The Walking Dead: Dead City Q&A — What Željko Ivanek’s The Croat Learned from Negan’s Playbook

On The Walking Dead: Dead City, Željko Ivanek plays The Croat, a ruthless Manhattan gang leader with ties to Negan’s past. In this Q&A with, he talks about The Croat’s infatuation with Negan, why his moral compass is so skewed, and what he learned from Negan’s playbook. 

Q: What excited you the most about The Croat and what was it like joining The Walking Dead Universe?
A: I don't know that I've done something like this before where I’ve joined a whole world that’s already been established and lived in by other people, so I had some catching up to do. I hadn't watched the show previously, so I did a deep dive and binged almost all of it. It was mainly research to learn about Negan/Maggie’s background and to see what that relationship was all about. I also wanted to know what Negan’s world was like since my story is folded back into his. I was just incredibly impressed by the extent to which The Walking Dead Universe is a character story, all of it. They're all character stories. There's the big set-up — yes, something happened in the world that changed everything — but at the end of the day what you're really following is characters. What’s happening to them all stems from that, more than plot or incident, which I think I hadn't anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised that that was the focus.
I think The Croat is an interesting character in the same way. All of these characters are just trying to find their way in this world and trying to figure out how to put together some semblance of civilization. They grapple with what it means to be isolated, what it means to be part of a group, what it means to crave safety when all that's been taken away. So that was one of the things that I was drawn into, given his backstory and how he got into Negan's orbit in the first place. I also wanted to see what happens when people spin out of control, when that desire for safety and comfort becomes self-perpetuating — a thing to be feared rather than comforted by. What are people capable of? The Croat’s limits went pretty far before he got reined in, and now he's expanding on all of that again in a very scary way.  
Q: Meeting The Croat and realizing his connections to Negan’s past is such a clever way to connect these two worlds. We learn about The Croat’s background a bit in Ep 3 when he tells Armstrong that he was a father, a husband, and a scientist and has used his knowledge to create what he calls his own “sanctuary.” How much did you know about The Croat’s past when you were working to build this character and were there any additions that you made to really flesh him out?   
A: I knew quite a bit going in just because I had an extensive conversation with Eli Jorné [showrunner] about his background, how he came into this world, and how he fits into the Negan universe. How he got into it and how he got out of it. So that was clear. The bonus of doing six episodes that were all written before we started shooting was that I could read everything and have all the information — that background that shows up in later episodes — right from the start. That allowed me to build a whole arc, which is a luxury. That doesn't always happen! A lot of the basic information about him is right there. It's in the stories he tells and so much of it is that central connection to Negan and trying to reestablish that relationship. He's got a new version of that kind of relationship going with the Dama. I think his need to ‘bring the family back together’ obviously partly stems from the loss of his own family and a determination to never be that vulnerable again. That gets twisted into the character he's become, and other people truly pay the price for that.
Q: We’ve seen so many formidable villains in The Walking Dead Universe, but The Croat is somewhat different in his brutality and point of view. He says things like “I don’t enjoy such barbarism” and yet has no qualms murdering his own people in order to get a point across. Where do you think this cognitive dissonance comes from and what really motivates him? It seems like power might be part of it, but like you said maybe it's more that he's motivated to try and create a chosen family.
A: I think his motivation is to form a chosen family. The chosen family is about safety. It's about feeling safe and invulnerable because this world makes you so vulnerable. It has made them all so vulnerable. So, it's a way of fighting back against that. I think part of what happens is that that overriding goal erases the morality along the way, so that he doesn't think about the individual. He doesn’t think about the consequences when it's all in service of some greater "good" in his mind. Clearly that happened during his Negan years. He was so good at reading people, reading situations, and getting information out of people and that all spun out into paranoia at some point, where even Negan was repulsed by how far he was willing to go.
That's how you know he's a true Walking Dead villain. When a character like Negan is like, "He took it too far," you're just like, "Oh damn, okay that says a lot."
