NEW YORK – “Brother against brother,” says The Governor fiercely. “Winner goes free. Fight to the death.”
Is this any way to run a town?
AMC’s zombie drama “The Walking Dead” ended the first half of this season with a wrenching faceoff: roughneck brothers Merle and Daryl were pitted in a bloody test of loyalty to The Governor as he rallied his flock – the residents of Woodbury, Ga. – to goad them on.
That was last December.
Things haven’t settled down as the hit horror serial returns for another eight episodes today at 9 p.m. The death match continues. The Governor, played by David Morrissey, is increasingly oppressive, even deranged.
“With Woodbury, he has built a sanctuary, a place of safety where humanity can start again,” says Morrissey. “But the negative side of power is like a wobbly tooth for him. He just can’t stop sticking his tongue in there. There’s something gloriously painful about it, and he likes that.”
He seems to be losing his marbles as he sees threats both within and beyond the town walls. This has placed on his enemies list not only the zombies – with their ploddingly persistent appetite for human flesh – but also mortals, who are far less predictable. These include the ragtag refugees led by Sheriff Rick Grimes hiding out in an abandoned prison nearby.
“You can adapt to the zombie threat, and that’s part of what Woodbury is about,” says Morrissey. “But the new problem that has emerged in Season 3 is human beings. What you have now is two communities of humans in conflict. That’s much more complicated.”
In other words: What’s scarier than the undead? The living!
In the past, The Governor exhibited a softer side. His most touching moments showed his desperate attempts to stay connected with Penny, his undead little girl. Removing her from the cell in his apartment where he kept her chained, he lovingly combed her wiry zombie hair in one memorable scene, while she snarled and snapped ferociously.
Strange as it was, the scene made perfect sense to Morrissey.
“You have a sick child and you’re trying to do normal things that just aren’t normal anymore,” he says. “There’s great certainty and comfort in the past, and he was trying to re-create that.”
But in December’s finale, Penny was stabbed by Michonne, an intruder out to kill The Governor.
“He loses the one thing he lives for,” says Morrissey, adding with a bit of understatement, “Now he’s full of anger.”
The 48-year-old actor gravitates toward complex, off-kilter roles. He is celebrated for the 2003 British miniseries “State of Play,” where he played an upright Member of Parliament who may have been involved in a string of killings. The same year, “The Deal” was a British TV film that starred Morrissey as MP (and future prime minister) Gordon Brown.
A few years earlier, he played a jazz musician with underworld connections in the British series “Finney.” In the 2000 film “Some Voices,” he was the long-suffering brother of schizophrenic Daniel Craig.
Morrissey approached the role of The Governor with his typical concern that the character display many facets and steadily develop.
“I wanted to be sure he didn’t just become a cartoon buddy,” Morrissey says.
Meanwhile, he began mastering the obligatory Southern accent.
Describing his happy, working-class childhood in Liverpool, England – “it was a tough environment, but tough in the right way” – Morrissey speaks in the singsongy lilt reminiscent of the Liverpudlian lads who formed the world’s greatest rock band (and might pronounce “band” something like “bah-yind.”)
He says he worked with the same accent coach assigned to series star Andrew Lincoln (who plays Rick Grimes), a fellow Brit. And he trained hard. “My children got very bored with me reading them bedtime stories in a Georgia accent,” he says with a laugh.
The Woodbury scenes were shot in the town of Senoia, Ga., 40 miles south of Atlanta. Months of filming took Morrissey away from his family — sons 17 and 8 years old, and a daughter, 15, as well as his wife, novelist Esther Freud (who happens to be the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud).
“The people who live there are great,” says Morrissey, “because we do disrupt their lives.” Shooting for the season wrapped in November, “and I had a lovely time there.”
But will The Governor be back to rule over the ultimate gated community? Not surprisingly, Morrissey is cagey when replying to that question: “Contractually, I’m there for five years. But that’s not to say that I don’t die at the end of this season, Or whenever.”
Whether or not he’s back on “The Walking Dead,” Morrissey means to keep taking risks with his roles.
“I want to go into a job feeling a bit of frisson, thinking things MAY not work,” he explains before offering “Blackpool” as a prime example.
Retitled “Viva Blackpool” for its U.S. telecast in 2005, this was a quirky British miniseries in which he costarred with David Tennant, whose credits include The Doctor in “Dr. Who.” Morrissey played the thuggish owner of an arcade in the seaside town of Blackpool, England, who becomes swallowed up in a murder probe.
What truly set apart the series was the penchant of its characters for bursting into a song-and-dance number at the drop of a hat. Think Tony Soprano channeling Elvis. Clearly, THIS was risky for all concerned!
“I remember halfway through the shoot they showed us a bit of the dailies,” says Morrissey, laughing at the memory. “Then me and David Tennant walked away and got in the lift and the doors closed. And we went, ‘We’re NEVER gonna work again!”’
As it happened, “Blackpool” charmed viewers and won awards. And its stars did work again.