With AMC's The Walking Dead not skipping a beat with its season 9 midseason return "Adaptation," viewers were given their first "full-contact" look at Alpha (Samantha Morton) and her Whisperers. Unfortunately for Luke (Dan Fogler) and Alden (Callan McAuliffe), that introduction came at the business end of Alpha's sawed-off shotgun.
With this week's episode "Omega" ready to offer TWD fans some major doses of Alpha backstory, our fine friends at EW had a chance to speak with the award-winning actress of stage and screen. Over the course of the interview, Morton touched upon a number of topics, from how she prepared for the role and what life is like on the Georgia set to how she sees – and would like viewers to see – the Whisperers' leader.
● While she knew nearly nothing about the series before negotiations for the role began, Morton was an Andrew Lincoln fan and knew a number of actors who had worked on the show so she had a sense of what it was about. Once her casting was confirmed was when when the real nerves kicked in…
"I have to say, I didn't know anything other than I'd seen billboards for it. I live on a farm in the middle of nowhere in England in a national park, so there's no advertising allowed in the national park. You can't put up posters there, but I'd seen them on the freeway and stuff like that. And I was a huge fan of Andrew Lincoln, and I knew that a lot of actors that I'd admired had gone to America to be in this show. So I knew about it, but on the farm, I didn't have television or anything like that. I have a film projector, so I sit almost outside of society a little bit. So I hadn't seen it, but I knew of it.
So I spoke to [showrunner Angela Kang], and she told me all about it, and then I watched some. My head was blown up. I was like, "This is just incredible." And then I got quite nervous because I'd kind of fallen in love with it, so then you have a huge amount of responsibility on your shoulders. It's not like you're going off to do an independent movie where collectively you're creating something together. This show already exists. I'm just coming on board. So then I got my nerves kicked in about, gosh, I really, really wanted to do this justice because it means so much to so many people. And even me joining the show, I've fallen in love with it. So I feel a huge amount of responsibility and passion."
● In the process of developing the character, Morton's take on the character would diverge from Kang's original vision – changes that Kang says were the right ones to make. For the actress, it's part of the process that comes with getting to know a role and make it something you can relate to:
"I think when I read things, I see things in my head. That's why sometimes when I've been offered movies in the past or TV things, I say, "No, thank you," because I can't see it in my head. I can't smell it, or taste it, or visualize the person that I'm going to be playing. And with this, I very, very quickly upon reading stuff, I felt her. I felt her instincts, and obviously, a lot of those things are bound up. When you start acting a character, if it's a movie, you have all of the content there and you know what you're going to do from beginning, middle, to end other than when you're in the moment on the set. I think the difference here is obviously it's episodic so I get another episode, and I read what's going to happen, and it builds.
So I've had to really adapt how I normally do things because I do a lot of movies, and then this is like, okay, if I built this character, whatever situation she's put in, I'm going to be able to launch myself from there. So, yeah, I hope my instincts are okay. I think you can have an idea about something based on what's happening to them or the choices they make, but until you're there on that set with the other actors and you're doing it, it takes on a life of its own."
● While the television series has already cut a good chunk of its ties with its Image Comics counterpart, Morton still thought it was important to go back to the comics for a better sense of Alpha:
"Yeah, I did look at it, and that's really out of respect and intrigue. I've done adaptations of novels, like Jane Eyre or all sorts of things. I've played Myra Hindley, who is a real person, and I had to listen to tapes of her voice. That was for the film Longford I did years ago with Tom Hooper, and I was playing a real person. I have to do the research, and I have to be as respectful as I can be. But in the past when I've done adaptations, I get bogged down in an inspiring way, but I'm going back to the book all the time, saying to the writers and the directors, "But look, in here, it's this and this and this!" It can actually hinder you. It doesn't free you up when you're on the set.
So what I decided to do with this was obviously take in mind what the comics were saying, but then acknowledge and respect that it's different. The source material is there, and that is like the DNA of her. I see that as the core, and then I can riff off that based on the scripts that come in."
● As for having to shave her head for the role, Morton has taken an almost Zen-like approach to the experience:
"[Laughs] Yes. A little bit. A little bit because, I think, when I was younger and I did Minority Report, I was like 22, and I felt really impish or something. I felt like this spritely thing, you know? Now I'm 41, and I have three children, and it's like my personal Samantha identity was like, Oh, you're going to be bald. So that was a bit of a challenge initially, but then once it was done, it's fine. It's quite liberating."
