Khary Payton, who plays King Ezekiel on AMC’s The Walking Dead, talks about the Kingdom, his plans for Morgan and Carol, and his beloved tiger, Shiva.
Q: How much did you already know about King Ezekiel before joining the show? Did you read the comics at all?
A: I sort of went in with a blank slate. I watched the show, but I only had a cursory idea of the comic books. Once I got the sides for my audition, I did some research because they said it was a guy with a lion. It wasn’t too hard to know that it was Ezekiel and Shiva, so I kind of went from there. I had actually seen images of Ezekiel, binged and did some cramming to get up to speed, but I came in relatively blind.
Q: What was your first impression of this signature character, who speaks and acts like, well, a king?
A: I think people who’ve been watching the show but haven’t read the comic books will be surprised. Their first thought about Ezekiel will be, “What the f-ck?!” The truth is he’s very grounded and his backstory is probably one of the most extensive because you’ve got to justify what the hell that is. So, they’ll be surprised at the beginning, but that’s the whole point. You don’t introduce yourself to people with a tiger at your side if you weren’t planning on throwing them off a little bit!
Q: What about the Kingdom? This is a community with fresh fruit and movie night – not something we’re used to seeing in the apocalyptic world.
A: They’re not living to survive. They’re living to live. They have a choir, they have people who play music, people who are learning archery not just for the sake of killing but for the sake of learning a skill set, people who read books, people who paint – they’re trying to live beyond survival. Ezekiel’s got kids to worry about and not everyone in his kingdom is a fighter. If he can somehow dance between the raindrops and make this work without going into a fight with someone, then he’s going to try and do that.
Q: What are your thoughts on his “peaceful approach” to leading? Do you believe he always took this approach or did something change his ways?
A: This is just me talking out of my ass and I could be totally wrong, but I’ve thought about this a lot and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he’s ever leaned towards the violence. How does that first encounter happen with everyone who comes into contact with him? If he’s walking down the street with a tiger on a chain, no one walks up to him and says, “Hey man! How are you?” He’s got to use his diaphragm to talk to everyone… One thing led to another as he tried to build this utopia and I think he’s always tried to protect his people.
Q: Ezekiel is able to quickly see through Carol’s “sweet act” and she’s able to see through his persona as well. Any thoughts on why they’re able to be honest with each other?
A: He’s an actor and he can tell when someone’s putting on an act or a fake role. I think Carol is just wary of anybody, but I also think he sees a lot of strength in her. He knows that in order for her to fight past all the stuff the Saviors do to people, she has to be an incredibly resilient person. He’s attracted to that strength and I think he feels like he needs someone like that in the Kingdom. Through their conversation, you get the idea that she won’t trust him until he gives her a reason to and that’s when he drops his facade.
Q: What about Morgan, who at first thinks Ezekiel only wants him around to kill more of the Saviors?
A: I think he sees the same dynamic in Morgan – that there’s a person who’s living in this crazy world who’s trying to remain human and trying to hold onto what it means to have humanity in a world that is upside down. Morgan’s made a conscious effort to be more than just an animal trying to survive. Ezekiel sees a confidant in Morgan, and he’s trying hard to get him to trust him.
Q: Do you agree that people need someone to follow in this world? Or is Ezekiel just “selling a fairy tale” to his people like Carol says?
A: I was always on Ezekiel’s side, and I knew that he was a good guy. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people who aren’t sure whose side he’s on and what kind of leader he is, and I think everyone will realize he’s really this benevolent figure who’s trying to do the best he can for these people who have gravitated towards him. He’s trying to fake his way through this really hard job that got thrown onto him – and he happens to have a tiger.
Q: The members of the Kingdom seem very diplomatic and fair – especially compared to the Saviors. Is that a pro or a con in this world?
A: It may present danger sometimes, but he’s also kept his people safe for a long time… It’s kind of like Negan is the president of the frat house down the street whose university died and now it’s a bunch of frat boys with an unlimited supply of beer and they’re being assholes 24/7. [Laughs] Sorry to all my friends in fraternities!
Q: Was it hard to act like you were interacting with a tiger even though Shiva wasn’t there?
A: My part was easiest because it was everybody else that had to be freaked out by the tiger. I was just like, “This is my tiger!” It was funny because the first time she roared, I kept joking that I was going to jump out of the throne like, “Oh sh-t!” because if there was actually a tiger next to me, they’d never actually be able to get a take done. All I had to do was make believe and it was a whole lot of fun.
Read an interview featuring The Fallen of the Season 7 Premiere: Part 1 (Spoilers) and Part 2 (Spoilers).
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
To stay up-to-date on all the latest news about The Walking Dead, sign up for the weekly Dead Alert newsletter.