'The Walking Dead': Khary Payton on Ezekiel and Carol, Season 8, and Shiva

Khary Payton as Ezekiel on ‘The Walking Dead’ (Photo: AMC)

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.

The introduction of King Ezekiel and the Kingdom in “The Well” was a much-needed and appreciated part of The Walking Dead Season 7, coming on the heels of the harsh season premiere and sprinkling some lightness and hope throughout what was a dark first half of the season. Yahoo TV talked to the King himself, actor Khary Payton, about how Ezekiel is the show’s “superhero with a secret identity,” about who inspired his stately Ezekiel voice, and about how much his scenes with Cooper Andrews’s Jerry tickle him.

Payton, who described Season 8 as a “vibrant moment” ahead for the characters, also shared his thoughts on Ezekiel’s feelings for Carol, and told us why he threatened to pants Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman when the two met at San Diego Comic-Con this summer.

Yahoo TV: Is it true the scene you auditioned with was Ezekiel and Carol’s big talk at the end of “The Well”? That’s one of the best scenes of the whole season.
Khary Payton: Yeah, yeah. It was that scene … because you need to demonstrate being able to play the two sides of Ezekiel. And that’s really the only scene that you can do it in, you know?

It’s also a backstory scene that really tells us, at the core, everything we need to know about him.
Yes, it’s crazy, because you don’t get that opportunity very often to be able to tell your entire story, you know? And to really break down your own façade and be able to just reveal yourself so quickly to an audience. And I love the people who kind of enjoy Ezekiel’s eccentricities right off the bat, but I especially love the people who weren’t sure about him at the beginning and yet are won over, kind of in that moment where he reveals himself to Carol. To me, if you’re one of those, that means I’ve got you. I’ve got you pretty much for the rest of the run of whatever this is on The Walking Dead.

We’ve seen over-the-top characters on the show before, but Ezekiel’s really the first good guy character who is so over the top, but he’s very grounded too.
Yeah, you know what, he’s the closest thing to a superhero with a secret identity, you know? He puts on this mask in order to help people and to protect the people that he loves. It’s like he’s not doing it for the sake of vanity. He’s doing it because it’s the best way to protect the people around him. And that’s why all of our favorite comic book superheroes put on masks and wear glasses in their normal lives, so that people don’t realize they have dual lives.

Your King Ezekiel is different from the Ezekiel in the comics. For one, he is more grounded. Did you talk about that with the writers and producers?
I think the important thing to remember about when I was researching the comic books for the show is that it is source material; it’s source material, and it is an alternate universe. It’s not the same place. There are very different, not just moments that happen from the comic to the show, but … Daryl literally doesn’t exist in the comic book, Morgan and Carol have been dead for years in the comic books. There are huge discrepancies between the two stories that are being told. So I learned early on that whatever I was taking from the comic book, I needed to take it with a grain of salt, and always go with what the script is giving me, what’s in front of me.

Khary Payton as Ezekiel and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in AMC’s The Walking Dead.  (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Were there are a lot of things that you did instinctually, in terms of the choices you made about how to portray Ezekiel in the TV storyline?
Well, yeah. You know, the funny thing is that in the comic book, and even in the script when I first got it, they never talked about his voice. They never talked about his voice changing or being different, and to me his vocal quality was kind of the linchpin of the character. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare in college and in my 20s, and a lot of voice-over [work] in my 30s, and so it was a natural place for me to try and figure things out with this character.

There’s a lightness, a playfulness, with Ezekiel that was much needed in Season 7. His relationship with Jerry became an instant fan favorite.
I adore [those scenes]. And I wish we had more of ’em. We actually have a lot, but we had to pack in a lot of fun in really short quips and moments, and sometimes I wish we could just sit around and shoot the s*** with Jerry for a while, you know? But those moments are quick and I absolutely hold them so close to my heart, because in a show like this, we can’t sit down to have fun that often. If you’re having too much fun, that means something bad’s about to happen. So I really enjoy and I cherish those moments. And they never end up turning out exactly the way we expect them to. They’re always kind of quirky and take on a little bit of a life of their own. I think when I told Jerry to leave the cobbler, and he’s got half of a peach sticking out of his mouth, I could barely respond to him. I didn’t say the line that I was supposed to afterwards. I think I just said, “Fine,” because that’s all I could get out, because I was about to bust out laughing.

There’s also a lot to look forward to, potentially, in Ezekiel’s relationship with Carol. Do you think they have potential as a couple, whether or not we ever see it play out?
I absolutely think that there is an attraction. At least, definitely Ezekiel to Carol. I don’t know about Carol to Ezekiel. She’s a tough nut; she doesn’t really show her cards that way. She obviously has an affinity for him, but I don’t know how far that goes romantically. And I don’t know if we’ll ever see it. I hope we find out, one way or the other, what their relationship is, but there’s also a beauty in that ambiguity. But obviously, this show is known for stringing the audience along when it comes to relationships, so your guess is as good as mine at this point.

