Babou Ceesay, who plays Pilgrim on AMC’s Into the Badlands, talks about Sunny’s arrival at the fortress and what’s on the horizon for Pilgrim now that he’s the most powerful person in the Badlands.
Q: What it’s like playing such a dynamic character like Pilgrim? Did you use any real-life inspiration to help you bring him to the screen?
A: I tried to focus on any of the thinkers in the past who tried to understand the world in a specific way. Some people have the idea of communism, other people have the idea of capitalism. We all try to simplify the world in some shape or form. For Pilgrim, I tried to understand the Azra storyline and why he believes in it so strongly. How far back does it go in his own history? Also, to think about what length he is willing to go to create this vision of what the world should be. Those are the things I needed to figure out initially. As time goes by, you get the episodes as you shoot them, and I ended up discovering in each new episode how far he is willing to go to achieve his dream. If it means losing someone, sure. If it means sacrificing something, sure.
Q: When we first meet him, he makes it clear that all of his followers have free will to leave, but is there something to be said about his way with words and his power over his followers?
A: [Laughs] It is free will. If you give him the time of day and listen and you’re still unconvinced, you may leave. It’s up to you. You could say he killed three people [in Episode 2] when he had the blindfold on, but what he’s actually saying is, “If you have doubt, I take the blame. You now have the opportunity to punish me for that.” Because you have free will, you also have the right to defend yourself which means he will defend himself. He’s giving them the opportunity to choose in that moment while he’s blindfolded and knelt down to show you how much faith he’s got in what he believes in. They had a choice, but they started circling and wanted to kill him. He defended himself. In his ideal world, everything has to be transparent. People do play their roles, but if you choose to no longer be a Cog, then you must be allowed to leave.
Q: What’s it been like working with Lorraine Toussaint to form the relationship between Cressida and Pilgrim? How would you describe it?
A: Lorraine is easily one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. The thing that distinguishes her is her fearlessness. She will not allow a moment to slip by under the radar. If it has meaning, we have to dig it out. She wasn’t scared to tell me, “This moment has more in it. Let’s work together to find it.” I can’t thank her enough. She’s open. In a way, our off-screen relationship started reflecting on screen in some moments because what it was is pure honesty and pure trust. We’re not afraid to put expectations on each other. Pilgrim and Cressida have come a long way on this journey and they’ve been single-minded in what they’re doing. They have not compromised at all. Between them, they occasionally disagree. That’s what happened with Castor – Cressida sees weakness in his volatility and thinks he’s a liability whereas Pilgrim’s heart won’t let him kill what is essentially his child. In those moments, there’s tension, but it doesn’t mean they hold back on the honesty. Lorraine and I had to go there over and over. I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else.
Q: This whole half season has been following Pilgrim’s journey to find this chamber of Azra. What was it like getting to the Finale?
A: We were aware that we would discover this chamber, but until you actually walk into the chamber itself and see the art design, there’s an element of your brain that tries to imagine what it is. When we walked into the Meridian Chamber, it was quite something. We discovered it not only as characters but as the actors. There is this sense of the room not only reflecting whatever mysticism there is, but it also reflects the way in which humanity has strived for things. There are computers in there and we have found a way, using technology, to harness a buried deep power inside the universe. That’s what then comes out as Chi. In our mind, an evolution has happened just as someone might meditate until their mind advances. This is the way we’re doing it. Pilgrim has been looking for this place since he was 10. Can you imagine? That’s decades on the road of death, destruction, hope, sadness, doubt – you name it. The moment where you think, “I have come to the place that all of my intentions has led me to.” It’s amazing.
Q: Both Sunny and Pilgrim have something the other needs. How would you describe the dynamic at play?
A: I think there’s actually a lot of ambiguity there. What Pilgrim has is this nostalgia about who Sunny is. To him, Sunny is a brother. The two of them were chosen. As far as the Azra mythology is concerned, Sunny is everything to Pilgrim. Together, they are meant to bring harmony to the earth. Sunny, with his dark Chi, and Pilgrim with the opposite power, which is the ability to switch it off – they represent a kind of yin and yang. However, when he sees Sunny, the problem is Sunny doesn’t remember him. He has no recollection, so it’s not like he’s joining forces with someone who’s certain about what he wants. Sunny wants to heal his son and doesn’t want to make the sacrifices at the level that Pilgrim wants to in order to make the world a better place. For Pilgrim, it’s a massive dilemma. He loves this man and wants him to be his brother, but he has a mission to complete. At that point, I think Pilgrim starts to go off the books for the first time. Sunny isn’t going to use this dark Chi. He doesn’t want it. I think it’s in that moment that Pilgrim decides he will take the burden and have both powers. When he says, “Thank you, brother,” it’s “Thank you for allowing me to complete what I set out to complete.” The dark Chi isn’t a bag of roses. [Laughs] It’s Hell. It gives you power, but it brings a lot of problems. He’s taking a massive risk.
Q: Pilgrim is now one of the most powerful people alive. What happens when a zealot practically becomes a god?
A: He does become a god. With that, comes pressure and people will start to behave differently around him. He has the ability to switch off other people’s dark Chi as well as wield it from within. He knows that he is practically unstoppable. He has no time to waste. What are the things we need to achieve? Let’s get to it. No one can stand up to him. He is a very serious liability.
Read an interview with Ally Ioannides, who plays Tilda.
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