Lennie James was filled with dread after being summoned to the house of Scott M.Gimple, the showrunner of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” several months ago. As he drove, he wondered if he would get out alive.
Actually, the actor was pretty sure that he wouldn’t be physically harmed during the visit with Gimple. But he was tremendously worried about the fate of Morgan Jones, the stick-wielding warrior he plays on the zombie apocalypse drama. James knew that even the most beloved “Walking Dead” characters can meet a sudden and violent end.
“I walked into the house feeling like the hangman was behind me,” James said.
But instead of joining the ranks of “The Walking Dead” causalities, Gimple gave James surprising news of a different sort: Morgan, one of the most popular characters on the series, was indeed leaving “The Walking Dead.” But instead of dying, Morgan would join the show’s spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead.”
The character crossover — the first for the franchise — will occur April 15 when the eighth season finale of “The Walking Dead” and the fourth season opener of “Fear the Walking Dead” air back-to-back.
Said James as he sat recently in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant: “I drove home after talking to Scott and gradually let it settle in. And it seems like it made perfect sense.”
Have stick will travel.
Morgan’s simultaneous departure and arrival was engineered by Gimple, who left his showrunner post on “The Walking Dead” for the newly created post of “chief content officer” for TV’s “The Walking Dead” universe, overseeing the original series, the spinoff and future related projects.
While sad to leave his colleagues on “The Walking Dead,” James said he was creatively inspired by going to another series that will explore many of the same elements as the original while giving him the opportunity to further develop Morgan.
“I’m very protective of Morgan as a character, and I’m very interested to see where this is going to take him,” he said. “I’m buoyed by the things he will get to explore, and I’m excited as an actor.”
And naturally, he will be taking his ever-present weapon with him.
“Have stick will travel,” he quipped, referencing the formidable wooden stick Morgan wields with uncanny skill and force as he fights off adversaries, both human and nonhuman.
James and his onscreen alter-ego have been central to “The Walking Dead” for most of its run. He was introduced in the drama’s premiere as the survivor who tells sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), newly awakened from a coma, that an apocalypse has wiped out the population — and that flesh-eating zombies roam the earth.
Fans have embraced Morgan because of his philosophy of favoring nonviolence in a violent world. “Morgan is a lot braver that me. He’s got this zeal, this determination,” James said. The show has also boosted James’ popularity, particularly when the show’s devotees discovered that the veteran actor is actually British. (He plays Morgan with an American accent.)
In the early days of the series, Morgan loses his wife and child. After almost going insane, he becomes more grounded with his growing attachment to the group of survivors headed by Grimes.
But in the past few seasons, the relentless brutality, the violent loss of loved ones and other forces have pushed him to the brink, steering him toward madness. Consumed by darkness, he has become increasingly alienated from his comrades.
“He’s already lost his wife and child, so the darkness is inevitable,” James said. “But he’s been to his rock bottom. He knows he has to do something about that.”
Although it’s been highly publicized that Morgan is going from one “Walking Dead” series to another, producers are keeping the circumstances behind the transition under wraps. But it’s clear from his entrance into a new environment that the challenges facing Morgan are far from over.
“Fear the Walking Dead” is centered primarily on Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her family, who had to flee Los Angeles when the undead began to take over the metropolis. The new season of the spinoff takes place in Texas. (“The Walking Dead” is set in Atlanta.)
Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, the new showrunners of the spinoff, said that many of the themes the series addressed this season — isolation, loss. grief and survival — fit in perfectly with Morgan’s journey.
“Scott told us that the space where Morgan is now fits in perfectly with where we’re going,” said Chambliss. “It became inevitable that we would be coming together. Morgan is the perfect character to take this family further.”
“Both of us are such huge fans of Morgan, and of Lennie’s performance,” Goldberg said. “When we first sat down with him, we could see immediately that he knew Morgan inside and out. He was very adamant that we not repeat what he had done on ‘The Walking Dead.’ He really wants to honor the character and go on a new path.”
Before departing “The Walking Dead,” James was the guest of honor at one of the show’s infamous “death dinners,” held whenever a cast member leaves the series. “I thought I would get through it with dry eyes,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”
Now he’s looking forward to Morgan’s new adventures.
“I’m really happy with what I’ve done on the show,” said James, “and I have such enthusiasm for where Morgan is going. He’s got a new lease on life. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.”
‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Fear the Walking Dead’
When: 9 and 10:10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)