As The Walking Dead heads into its final season, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is getting back to what he loves most—family, fast cars, candy and chickens.
A scorched, zombie-ravaged dystopia ain’t no place to raise your kids, but desperate times require desperate measures. So when the long-running AMC series The Walking Dead returned to shoot under serious COVID protocols a few months back in Senoia, GA, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays Negan, a brutal, leather-clad anti-hero, brought the entire clan to live on set: “I had my whole family living in Alexandria, this apocalyptic, walled-off town charred and burned down from the season before. It was crazy.”
Morgan’s Air-b-and-zom-b, as it were, happened to be the Rick Grimes house, the site of several on-screen brawls from prior seasons. Shotgun spray still pock-marked the walls where his 10-year-old son Gus slept; downstairs at breakfast, they’d pore over the damage wrought by Lucille, Negan’s weapon of choice, a barbed wire–wrapped baseball bat. It was a strange place from which to administer online school, but, well, what’s normal these days?
“They fucking loved it!” says Morgan. “And having this 30-foot wall around the town was great, too, because I could let the kids and the dogs out. I knew they couldn’t go anywhere.”
This morning, Morgan is a few miles from that set, calling from his Ford F-150 Raptor—a pickup suitable for a zombie apocalypse—after driving it to get his daily COVID test. Shooting is underway for TWD’s 11th and final season, a monster 24-episode run that will conclude in 2022. You can also catch Morgan’s new film, The Unholy, a supernatural horror flick where he plays a journalist investigating a girl who can inexplicably heal the sick, in theaters April 2. “Let’s face it—this year has been hard for everybody,” says Morgan. “But getting back to some kind of regular work schedule has been a big relief.”
Though Morgan has starred in blue-chip TV series Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife and played roles in films like Watchmen, Rampage and The Losers, his portrayal of the nihilistic Negan stands as the actor’s defining role thus far—jump-started by a cruel, skull-smashing debut (with Lucille) that shocked and polarized TWD fans far and wide when it aired in 2016.
“The first couple years I was on this show, I was worried that Negan was very two-dimensional. I felt like every scene was an iteration of him coming out of that Winnebago,” Morgan says, before pointing out that the character has ridden a kind of redemption arc of late. This summer we’ll glimpse Negan’s backstory, as Morgan’s real wife, actress Hilarie Burton Morgan, portrays the character’s now-deceased wife (named Lucille). With the series’ end in sight, it’s clear that Morgan takes his character’s fate personally.
“Negan has become such an important part of my life. It’d be hard to make a clean cut and walk away. Unless they just want to kill me. Just a knife in the back. And maybe that’s what needs to be done for me to walk away from this guy.”
When TWD finally wraps, Morgan and family will pack up and head not for the hills of Hollywood, but Rhinebeck, NY, in the Hudson River Valley. There, on a 70-acre spread of woods, pasture and bluegrass, Morgan will go back to maintaining a couple old farmhouses and 40 animals, give or take, including alpacas, llamas, chickens, ducks, dogs, cows and Paxton Dean Morgan, a donkey that thinks he’s a dog. The Morgans call the property “Mischief Farm,” but it could just as easily be named, Morgan says, “Shitshow. In the very best way.”
“After 20-some years in L.A., my life took a different direction, and suddenly, we bought a fucking farm. It’s been the coolest thing that I’ve ever been a part of. Most of the animals we have are all rescues, and they all have funky personalities. Any one of them can be a pain in the ass on any given day.”
Pastoral life is a departure for Morgan, who grew up outside of Seattle. It’s also a return of sorts. “Since I was 6 or 7, my grandmother had a farm where I would spend weeks every summer, living in this dilapidated Airstream out with the cows. It was a Huck Finn type of thing.”
In a typical day at Mischief, Morgan might shovel some donkey crap, walk the 3-mile fence line, mending it if necessary, followed by a firewood chopping session. “I’m a little bit obsessed with it. I love an ax, but I recently got a log splitter, which has changed my life as I near 55,” he says with a laugh. Then Morgan might head down to Hackett Farm Supply, see what’s going on. Or he could check the stock at Samuel’s Sweet Shop, a candy store the Morgans co-own with Rhinebeck neighbor Paul Rudd and his wife, and another partner. “It’s got everything you could possibly ask for. But I still prefer the old-school stuff, Hershey with almonds.”
So, yeah—not only does Morgan get paid to pretend to be a comic book villain, then goes home to ride tractors and feed donkeys—he also owns a damn candy store. At age 54, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is living every 9-year-old boy’s dream life.
“AFTER 20 YEARS IN L.A., MY LIFE TOOK A DIFFERENT DIRECTION AND WE BOUGHT A FUCKING FARM.”
And until lately, it’s been a pretty private one. Although Morgan is no stranger to the press circuit—he’s done everything from Comic-Cons to The Walking Dead cruises—he doesn’t leave a long a trail of gossip or confessional profiles. That’s by choice. “I’ve always been a private guy. I could give an entertaining press interview and lie about some funny story, but wouldn’t go deeper. Because it’s my life, you know? At least, that was my theory. Then she wrote the book.”
Morgan is referring to The Rural Diaries, Hilarie’s chronicle of meeting up with Morgan, adapting to life on the farm and becoming a parent. The book came out in spring 2020, and became a New York Times best-seller. Not all of the book’s passages are as sweet as those covering the pair’s rescue of Rhinebeck’s candy shop, a kind of civic good. She also writes of miscarriages, misunderstandings and taciturn stretches between the two. Morgan says he didn’t read it until it was heading to the printer.
“The kids went to bed, and she handed me the galley and I sat in front of the fireplace and read the whole book in five hours. She really took a deep dive on our personal life and let the world know some stuff that I don’t know I would have. I was in tears. I woke her up and said like, ‘Wow, I mean, I don’t know what to say. I’m so proud of you.’ ”
“I realized, I guess there’s not a lot there to hide anymore. And I gotta tell you, there’s a lot of freeing kind of emotion that goes with that. Like a weight off my shoulders.”
So when COVID hit, Morgan had an idea: Why not lift the veil even more and bring the fans to the farm? He and Hilarie called in a bunch of camera gear from AMC, and within two weeks the pair were shooting Friday Night In With the Morgans, on which they’d give updates on farm life, check in with health experts and friends like the Rudds, TWD co-star Norman Reedus or the local comic book store owner—“see how they’re doing and how they’re kind of getting through this situation,” says Morgan. The show was short-lived, as so many of our group Zoom calls of spring 2020 turned out to be, but Morgan says that producing the show was a way to stay sane “in a time of shit.”
So he found other diversions, the fondest of them being afternoon-long country road cruises with his now 3-year-old daughter, George, in his custom Dodge Challenger Hellcat, the snarl of its supercharged, 717-horsepower V8 engine drowned out by…father and daughter singing along to the soundtrack to Frozen. Because when you’re faced with the unexpected, sometimes it’s best to let it go.
The first half of Season 11 of The Walking Dead will premiere Summer 2021 on AMC, with the second half to follow in 2022