Juan Javier Cardenas, who plays Dante on AMC’s The Walking Dead, talks about the use of espionage on the show and the betrayal revealed in the latest episode.
Q: What drew you in about the character of Dante in particular? How much did you lean on the comics?
A: There’s a specific point in the comic when Dante reveals that you lose track of time in the post apocalypse. He realizes there are a lot of things he wanted to go after that he never got around to in the previous world, and now all those chances are gone. He’s talking specifically about having a family and settling down. I really hung onto that.
A really great moment, I think, is in Episode 3 when Dante seems to open up to Siddiq for the first time about being a war vet. It’s a really great chance to see a level underneath of Dante. In that moment, he also speaks about regret and the part of himself that he remembers. His coping mechanism is to be cavalier about things and take people off guard by how he talks. It’s a way that he’s hiding an insecurity about himself. I love that because it gives you so much to play with in how much you reveal as an actor.
Q: Does he really see himself as a “god of the apocalypse”?
A: Dante lives in an area of dark humor. That’s a coping mechanism. When civilization breaks down and a new world is being built from the ground up, it’s a very tempting and alluring thing to try to find purpose by getting into power dynamics. How special can he be in this new world? He has a gift and can be beneficial to this community. He really does aid in defining who survives and who doesn’t. That’s a huge amount of power to wield.
Q: That was a truly shocking twist at the end of this episode, which was directed by Michael Cudlitz. How did it land on you?
A: The whole idea of playing a mole is always some of the hardest roles to play because you’re playing the reality from moment to moment… How much of what I am saying is the truth?… Do I really believe it? With each piece, you try to understand what Dante is thinking and when he veers off the road as far as his objective is, which is to ultimately betray the trust of someone he’s grown close to.
I had some of the best conversations with Avi Nash and the director, Michael Cudlitz, about the moments leading up to the point where Avi recognizes Dante as a Whisperer. Michael gave me some perspective on one segment of the conversation where Dante is trying to convey to Siddiq that the efforts of all of the survivors and Rick Grimes‘s vision of a new future is working because the people there are good and working together.
Most of the time, as a mole, he’s trying to corrupt from the inside. It would be so fascinating and so sad if, in the midst, he slowly realizes… by talking to Siddiq… another world is possible here. In that little glimpse, you can see that if Siddiq didn’t have that flashback and Dante didn’t act from his indoctrinated and autopilot programming, that there is a glimmer of hope that Dante could have changed and stayed. I think that’s what makes it so sad. It could have happened, but there’s not always those happy endings for these characters. It’s a tragedy, but a great moment. It’s a lost opportunity for redemption.
Q: What was it like building all of this with Avi Nash, especially knowing where it was leading?
A: I wasn’t aware of the full development and arc of Dante when I first started working. You have to make sure the pay off and the ending is warranted and you’ve earned it. That scene cannot achieve the emotional weight if we didn’t care about the relationship to begin with… The bonds that people make in the apocalypse are intense and real because there is no time to develop surface relationships with people. They’re not afforded that luxury. The scene can’t work if you don’t understand that there was real care there. They saw each other as brothers in arms.
Once the arc was established, it became like a razor-sharp focus of the true intentions of Dante in those moments of when he sees Siddiq for the last time. In that scene, I understand that Dante never meant to end Siddiq’s life. That was a split second made when all the plans went out the window. In the moments of Dante sitting on the floor after Siddiq has died, he has those moments of “How did we get here?” It’s like he almost can’t process it.
Q: And was it like scrapping with him?
A: I want to big up Avi Nash… the best thing is when you have a scene partner who is game from day one. It was fun with Avi because I’ve done martial arts for a number of years and I found out that he’s trained a bit in it. We geeked out a lot and we were both trying to add more submissions and throws. If it were up to us, it would have been a 10-minute scene of us grappling on the floor. [Laughs] In the final moments of the fight, there is an eerie intimacy that happens with suffocation and the extinguishing of life through suffocation. They’re enveloped in each other and it’s a strange and sad embrace.
Q: Do you think fans will be even more surprised by where this ultimately heads after the big reveal?
A: There is nothing more unsettling than living in a place where you don’t trust your brother within the walls of safety. Not only were the Alexandrians infiltrated, but they were infiltrated to such a degree that someone as valuable and loved as Siddiq was extinguished… That’s a frightening situation. Everyone’s going to be looking over their shoulder. Who’s next? Whether they recoup from this is going to be interesting to see.
Still shocked by this week’s TWD? Read our breakdown of the most surprising episodes in the series’ history.
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