'Walking Dead' Star Jeffrey Dean Morgan Doesn't See Negan as a Villain

The actor talks with THR about claims the premiere was too violent and previews what's next for Rick, Daryl and Carl.
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the season-seven premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be," as well as the comic book series it is based on.]

AMC's The Walking Dead is headed into unchartered territory.

The zombie drama based on Robert Kirkman's comic book series is fresh off of killing not one but two key members of Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) group. New villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has arrived with a violent thud — the sound of his wire-covered bat Lucille savagely landing on fan favorites Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). What's more, Negan managed to break Rick — a first in the history of the TV series. Rick and his fellow survivors are now left to answer to Negan — as well as give the head of the brutal Saviors half of everything whenever they come knocking.

THR caught up with Morgan to break down Negan's violence, what he sees in Daryl (Norman Reedus) as well as what's next for Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs).

Where do Negan and Rick go from here? This is not just a reset for Rick's group with these big losses but a season of world building with multiple communities.

We tried to warn people that this was going to turn the show on its ear and we have. That first episode is a good indication of what's to come. Where Negan and Rick go from here is going to be a bit of a chess game for a while. Negan is a move or two ahead of Rick right now. It's not over for Rick. Negan is just starting the breaking-in process of Rick. We have all come to love Rick Grimes for how determined he is and Negan recognizes that as well. He's going to stay on top of Rick for a while to make sure it sticks.

You've said that that you don't view Negan as a villain. Given that Rick killed 20 Saviors in season six, how did you approach Negan's first encounter with his group?

This is Negan's stage and he's a bit of a showman. So when we first see him in episode 16 last year when he steps out of that RV, there's a bit of a show he's putting on for these guys. He has a tendency to milk these moments and he does it for maximum impact, with all of them kneeling before him. That continued Sunday [with the season-seven premiere]. This is part of Negan's thought process of breaking them and he's going to milk this moment first because he's P.T. Barnum and he is running the greatest show on earth and he enjoys that. It's a lot of mental games that he's going to play with the survivors and what we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. The result of what we saw Sunday was very brutal and as we move forward we'll get to know Negan more —there's going to be at least a few scenes where he's not smashing someone's skull in and in those scenes you'll get to know his charisma and wit a little bit more.

Which is so interesting because in the comics, you actually want to like the guy because he is so charismatic.

I love him and love playing him. I don't see him as a villain and I don't know how I can. In this apocalyptic world that The Walking Dead has created, how do you decipher the good versus the bad? Just because we've been following Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon and their crew for the past seven years, they've become the heroes of the show. But if we'd been following Negan and the Saviors for the past seven years and how he became the leader of these people, then he'd be the hero of this show. We've seen people we love on this show do some horrible things over the past six years. And so far, we've seen Negan tap a couple people with a baseball bat (laughing). It's two sides of the same coin, really. There's something about Negan and the way he carries himself and the joy he brings to what he's doing that's different and off-putting.

Negan takes Daryl with him back to the Saviors' compound. What does Negan see in Daryl?

Negan admires that Daryl hit him and sees him as someone that could be a good right-hand man. His intention is to break Daryl and have him become one of his guys, which makes sense. After what Negan does in that lineup, he knows where he's got Rick at a certain point. But he sees something in Daryl and is going to take advantage of that. It's a chess game and Negan is going to do anything he can to get the advantage. Negan having Daryl makes Rick think, too. Negan is playing a couple cards, and you can look at it a couple different ways. Negan always has a couple balls in the air and Daryl is one of them.

Do you think there's a potential to see Daryl take over Dwight's (Austin Amelio) role as his right-hand man?

That's the immediate goal, sure. That's the whole purpose of this thing: Negan is going to make Daryl his guy, otherwise why would he take him?

Now that you've had a lot of time to get to know Negan, is he as big of an ass as he is in the comics?

