Last season, The Walking Dead’s concluding episode saw the introduction of your character, Negan, and a major cliff-hanger: Negan presumably killing one of the main characters with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. How much did you know at the end of the season?
We ended on that bat coming down. I didn’t know who the victim was at that time. I don’t think anybody in the cast did. Maybe somebody knew, but everyone on the show swears they didn’t. When we came back this year, we picked up directly from there.
How does a show this big keep a major secret like that?
We’ve had to take so many security measures. People will hang out where we shoot and try to fly drones over the sets. It’s a level of crazy I’ve never experienced. We hide people in vans to get to the sets so you don’t know who’s coming and who isn’t. We shoot Alexandria—the place where a lot of the show is set—in a town called Senoia, Georgia. The town has become this big tourist attraction. It has a Walking Dead coffee shop. People come from all over the world to this 15-foot wall and try to get a glimpse of us shooting.
Have you watched the show from the beginning?
I was a fan of the show from when Frank Darabont started it. I was like, Really? A zombie show? How will that fly? And it’s not a zombie show. You get into what the characters are going through and how they interact with each other. The zombies are kind of an added bonus. I’ve been in the comic-book world for a while, from being on Supernatural and in Watchmen. I’ve been going to Comic-Con for one show or another for the past 10 years, and I went this year for The Walking Dead. It was insanity. Hall H holds almost 7,000 people, and it was standing room only. We brought everyone who was in the lineup with Negan at the end of last season.
Has your appearance in that one Walking Dead episode made a difference in your ability to go to Starbucks?
Not yet, but I live in the middle of nowhere here in Atlanta and on a farm in upstate New York. Everyone on the show has said it’s a life-changing experience. I hang out with Norman Reedus, who’s the brother I never had. We go on motorcycle rides in the middle of Alabama or wherever, and we can stop for five minutes and people will converge on him. He can’t go anywhere, and it’s like that for most of the cast.
You’ve seen it up close, and you’re okay with it?
It’s more than I want to deal with. Star magazine has never given a shit about me, and TMZ doesn’t know who I am. The show is going to change all of that, and I don’t know how I feel about it. It hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m already in the process of putting in a ton of security on the farm. After that episode aired, I started seeing weird things in my mailbox and people coming up my driveway to take pictures. The cast members don’t go to the grocery store. They don’t go out to eat. AMC has told them in no uncertain terms that they have to lie low until the premiere. We’ve been given very strict directions on what we can and can’t say between now and then.
You’ve been at this for a long time. When did you start acting?
I was 22 and I’m 50 now, so I’ve been acting for almost 30 years. I wanted to be a graphic artist. I grew up in Seattle. I had been selling paintings in bars to pay my rent. All my friends were musicians in Seattle when grunge was blowing up. I had an actor friend who was moving to L.A., and I went with him. I went to a few auditions and got a part playing a pimp in a Roger Corman movie called Uncaged. I remember driving down Hollywood Boulevard in a Cadillac convertible with a camera mounted to it and thinking, I’ve got this wired, man. I had been there only a month, and I was already the lead in a movie. And then I struggled forever. I didn’t break out until Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural hit, when I was 39 years old.
That must have been a hectic year. What do you remember?
I was doing Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural at the same time, and then they aired at the same time. Zack Snyder was a fan of Grey’s Anatomy and cast me as the Comedian in Watchmen, which was the exact opposite of Denny Duquette. For a while, I would get tackled by women at the grocery store. I was at the Harley dealership yesterday, and a lady knew I was an actor and couldn’t figure out who I was. And all of a sudden, I saw the lightbulb go off: It’s Denny.
Speaking of Harleys, didn’t you and Norman bike up north recently?
We went to Nashville from Atlanta. It’s like four and a half hours if you take the freeways, but we took back roads through the mountains. I have a new bike that has GPS and we just put in “no freeways.” We didn’t care how long it took us, and it was about nine and a half hours each way. Just the two of us. It was great.
I hear you have pet alpacas on your farm. What is an alpaca?
An alpaca is a camelid. They spit at you. They honk at you a little bit. We don’t have enough for a serious wool operation, but we get enough to process it and give to some of our friends. We have Highland cattle that look like woolly mammoths—they’re as big as a Volkswagen—and a calf named Hamilton. We saved two baby ducks that think they’re dogs. And we have chickens. I’m usually outside working on something. We built a workshop and a barn last winter, and we’re doing an addition now. There’s a lot of grass to mow, a lot of snow to plow.
You joined Twitter in August with the handle @JDMorgan, but you haven’t been very active. Do you have an incognito account, or are you just not into social media?
I’ve never had a stealth account, or any account. When we were at Comic-Con this summer, our show-runner, Scott Gimple, said I should get an account so other people wouldn’t pretend to be me on Twitter. I have never really understood social media. I don’t understand how actors complain about privacy and then tweet what they’re having for dinner.
