'Fear the Walking Dead': Ruben Blades on Sudden Return and Road to Redemption

"I really had no idea what was going to happen," the actor tells THR about his out-of-the-blue return to the AMC spinoff.
Richard Foreman Jr/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Fear the Walking Dead, "VIP."]

There's good news and bad news for Fear the Walking Dead fans. The good news: Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades) is alive. The bad news? He's a monster.

At least, he was a monster, for much of the runtime of the AMC zombie series' latest episode. Salazar is very much alive, as was revealed at the end of season three's third installment — and, really, as confirmed by showrunner Dave Erickson shortly after the character supposedly died in a fiery explosion midway through season two. The fourth episode of the season pulled the curtain back on exactly how Salazar survived and what happened next, and true to the nature of the apocalypse, it wasn't very pretty.

After burning down the compound in the midseason two finale, Salazar somehow fought his way out of the rubble and managed to crawl his way toward Tijuana. There, he is rescued by Efrain (Jesse Borrego), a kind and resourceful man who lives off the street and knows exactly where and when to find water every week. He's also helped by an equally kind and resourceful woman named Lola (Lisandra Tena), who works for the nearby Gonzalez Dam, owned and operated by Dante Esquival (Jason Manuel Olazabal), the cold-blooded criminal and former associate of Victor Strand (Colman Domingo).

After a series of violent events, Esquival recruits Salazar into his fold, recognizing him as a lethal Sombra Negra operative from his days during the civil war in El Salvador. Salazar, who has already killed at least 96 people in his life by his count, is now being tasked with killing a few more. 

For a time, Salazar complies with Esquival's orders, once again becoming an instrument of war after so many years away from the battlefield. But once the ruthless kingpin's sights become set on Efrain and Lola, Salazar takes matters into his own hands. He kills Esquival and the man's top lieutenants, then surrenders his firearm to Lola, begging, "Forgive me." It appears that he's asking for her to put an end to his misery once and for all. Instead of firing the weapon, however, she extends a hand. It looks like a new status quo for the Gonzalez Dam, with Salazar still very much in the mix.

What's next for Daniel? Will he ever find his daughter Ofelia (Mercedes Mason)? Will he find some sort of peace with Strand? Can he ever find peace within himself? Here's what Blades told The Hollywood Reporter about all of that and more — including why he had to be stopped from eating all of the SPAM in the cafeteria scene. 

How much did you know about what was in store for Salazar after the midseason two finale, based on Dave Erickson saying there were still plans in place for the character?

Really, we didn't have any [conversations]. I just assumed it was best to let the story follow its course. I really had no idea what was going to happen. I think it was a healthy thing to do, because ultimately, you never know what's going to happen with this series. We all sign a contract, and the contract doesn't say I can't die. You never know which direction things are going to go. Something as simple as a lack of fan interest can determine a character's demise. I wasn't sure. I kind of knew that fans liked Salazar and found him interesting, so I felt like I was coming back, but it never felt like a sure thing.

When did you find out that you were coming back, and the way you were coming back?

I must have found out very soon before we started shooting. I don't recall getting a special call that I was coming back and that I would be doing this or that. I got a call from my agent saying that I was coming back and I need to report on such and such date. I wasn't having big conversations with Dave. I trust Dave. He's the one who brought me onto the show, so I felt confident that he would know what to do. It was, "You're coming back, and this is what you're going to do."

And what was your reaction to finding out what you were going to do, what Daniel had been through to get to the Dam?

I was really surprised at the fact that it's pretty much a Salazar episode. What surprised me the most is that I don't know if it's ever happened before, and in my experience, I don't remember it: to have a U.S. television outlet transmit in primetime an episode all in Spanish, with subtitles, that really got my attention. I don't really recall that ever happening. I thought it was very bold of them and very courageous of them and also very timely. It was quite the surprise, I have to say. With Salazar, I've always loved that this character is so opposed to me. I've been denouncing dictatorships for 50 years. All of the sudden I'm playing someone who actually ended up working — or was forced to work — in support of one, or as a part of organizations of intelligence and military. It was always interesting to me to find a character who is totally opposed to what I am and what I think. I think those characters are usually the most interesting. At the same time, they force you to look at things and evaluate things, and they provide you with a more complete perspective of a human character. 

Daniel goes through a real journey in this episode. He's helped by Efrain, and then finds himself in a position where he has to hurt Efrain. He's someone who has been away from the war for so long, and now he's once again serving as a soldier. Was it difficult to play Daniel in this space?

