Interview: ‘Walking Dead’ star David Morrissey discusses The Governor

[If you know nothing about the character David Morrissey will be playing on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and *want* to know nothing about the character, this interview can be considered very spoiler-y and you probably wanna read it after watching Sunday (October 28) night’s episode. The reality, though, is that while the interview goes into some depth on the motivations and psychology of Morrissey’s character, it spoils absolutely nothing about what he actually DOES within “The Walking Dead.”]
In his acclaimed career, David Morrissey is no stranger to playing characters of a political persuasion, whether it’s Stephen Collins from “State of Play” or Gordon Brown in “The Deal.”
Morrissey, who probably would prefer you not think of him as the male lead in “Basic Instinct 2,” makes his first appearance on Sunday (October 28) on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” playing a character named The Governor, but fans of Robert Kirkman’s comic series know that The Governor is not a traditional politician, per se. The Governor is the leader of the Woodbury community and… let’s just say that there are some potentially unsavory sides to the character, not that we’re necessarily going to see that side immediately on the TV show.
I sat down with the “Viva Blackpool” and “Meadowlands” (or “Cape Wrath,” if you prefer its superior British title) star three weeks ago to talk about The Governor, who wasn’t in either of the first two episodes sent to critics. 
Like so many actors playing ostensible villains, Morrissey clearly doesn’t interpret The Governor as being a bad guy, or at least not a one-dimensional adversary. In the interview, Morrissey gives his read on The Governor, including several unlikely inspirations for the character. He also discusses his developing Southern accent and his off-screen friendship with “Walking Dead” star Andrew Lincoln.
As I already warned you above, there are spoilers in this interview, but they’re character spoilers more than plot spoilers. You can also check out my interviews with Danai Gurira, producers Gale Anne Hurd & Greg Nicotero, and with producers Robert Kirkman & Glenn Mazzara.
Click through for the full Q&A…
HitFix: You’ve done so much British TV and so much great British TV. What’s taken you so long to find an American TV project you wanted to do?
David Morrissey: Well, I love this show and I came to this show as a fan. I knew it, because I’ve known Andrew [Lincoln] for a long time and, from the pilot, I also knew the actor who played Morgan, Lennie James, who’s a great friend of mine. So I tuned in to the pilot with great interest, because mates of mine were in it and then I loved it. I thought that was a fantastic pilot. It was like a movie. And the show has continued that quality really. And then there’s time-of-life, things like that. My life’s changed in ways that mean that this is possible for me now to come here. And then it was a great show. 
It all happened very quickly. I came to visit a friend of mine in LA and while I was here, my manager said, “The casting directors of ‘Walking Dead’ want to see you.” And I went, “OK.” But I didn’t know the graphic novel at all and they weren’t talking about The Governor at that time. They were talking about, “a character” or “a substantial character,” but because I didn’t know the graphic novel I was like, “OK…” And then it started to get fleshed out and I spoke with Glen Mazzara, the showrunner, and we got on very well. And then it became this character and I was like, “OK…” And even then I didn’t read the graphic novel. And when they gave me the part, I read Robert Kirkman’s book, “The Rise of The Governor,” which is just a wonderful book and that was where my Governor comes from is that book, really. That’s where I’m basing him from.
HitFix: You obviously don’t look at all like the Governor from the graphic novel. Was there any consideration to mixing up your look at all?
David Morrissey: Not really. I think the main thing for me, and for them I think, was that we want to meet my Governor earlier in his journey. When you meet him in the graphic novels, he’s very far down the line of his psychological breakdown, he’s quite out-there as a guy. We meet this Governor much earlier on in his life, I think, earlier on in his genesis. He’s running this community and it’s working. It’s a very, very secure place to be. It’s a place where, in this mad world, you can open your door and your kids can run out into the street and you don’t have to worry about them. That is no mean feat. So he’s done this amazing thing in securing this very wonderful place. It works! It has produce. It has security. It has community, all the things that you want. That slightly comes at a price, because freedom comes at a price in the sense that you have to participate in it, you can’t do anything that threatens that security and woe-betide anybody that does threaten it. So he’s that type of person where he’s very kind to you if you’re kind to him and you abide his rules. but if you don’t then… things will happen.
