The Walking Dead's new Season 7 is Jeffrey Dean Morgan's show

Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan.PHOTO: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS

Playing gang leader Negan in the American award-winning series is a wish come true for actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan

The last season of The Walking Dead ended with a major cliffhanger: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his ragtag group of zombie-apocalypse survivors had been captured by a gang known as the Saviors. Just before the credits rolled, gang leader Negan looked like he was about to bludgeon one of them with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.

For a show that prides itself on a willingness to kill off core characters, this could mean the first major death in some time - and as the actor playing the man potentially responsible for this, Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks set to be the most important player in the new Season 7, which debuts in Singapore tonight.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other media at a press event in San Diego earlier this year, series star Lincoln describes the upcoming season as "the Negan show".

This puts Morgan, 50, in a bit of a tricky spot vis-a-vis the other actors. His arrival means someone else may be bumped off the hit zombie series, which is still one of the most-watched television dramas in the United States since debuting in 2010.

It's just the most fun I've ever had in my life.

JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN on his role as Negan in The Walking Dead

Glancing at his castmates sitting next to him, Morgan says: "The introduction of Negan is hard for the rest of the cast as actors. I felt like, 'Oh, they might not like me.' And they don't, it turns out.

"But to play that role is, for me, a kind of a dream come true. It's just the most fun I've ever had in my life and that's horrible for everyone else sitting here."

"It's a little bit of a Catch-22 - I'm having fun and they're all awesome."

Flanking him are Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira and Michael Cudlitz, whose characters have all been captured by the Saviors.

They smile and nod as they listen to Morgan, who was a bounty hunter on the science-fiction series Extant (2015) and played investigator Jason Crouse in the final seasons of legal drama The Good Wife (2009 to 2016).

Their heads are all potentially on the chopping block, but as they have done for years, the performers, who have survived several character culls, put on a brave face and seem to have perfected a sort of gallows humour. It is no doubt a way to cope with the show's unpredictable storyline, which has frequently diverged from the Robert Kirkman graphic novels it is adapted from.

With the series suffering uneven ratings over the last few seasons, critics have accused it of using cliffhangers and the threat of major character deaths as cheap ploys to maintain suspense and keep viewers watching.

But showrunner Scott Gimple, 45, defends the decision to make fans wait months to find out who gets the wrong end of Negan's baseball bat, arguing that it was a natural break in the story and that by leaving them on tenterhooks, "the audience is invited to use their imagination for the wait and aren't provided with an ending, but rather a story to tell themselves".

And it seems to have worked - anticipation ahead of tonight's episode is high among fans, even those irked by last season's tease over the beloved character Glenn (Yeun), who seemed to perish in a zombie feeding frenzy, only to reappear episodes later.

Greg Nicotero, who directs the series and heads the prosthetic make-up department, which has won two Emmys for its terrifyingly believable zombies, promises that tonight's episode will be worth the wait.

"It's a roller coaster - every emotion that you can imagine feeling, you will feel it," says the 53-year- old. "The fact that we led right up to that point with everybody on their knees and being completely broken, you think they're at the bottom, but there's a lot further for them to go."

Kneeling before Negan is a big moment for the show's main protagonist, Rick, the small-town sheriff who, at the beginning of the series, wakes up in a hospital to find the world overrun with zombies.

"Yeah, it's not a good space for Rick," says Lincoln, a 43-year-old British actor who, before this, was best known for the romantic movie, Love Actually (2003).

"Everything that he's fought for, shed blood for and lost family for has been irrevocably changed and turned upside down by this guy (Negan) in 24 hours. And he's powerless for the first time since he woke up from the apocalypse - he's in fear for his life, his child's life and all the people he loves, so it's a desperate position."

For Yeun, it is even more poignant because his Glenn is expecting a baby with Maggie (Cohan) and both of them are now at the mercy of Negan.

"For Glenn, in that moment, the things that are flashing through his mind are, 'What's going on with my wife, what's going to happen to our baby, how do I prevent this from happening?'" says the 32-year-old actor.

Despite this dark beginning, the world of the survivors will expand this season, says Kirkman, the brains behind both the TV show and the ongoing graphic-novel series.

Asked what new characters or favourites from the comics fans can expect to see, the 37-year-old confirms the long-awaited appearance of Ezekiel, a major new character from the comics, who will have a pet tiger.

In addition, the show will solve the mystery of "who are these knights that are showing up in armour on horses" in the last season, as well as pick plot threads such as "where are Morgan and Carol going", says Kirkman, referring to the popular characters played by Lennie James and Melissa McBride.

Although killing off a favourite such as Rick or Daryl (Reedus) would trigger a fan revolt, Lincoln swears the show would "absolutely" continue even if his character died.

"Fortunately, we have a new guy on the block over here who my wife is very happy with because he gets all the lines and I've had a bit of time off.

"So, yeah, welcome to the Negan show."

•The Walking Dead Season 7 premieres today on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel TV Channel 330) at 9pm, same day telecast as the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Dream role in Walking Dead'. Print Edition | Subscribe