David Morrissey on the Horror Behind the Mystery In 'The Missing'

John Russell
Q&A

In the second season of Starz's chilling mystery series The Missing, David Morrissey's character is scarred in more ways than one. The Walking Dead alum plays Sam Webster, a British army captain whose daughter is abducted while he and his family are stationed in Germany. But it's her return 11 years later that really begins to tear the Websters' lives apart.

On the phone from the U.K., where the latest season of The Missing premiered late last year, Morrissey was eager to discuss his character's trauma and the horror lurking just beneath the show's surface.

What attracted you to this story?
I’d seen the first season. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a great, original piece of storytelling for TV. I thought it was really well directed and brilliantly acted, particularly by James Nesbit who I think is such a wonderful actor. I was taken on that journey. So when I knew they were doing it again I was slightly skeptical about how they could do [a second season]. We’d already been through this territory. But then I spoke to the director Ben [Chanan] and Jack and Harry [Williams], the writers, and they talked about the fact that it was about someone returning and the impact of that—the impact of this girl coming back and the sort of family breakup from having something wonderful happen. I thought that was an interesting take. The other big attraction for me was that Keeley Hawes would be playing my wife. She’s someone I’ve worked with before and who I really admire. I think she’s a wonderful wonderful actress.

What does his daughter’s abduction—and her return—do to your character?
Because he is a soldier—he’s a conscript, so that means he would have entered the army on leaving school. So the army served as his family. They did everything for him. He’s very loyal to the army. So when his daughter is kidnapped, it’s the first time in his life the army couldn’t help him. They couldn’t sort his problems out. So he’s thrown by that. For the first time in his life he sees that there are aspects to life that are outside his control.

But I think another thing happens, which was it very perversely brought his family that was left together—his wife and his son. [Sam is] a man who obviously would have had trauma training—he would have seen terrible things in combat. But his own daughter being taken, and the lack of finality about tha—you know, there’s no body, no evidence of what happened, so your imagination goes wild. But he deals with that. When she comes back, something happens which is odd. The thing you’ve been hoping for walks through the door. Having her back, instead of being this joyous moment, actually starts to drive a wedge between Sam and his wife and Sam and his son. She upsets the equilibrium in the household, and he’s less capable of dealing with that than he was with dealing with her absence.

David Moffissey, Abigail Hardingham, Keeley Hawes

There are moments this season that feel less like a mystery and more like a horror film. I’m thinking about the scene at the dinner table in the first episode.
In microcosm, that scene is very much my attraction to the show, because what you have is a young girl who has been abducted. And that’s traumatic in itself. And what happens is, she starts to describe something that’s happened while she’s been away that was joyous, that she liked. And that, to her parents, is horrible. Not that they wanted her to be suffering, not that they wanted her to be in hell, but the fact that the daughter could start describing things about a day that she had with this man that were good and wonderful and happy is to the parents a real invasion and a real warped sense of what they want. They don’t want her to have happy memories of someone else. Sam, as a soldier would know about post-traumatic stress, he would know about what happens to people when they’re captive. I think he’s horrified, but he recognizes it for what it is, whereas Gemma doesn’t, and she absolutely attacks it. She wants to crush it. And I think what Sam wants more than anything else at that dinner table is a nice conversation. He wants his daughter back. He wants her to be secure in this environment and to open up slowly and be his daughter again. Gemma is angry, she’s suspicious, she’s looking for something else, and that comes out.

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Meanwhile, nothing in that scene is quite what it seems on the surface.
That’s what I love about the drama as well. One of the great things for me, being in the show [when it premiered in the U.K.], was just walking down the street and people coming up to me and saying, I know what happened! People just have their theories. They were very invested in the show and its conclusions, its characters and who would be emerging as the abductor.

Did that happen a lot?
All the time! Yeah. And not just to me, but to my wife! People would say to her, ‘Ooh, I know what’s happened!’ People were very, very invested and intrigued. Then of course you have Twitter going crazy with the theories. They weren’t asking me what happens. That’s the difference. When I was in The Walking Dead, people wanted to know what was going to happen. They would come up to me and they’d say, ‘Tell me! Tell me who’s dead. Tell me what’s happened!’ But in The Missing, people came up to me and told me their theories. They didn’t want me to tell them anything, because they wanted to say ‘I’ve worked it out!’

Like a puzzle they wanted to unlock.
Yeah! Absolutely. Like a real conundrum that they wanted to solve themselves. And having a real enjoyment in the different theories that they have around it.

The essence of a good mystery is a good plot twist. How would you describe the twist in this season of The Missing?
At its heart it’s a very simple human story. It’s a story of loss and then reconciliation. But within that simplicity is a very complex minefield of characters and stories. In any mystery, there are lots of strands, the butterfly effect, things that effect someone far away—our actions will impact someone else down the line. And that’s what The Missing is about. Even before this girl is taken, other things have been going on that will lead to that. It’s about that chain reaction.

Did you know from the beginning that this show would really challenge the idea of a happy ending?
Yes, I did know that. That was sort of what the first series was about, really. The idea that it’s less open, that the happy ending for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a happy ending for another person. This idea that—particularly in storytelling, films, television—that we desire the idea of closure, is in real life complete madness. There is no closure.

The Missing, Sundays, 8/7c, Starz