HitFix: In the graphic novel, he’s very quickly… He’s the villain.
David Morrissey: Yes. He is.
HitFix: Does that mean that we’re gonna see a more sympathetic, kinder version of The Governor, at least at first?
David Morrissey: Yes, you will. But I think that people will have different opinions about him. I think there’s a sense that the rules are different now. In this world, the rules aren’t our rules. If you want to survive, if you want to have some sense of security, then you have to admit to the fact that you can’t jump in a car and go for a ride. You’ve got to enter into the community as a willing participant. But I do think he’s got a side to him where… The pressures of this life can crack you up as well. I would say that a lot of the things that he faces and the decisions that he faces and the tough choices he makes, Rick has been facing them in his community as well, so it’ll be interesting the relationship the audience has with him.
HitFix: Since you were talking about Rick, let’s go back to your friendship with Andrew. How far back do you guys go?
David Morrissey: I’ve known him since he was in drama school. We went to the same drama school, but not at the same time. I’d left before him. So I knew him then and his great friend at drama school was the son of a really good friend of mine, so I’ve known him since he started, really, and I’ve followed his career very closely. And in London, the acting community is quite a small world. It is here in LA, but in London you do tend to meet each other all the time and we have great mutual friends. One of his best friends is a really good friend of mine, so we’ve sorta seen each other for a long time and I’ve admired his work. He did a thing called “This Life,” which was his first big thing and he was just superb in it. It was a great show, Jack Davenport was in it as well, and I loved it. He is a great actor. It’s important to say that. On this show he’s obviously a great actor and delivers on screen, but as a leading actor, he does that job very well. He’s the first guy on set. He’s the last guy to leave. His energy and passion for the show is infectious to all the crew. He really is the proper leading man.
HitFix: And have you guys shared scenes yet?
David Morrissey: Yes. We’ve worked together and it’s been great, really. I have to say that all of the actors, they’re a joy to work with. It’s a really well-run show. It’s not just from the actors’ point-of-view, but the entire crew are tight and I really appreciated that.
HitFix: Going back to building this character up. You’ve played a number of politicians before, people in power, as it were. Are there bits of Gordon Brown in your Governor? Are there bits of Stephen Collins in him?
David Morrissey: I think there’s more Collins than Brown. Playing a real politician like Gordon Brown, he is a man who has been steeped in politics since he was very, very young and his ideology has been borne out of that socialist background. I think The Governor is much more of a man who’s had it thrust upon him. He has arrived in a situation with a group of people and they have, not “elected” him, but it has slightly emerged that he is the one they’re looking to and he’s taken to that role and he loves that role, but it’s not a role that, before the zombie apocalypse, he sought out. I don’t think he was a politician in his previous life. So that is interesting and I think what’s good for me about that is he’s learning as he’s going along and he’s learning how to do this and he’s a natural and that is an interesting thing for him and a very exciting thing for him, that he can take on this role and people look to him.
So unlike Gordon Brown, I don’t think he ever had any desire… I think he had a pretty mundane job beforehand and, in a way, this disaster for everybody else has given him an opportunity. It’s a new change for him and he enjoys the change. So he’s not a naturally born politician. He’s learning as he goes.
HitFix: You said he’s probably more Stephen Collins. And “State of Play” is very much about the things people will do to get power and the things people will do to keep power once they have it… 
David Morrissey: I think the corruption of power is very interesting and I think the idea that power is something that… You know, when people want power, they’re a certain individual. When people acquire power by accident, they’re different again. The idea of when you have power, whether it can corrupt really good people, it can make you do things that you would never imagine that you would do. It’s an aphrodisiac. It’s all those things. It works on every level of you. It can be abused, but to retain it, there has to be a ruthlessness in any leader in order to retain that power and you see it all the time in all our leaders, where they reach a point where it becomes Shakespearean with them and their cabinet and their Congress and the people around them, how they work with it. It was interesting watching the [first] debate last night and the fallout from it today about how great Romney did and you think, “Oh yeah. It’s really interesting… ” and there are all these things coming out about how you do it and how you manipulate the populace and that is something, also, that The Governor is very good at. He’s very good at propaganda and manipulation and things like that. He’s good at it because I think sometimes he’s not even thinking of it in terms of manipulation. He’s just thinking about, “This is what I need to do right here, right now.” It’s not about the bigger picture. It’s just about the person standing in front of him.
