To celebrate the Oct. 22 Season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead — the series’ 100th episode — Yahoo TV will be posting a new TWD-related story every day through the season opener.
It hasn’t happened yet, but should the makeup team on The Walking Dead need an extra hand, they might want to make a trip to the Hilltop. That community’s leader, Gregory, or rather his real-life counterpart, veteran actor Xander Berkeley, is not just one of the best character actors on TV and in movies, but he’s also got makeup and prosthetics talents that led him to be the first person invited to do his own makeup transformation at the International Makeup Artists Trade Show in 2007.
“I started out in the theater early on doing makeup,” Berkeley tells Yahoo TV. “My father had always given us art supplies when we were kids. He was an artist, and very early on, I was certainly interested in acting. My mom made costumes for me because that excited me more than toys or games or any trucks or guns or anything. Costumes just sent me over the moon. The combination of being skilled with my hands at various sculptural activities and being into costumes, my father sort of encouraged that from a very early age and gave me nose putty and things I could make gashes and wounds and scars and noses with. I was really into the whole Lon Chaney mythology pretty early on, and watched those movies with him. I came into the theater really loving the notion of an actor being able to transform himself for a role, not just as an actor, but also as a makeup artist, and arriving early enough to do so, as a way to sort of shoehorn myself into a character. By the time I was through doing the makeup, I’d look in the mirror and see somebody other than myself, and that was my preparation.”
Berkeley, who has more than 100 TV roles and more than 100 film roles on his résumé, has certainly built a career full of character transformations, even if he is most known for playing serious, “menacing,” guys, as he puts it. He’s also known for taking what could be rote roles and placing special touches on them, as he currently does with The Walking Dead’s Gregory, a villainous type who Berkeley has fleshed out by giving him an odd sense of humor, an “empty bravado,” and a weird sort of frienemyship with fellow oddball bad guy Simon.
As for his makeup and artist skills, Berkeley has been asked to use them, during his time on 24 — where he helped create the special effects skin used to display his character’s plutonium poisoning — and Salem, where, in the video below, he can be seen making masks that were used in the supernatural series.
As for deploying his artistry on TWD, he said he doesn’t think the series’ special effects and makeup whiz Greg Nicotero knows about his skills, but he does have an idea about how they could be of use for Gregory.
“In the comic book, Gregory meets his demise hanging from a tree,” Berkeley said. “I’ve always had this fantasy that [on the show] I get to turn into a zombie after the tree, dangling, and I chew myself down and have some afterlife as a zombie. It’ll be some variation on that theme, I suspect, for at least a part of an episode after [Gregory’s] been offed. That’s when I’ll certainly ask if I can [help], because I’ve been practicing zombie effects for years on Halloween on my friends. My youngest daughter, for the past couple of years, has wanted to be a zombie for Halloween, too.”
Not that anyone should count out Gregory yet. Berkeley’s hint about what Gregory will get up to in Season 8: “How low can you go?” he said. “There are obstacles in this post-apocalyptic world. There are obstacles, and one must do what one must do. What will Gregory do?”
Before we get to see that storyline unfold, Yahoo TV asked Berkeley to take a walk down memory lane and share memories of roles past and present.
The Walking Dead, Gregory (2016-present)
On what aspects of Gregory’s character he focused on to make him as interesting and layered as possible: Empty bravado. He’s just this obvious sense of outward self-importance, but with something missing within. The things that are so clear from the start, that he’s a physical coward, and knowing that that was going to come out later… I’ve always felt that the more you can create a distance to travel, the more dynamic the journey is for the audience watching the character. The farther that person has to fall or the more sort of dynamic it is in general, and especially because this guy’s opening line is, essentially, “I’m the boss,” everybody is being led into his world… I’ve played a lot of roles where I’ve been the authority figure, and there’s been some menace to them, and for dramatic tension purposes, it was good to keep a little bit of that alive for a little while before having him be diminished and reduced to this buffoon and physical coward that I knew [Gregory] was going to end up becoming.
