Warning: The interview for “The Cell” episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers.
There may be no one who understands — up close and personal — the way Negan’s mind works better than Dwight, the Savior who once tried to flee Negan’s rule, but who has since given up his wife and his life to do Negan’s bidding, all in the hope of simply surviving. Or is that all there is to Dwight? He certainly seems conflicted about his orders to torment Daryl Dixon into submitting to Negan’s rules, and the carefully controlled look in his eyes gives away that he has to work very hard to control himself when Negan is taunting him about being married to Dwight’s wife, Sherry.
Austin Amelio, who plays Dwight, talked to Yahoo TV about Dwight’s true feelings about Negan, Daryl, his, and Sherry’s decision to return to Negan’s compound, and why Dwight’s big motivation for maintaining his cool may be some “big picture” ideas floating around in his mind.
We learn a lot more about Dwight in this episode, and he continues to be a character that we can’t dislike. We may want to, with some of the things that he’s done and does to Daryl in “The Cell,” but we can’t. Why do you think that is?
It’s one of the things I’ve been working on with [showrunner] Scott [Gimple] and all the directors I’ve worked with, this concept that Dwight’s almost like two different people in my eyes. He’s this guy who’s a leader with the Saviors, and you have to be intimidating, you have to walk around like you rule the place. Then there’s this other guy that has a little bit of humanity left in him. I guess that’s kind of coming off, because people don’t entirely hate me too much.
We start with a funny opening scene, with Dwight eating his fried egg and mustard sandwich… Is that good? Did you actually try that?
It is, it’s really good, and the times when I was hungry and had to eat the sandwich, it actually kind of hit the spot. But then after that, I’m like, if I eat another bite I’m going to throw up, this is horrible.
We also find out that Dwight is a fan of classic ’80s TV sitcoms. Is there a story behind why they chose Who’s the Boss? or is it just kind of fitting given Negan, the ultimate boss?
I think it’s just fitting given the circumstances I’m in.
When Dwight first takes food to Daryl, he seems to be almost studying him as if he’s a curiosity. Then by the third time we see him take Daryl food and clothing, he’s angry, he throws the food on the floor, he throws the clothes at Daryl. Is he angry that Daryl isn’t breaking as quickly or as easily as he hoped?
Yeah, I think so, because that means more work for me, and I have to keep putting this guy through torture … at the same time, it’s torture for me. The longer this thing draws out, the longer we both have to be in it, which is not something I think either of us wants.
Is Dwight also conflicted in his feelings about Daryl? He has all of Daryl’s stuff, his motorcycle, his arrow, his wing’s vest. It seems like it’s not so much that he wants to be Daryl, but that he kind of wishes he had Daryl’s resolve to not break, to not kneel to Negan.
Yeah, Dwight kind of went against his own morals and ethics when he came back and got burned, and now he’s in this place and he’s going against everything that he stood for. Daryl seems to stand strong in that sense. I think there is some sort of maybe comparison that Dwight’s making between himself and Daryl for sure.
Dwight doesn’t seem to be enjoying the torturing of Daryl, especially when it gets to the point of taunting him about Glenn. Dwight has the same kind of guilt himself, about Tina.
Right, right, right. No, I totally agree with you, you kind of hit it on the head with that. If I messed up doing my job under Negan, then something’s going to happen to me. I have to make sure, despite not wanting to do this, I also have to make sure Negan gets what he wants, which sucks.
When Negan is taunting Dwight about his wife, his ex-wife, now Negan’s wife, Sherry, what is it in Dwight that allows him to maintain his cool? A couple of different times in this episode, he does it and you can tell that it’s taking everything Dwight has to remain calm. What is it that’s allowing him to do that?
Well, one, survival. If he lashes out against Negan, I think he’s not going to have a good chance of making anything happen in this world. I think he’s also used to it, which is frustrating and it takes a lot of… he has to swallow his pride a lot in front of Negan, and he makes a mockery of everything that I’ve been through. Dwight before, he had this romanticized vision of the world, and I think he’s holding onto that just a little bit. Not much. He’s definitely a common sense-type guy at this point, but there’s also, if I’m going to make anything happen in this world, it’s definitely that he’s smart now. He understands how the world works, and if he does anything against Negan at this point, then the bigger picture is out of the question. It’s, “That guy’s my boss, and I can’t talk back,” unfortunately.
Gordon begged Dwight to kill him, to spare him returning to Negan’s rule. When Dwight makes the decision to do that ultimately, is he motivated by mercy for Gordon?
That’s a great question, and absolutely, it’s out of mercy for Gordon. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s also [a question of], am I freer being a walker on the fence or am I more free living under the thumb of Negan? I think Dwight releases Gordon from the chains in that moment, and that’s why he decided to do it. It’s also seeing himself, he was in this position once, and I think he does it for himself and for Gordon. To give this guy the freedom to get out, because where they’re living, it’s … yeah, I get to make an egg sandwich, but at the same time, I also have to mercilessly torture Daryl. Not easy living.
When Dwight is watching the walkers in the yard, it seems to be his thinking place. He really does seem to be struggling with the question of whether it would be better to be one of them or continue living under Negan’s rules. He tells Sherry they made the right decision, that it’s better than being dead. Does he really believe that, though, that they made the right decision, or that it’s better than being dead?
This is a great question, and I think he says that for himself and for his wife at that moment, to bring some comfort to the situation. Does he necessarily 100 percent believe that? I don’t think so. It’s being a Savior and living in the Sanctuary, which is so funny … there are so many themes and concepts that are involved. It’s crazy how smart these writers, Gimple and [Robert] Kirkman are. It’s almost like he’s looking at what could’ve been his fate and where he’s at now, and going back and forth on that.
Music was such a big part of this episode. Were you actually listening to all of those songs, the “Easy Street” song especially, that’s used to torture Daryl? Did you have to listen to that song over and over again?
I didn’t have to listen to that song over and over and over again, but when I got the script I listened to it a lot, just to get in the head space for myself and to get in the head space of where Daryl’s at. What a torturous song. I would be out of my mind if I had to listen to that song over and over and over again. I listened to it a bunch, and I’m like, “OK, I never want to hear that song ever again.”
Is that something you do in general, listen to music to prepare for certain scenes, episodes?
Yeah, absolutely. Music is a portal to my emotions, so it’s a big thing for me as an actor.
What else do you do to prepare, especially an episode like this where it’s so tension-filled, every minute, and so emotional?
I profoundly prepare in the sense that I find my point of view on every single line I’m saying and who I’m with. My preparation, with Norman’s preparation, and Jeffrey Dean’s preparation … it all comes in harmoniously and works out. Everyone’s a professional actor, so I do my part and they do theirs, and we meet halfway and thankfully, everyone’s so good. We just let those preparations take flight and see what happens.
What can you say about the rest of the season for Dwight, what we might see from him, for him?
What you’re going to see is a peeling of the layers of onion coming off. You’re going to get to know him a little better and understand why he’s making the decisions he’s making and hopefully get a sense of a lot of people. A lot of people see him as a villain. I’ve been told, “Oh, he’s my new favorite villain,” and I don’t necessarily see that. I see a guy that’s conflicted, and I see a guy who has a lot of heart and smudges of humanity left in him. I’m excited for people to get a grasp on where Dwight’s coming from. It’ll be awesome.
In the comics, Dwight eventually becomes an ally of Rick’s group. Are you excited about that possibility for TV Dwight?
Yeah, yeah, why not! That would be great. I would love that, I would love to go back and forth — that would be so fun.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.