● On what it was like working on the Georgia set, and how U.S. television productions differ from U.K. productions:
"Well, first of all, everybody is so welcoming and friendly. There's some movies I do, when you're not in it all the time, when you turn up and sometimes there's a bit of a vibe that you're not there all the time. This was so different. Everybody couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming and kind, and it just felt like a family. Obviously, they've been there a long time, and they've been doing it a long time, and there's a real kind of safety for me in that because I feel like my hope was that everybody would know what they were doing.
I did British television when I was a young person, and I learned a huge amount doing hard, hard television in the U.K., and then I went into movies, and 19, 20 years later, I've gone back into television, so I do have really good grounding of long hours, and it's tough, and it's very different than film I've been through, how things are shot.
However, in the U.K., sometimes I've found television to be a little chaotic if they haven't got things in order, and I arrived in Georgia with everything just being like, "Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. They've thought of that, they've thought of that," and it was seamless. And I can't tell you how happy I am to be there, and they basically know what they're doing. It's like you feel like you're in really safe hands."
● Which isn't to say that every on-set experience was a pleasant one. Imagine what it's like combining Georgia heat with a mask made to feel like real skin – because Morton didn't have to:
"I mean, I'm a bit weird, because I'm a character actress at heart, and I love all of that. Yeah, I'm a huge Chris Cunningham fan, and I've worked with Chris Cunningham. I did a video with him, so to me, I was so excited at the thought of wearing a mask. So excited at Alpha being this kind of bald, zen monk vibe. I was just thrilled.
And I tell you this, I did not realize how hot Georgia was! I did not know. I've spent time in the Philippines, I've spent time in Morocco. I never knew that kind of heat. That was tough, but then I think the great thing about it is that they don't cut any corners, so there's care and time given to make everything individual and personal and asking questions: "Does it scratch? is it comfortable? Are you able to breathe properly" They're just so kind. So it's all right."
● While Kang and the rest of the cast and crew have portrayed Alpha and the Whisperers as the biggest of the "big bads" our heroes have ever had to face, Morton takes serious exception with Alpha being tagged as a "villain." – sharing how she sees the character in context to the world around her:
"To me, I don't see that I'm playing a villain at all. I'm playing somebody with absolute determination and conviction in her beliefs, and in a way, almost kind of evangelical with it. And I think her opinions and her beliefs about how society should be — to her, they're no-brainer. It doesn't make any sense to go back to the way things were. It doesn't make any sense, you know? The future that we have should be the way she sees it, and so I see her as an incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring woman, with so much courage and strength and love, weirdly. But it's how she shows that love is not as we would expect anyone to.
But I'm not playing in my mind that she's a villain. She doesn't think she's a villain. Just don't mess with her. You know? You look at lots of politicians all over the world right now, and war, and how things happen, and how things can escalate, and I think she's just incredibly strong minded. I haven't played any scenes whereby it's about pleasure, and I think that when you look at psychopaths, they get pleasure from their actions, whereas Alpha, it is just what this is about. She is leading an army, and she's clever, and if somebody crosses her, then it's different."
● For Morton, Alpha represented both the kind of role and opportunity rarely affoded actresses in Hollywood:
"How many women get to play a badass like this? How many women get to do these parts? They just don't exist. So you think of the comics, and what Robert Kirkman's done in making this character, it's a dream come true. I often look at films, some really good films in the male parts, and I go, "Oh, Dirty Harry. I'd love to play Dirty Harry," but obviously he's amazing, and those films are whatever, but it's very rare that the women get to take that on. That they get that responsibility."
Now that AMC is done being all nice and stuff by letting AMC Premiere members get a week's head-start on the mideseason return of The Walking Dead season 9, we can get back to a little communal love starting this Sunday night.
That's right! Bring Out Your Dead: Bleeding Cool's The Walking Dead Live-Blog is back this Sunday night – and every Walking Dead Sunday night – starting with a little "pre-game" at 8:30 p.m ET (live-blog goes live on our website) before charging head-long into our live-blog coverage beginning at 9 p.m. ET. After the show, hang out with us a little longer as we share our thoughts on the night's developments and offer up some predictions on what's still to come – and to see if Chris Hardwick has any news to break on Talking Dead.