Massacre, capture, pet problems – things are looking bleak for King Ezekiel as The Walking Dead following the first half of season eight. Matt Chapman spoke to his royal highness, better known as Khary Payton, about the alliance’s last stand.
There aren’t many times we’ve been star struck. When you’ve managed to get a selfie with JJ Abrams, even as his agent’s pulling him inside for a screening, or doorstepped the Stath, and had his mate Jason Flemyng snap a pic of you, you lose the fear A-list celebs sometimes generate. But talking to royalty, that’s a different Morphy Richards of fish. And while he might have been faking it till he made it, in our book King Ezekiel – AKA Khary Payton – is as blue-blooded as they come. Even if the wheels have come off the royal carriage recently…
“It’s like a horrible fall from grace. I think he’s going through an incredible bout of guilt because he didn’t become king to be revered, he was doing it to help protect everybody,” Payton says of a leader who has recently seen a lot of his subjects die. “What happens is that everyone sacrifices themselves to save him, which is the exact opposite of what he wanted. So Ezekiel has an incredibly guilt-ridden existence at this point, because he would have died for everyone versus this thing that ended up happening.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The Kingdom’s raids on Negan’s domain might have resulted in a huge loss of life, but Payton knows Ezekiel was doing the right thing.
“We were so close to getting it all right, so just for the record I must say that Ezekiel did a great job of leading his people. If the plan had gone the way it was supposed to, he actually did his job to perfection. But those guns were someplace that they weren’t supposed to be and that’s how that massacre ended up happening, so I want to give him a little props for doing an incredible job up until the end there.”
Season eight of The Walking Dead airs on Monday nights at 9pm on FOX: read our reviews here.
Also see news of Khary Payton’s appearance at MCM London in May (along with Cooper Andrews, AKA Jerry!) and find out how to get tickets.
Where are you speaking to us from today?
I am in beautiful Burbank, California. I have about 14 hours before I get on a plane to Sydney, Australia – we’re doing conventions in Sydney and Melbourne, so we’re going to meet the fans and shake hands and kiss babies and have a good old time.
People truly love this show so is it a rush to walk out on that stage?
It’s so amazing. The great thing about conventions is it’s a way in which you can get that visceral, tactile energy in the room. One of the things you hate about TV and film is that you don’t have that immediate reaction you get when you’re on stage – it’s almost like a delayed stage reaction to be able to meet all these people at the conventions and hear the stories about how the show affects them and how it has brought people together. It’s really a soul-feeding experience for me that I wasn’t expecting.
There’s a Shakespearean quality to King Ezekiel. Did you base him on characters you’ve played on stage?
I definitely built him from a lot of different characters that I’ve played over the years. The voice was from a lot of Shakespeare I’ve done, and actually from my great uncle Neb. He was a very exuberant speaker and he had a kind of a slow Southern Savannah drawl but it had the same majesty that Ezekiel exudes. So when I was figuring the character out and developing him, I actually used a lot of uncle Neb. He was a security guard for most of his life and I think it’s kind of funny that both he and Ezekiel had these important but everyday kind of jobs, but they have this exuberance and theatricality about them.
When we’re watching you onscreen with Shiva, we see a king with his tiger. What do you see?
Most of the time I don’t see anything. Maybe 10 per cent of the shots are with an animatronic tiger, and there are a handful of shots that were with a guy in a blue suit jumping on people pretending to eat them. But 90 per cent of the time there was nothing there. And you have to call upon your imaginary powers that you had when you were a kid playing in the woods and the backyard and doing experimental theatre in my twenties, having to pretend that everything was there. I’ve done a lot of cartoon voiceover and so you have to do the same when you’re in the sound booth as well, so oddly enough I’ve had a lot of experience with playing off of things that were never there in the first place.
Are you a Calvin and Hobbes fan?
Oh my god, yeah. There’s a great mash up of a few cartoons that people have done – a mash up of Shiva and Ezekiel with Calvin and Hobbes – and I think it’s just brilliant. There’s pictures of them crossing on logs over a creek in the woods and yes it’s Calvin and Hobbes and Shiva and Ezekiel. I should get one of those images on a t-shirt and wear that around, because it’s really kind of awesome.
Aside from Shiva, your other awesome sidekick is Jerry. He’s the king’s biggest fan and a big softie, but can be serious and hard as nails when needed. Is that surprising to play against?