HitFix: As an actor, do you enjoy having the resource of a book or a graphic novel or a play or even a real person to have as a touchstone for a character?
David Morrissey: I do, but regardless of what it is, I would always do some research on it. For The Governor, I read Robert’s book, but I also read this fantastic book called “The Black Death and the Transformation of The West.” It was all about The Plague in the 13th Century in Europe and I was reading it and I was thinking, “This is fascinating,” and then I read about the cities in Europe and the villages in Europe that built a wall around themselves to keep people out because The Plague was so infectious and I thought, “Well that’s exactly what The Governor’s done at Woodbury. He’s built this wall around the place.” And also the fear, the idea that it was population cull, in some way, that had to happen, whether it was divine intervention for this thing… So that was a book I used a lot for this, because I think the idea of Plague and the fear of Plague, you look at something like Swine Flu and suddenly it’s on every newspaper’s front page for a while and then it’s nowhere. There is this sense of what we can’t control and I think “The Walking Dead” really does tap into that. So that was a book I read. Also, the idea of the living hell is very easy to imagine in this world, because people are living through it all the time, the idea of being attacked, of being insecure, of being under siege, you don’t have to look too far for those relevances. You just open up the newspapers.
HitFix: On a nuts-and-bolts level, how hard was it to find his voice?
David Morrissey: Yeah, that’s a very good question, actually, because that sorta slowly emerged. I came at him with one voice and that’s changed, I think. We have the great advantage of filming in Atlanta, the advantage of filming where it’s set, and that’s been really great for me and a voice a sorta emerged and given the fact that it’s TV, I’ve  been able to go back and manipulate some of the old stuff. Yeah, I feel very in the middle of the bed with it, but at first… It’s just about nerves. You turn up for the first episode and you’re nervous, which is always a good thing for me. I like that feeling and that affects your voice as well. So it’s all those things, but it was difficult to sorta find him vocally for a while. 
HitFix: So what did you land on? What does he sound like?
David Morrissey: He’s sorta light Southern, really. There’s a couple of guys on the crew and stuff who have that sort of not-too-strong Southern, so I guess it’s more of what one would call a middle class Southern accent down in Georgia, down in Atlanta. That’s where I ended up placing him. You’ll have to wait and see!
HitFix: You’ve played American Southern before. Does that help you at all or is that almost a hinderance? 
David Morrissey: It’s very different. I thought it would help and it didn’t, really. I think that’s the voice I came in with and actually I realized that this was a very different type of person, just a different way, his psyche is different, his energies are different. That was good.
HitFix: Going back again to all of the British TV you’ve done, how are you finding the working pace different?
David Morrissey: It’s very similar. The pace is exactly the same. There’s no difference. The biggest difference between British TV and American TV is money. But what money doesn’t do on American TV, which I thought it would, is buy you time. You don’t get more time. You get more toys. And you get bigger set-ups and you get more people, so all that is great and you can put more into the day, but the days are the same. We get eight days to shoot an hour and that’s very comparable with the UK, except we have a third of the budget. It doesn’t buy you time, surprisingly enough, which I thought it would.
HitFix: Do the toys at least make it a different atmosphere?
David Morrissey: Yes! Everything is there. What you get with that money is you get a movie set. You get three cameras and you get cranes and you get Steadi-Cams. You get the whole shebang and it’s well planned from behind the camera and the directors are well prepared and stuff like that. But the one thing it doesn’t give you is longer hours in the day, so that’s interesting. But you can cover the shots and the set-ups more.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays on AMC.