievable. I had to stop reading many times because I was laughing so much. His cutting wit is second to none. Not that that surprised me—the consistency of it is amazing. There’s something Wildean about his writing—his putdowns are genius. It was just constantly jumping out at me. He’s somebody who’s in a place now where he’s very secure in his life and his music and I think that security and that belief in himself comes through in the book. He challenges many things in the book, many aspects of his past. There’s a lot of anger toward the music press, but in such a witty way. I hope I’ve done it justice, because it’s such a wonderful book.

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