The logic was there. If anything, it's just a matter of degree. Negan built the logic. He's just implementing it with no limits. But the logic is already cooked into that sense of tribalism, that sense of belonging. Belonging is a good thing on the one hand because there's comfort and safety in it, but the flip side of it is that everything else is a threat.
Q: When The Croat and Negan finally come face to face in Episode 4, he’s just so excited and the way that you shouted, "Neeeee-gahhhn!" was so unhinged and amazing. He welcomes him as brother and is absolutely overjoyed. He even says, "You blew off my ear. So what? I have another." Why do you think he still thinks of Negan as a brother and holds him in such high regard, even though Negan tried to kill him?
A: You know, he's like a child. Negan was the first person that wrapped him up in safety after all the stuff happened to his family. He just kind of wandered until he wandered into Negan's world, and that was the first place where he had any sense of safety again, any sense of belonging. The showmanship that Negan ran the place with was all very romantic and enticing, and he's trying to recreate that. He has his own versions of things that are all about bonding the group. So, in The Croat’s eyes he's a brother, but also almost like a father figure. It's almost like he thinks, "Here's the person who will protect me. Here's the person I can count on." Because for all that he's established himself, I think there's still a hole in there that Negan fills. He thinks, "that's the person that I can rely on that can protect me at the end of the day — being in his orbit is what will save me." There's something very parent/child about it to me.
Now that you say that I can see how he was mimicking that with that little conversation he had with the younger woman in the audio room who was set to play the CD for him. The way that he crouches down and tries to have an intimate conversation with her, it felt like you said, like a mentor/mentee or like a father/daughter moment he was trying to create.
Yeah. It's twisted that he doesn't see that because you see the fear on her part. He reads her fear but explains to himself, "I'm not something to be afraid of." He is! Her fear is real, and her fear is justified.
Q: This is a very interesting role because in a certain way it feels like you're part of the OG Walking Dead crew since your character has so much history with the Saviors and Negan. How did that feel for you? Was it more pressure because of those relational ties that already existed? Or did that give you the foundation to feel free to go ham with the character?
A: You know, there was a little pressure because you watch season after season after season and the acting is so good! The show is so well done, and you grow with these characters. There's just an enormous amount of good work that's the foundation in the first place, so it feels like, "I want to live up to that. I hope I can live up to that!" I think it's a very clever set-up to have pulled those two characters, Negan and Maggie, out of that world and put them in a new world — all that history feeds into all of this now. There's a continuity there that they're riding on and I'm riding on, having been part of that world at some point, so there's a comfort in knowing that the foundation is strong to begin with. They're all in a new place and in this very different urban world where the challenges are different, so everybody's starting from scratch to some extent at the same time. It's a nice juxtaposition.
Q: Episode 4 ends with The Croat realizing that he and Negan are not on the same page anymore. What can you tease out about what this will do to The Croat and how it will influence his decisions for the rest of the season?
A: For a long time, he's been working on the assumption that if he can pull Negan back into his orbit, all will be well with the world and that Negan would want that as much as he does. Suddenly he discovers that's not the case! That’s scary and devastating in a way, but at this point he's got his own strength and his own power and resources to fight back. But I do think that Negan rejecting him is a real unexpected twist. He's just been assuming that all they have to do is get back together and the world will right itself and they’ll conquer Manhattan. So, it's destabilizing to find that's not the case and that he has to use force if it's not going to happen voluntarily! He still believes he'll come around.  
I feel like fans are going to love these insights. The Croat is a super compelling character and is both terrifying and funny, which I guess is in the vein of Negan too!
It is! There's a real performative element that he learned from Negan. You put on a show and that’s how you bind people. That’s how you influence people — it’s not just brute strength and violence. Power is pulling people into your orbit. So, there’s a lot of humor there. I really enjoyed that element of it. It's all from the Negan playbook, so that's why it's so amazing to go back and see where he learned it all.

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