On what he and showrunner Scott Gimple think makes Gregory a great character, in spite of his frequently weasel-like behavior: It’s just been fun playing all these different colors along the way. My one get from [showrunner] Scott [Gimple]… I said at [our] meeting, this guy does seem pretty anxious, and he’s clearly a narcissist, and he’s got a lot of sleazy aspects to him and very little redeeming qualities, so I’m just thinking what am I going to get out of this? I’m happy to sacrifice my vanity to play any given part, as I have in the past, and I do notice that there is a thanklessness about it at a certain point, because people sometimes, especially on a show like this, will mistake the character for the actor, and vice versa. I have played an awful lot of sh*theels in my day, and I do have two little girls that I would like to be able to turn on the TV someday when I’m gone and see me as something other than that… so I said, “Is there anything that I can bring to this? What does this show need? What can I offer it that might be a positive?”
We came around to a sense of humor. That Gregory might at least believe in his heart that he’s a funny guy and that he’s maybe, and Scott said yes, life has certainly taught him a lot of bad lessons. He’s been able to get away with doing a lot of bad things in his life because he had the power and was rewarded for them. He could, as boss, have been maybe in a room of people who would have roared with laughter at his inappropriate jokes. Just because that’s what sometimes you do in order to keep your job, right? Scott said absolutely. One way or another, this guy, maybe there’s a little glimmer of something likable about him; he doesn’t always take himself too seriously. Even though he’s a narcissist and even though he’s very involved with himself, he still has a kind of fatalistic, “Oh my God, the world’s gone to hell in a hand basket,” so he wants another drink and he wants to be with a pretty lady and he wants to stay alive, so sue him. Is that so wrong? He’s kind of got that attitude going. I look at it that way, of, OK, so let’s forgive him of his sins. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody at the end of the day. He’s not out to see people suffer… especially if it comes down to him. He really doesn’t want to see himself suffer.
On Gregory’s entertaining relationship with Negan’s right-hand man Simon (Steven Ogg): I think that’s a perfect example, that relationship… Gregory’s trying to charm this guy in order to stay alive, in order to not have all of his goods taken away, in order to not have all of his pride and power in the community stripped from him. If he can get this guy to smile or laugh in a situation a little bit, win him over, that’s what Gregory will do. I think Simon, in turn, is brighter than the average thug and has been around a lot of… every time he comes in with this crowd, traipsing into the Hilltop foyer, Gregory looks around and says, well, he doesn’t really have anybody terribly scintillating to chat with. Probably, Gregory provides a much-needed respite, and in that comes the makings of a friendship where we can both sort of help each other out a little and make the world a little less cheerless.
The Mentalist, Sheriff Thomas McAllister, aka serial killer “Red John” (2008-13)
On whether or not he knew he would be the series’ ultimate baddie, despite appearing in just a handful of episodes: Oh, heaven’s no. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I kept looking for these opportunities to be comedic, because I’ve had to be so many heavy-footed characters over the years, and I did start out in live comedy on stage. But once you do one thing, you tend to get set in people’s minds, and they want you to do more of that… [my] general oeuvre has been that of iron-footed, authoritarian, powerful, menacing characters, by and large, if there would be a general description. When they were asking me to be the sheriff of Napa, the episode as I read it… immediately the thought that went up in my mind was, “What kind of guy becomes the sheriff of a place like Napa Valley?” I thought, it’s some guy that’s living out a fantasy to be a cowboy, some guy that kind of wants to have power over people that have a lot more money than him. He’s kind of the cock of the walk. I think I had just done North Country, so I had a pot belly, because I’d put on weight for the character I played in that movie, a middle management dweeb.
