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Why Negan and Maggie Aren’t Ready to Leave ‘The Walking Dead’

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan have been surviving the zombie apocalypse for a long time. As Negan and Maggie, two of the lead characters on the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” they have endured every conceivable hardship and cruelty, from watching as a family member is beaten to death to being slashed in the jugular with a knife.

With the enormously popular drama finally reaching its conclusion this fall as the last of its three-part 11th season begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking the mainstay co-stars — Cohan joined the cast in 2011, Morgan in 2016 — would be thrilled to wrap up and leave the undead behind. But AMC recently announced that both actors have signed on to lead “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” a new spinoff mini-series that will follow their characters as they try to navigate a post-apocalyptic Manhattan.

Before “The Walking Dead” kicks off its final block of eight episodes on Oct. 2, Morgan and Cohan spoke together over Zoom about killing off characters and finding “slivers of light and hope.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Lauren, you joined the series in the second season. What was it like for you when you arrived?

LAUREN COHAN I was coming from the U.K., and on the flight to Georgia, I watched Season 1, and I thought: Wow, OK. I’d better not screw this up. When I landed, I had a week of prep, and Steven [Yeun, who played Glenn] and Sarah Wayne Callies [who played Lori] took me out for Korean barbecue to give me the lay of the land. The whole atmosphere of the show — it was so hot, and we were all just surviving, just like the characters — was a very bonding experience.

Jeffrey, your character was introduced at the end of Season 6 with a huge, notorious cliffhanger. What was it like to be thrown in so dramatically?

JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN [The “Walking Dead” producer] Scott Gimple had called me and asked if I would do this. I was in the middle of shooting “The Good Wife.” I just happened to have a two-day window where I could go to Georgia. I was a big fan of the show, and I knew it was going to attract a bit of attention. But I had no idea of the levels of crazy that it was going to be.

I had met Lauren — we’d been Batman’s mom and dad in “Batman v Superman.” But it was such an emotional way to meet everybody. Everyone was a little standoffish toward me, as you’d expect.

In the Season 6 finale of “The Walking Dead,” Negan, played by Morgan, threatens murder by baseball bat. Credit…Gene Page/AMC

Did you have any idea who you would be killing?

MORGAN I think we all knew it would be Glenn, but not Abraham. The last shot I did on that very first two-day stint was the bat coming down toward the camera. I remember Michael Cudlitz, who played Abraham, coming up to me like, ‘Do you know who you’re killing?’ I’m like, yeah, Steven! It’s in the comics! He was like, ‘Do you think you’re killing anyone else?’

COHAN Remember we shot those alternate endings?

MORGAN: That’s right! We shot me killing every member of the cast. Everyone took a hit from the bat that night. That was just to throw people off. It was crazy. The cliffhanger pushed the fan base awfully far.

COHAN What people don’t know is we all hung out in that clearing for the entire summer until we found out.

MORGAN Actually it really did feel like that. When we came back in September for the seventh season premiere, it was picking up right in that clearing with everyone still on their knees. It was brutal. The only person OK with it was Steven. He was like, ‘I’ve got closure, I’m going to go win a [expletive] Oscar now.’ On the whole, it was a weird vibe. I thought those guys hated me.

COHAN I had to hate you for a whole season.

MORGAN Lauren actually didn’t talk to me for about a year, other than like, she would nod at me when she walked by. That was her method as an actor. And now here we are, still working together.

This show has been willing to kill off any character at any time. Was there ever a point where you felt relatively safe, or did you always worry that you might be next to go?

COHAN I didn’t consciously think about it, but I knew that for my character, there was a lot of story to tell. Which, by the way, is no guarantee of anything either, because sometimes when the story seems that perfect, that’s the perfect time for you to get killed off.

MORGAN You know when they kill you on this show? When you buy a house in Georgia. If you get comfortable, you’re dead. I had a three-year deal initially. I remember asking [the showrunner] Angela [Kang], “Should I buy a house?” And she was like, “Ehhh.” And I was like, Well, that’s it. I’m dead!

Jeffrey, as the show’s main antagonist, did you just assume your story would end with you being killed off by the heroes?

MORGAN Every year. Especially after [the 8th season story arc] “All Out War.” I knew Negan didn’t die in the comic books. But I thought they might have me walk off into the sunset. Yet they didn’t.

What character death was the hardest for you in terms of a cast member leaving?

COHAN Steven. On every level that something can be hard, that was hard. It was hard with Scott Wilson [who played Hershel]. It was hard with Emily [Kinney, who played Beth].

MORGAN Well, they were your family.

COHAN Exactly. But the things that have made it hard are also the best parts of the show. There were times where I physically threw up after we filmed certain scenes, because it was that visceral. But I love the depth of experience I have had, loving and losing these people. The poetry and the darkness and the slivers of light and hope in this are everything.

MORGAN “The slivers of light and hope.” I’m going to put that one right in my head and keep it there. My next interview that’s without you, I’m using that.

Many characters have been killed off during the course of the series. In Season 5, Daryl (Norman Reedus) carries the body of Beth (Emily Kinney), who played the sister of Laura Cohan’s character, Maggie.Credit…Gene Page/AMC

What about for you, Jeffrey?

MORGAN For me, I was harder hit when Andy [Lincoln, who played Rick] left. In a big way, this was his story, and his world that we were all living in. Norman [Reedus, who plays Daryl] and I spent a lot of time talking about it: What’s the show going to be now, moving forward? And none of us had seen that coming. Andy came to us and said, “I’m only doing six more episodes.” It was like, what?

COHAN Mind-blowing.

MORGAN We all thought there was no way he’s not coming back. He’s going to be here to kick that pig. And he wasn’t. Everyone stepped up and did their part — from the writers to the actors — but there was this moment of like, it’s a different thing now. That’s the cool thing about the show. It has reinvented itself, many times.

The show has undergone many changes creatively, including several showrunners. Was that challenging for you to deal with as a cast?

COHAN I think it made us actually hold on tighter to each other. It’s not that it wasn’t disruptive and scary — when Frank [Darabont, the Season 1 showrunner] left, that was like, whoa. That was weird. But what we were asked to do required such emotional investment that it was almost like we couldn’t be distracted by this stuff.

Before signing up for the spinoff, did either of you feel that the show ending was the time to leave this world and these roles behind?

MORGAN When I found out the show was ending, I was like, OK. I did my bit. I’m proud of the work I did. It didn’t take long, mind you, for them to mention ideas for a spinoff and for my ears to get all perky. But I thought it would be noble for us to disperse and move on to what’s next in life.

COHAN Mm. I wasn’t done.

MORGAN Well, and here we are still telling the story.

COHAN Here’s to another 10 years.

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