He’s just a big, happy, silly dude. Cooper [Andrews] is such a good actor that he’s able to play these two different sides and get really serious and in a few words say what everybody’s thinking. Jerry wasn’t a character in the comic books, they were familiar with Cooper for a couple of years as he did another show on AMC called Halt And Catch Fire. So they had been watching him and they built this character around Cooper as they knew that he was able to be funny but also get serious and really let that gravity drop. He’s just great at that.
We hate what Negan is doing to Rick and the others, but as TV viewers we love the character. What’s Ezekiel’s opinion of him?
Well, the weird thing is that he’s never really met Negan, Negan’s just an idea and I think he pretty much hates that idea. Negan is incredibly charming, he’s one of the great television bad guys of all time, but personally I can’t stand the dude, he’s just the worst. He tries to come up with all these reasons to justify his actions but the truth is that he just kinda likes killing people and this world gave him an opportunity to kill people every once in a while and enjoy it. At the end of the day he’s a psychopath, I don’t care what anyone says. And as cool and as badass as he looks, in terms of his development he’s kind of pre-teens age-wise. He’s only thinking about himself and his own preservation and doing it in a way that gives him a visceral emotional experience that’s pleasurable for him but sucks pretty badly for everybody else. So I can’t stand the dude and I can’t wait for him to go down, of course.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him with incredible panache and I can’t see anybody else portraying him better. I’ll never forget when Glen and Abraham died, it was just so gruesome. And Glen was absolutely my favourite character on the show before he died and literally minutes later in that episode I was laughing at a joke that Negan had told! And I was like, ‘Goddam this guy’s charming! I can’t stand him but I’m still laughing at his jokes.’
Negan has captured Ezekiel. What does your character think is going to happen to him?
I think Ezekiel’s ready to sacrifice himself for his people. I think it was all about getting his people to safety. The thing that finally got him off that carpet to do something was the fact that his people were in danger again and this time he wasn’t going have them sacrificed for him, he was going to sacrifice for them. And I don’t think he really cares what happens to him at this point, it’s more about making sure that those doors get locked and those saviours are in there with him.
Carl, who has been the moral compass of the group for so long, is now living on borrowed time. What will his loss mean for the group?
It means a huge hole. But I think that it also means the opportunity to fill that hole with his martyrdom and he is a symbol of someone who has grown. One of the things that struck me in the mid-season finale was when he was facing off with Negan, and those two had this real connection over the last couple of seasons. But I literally saw Carl outgrow Negan. You saw Carl become a man and Negan still pitching a hissy fit and taking everything personally. Rather than thinking the way a leader should he’s thinking about who’s peed in his cornflakes, to borrow a phrase. But we saw Carl become a man and I think that’s the most important thing. He could have lived longer and done more things but his true mark was standing on that gate and being the leader for that one moment and hopefully that will galvanise and push these people forward and help them fill whatever hole is left when he’s gone.
Do you read ahead in the comics to see what’s coming up for Ezekiel?
I know what’s coming for Ezekiel as I’ve read the comics already but I try not to think about the comic version of him too much because there are subtle changes in character that have thrown me off a little bit. I read the comics for the fun of it and for background but, except for at the beginning, I don’t read them for Ezekiel’s character development. Because the character of Ezekiel is very subtly different than he ended up being in the show. It was one of those things where I had to walk a fine line because I was like, ‘Wait are we doing this from the comic?’ And Scott Gimple was like, ‘No man, forget about that. We’re going to do this.’
Scott Gimple seems like a really fun guy. What’s he like to work with?
That dude is a ball of nerves, man. [Laughs] I mean, imagine juggling all of these characters in your mind? And the guilt that he holds every time somebody dies on this show, because he works so hard to make them full characters and then he’s like, ‘It’s time for them to go.’ It’s one of the most gut-wrenching things to see and I just feel I have to hold the dude in my arms and pat him on the head because he really is working so hard to make decisions for the story and for everyone that’s watching.
You are the go-to guy when it comes to voicing animations featuring Cyborg from the Justice League. Did DC not come calling when they were casting for the Justice League movie?
No they didn’t come calling for the Justice League story. [Laughs] I’m a little grey to be doing the origin story for Cyborg as he was a teenager when he became that character, so it might have been a stretch. But if they ever do Old Man Cyborg, I’ll be around.