To me, I was the red herring in the very first episode after the pilot. David Nutter directed it, and I had done The X-Files with him, one of the first episodes of The X-Files; we’d had a ball working on that and he offered [The Mentalist role] to me, to come and help set the tone of this show. I was flattered and delighted, and we both got a big kick out of the idea that this guy was not obviously the villain, the killer of that episode, but was a red herring. There would be moments, to keep the story alive, to misdirect, where he would have to create a moment of sinister possibility for [McAllister] to be the murderer, but then also to allow for moments of humor. That’s what I thought was going to be the character’s prime function, to be kind of the buffoon and a source of amusement. I thought it was a one-off, and I thought no more about it until I got a call from [the production team] that they wanted to use a picture of me in an episode, and I was like, “What picture do they want to use? They want to use one from the episode I did?” “No, they just want a picture of you,” and I thought, “Hmm, that’s curious …”
We knew there was a possibility that [McAllister] was a runner-up, a contender [to be Red John]. I never took it seriously. I knew how badly… Malcolm McDowell was dying [to be Red John], everybody was. Let’s just say there were five of us, two of them were really good friends of mine, Kevin Corrigan, a dear friend of mine from New York, and Michael Gaston is a friend from New York… but we didn’t know who it was going to be. Then they started narrowing them down, and finally there was a bunch of us on a couch one day when they let us know, and Malcolm just kept slapping me on the knee, and going, “Dude, you’re Red John! You’re Red John. You’ll be able to sign autographs for years to come!”
Jericho, John Smith (2008)
On playing another character who, despite appearing in just a few episodes, turned out to be… The evil mastermind.
On Jericho co-star Lennie James, his co-star again on The Walking Dead, though James’s Morgan and Berkeley’s Gregory have yet to share a scene together: I hope [we will], it’s just… Lennie is one of those people who, as a person, just radiates integrity, and I guess I have never seen him play a character that doesn’t have integrity; so, his integrity kind of combined with the integrity of the characters that he’s played, I can imagine that Gregory would just have to wither in his presence.
24, CTU Director George Mason (2001-03)
On meeting his wife, 24 co-star Sarah Clarke, on the set, and keeping their relationship hush-hush at first: I met my wife on the pilot… we’d already gone to Portugal together before they picked up the show [for Season 2], and then we had to kind of keep it under wraps. I remember we came back to start the second season, and Carlos [Bernard] came up independently to both Sarah and myself and asked what we had done over the summer. I had actually driven across country with these two tickets to Portugal, and she and I had gone there and driven back together, so when he asked me what I had done for the summer, I was like, “Oh, gosh, I was in Portugal, I drove across country…” And he goes, “That’s wild, did you talk to Sarah? She went to Portugal, and she drove across country, too!” I go, “No.” We hadn’t thought about not telling that story. Fortunately, Carlos, for a while anyway, thought that was kind of a coincidence.
Miami Vice, Tommy Lowell (1987)
Aquarius, Police Commissioner (2015)
Salem, Magistrate Hale (2014-15)
Nikita, Percy Rose (2010-12)
The Closer, Detective Curt Landry (2009)
Nash Bridges, Neil Wojack (1996)
The Outer Limits, Terry McCammon (1996)
The X-Files, Dr. Hodge (1993)
On crafting his Miami Vice baddie, a music manager/coke addict who met an ironic ending: I’m still really good friends with the director, Colin Bucksey, who recently won an Emmy for [directing] Fargo. It was right after [the movie] Sid and Nancy came out, and Colin is British, and in the British tradition, didn’t feel the need to audition me. He thought I was a fine actor and just had Bonnie [Timmermann], the casting director, offer me the role. It was a double episode, with Sheena Easton getting married to Don Johnson, something like that. I played her manager, and true to TV form, I ended up playing her manager/husband ten years later on an Outer Limits episode, for the pop culture fans out there. Just an accident of fate, no intention or casting director to repeat history. So I played Tommy Lowell, but we would call him “Tommy Blow,” because he was a cokehead, and all of his behavior would be over amped. He wasn’t so much an obvious villain like the bad guys on the show, but his behavior would be just annoying, like, we all knew those people that were annoying because they were on coke.
