'Walking Dead' Star Opens Up About Ezekiel's Message of Hope (and Sparks With Carol)

Khary Payton, the zombie drama's newest castmember, talks with THR about his version of the George Clinton-like leader of the Kingdom.
Gene Page/AMC
Khary Payton as King Ezekiel on 'The Walking Dead'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from episode 702, "The Well," of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

"It's a big introduction."

That's how The Walking Dead's newest castmember Khary Payton describes King Ezekiel's debut during Sunday's episode in which Carol (Melissa McBride) and Morgan (Lennie James) learn the inner workings of his community known as The Kingdom.

After opening season seven with more of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) violent and deadly introduction (RIP, Glenn and Abraham), the second episode of season seven introduced another favorite from Robert Kirkman's comic book series in Ezekiel, the king of yet another new community, the Kingdom.

Eagle-eyed viewers of the AMC zombie drama first spotted the Kingdom's so-called knights last season when Carol encountered a soldier clad in armor. But Sunday's episode offered the group's formal introduction: The Kingdom is a peaceful community that has taken over the grounds of a former high school. The motto there is if you drink from the well, you replenish the well. Meaning, if you survive in the community, you work to support its future.

Ezekiel, for his part, is a larger-than-life character who speaks in long Shakespearean monologues and sees the Kingdom as his stage. And it's all very entertaining to Carol: "I don't know what the hell is going on in the most wonderful way!" she quips upon meeting Ezekiel for the first time.

Ultimately, Carol considers it all too over-the-top and wants to leave. But not before Ezekiel can realize that Carol is faking her innocent and helpless routine that she so easily fooled everyone at Alexandria with. He sees something familiar in Carol and takes an immediate liking to her — so much so that he reveals the truth: He's really a former zookeeper (which explains his pet tiger, Shiva) and used to act. He uses those skills to fake his way through his leadership in order to provide the community with a sense that everyone is safe. But meanwhile, Ezekiel and the Kingdom have already had their run-in with Negan and must deliver food and supplies to the Saviors on a regular basis.  

Since Ezekiel wants to keep Carol close, she winds up moving into an abandoned house that's not far from the Kingdom where the king (and Shiva) come to visit.

So who is Ezekiel, really, and are there romantic sparks between he and Carol? THR caught up with Payton to break down The Walking Dead's newest arrival and what's next.

This is a welcome change from the violence of the season seven premiere. What's Ezekiel's message?

That last scene with Carol and Ezekiel is all about hope. After that first episode [with Negan, Glenn and Abraham], you feel like all hope is gone and by the end of this episode, you're reminded that hope is never gone.

Who is Ezekiel and how did he get to be this "king" of the Kingdom?

Ezekiel is putting on a show of sorts. He's being a character he built into something. He's a showman but he's a man who doesn't turn away from a responsibility. Even as a zookeeper before he became this King Ezekiel character, he became a zookeeper because he felt it was a calling, not a job. He was about finding those moments that make us all live a little in awe of life. He finds a responsibility in sharing that. So when Ezekiel and Shiva end up being the only two creatures huddled together and people come upon them and see this guy with a tiger … he's bigger than life and then people start to see him that way. And before he knows it, he falls ass-backwards into this King Ezekiel-ness. But he goes with it because people need something to gravitate to; people feel safer when they feel like somebody knows what they are doing. Even though he doesn't know what he's doing, he decides to fake it and figure it out. 

What does Ezekiel see in Carol that he wants to keep her at the Kingdom — or at least at the house nearby?

He sees strength in her and he knows the savagery that comes with the Sanctuary and the Saviors. He sees a strength there and a matriarch, in a way, and someone who is faking it and he understands that. On several levels, he feels like, "There's something more to this woman and I need that kind of strength and my people need that kind of strength." It's important enough for him to let down his guard. Carol is at the point where she is not going to trust anybody who doesn't give something first. That's why he takes that moment and is confiding in her with his big secret.

Ezekiel (and Shiva) comes knocking at her place at the end of the episode. Was Carol moving to the abandoned house his idea in a bid to keep her close and maybe be a respite and confidant for him?

That Ezekiel's idea. You don't want to lose yourself in this world. He fell ass-backwards into this job of being king but as he starts to live it, he has to put on this extraordinary persona. He starts thinking, "Why is this working?" The reason it's working is because this is a f—ed up world we're living in. And in order to combat all the shit you have to go through, you have to go the other direction — and maybe you go a little far and maybe it seems a little weird, but that's what it takes because there are dead people walking around out there. It becomes a philosophy that was built out of necessity that he would slowly start to see that in order to keep his sanity, he has to go a little crazy in a positive way. That's going to help Ezekiel hold on to his humanity.