Back to Negan. He says a lot of funny things, like “Pissin’ our pants yet?” Is that all in the script?
This may evolve as we go, but all of my dialogue so far has come almost straight from the comic—way more so than any other character. I want to be careful not to make Negan too cartoony. The world of The Walking Dead is so gritty and dark that I wondered if playing him bigger than life would fit. The dialogue lends itself to going super big, so I’ve had to fit that a lot. Every director who comes in wants to have his Negan moment, and I want to reel it in.
We do the F-bomb take, where every other word is fuck or fucking. It’s so much. I swear like a fucking sailor in real life, and it’s a lot for me. I’ve been trying to make him as realistic as possible in this Walking Dead world and yet keep the larger-than-life comic-book character alive.
TV has a recent history of celebrating antiheroes and other morally ambiguous characters, from Tony Soprano to Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. Do you see Negan as a pure villain?
The introduction of Negan is probably even more straight-up evil, but it’s complicated. Rick Grimes, Andrew Lincoln’s character, has done some horrible things in the past seven years. Negan does horrendous things, but there’s a certain charisma and sense of humor that the audience would feel if they had been following him for the past seven years instead of Grimes. Negan is coming in and blowing apart the show, and he’s a guy people are going to hate.
Was he ever motivated by making the world a better place?
Robert Kirkman, who’s a producer and writes the comic series, sent me the first 48 pages of Negan’s backstory from the comics. I don’t know if it will ever end up in the show, but it’s interesting to see that Negan was a husband and a coach before the apocalypse. He was a physical education teacher. He coached Ping-Pong. [laughs] He ended an affair when his wife, Lucille, got cancer, and he was in the hospital with her when the apocalypse hit. He takes people in and tries to protect them from these zombies. No one listens to him, and they continually die. He becomes this abrasive asshole, this dictator who leads by the threat of violence.
He named the bat he uses to kill people after his wife?
Yeah, Lucille was his wife’s name. There’s a human in there somewhere. That’s the only way I can play a guy like that. I have to approach every scene with him like there’s the possibility of a person in there—the sense of humor, the charisma that shows a sense of who he was.
Who’s your Mount Rushmore of TV villains?
I love, love, loved Ian McShane on Deadwood. David Milch would write these five-page monologues, and McShane had this dark, poetic delivery. Walton Goggins from Justified—so sleazy with that snake-charmer charisma. John Lithgow for Dexter, which was an extraordinary season. And Mads Mikkelsen for Hannibal.
I just hope I’ll be able to walk down the street without people hurling shit at my head.
What makes a villain tick?
To be a good villain, there has to be some unpredictability. With Negan, it’s the unpredictability that you’ll survive the conversation. He can be having a normal conversation with you, and all of a sudden you’re dead. McShane was the same—he could smile and put a bullet in your head. A good villain has to be smart, and Negan is always a move or two ahead of everyone else.
The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have a lot in common: big scale, big stakes, a lot of character work, bravura violent scenes. How do you explain their insane popularity?
It’s such a crapshoot what people will embrace. I love Game of Thrones, and I can’t explain why I love it so much. I got hooked watching Peter Dinklage, who is so, so good. I think they’re character-driven shows. It’s not the zombies and the dragons; people are relating to these characters and how they struggle. A lot of people embrace the violence, but I meet a lot of people who say they don’t watch The Walking Dead because it’s too violent. With our show, and I think with Game of Thrones too, people like the characters and they want to see what happens with them. They’re flipping out now because they have so much time invested in these characters who are part of their lives, and they’re going to lose one of them. I just hope I’ll be able to walk down the street without people hurling shit at my head.
Is The Walking Dead all you have time for, or are you talking about joining any of the major film franchises?
I’m not, but that’s obviously the wave of the future. I’m purely locked into The Walking Dead at this point. I played Thomas Wayne, a small bit, in Batman v Superman, and Zack Snyder and I talked a little about the Flashpoint comic where Thomas Wayne is Batman and is a really dark dude. DC has a lot on its plate right now with all the spin-offs, but that’s a character I would relish playing.
Are you signed to play Negan beyond this season?
Yeah, I’ll be around for a little while. Negan is introduced in issue 100 in the comics, and he’s still in it some 50 issues later. If we keep going at this rate, and if they follow the comic book, that could be three or four seasons. We haven’t had a lot of conversations about what’s ahead, but the show is in a rare position. Unless the audience just totally says “Fuck off,” I think we’ll be around for a while longer. I can honestly tell you—this is no bullshit at all—it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s also the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. There’s no sleepwalking through this character.
Do you want to be 70 years old and still going to Comic-Con for The Walking Dead?
Oh hell yes. What I do for a living is to put myself out there and hope people enjoy my work. The ones who enjoy the work are the ones who go to the conventions, and it’s important to interact with fans. I’ve heard so many stories of people being sick and binge-watching a show or relating to a character, and you meet people and realize it can be a life-changing moment to meet you. It’s a profound thing. It can be very emotional.