The Walking Dead Q&A — Khary Payton On Ezekiel's Alliance Of Desperation With Negan
On The Walking Dead, Khary Payton plays Ezekiel, the former self-styled king who's become a source of light and positivity for his fellow survivors. In this interview with amc.com, he talks about why Ezekiel's staying in the Commonwealth, the surprise of ending up in Alexandria, and what the show means to him.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about why Ezekiel decided he wanted to stay in the Commonwealth despite everything that's going on? Or is it because of everything that's going on?
A: Yeah, I think it's because of everything that's going on. Honestly, this is the Ezekiel that I know and love. He's never been one to not lend a helping hand when he thought it was appropriate. I think he's a guy who lives in gratitude. Even when he was suffering with a certain amount of depression, it was because he felt that he wasn't being enough for the people around him. But when he's in his best place, I think it's a place of thankfulness and gratitude. And I think that he's grateful for what the Commonwealth has done for him.
You know, he reminds me a little bit of Captain America. He stands for the best of what America should be. Now, whether America lives up to that in all those ways, it's like, "I'm going to fight for the America that I want to represent." And I think that even though the Commonwealth has bad people in it, he's like, "What the Commonwealth claims to stand for – that's the good stuff and I want to stand for that with the people that can be helped." I think that's where Ezekiel's coming from.
Q: Do you think he hopes against hope that Carol will stay too?
A: I think he knows Carol well enough to know that the way to love Carol is to set her free and if she wants to come back, she'll come back. One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman says some birds aren't meant to be caged. That's Carol. And anyone who's as close to Carol as Ezekiel is knows that you can't hold her down, so don't even try. But if you need her, she'll come running. But to try to hold her down is a fool's errand.
Q: Ezekiel's scenes with Carol are beautiful to watch because they're so full of warmth and you can tell they know each other so well.
A: Melissa [McBride]'s a gift and one of the things I will miss the most from this experience is every moment I've had on set with her. I'm getting emotional now just because I've held off saying my actual goodbyes. I try to not to think of it as goodbye. But it may be a while before I'm able to stand in front of Melissa McBride when the lights turn on and she teaches me things that I didn't realize. I have so much to thank her for.
Q: I'm a fan of the dynamic between Ezekiel and Princess. They have a great scene in Episode 19 where Princess can't believe that Ezekiel is staying and where they talk about Mercer. How would you describe their relationship as well as your real-life relationship with Paola Lázaro?
A: Oh man, it's funny. There are so many times that people who've been cast on the show seem tailor-made for the parts that they're playing, and I don't know that you could have found a person more perfect to show the world the essence of Princess than Paola. She wears her art on her sleeve. She wears her heart on her sleeve. When she’s giving herself through Princess, she really is taking out a piece of herself. She's very personal in her art when she writes. She's written plays that are very personal in nature. And yet again with Princess, it's very personal in nature so that when it comes to us in a scene together, it's the blending away of Ezekiel and Princess to being Khary and Paola. I feel like there's this very thin line between when we're just us and when we're playing those characters. And yeah, once again, it's crazy how quickly it happened with Paola and I that it was just like, "Oh, this is a friend for life. Here you go!" Almost immediately. Yeah, she's amazing.
I love that scene because she's talking about this relationship that she's in and she's conflicted. Ezekiel's walking that fine line of "I want to be a sounding board for you to figure out what it is you can do," but he knows that he can't tell her "should I stay or should I go?" That's not his role because none of us can hear it when we're in the relationship and it's like we've got to find it on our own. There's that pain of "I want to help, but I can only do so much. This is something that you've got to figure out on your own, but I'm here if you need me." Which is all any of us can ask for in a friend. Ezekiel is very conflicted about this Mercer guy. He needs to know who can he trust and who can't he trust? From the very beginning, he was like, "I don't know about this guy." But he tries to keep an open mind. He really does.
Q: Even if he's not a father anymore to Henry, Ezekiel can't help but act fatherly – like towards Kelly for instance when they're at the train wreck site. He keeps her from making a break for it and makes sure she has food. Do you think that fatherhood is ingrained in him, even if his own child is no longer alive?
