'The Walking Dead' postmortem: Khary Payton on King Ezekiel maintaining his humanity after so much loss

Warning: This interview for the “Some Guy” episode of The Walking Dead contains spoilers.

It’s a very optimistic King Ezekiel we’ve seen leading his people through the apocalypse so far, but all of that is tested in “Some Guy,” in which the loss of a huge section of his Kingdom community — as well as the death of his beloved tiger, Shiva — rattles the regal leader to his core.

Ezekiel portrayer Khary Payton talked to Yahoo Entertainment about the pivotal episode, including what he was thinking about as he watched Ezekiel’s CGI pet get eaten by walkers, how Ezekiel won’t immediately recover from the devastating deaths in this hour, and how Carol’s friendship, respect, and experience may be key in helping Ezekiel and the Kingdom move forward.

This was a great deep-dive episode into King Ezekiel.
I’m really proud of everybody on this episode. I just feel great about it. Dan Liu, who was the director, it was his directorial debut. He’s helped edit, I think, over 90 episodes of The Walking Dead, and this was his first directing job. He absolutely killed it. I’m so proud of him.

Let’s start with that opening scene. At first, I didn’t realize it was Ezekiel. I didn’t realize it was necessarily postapocalypse, because it’s a setting that we haven’t seen before. It looks like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, getting ready to go to the office for a very trying day. Of course, that’s what it turns out to be. But what did that scene mean to you?
Well to me, Ezekiel is this kind of beautiful example of what we all are. The truth is that the person that we wake up as in the morning isn’t necessarily the person that leaves the house when we walk out the door. We all put on a certain self. It’s not that it’s a different person, and it’s not that he’s playing a role. I think that this has become more than just playing a role, even though he was an actor in the past. That may have given him kind of his window to this, but this … he puts on the role of a leader. It’s his job.

When we go to our jobs, we don’t necessarily talk the same way that we do when we sit at home with family by ourselves. When senators talk in front of people, they don’t talk the way they talk in their living room necessarily, but that doesn’t mean that’s not them. He is this very broad example of what we all do sometimes, which is take responsibility when no one else will. This is the way he’s chosen to take care of it. For the most part, it’s worked out pretty well. But in the apocalypse, things tend to go wrong every once in a while.

When he came up with this position of leadership, this way forward for this community to exist and thrive more than most communities have in this world, do you think he thought about these situations? About the possible outcomes of things like this?
No … the thing that really hit me about this episode is that when it all starts to go sideways, his people make a point to take care of him. I think that is something that he never asked for. The whole point of being the king was that it was a persona that helped him protect his people; it was not about protecting himself. When so many died around him, I think that the idea of one more person putting their life on the line for his, it ends up being more than he can take, because that’s exactly the opposite of what he was doing this whole thing for. He was the same guy … the zookeeper who decided to jump into the cage, he was jumping into the cage. He wasn’t standing outside waiting for somebody else to do the job. That’s never been him.

Do you think he’s shocked when his people immediately do step up and make it their priority to take care of him? He’s very beloved to them, but they also realize at this point that they need him to lead them forward. Is he shocked, or is it more guilt that he’s feeling?
I think he’s shocked by the deaths, but he’s not shocked by the love. I just think that in that moment, he doesn’t want it. He would much rather sacrifice himself, than be sacrificed for. But the thing is, when you work as hard as he has over the course of this apocalypse to give people hope, and to give people a happiness, and give people a light to see by in a dark world, you give out that much good stuff, people are gonna give it back to you when they think you need it, you know?

My dad is a cancer survivor and is actually fighting cancer again right now, but for 30-something years, he was a pediatrician in my hometown. To see all the goodwill and love of the community come out and back my dad up when he was going through cancer treatment … I mean, I cannot walk the streets with my dad, because it was either the kids who would go see him, or it’s kids who grew up and now they’re adults, they would see my dad and ask him how he was and give him love. Or it’s the parents of the kids who grew up, and now they’re parents taking their kids to see him. You’ve got generations upon generations that he had given to for decades in this town. When he needed some support, they all gave it to him. It was just this rush. I feel the same way with Ezekiel, that he’d been, for years, telling these people, “You keep your head up. We’re not just gonna survive. We’re gonna live. We’re gonna thrive. We’re gonna be great together.” If that’s the guy who has been giving you juice, and giving you hope this whole time, when you see him fall down, whether he likes it or not, you’re gonna help him back up.

And that’s really the big question now: Can he regroup? Not that he doesn’t have the strength; we know he does. Physically, he bounced back within this episode, to get back to the Kingdom, and to get through everything else that he faced for the rest of the episode. Emotionally, we know he’s strong. But I think the bigger question is, can he ask his people to continue to risk their lives in this battle?
That is a big question that an apocalypse asks of us, isn’t it? I guess we’re gonna find out in coming episodes.