You hadn't read the comics until you auditioned — but have you read his arc now? How does it compare to what AMC is showing?

I've read Ezekiel's arc but I don't put a lot of stock in it as far as the show is concerned. I enjoy the comics but I mine them in bits and pieces but not for a big story because we have diverged from the comics as far as the way that Ezekiel's journey and story is going. I'll believe it when I read it, otherwise, I am trying to keep an open mind as to all of the possibilities that are out there.

In the comics, Ezekiel has a romantic relationship with Michonne. Could Carol be taking on that relationship given that Michonne (Danai Gurira) is paired romantically with Rick (Andrew Lincoln)? This show loves to remix those storylines.

I totally think that's possible. But I don't know if it will or won't happen. This relationship [with Ezekiel and Carol] is one where there's enough of an attraction for there to be a relationship down the road but at the same time, there's also so much more that needs to be done that that's not necessarily the end game for either one of them. They could just as easily walk this road together and never come into contact together and then there's a possibly one trips on a rock and falls into the other's arms. It's as simple as that kind of happenstance. This relationship is what it is; whether it gets physical or not, I don't know.

What does Ezekiel see in Morgan (Lennie James)? He likes that he can kill Saviors but seems more impressed that he doesn't want to kill anyone.

It's like happening upon someone who has been more thoughtful about what it means to be human than most people do in this world. Everyone is so worried about survival and Ezekiel happens upon this guy who has decided that survival is not the end game in lieu of losing your soul. That's what Morgan is doing: fighting for his humanity. It's the same focus that Ezekiel has in his life: he's going to live his life exuberantly and joyfully, no matter the circumstances. He's not going to let the fact that the dead are arriving preclude him from his soul and humanity, even when he kills a walker. That's church for him and giving last rights: he's setting a soul free. If someone is walking through this world not seeing the beauty in it, then you may as well be a mindless creature. Ezekiel is not going to become that. He sees Morgan as a kindred spirit. Morgan is fighting to make sure he doesn't lose his humanity and become that. And to Ezekiel, that's a voice that means something, whose opinion means something. 

Ben (Logan Miller) is a young student that Ezekiel pairs with Morgan. Ben reveals to Morgan that his father was killed by walkers while on a run for the Kingdom. It seems like there could be more to that story. What can you say about Ben and Ezekiel's relationship?

Ezekiel feels the responsibility of this leadership role. This is something he didn't have to do; he didn't have to become King Ezekiel and this leader. It's not something that he was but when it was presented to him, he didn't back away from it. So when Ben's father died under his watch, that was a big deal to him. The preciousness of life is important to Ezekiel and he wants to make sure that that doesn't happen again. Each one of these lives that have been entrusted to him and he wants them live as long as they possibly can. When Ezekiel asks Morgan to train Benjamin, that's an obvious choice because he's trying to give Benjamin more perspective from a person like Morgan who sees the humanity and the importance of holding on to it. If Ezekiel can't teach this kid to use a sword or knife, but he has Morgan — who understands the importance of life in this world — and if somebody is going to teach him, Ezekiel wants it to be Morgan.  

Is there more of a story between Ezekiel and Ben's father? It feels like maybe Negan and the Saviors could have been involved in the death of Ben's father. Is there something there?

There could be! That's a great question. You'll have to watch and find out what happens.

We see in the background of the Kingdom that there are people in that community who are being trained how to fight — beyond Ben — as well as a school. This is a thriving community; is Ezekiel preparing the next generation to face off against the Saviors?

Despite Ezekiel's exuberance he is a pragmatist. He may not want to go to war but that doesn't mean you don't prepare. This is a world that will eat you alive when you take a moment to look off into the distance and forget where you are. You need to make sure someone is watching your back if you want to have that moment. It's hard to say if Ezekiel is planning anything per se, but what he is planning to be is prepared for any eventuality.

What might Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Ezekiel's first meeting look like?

Ezekiel will look deeply into Rick's eyes, and say, "You, sir, are a man of great strength and piercing blue eyes. How about we have a bite to eat?" They'll embrace and go play Xbox or something! (Laughing.) I can't say how it's going to happen but it's probably going to be pretty epic.

What do you think of King Ezekiel? Sound off in the comments section, below. The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. For more Walking Dead coverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead.

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