Melissa McBride as Carol and Khary Payton as Ezekiel in The Walking Dead. (Photo: AMC)

There’s also Ezekiel’s best friend, Shiva the tiger. Even Daryl Dixon is envious of Shiva. How many toy tigers have you been given by fans so far?
Oh, yeah, I’ve got quite a collection. I’ve been to big cat sanctuaries, and just learning about what happens to so many tigers in captivity, trying to make sure that they’re treated well. … I’m very happy that we don’t use real tigers on the show. Tigers are wild animals, and they’re meant to roam free, and I love the dynamic that we have with Shiva. But it is make-believe, and I feel like part of what I’m learning is, being a guy who plays Ezekiel, is that I have to get the word out about making sure we treat these creatures with dignity and have a place for them in this world where they do what they’re supposed to, which is to run freely and beautifully.

And the Shiva we see is so beautiful and realistic that a lot of people are surprised to find out she’s a CGI tiger. What extra challenges has that posed for you?
They’re not really challenges. It’s more just that it’s fun for me. This job is all about make-believe, and I have many examples of using my imagination in many different ways. The first shot anybody ever saw of me with Shiva, there was absolutely nothing there. And I remember kind of looking over next to me and petting her and thinking, “I wonder what she’s going to look like?” It turns out she looks like a beauty.

Photo: AMC

Filming in the Atlanta summer with that very heavy coat that King Ezekiel wears — is that kind of next-level sweltering?

It is next-level heat. I’ve gotten woozy, just standing there in the sun with that jacket on. And actually, the first time I met Robert Kirkman was at San Diego Comic-Con this year, and he came up to me and gave me his hand and was like, “We finally meet.” And I said, “Yeah, now turn around because I’m about to pants you for making me wear that jacket.” I was like, “You knew I was going to be in Atlanta. It’s hot. Heat and humidity. And you still drew the big old jacket for [Ezekiel] to wear.” I was like, “You deserve a pantsing for that.”

You already had a fanbase from a lot of other roles — your voice-over work on Teen Titans and Aqualad in Young Justice. But The Walking Dead has its own convention with the Walker Stalker events, and I know you’ve done some of those. … Is it different becoming an instant fan favorite in this universe?
You know, I guess I have had a little bit of prep with Cyborg and Aqualad and the cartoons that I’ve done. But I have to say, walking into Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con was an experience. That is a big room and a lot of people, and that was pretty amazing, and just walking the gauntlet from the loading dock to the autographs area where we signed this year at Comic-Con was … that was the first time I was like, “Wow. There’s a lot of people, and this could get out of hand.”

But for the most part, the fans are incredibly gracious and incredibly respectful, and I get so much of my soul fed being able to meet so many of them. Just this past weekend [at Walker Stalker Boston], I met several cancer survivors who started watching the show, and they see themselves in the show. Survivors who were in a bad situation and are making the best of it. And you realize that this is a show that speaks to people on another level, and it’s the reason that I think I was meant to do this, you know? It’s not just trying to entertain people and have a fun story to tell, but it’s to take people forward when they’re having a hard time. I love that part of my job.

Viewers are looking at the story from Rick’s group’s point of view. They want everyone to just throw in with the Alexandrians right away and go to war, but that’s really the opposite of who Ezekiel is. So viewers may have been frustrated with him for not going to war right away — but it’s also among the reasons he’s beloved. Was that at all frustrating?
Yeah, it was a little bit, honestly. Like before he actually went to war, I don’t even know how many people were like, “You need to fight.” I was like, “I don’t know you people. I don’t know Rick. I don’t know these guys.” It was probably the most frustrating thing that people put to me, because it seemed like such a no-brainer to them. I was like, “If you were in Ezekiel’s situation, you would think twice before sacrificing your people for a guy who told you a story about a rock in the road.” And I think they understand that more now, but yeah, it was like, [Ezekiel] might be, in my opinion, the best leader you’ve ever seen on The Walking Dead, because he doesn’t go off half-cocked. He’s built a society where people are thriving. And there’s something to be said for that. And it’s a TV show and it’s fun, and people want to see people swinging and punching, but the truth is that he leads the way a leader’s supposed to. And fighting is a last resort. It’s not that he was unwilling to fight, but the truth is that he was waiting for his moment. And I would say his timing was pretty successful.

Khary Payton as Ezekiel in The Walking Dead. (Photo: AMC)

Are you looking forward to the fact that in Season 8 the communities are banded together, now that they have officially united?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the thing is that we’re not just all together. We’re all of the same mind, you know? We’re all coming together to slay a dragon. And we know that we can’t do it without each other. There’s a beauty to that kind of brotherhood. It’s born of blood. We’ve all had blood spilled. And that to me was the point of no return for all of us. It’s that we weren’t there to kill for killing’s sake. We’re there to kill only if there was no other way to live. And we found there was no other way to live, except to put our lives on the line. So here we go. And those are the moments in your life when you step out in the clear, knowing that someone next to you has your back. Those are the best times of your life if you look back on ’em. Season 8 is going to be a truly vibrant moment in the lives of these characters. I can’t wait for people to see it.

The Walking Dead Season 8 premieres Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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