Melissa McBride as Carol in <em>The Walking Dead.</em> (Photo: AMC)
Melissa McBride as Carol in The Walking Dead. (Photo: AMC)

We see fully in this episode how much he and Carol have come to respect each other. And she simply has more experience with these kinds of battles, and losses. That would seem to be a key to him being able to regroup.
They both realize that their way of coping — they have a similarity. It’s that they put on their job personas in a similar fashion. They may not, at the beginning of the job, know exactly what they’re doing, but you do as much as you can, and you push yourself a little further. Yeah, you make mistakes along the way, but before you know it, you’re doing something you’ve never done before. They’ve both done that in different ways. This is the thing that’s going to bind them together.

Do you think Ezekiel has considered at this point that he may not have a choice in continuing his leadership role because the community needs him to lead it?
Well, I think that there are a lot of things that he hasn’t considered yet. I don’t think he considered this kind of failure, which is why he’s having such a rough time coming to grips with it. But like you say, you never know if you can climb out of a hole until you fall into it. That’s something these next episodes are really about — climbing back out of the hole and seeing how much of your humanity you can bring back with you.

The loss of Shiva was obviously such a heartbreaking part of this episode too. She was more than a pet or weapon to Ezekiel. How much does her death rattle his confidence, and his optimism, and his belief in what is possible in this harsh world?
Well, to me, Shiva is kind of an embodiment of what the Kingdom is, which is this beautiful and rare thing, surrounded by death, that somehow was able to prosper, more than just survive. I think that watching so many of his people die, and then seeing the embodiment of that community die in this dirty, chemical-infested ravine, is probably just about the last straw for him. I think it’s going to take a while before he can even start to climb out of the hole. I think he’s gonna be sitting down in it for a little while, trying to figure out which way is up.

What was filming that scene like? It was pure emotion for Ezekiel, and you had to pull that off with a CGI character.
Well, for me, the most gut-wrenching thing about this episode was the loss of so many actors that I had been working with for so long. Carlos Navarro, who plays Alvaro, Daniel Newman, who plays Daniel, of course, and so many of the other actors who you never hear them say anything, but they’ve been in the Kingdom — they’re that Kingdom crew. They’ve been there since the beginning. After this episode, I did not see any of them. A couple of them came to Walker Stalker in Atlanta. I was so glad to see them, because I didn’t know when I would see them again. It was so cool.

But you develop friendships and kinships with people over the course of the time that you’re on this show. For instance, Carlos Navarro, he’s from Orlando. I normally live in Los Angeles. I knew that when Alvaro died, I just wouldn’t be seeing Carlos as much as I used to. That just breaks my heart, because I f***ing love that guy. In the moment where Shiva was dying, it was really the culmination of all of those deaths — that’s what she represented to me. That’s where I kind of found myself in that moment. It was almost like Ezekiel wanted to have one more chance to be able to maybe save them all, if he could just save Shiva.

At the end, when the Kingdom gates open, and only Ezekiel, Carol, and Jerry walk in, the people know what has happened. And then Ezekiel sees Henry, and he must be thinking about his personal connections to Henry’s family, the deaths of his father and brother. At that moment, is his “I’m just some guy” declaration weighing on him the most heavily, that he’s just “some guy” who led these people into war, and now he’s “some guy” who they’re still looking to, to carry them forward?
At that moment, I think he’s so numb. I think it’s one of those deals where, when your nerves get overtaxed, you can’t feel a thing anymore. I think he’s kind of lost all feeling in that moment, which is why he literally can barely even look in Henry’s direction, let alone say anything. For the show, since I’m wearing the wig, I shave my head now. You put this alcohol-based astringent on your head after you shave your head, to kill everything. The first time I did the alcohol on my head, it just burned like hell. But after a while, it’s like all those nerve endings are just dead. I figured they’ve screamed so loud, it just doesn’t hurt anymore. I feel like this is kind of like the version of Ezekiel shaving his head, and throwing alcohol on the wound. He’s so numbed from the pain at that point, there’s not a whole lot left to feel.

Now, honestly, when we shot that end scene, we shot the opening speech in the morning, then at the end of the day we shot Ezekiel walking back into the Kingdom. I was doing this rousing, “We are one… We’re gonna fight these guys, and we’ll do it together.” It was this amazing moment with all of my Kingdomers. Everybody was just so in it. Then to kind of get all disheveled and beat up, and walk back in there with just Carol and Jerry — the first time we walked through and did that, I just bawled like a baby. It was way too much. It was just this visceral reaction to this great speech, and rah-rah rally moment. Then to turn around and realize that everything Ezekiel said was bulls***, it just broke my heart. My nerve endings weren’t quite dead yet, but Ezekiel’s were.

You earned that moment in that final scene.
I would say so.

Before we go, best wishes to your dad.
Thank you. He’s a fighter.

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

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