We've shown a lot more on the TV show than you could in the comics because you're filling in the blanks between those panels. There's more than what we can read in the comics. There's a little difference. You can't have Negan's profanity that comic book readers know. But we're also seeing the wheels turning a little more than we see in the comic. In the premiere, you see that he is thinking moving forward — in this case, "How am I going to break Rick?" With the show, you'll see more of that aspect. In the graphic novel, Negan is a little more open to brutality and more yelling. I need places to go with this character and I'm being very careful and trying not to go over the top and he's an over the top character. This world that The Walking Dead has created where if you have this guy skipping in saying, "F—, f—, f—ety f—" with his red scarf and leather jacket and wielding a baseball bat, you have to be careful that it fits in with that world and I'm keenly aware of that. The differences you'll see, there's much more to see with Negan. You're still going to get those big comic book moments but there's another side of Negan that I get to explore as an actor and bring some 3D qualities that you can't get to see in the comic book.

What's the biggest difference between the Negan in the comics and the AMC incarnation?

The language. In the comic book, Negan's favorite word is every version of f— there could ever be in rapid succession. And you can't do that on AMC. The iconic scenes from the graphic novel, we try to replicate for Blu-ray purposes, which is a lot of work for me trying to figure out the scenes in both ways since my priority is getting it right for the television version. Then we do the Blu-ray version and it's quite colorful. We try to come up with creative replacement words for his f-bombs and that has been amusing. It's tricky for the writers. I always ask why we can't throw in one or two f—s?! If we show the violence that we show, let's just throw in a couple f-bombs! I don't really understand why that has to be a deal breaker.  

What's his relationship like with women? Is his brutality toward women and taking multiple wives something you can do on AMC?

We're going to try. We're not going to lose who Negan is in the comic books because we're on television. It's a tightrope. If you're a fan of the comics, you know his feeling toward women and his wives. There's so much story to tell with Negan and this year is so packed with making The Walking Dead world explode into such a large place as opposed to what it's been in the past six years. There's a lot to get to and we want to remain as loyal as we can to what Kirkman created. My thought on that question is yeah, we're going to try and encompass all of that, including his relationships with women and how he treats them.

Negan was easily able to identify Carl as a future serial killer. What might their relationship look like?

I'm a fan of the graphic novel and one of my favorite things is the relationship Negan has with Carl. I felt moved and totally fascinated by it when I read it and now we're shooting the show and I can't give anything away about where that's going to go or if it's going to go the way of the comic. It's a drawn- out thing. We just met Negan. As a fan of the comic and the guy playing Negan, I'd certainly be pushing for a lot of that relationship to stay intact for the television show.

A lot of viewers — and the PTC — complained that the premiere was too violent. What do you think? 

I think you can't make everybody happy. Look, it's violent. I was kind of surprised by the graphic nature of it. The reason why it seemed so violent as opposed to other things on that show — and there have been some gruesome things on The Walking Dead — is because these are two characters we know and love and it makes it harder. If it was a zombie head being beaten to a pulp we wouldn't have gotten the same complaints. But these are two characters that are loved by everyone and that creates an emotional feeling you don't have otherwise. Some of that ended up being complaints that it's too violent. But it's a lot, no doubt about it. I hope that people don't tune out the show because there's a lot of story to tell and a lot of good storytelling coming up. But it's hard to make everybody happy. A year ago, people were complaining about the f—ing cliffhanger. And now it's too violent. Last year, all they were screaming at is they wanted to see somebody's head bashed in. And now we're showing that and it's too much. It's a raw deal and it's hard to make everybody happy. At the same time, you don't want to freak people out by showing too much. Greg Nicotero directed it, Scott Gimple wrote it and they wanted to stay close to what the graphic novel was. And that's what Negan did: there's your introduction through a grave thing. And people remember it. I get both arguments but I really think it's more because these characters are so loved; it's a testament to Michael and Steven because I don't know that there's more violence than other stuff that has been shown on this show and others.

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