A: You have to remember that Benjamin and Henry, they weren't his kids. But he's always had that feeling of responsibility. I personally am the oldest of four kids and I took that responsibility of being the big brother really seriously. I always thought of it as fatherhood-in-training, and that I was lucky enough to be the oldest so that I could learn what it means to take care of my younger brothers and sister. You know, my parents were great. We were provided for, but when I was old enough to drive if my baby brother wanted to go somewhere and nobody could take him, I made it a point [to drive him]. I was like, "That's what I do." I'd take my baby sister to the movies. For so long she was so little that she just sat on my lap, and we'd go and watch a movie together. It was like, "This is what you do. This is how you be a brother and one day this is going to help me to be a father." Maybe there's some aspect of that in Ezekiel as well. I feel like he was that zookeeper who got down on one knee with the five-year-old kid and explained the animals to him and walked around the zoo with maybe a hawk on his arm and he got down on the kid's level. I feel like he was that kind of a figure. That's me projecting a little bit of myself onto Ezekiel, but that's part of my job.
Q: Ezekiel and Negan have an important conversation in Episode 21. There's obviously no love lost between the two of them, so why do you think Ezekiel is willing to work with Negan? Is it desperation because things are looking so bleak?
A: Yeah, I think that's part of it. Me and Jeff[rey Dean Morgan] were talking about it. We're like, "Man, this whole f–king time, we have not said two words together in this show." As far as Ezekiel was concerned, it was by design. He was like, "If I have to tolerate this guy, then I'm gonna tolerate him at a distance for as long as possible." Finally, it's come to the point where my options have become so limited that I'm going to have to pull that string. And that's the only reason that we were having that conversation. But I'm excited about it because it means that Ezekiel is about to learn something that he didn't know before. Situations are complicated and here comes another one that's going to teach him something new and surprise him.
Q: How was it acting one-on-one with Jeffrey Dean Morgan for the first time?
A: We were both excited about it when it finally happened. We were like, "All right, man, we're finally getting to it." I think there's a certain synergy that Jeff and I have that seems to work and we vibe with each other. We really are kind of connected over our kids, you know? We have kids that are similar ages and we were commiserating over the commute of having to go back and forth with our kids. So, we bonded over our kids and football during the last year of shooting. I think the uneasiness that Ezekiel and Negan have at first starts to give way to something, and I think that might be a little bit of me and Jeff in there. And we both love f–king with each other on set. The conditions were getting cold, nasty, and crazy and we kind of leaned on each other. You know, Jeff would be like, "Khary, can you believe this s–t?" And I'd be like, "Suck it up, old man," and he'd talk s–t back to me. I love that camaraderie! I just sent him a text and we're still talking s–t! I love the dirt and the cold and the wet and the heat. When you're doing it right, those kinds of conditions bond you to each other and I think we definitely benefited from that.
Q: How shocking was it to find out that Ezekiel and the rest of the convoy was being brought to Alexandria at the end of Episode 21?
A: You know, I love it! It was like a slow clap when I read it. You know what I mean? It was like, "Well done, well done! Bring it full circle!" I love it. I think it's going to be a great surprise for the audience and it's a cool walk down memory lane in these last episodes. Literally we have never seen Alexandria like this before.
Q: What can you tease about what's coming up for Ezekiel?
A: You're not getting anything out of me! All I know is the story continues and it continues to be surprising. I'm excited for that next evolution. Because yes this is coming to an end but, as we've seen, these things also are continuing. This is the ending of something but not necessarily goodbye. Until next time...
Q: Lastly, what has the show meant to you?
A: It's changed my life and it's also been an incredible validation of all the work that I've put in over the course of my life. I got into acting and theater, storytelling, filmmaking, and TV because I wanted to connect with people. I'll never forget the electricity and the crackle of feeling an audience ride a wave of emotion with me as I'm telling a story and I've always chased that feeling. I've always thought that there were people that I would never be able to meet because they’re sitting halfway across the world, but because of the power of technology, television, and film, I'm able to connect with them on an intrinsic level and on an intellectual level and on an emotional level. I'm the person that they needed at some point to help them get through life. I know that millions of people watch this show and I love that. I'm grateful for the popularity, but I know that my purpose was to be able to touch people. And by touching them, it means that my life means something beyond just giving somebody something to do for an hour on a Sunday night.
I've been able to meet people over the years. Over and over again. I just met a guy this weekend who had one of Ezekiel's quotes tattooed on his arm and he pulled me in close and he said, "Thank you, man. You saved my life." I looked in his eyes and I know that something that we did on the show, the way that we told the story helped him not give up. It's not the first time that this happened, and I am incredibly grateful to have been the person that was asked to do that for somebody. It's f–king humbling, man. But it makes me thankful. You know, you get into this business and sometimes you do such silly things and you think, "What's the point?" But those silly things can mean something to somebody. That's what this show has meant to me. It's just so big that I have been able to feel the wave come back to me and let me know that what we're doing is really worth something and really means something. That's f–king awesome. It's just so, so awesome!
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