'The Walking Dead' postmortem: The blast from the past star talks about his return

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

Warning: This interview for “The Damned” episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers.

Hey, Morales, have you been in Birmingham this whole time?! That’s but one of the questions we still have after Juan Gabriel Pareja, who played apocalypse-surviving family man Morales in the first season of The Walking Dead, returned and pointed a gun at Rick in “The Damned.”

Pareja has been busy since his last TWD appearance in “Wildfire,” with roles in everything from Castle and The Mentalist to Mad Families and Goliath, as well as upcoming roles on Chicago Med and the Xbox One sequel to the multi-million copy bestselling zombie survival video game, State of Decay 2.

As for Morales, we didn’t find out a lot about his current status in “The Damned,” but he does seem to be aligned with the Saviors, and he didn’t seem to be so happy to see his old pal Rick. Pareja, who’s also the proud recent daddy of a nine-month-old son, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about how his return came about, what it was like to reunite with the cast and crew who remain from Season 1, and about how we “haven’t seen nothing yet” about Mr. Morales.

Congratulations on being one of the best twists ever on the show.
Well, thank you very much. I’ll take it.

Yes, how was Birmingham all those years?
Oh, you know, not much happening over there. I decided to head back to the South.

A good decision. Well, maybe a good decision. I guess that remains to be seen.
Maybe not. [Laughs.] Yes, we’ll find out, right?

Last January, you tweeted a photo of Negan and Lucille beside a photo of you with a bat, and it was captioned to [TWD showrunner] Scott Gimple. Did that start the ball rolling? Was this already in the works then?
No, that was just me being a little cheeky, as a continuing fan and watcher of the show. But no, we had not been in communication regarding an official return at that point.

Did that spark a conversation then?
To be honest, I really don’t know if it did. I feel like every year there’s always rumors, there’s always speculations. Even when Glen Mazzara was running the show, I believe he had mentioned the possibility that they were kicking around the Morales storyline. I think it had a couple of fits and starts over the years. Then, I’m not sure why they decided [to do it now]. Maybe it was as they neared the 100th episode, it was a nice way to maybe have a little bit of a callback to the first season?

When did they ask you if you were available? When did it become a real possibility for Season 8?
Well, I got a call in the middle of the spring. I believe it was mid to late April. I got a call from the casting office, basically just testing the waters. They were just reaching out, just saying, “Hey, this is nothing definite yet, but should the show want to bring you back, would you possibly be interested in returning?” I very quickly and perhaps a little too enthusiastically, said, “Yes, absolutely.” Then negotiations began, and they started talking to my reps, but even then it was still very non-committal, up in the air. It was like, “Well, maybe in two months we’ll come looking for you.” I just had a possible two months heads up on the possibility, so I took it upon myself to hit the gym and get a personal trainer. I started working with Eric the Trainer, who’s transformed a lot of bodies out here in L.A. I really wanted, if Morales was gonna come back, I wanted him to be a formidable presence in the show. With that in mind, I started hitting the gym and getting at least physically prepared for the possibility. Then sure enough, two months after that, things developed, and the rest is history.

You’ve been posting your workouts, the results, on Twitter. Morales looks like he could be rocking some abs when we meet up with him again.
Who knows? Who knows, right? That was actually two months into my transformation, but I was so excited by how much I was able to accomplish in those two months that I just kept going and was extremely motivated. And now, I feel like a new man in general. It’s a whole new ballgame for me, and I just feel like it’s opening up a whole lot of new doors and possibilities.

Congratulations! A double payoff, then.
Yeah, it’s really become that. That’s almost as big a story in my life as the return to The Walking Dead. It’s been quite a remarkable journey.

What was it like going back to set? Obviously, things are so different. I think there are only four characters, Rick, Carol, Daryl, and Carl, who are still around from the early days.
Yeah, yeah. It was a trip really. It was a walk down memory lane because at the same time, there are so many of the original crew who are still there, so that was nice from the get-go, the first step that I took back on set, just starting to see familiar faces left and right. That was really nice. It was really nice to be able to connect with Andy [Lincoln] and Norman [Reedus] and some of these guys from the first season, especially after so much time. Andy was particularly warm and generous with his energy, as always, so that was really, really nice, to pick up basically where we left off years before.

