Khary Payton, who plays King Ezekiel on AMC’s The Walking Dead, discusses how his character’s world is crashing down and what Shiva represents to him.
Q: It took some convincing, but King Ezekiel is officially at war. What’s it been like getting off of the throne and going all-in on the action?
A: It’s like being eight years old and running around in the woods behind your folks’ house. It’s literally just being a kid again in the backyard with all my friends. I’ve got all these new friends and they invited me over to get sweaty. It’s why I got into acting. At the very most basic level, I love that feeling of make-believe from when I was a kid and ensconcing myself in a world not just mentally but physically as well. There’s nothing more physical than running around, swinging a sword, shooting, running alongside your friends and pretending to be heroic. It’s this wonderful hearkening back to childhood for me.
Q: Early on, Ezekiel is so proud that none of his people had been killed during the attack. What’s he feeling now after seeing all the people that gave their lives for him?
A: It’s a really screwed up scenario that happens – watching him descend from the heights of victory to the depths of despair. I think he’s lived his life in this method acting realm where he’s to convince himself that what he believes is real to the point that he believes he can affect the world around him. For a while, it looks like it’s working, but then one wrong move and it’s all over. It’s bad enough that all the people around him are dying, but when that gun takes everyone out, it also shatters his belief system.
Q: Can you share some behind-the-scenes bits from those scenes featuring Ezekiel’s undead army rising up and coming after him?
A: Man, my ass hurt so bad after that scene! We shot in an industrial area next to this chemical plant… It was wet and humid and there was muddy gravel. The funny thing is I’m not doing it for very long in the episode, but I did it for half the day – I drug my ass across wet muddy gravel for half the day. I don’t want to ever have that feeling of gravel ass again! Whenever I do something that’s a little uncomfortable now, I think, “Well at least it’s not gravel ass.” [Laughs]
Q: To make matters worse, Shiva is killed! How does that bring his world crashing down on him even more?
A: Shiva represents the beauty he wants to see in this world. She’s this utterly unique creature in this apocalyptic place they find themselves in. Whereas she protected him for a while, he’s reluctant to take her out to do things that a tiger can do because he felt the need to protect her in turn. Who knows, she could be the last of her kind. Watching Shiva sacrifice herself is like the last of his armor being stripped away from him. It’s more than just this tiger. It’s the representation of beauty in this world being eaten alive. It’s a horrendous moment.
Q: In the end, Ezekiel declares that he’s not a king and is “nothing.” What was your reaction when you read this in the script?
A: It reiterates the idea that his belief system is imploding. All of these things he said he was are turning out to not be true. He said he would lose “not one” if they could pull this off and he lost almost all of his people. He’s not the man he thought he could be. He’s not the king he’s been telling himself he is. He feels like the worst kind of fraud – the kind that cost people their lives.
Q: On a more positive note, Carol and Ezekiel’s relationship continues to grow. How do you and Melissa McBride create that chemistry?
A: She’s the best acting coach I’ve ever worked with in a professional sense. Every time I’m on set with her, working with her, she will tell me some little thing that opens my world up. She’s got such a beautiful mind for this craft. She’s the kind of thoughtful actor that makes you just shake your head. We were going through a scene once and she started to cry and she stopped and said she was sorry because she was crying for the wrong reasons. Most actors would be like, “Who cares? I’m crying. It’s the emotion needed.” She wanted it to be specific to the moment in time. I’m just amazed by her.
Q: What will be the biggest challenge for Ezekiel going forward?
A: The hardest thing to do in life is pick ourselves back up after defeat. Despite the apocalypse around him – this dead hellish world he’s been living in – this is the darkest place he’s been in. He has to somehow put the pieces back together and that’s not an easy thing to do. When we truly find ourselves at rock bottom, it takes a while to find our way back.
Q: Do you ever slip into Ezekiel’s majestic way of speaking in real life?
A: I’ll do it on occasion. People do ask me to do it. If it’ll get a cop to not give me a ticket, I’ll do a soliloquy for him or I may actually slip into it when I’m trying to get my kid to go to bed or something like that. It’s like a demonstrative way of trying to get my way. I don’t know how well it works.
Read a Q&A with Ross Marquand, who plays Aaron.
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