We decided to amuse ourselves by having there be a secret about the character when it came time to blow him up in his car. I remember Colin, very dry, telling me to pop a cassette into the Porsche tape player, after [weighing it in my hand]. “Weigh it in your hand, it’s somewhat heavier than a normal cassette would be, and when you’re putting it into the player, might you add a line to draw out this distinction of weight?” I said, “What’s this? Heavy metal?” I was looking for a laugh. Colin said, “Yes, we like that, say that.” Then it cuts to kaboom… as soon as I put it in the player, the Porsche blows up. [I said], yeah, that’s going to be on my death reel.
On working with multiple people in multiple projects throughout his career, including Don Johnson on Miami Vice and later Nash Bridges, David Duchovny on The X-Files and later Aquarius, and Shane West on Nikita and Salem: I’m the guy that always shows up knowing my lines, and I’m never late. I’ve been on enough sets where people showed up late and they didn’t know their lines, that I think it just… it is a business at the end of the day. And I also play a lot of characters that do a lot of yakking, and if you’ve ever been on a set where there was someone who had a lot of lines and they couldn’t get them out, it costs a lot of money. I don’t get paid that much relative to a lot of people in the business. It ended up being very economical for them to hire somebody that could just actually say those lines and get them all out. I’m underselling myself, but I do think that at a certain point, word gets around. Beyond that, I like to think that people like Don [Johnson] have had me on set and enjoyed my company and want me back around because I’m fun to have around.
On how, with his extensive resume and plethora of co-stars, he could rival Kevin Bacon in a six degrees of separation game: Yeah, it’s true. And I got to work with Kevin and his wife Kyra on an episode of The Closer, and I’ve worked with Kevin on A Few Good Men and Apollo 13, so yeah, I think we could certainly set up a parallel universe. I’m receiving a Carney Award this year for character actors. It’s the third year they’ve had them, and this year they’re giving them to character actors, film and TV character actors, William H. Macy, Richard Kind, William Fichtner, Wendie Malick, and myself. It’s just a really nice thing, in honor of Art Carney. He was a huge hero of mine growing up. And it’s funny, sort of deliberately having flown under the radar, and enjoying my anonymity and being able to maintain my efficacy as a result, as an actor, and still be kind of well-established and getting to work with people again and again… it’s still nice to get some recognition at this point. So maybe we can do a six-degree thing, we can get a proper board game out of it, and people won’t go, “Who?”
The A-Team, Sergeant Wilson and Baker (1983-84)
On playing different characters on the same show (after having been a finalist for the role of Howling Mad Murdock), and how Mr. T wasn’t having it, at first: When I played the detective role on The A-Team — I also played a couple of different roles on Miami Vice just because my friend Colin Bucksey got lonely in Miami and he wanted me back to hang out, so I played a totally different character on the show and nobody thought anything of it. I looked and sounded different. I wasn’t “Tommy Blow” anymore. But on The A-Team, at one point, Mr. T was sitting on top of me and tying me up, and he stopped and said, “Hey, didn’t I tie you up about five, six episodes ago?” I said, “Yeah, I can’t lie to you, T, you did.” He said, “Damn, I’ve got to talk to the producers about this. Ain’t no one gets away from Mr. T!” I said, “Well, but I looked different, I had a mustache, I had a cowboy hat, look at me, [my character] is in the military now. I’m a totally different guy…” “Oh, you’re playing a different guy. OK, that’s OK. I think that’s OK. We’ll go ahead, don’t worry about it… different guy, I like that.” We’re shooting this whole thing, and I kind of became his mascot, him telling me stories all day long and sharing his insights about humanity. It was a beautiful thing.
The Walking Dead Season 8 premieres Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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