Juan Gabriel Pareja as Morales and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead (Photo: AMC)

Fans have been predicting Morales’s return since at least the fifth season. Have they been talking to you about it?
Yes, it’s been an interesting journey. I’ve always gotten tickled over the years to see all the speculation and the rumors and the excitement. And at the same time, even the version from some people who are like, “Are you kidding me? That would be a terrible idea. I don’t ever want to see him return,” it’s tickled me to see all those reactions. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m definitely glad that Morales is finally able to make his return. I think actually, if I’m not mistaken, I might have even been responsible, guilty for… I guess I was getting ready for one convention one year, and I decided to go to my garage real quick, and I snapped a selfie with my phone, and the quality of the phone cameras now have gotten so good, and I did a little bit of Photoshopping, you know, and put out that “Not Dead” picture that has become so popular and made the rounds over the years. That might have been the initial ember that sparked the wildfire, which ultimately led to the return of Morales. We’ll never find out for sure, but I think it’s a possibility.

I like the “wildfire” reference since that was the name of the last Season 1 episode we saw Morales in before his return in Season 8. In your big scene in “The Damned,” we don’t get a lot of info about Morales. I’m assuming we’re going to get more, because you don’t give viewers this delicious of a twist, a surprise, and not play it out further. When we catch up with him, he’s holding the gun on Rick. Is that the same gun that Rick gave him when they said goodbye in Season 1?
Oh! To be honest, I haven’t thought about that. But I guess it’s a very real possibility. That would make sense, wouldn’t it? That would be another fun little Easter egg to entice the fans and keep their appetites whet. So yeah, absolutely. That most definitely was the gun that Rick gave Morales early on. [Laughs.] Watch somebody go back and check the footage and be like, “Ah, that is not the right gun.”

The photo that Rick is holding when Morales walks in, Rick seems to recognize someone in the photo. Is that photo of Morales or his family?
Yes. If you look a little more closely, it’s a picture of Morales and his wife, over some romantic dinner somewhere. An old picture of the couple. That’s where Rick first registers, “S***, Morales is here.”

And connecting what that…
What that might mean, the implications of that.

And we don’t know what those implications are, exactly, but Morales says he called the Saviors, so we are definitely assuming that he is connected to them at this point.
Yes, indeed. For the time being, at least.

Do we know whether Morales knew that Rick and Daryl were part of this resistance coming to attack the Saviors?
Oh, I think we’ll find out some of those components in the coming episode. I really don’t want to give too much away.

We are going to get some more backstory about what has happened to Morales, then, in the years since we’ve seen him?
I think it’s very possible that we’ll… Yeah, we’ll find out a little bit more about Morales, but like I said, I really can’t say too much honestly, without giving anything away.

Rick and Morales were friends. They started out trying to survive this thing together and now find themselves in this incredibly shocking situation. Even if we didn’t find anything else out about his life, and I hope that we do, but even if we didn’t, that in and of itself, these two people meeting up in such different places after not even knowing each other was still alive, is pretty amazing.
It is. I agree. It’s been remarkable, the meetup. Andy, that [scene] is just another testament to his talent. Even in his eyes, the confusion, the recognition, all of it’s setting in right there. It’s a palpable moment between Rick and Morales. That is remarkable, just like you said, that meeting, after so much time. And we’ll find out a little bit more in the next episode, but the journey that each has taken that has gotten to that same moment… who knows how similar or dissimilar their journeys may actually have been.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

That’s a pretty intense scene to just jump back into for you, too, after all this time.
I know, right? It was definitely intense, and we haven’t seen anything yet.

Will we ever find out Morales’s first name?
I’m not sure. We’ll have to wait and see…

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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