'Walking Dead' Star Jeffrey Dean Morgan Looks Toward the "Tough Year" Ahead

The Walking Dead Season 7 Premiere - Negan shadow - H Publicity 2016
Gene Page/AMC

The Saviors have seen better days — their former king chief among them.

In the current status quo of AMC's The Walking Dead, the men and women hailing from the Sanctuary are struggling to survive, even in the midst of a post-apocalyptic renaissance. Despite best efforts from Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) to include the ex-Saviors in his new vision for the future, deep-rooted divisions between them and others in the Alexandria community remain, thanks to the events of "All-Out War." 

No one feels the consequences of the long ago battle more immediately than Negan, the baseball-bat-wielding kingpin played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, currently rotting away in an Alexandrian prison cell. Indeed, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about Negan's arc in season nine, Morgan borrows a page from his character's colorful playbook: "It's been a shit year."

Entirely absent from the premiere, Negan finally made his season nine debut in this past week's "The Bridge," such as it was. The world as Negan currently knows it is the same as he knew it when last viewers saw him: cornered and captured, all out of moves, subject to Rick's mercy. It could be worse; he could have been on the receiving end of Rick's wrath. Certainly, other members of Rick's community would have preferred such an outcome, including Maggie (Lauren Cohan), whose thirst for revenge against Negan remains as strong as ever more than a year after the war.

"It's been a tough year," Morgan reiterates. "It's been hard the last couple of years with Negan kind of putting a damper on some of the fun for our other characters — and this year, it's a completely different spin, certainly."

Luckily for Negan, he won't have to worry about Rick and Maggie for too much longer, as both Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan are set to leave the series at some point in the weeks ahead. Naturally, the man tasked with bringing Negan to life is considerably less enthused about the pending exits of two of the most stalwart Walking Dead actors. It's a blow, Morgan acknowledges, though not as fatal a blow as the ones Negan used to deliver when he had his hands on a certain barbed-wired baseball bat.

"These are things that are not necessarily great, you would think," he tells THR about Lincoln and Cohan leaving the series, "but what it's done is given us a real creative opportunity. It's allowed the story to go places that it never would have been able to go before, and I think the audience is really going to respond to it."

For Morgan, that means expanding Negan's horizons, even as he spends most of his screen time trapped behind bars: "It's been an emotional journey this year, both for me, as well as for Negan. It's not easy just being in the cell. But the great part is that I'm getting to interact with some actors on the show that I haven't gotten to work with."

As the actor explains, most of Negan's scenes throughout Walking Dead thus far have featured actors who are no longer on the show, or are about to leave. Despite the man's imprisonment, Negan's roster of scene partners will grow over the course of season nine, in no small part due to the coming void left by Lincoln.

"It's nice working with some of the regulars and building these relationships out onscreen," Morgan says. "It's a whole new thing. We've seen Negan do the same thing for three years. To be in a new spot emotionally, showing a different side to him? As an actor, I couldn't ask for anything more, for sure."

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