It was hard to show, even though it's scripted... there's a part of our hearts and minds for those of us who have not been subjected in real life to the rigors and horrors of such an emergency to inflict pain on someone who has helped us. I don't find it easy to do any kind of scene where I'm causing pain to someone. It was very hard for me to do that torture scene of the soldier [in season one], and it was very hard for me to hit Efrain in this episode. Very, very hard for me. If it hadn't been for Efrain, Salazar would not have survived in the state he was in. It was also interesting in this episode that you find Salazar becoming more human. He becomes more spiritual. He realizes he's been spared for some reason, after several opportunities he could have died. It was a hard thing to adjust to. At the same time, the fact that I understood how this situation effected so many people in El Salvador... in those days I was very aware of what was going on and I knew where to go to understand the motivation for Salazar to have done what he did.

At the end of the episode, Daniel protects the people who protected him. He stands on the right side. Earlier, he says he believes he's killed 96 people. He adds a few more to the list when he kills Esquival and his allies. Then Salazar drops to his knees and hands Lola his firearm, and says, "Forgive me." It appears that she does forgive him. Can Salazar forgive himself?

I think he felt he was on a road where the possibility of redemption truly existed. He trusted her. He doesn't trust his own considerations of whether or not he's deserving of forgiveness for all that he's done. He put the gun in her hand and I think he could have been the hundredth. He could have been the one at the end. Just like when he kneeled after attacking that huge man, the infected... he dropped to his knees and said, "I'm done. I'm done." And much to his surprise, this strange episode occurs where the walker is hit by lightning...

Which was fantastic, by the way.

It really was! (Laughs.) I've seen episodes of The Walking Dead and I have all of the comic books. I've been following it. I don't recall ever being so surprised, other than Glenn going under that dumpster. I thought he was gone. And I can't remember anything like [the walker getting struck by lightning]. It was such a surprising moment. When Salazar gives the gun to Lola, he says, "I'm done. Do whatever you think." And she spares him. I think it simply creates an argument for the possibility of his being forgiven and his redemption.

Hopefully some of that redemption involves reuniting with his daughter, Ofelia. He has a conversation about her with Strand — a scene that is in English — and Strand tells this half-baked lie that Ofelia is back at the hotel. Daniel sees straight through it. But where do you think Daniel is at the end of the episode? Does he think Ofelia's dead, or does he think she might still be out there?

He thinks she's dead, but he hopes she's alive. What happened with Strand is if you follow the conversation and Daniel's reactions, when Strand says "We all thought you were dead," Daniel knows that that's probably the case. He himself probably thought he would be dead. And yet, Strand overplays his hand and says, "She's waiting for you." That's when Daniel looks at him and goes, "You piece of shit. You lying dog. You're going to rot here." But in the back of his mind, he sees him. He's never trusted Strand. He's seen men like this before. As he's going away and he's upset and angry that this man is lying, he still in the back of his head, not having heard Strand say, "No, she's dead." He sees hope that she's still alive.

Is there any chance of reconciliation between Daniel and Strand, or is that trust irreversibly broken at this point?

Look, Salazar is no saint. He's done his share of evil and wrong things. He's a practical person. This is the second apocalypse for Salazar. He already went through one. He understands the need to make commitments to people you would otherwise find detestable. He knows the need to forge alliances with enemies or people he personally would like to put under. I'm sure he has that in the back of his head. Plus, as he goes away, he knows Strand has been somewhere where he has some of the stuff he's told him about Madison and the hotel... it's just too pointed to all be a lie. He knows Strand knows something. He's just going to make him sweat before he gets to the bottom of it.

How much SPAM did you have to eat in this episode?

Actually, they had to tell me not to eat it, because I like it. We were going to run out of spam. (Laughs.) I even have a T-shirt that says "SPAM" that my wife got for me once. I can't eat it all anymore around the house. The only time I can eat it is when she's not around. 

You're about to become the unofficial spokesperson.

You know what, I remember when I was a kid growing up... we were a large family. Sometimes there's just not enough to buy real meat. I'm not unfamiliar with SPAM. It's true, because I once tried my dog's food, that it smells a little bit like it. (Laughs.) But I like it! I was just having a kick, because when I would eat it, I would go to my wife and breathe on her, and she wouldn't like it. 

The Gonzales Dam is in good hands right now. All the bad people in charge of it are gone by the end of the episode. What can we expect from this location as the season progresses, now that the water is in the right hands?

It's crucial. Crucial. Water... it's very interesting how many parallels one can draw between what's fiction and what it really represents in the future of humanity. We need to be serious about preserving our environment. We need to be serious about climate change. Therefore we need to develop policies involving water that includes recycling and decontamination and more responsible use of water. I do believe the dam at this point is the one thing that will act as a magnet. I get a kick out of people who consider money important, things like gold. Gold is just another piece of yellow rock. I guess we're still early on [in the apocalypse] that people consider it a show of status. You can't drink dollars and you can't drink gold or diamonds. I do believe water is essential. I do think in that scenario, it's going to be a constant fight to try to keep it away, because people want it. They want it. That's the new currency. 

What did you think of the big Salazar episode? Let us know in the comments below.