'Fear the Walking Dead' Star Garrett Dillahunt on His "Harrowing" Season 4 Journey

The 'Deadwood' alum reveals the truth behind his near miss as Negan, and how he wound up playing a much more "innocent" character on 'Fear.'
Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for the season four premiere of AMC's Fear the Walking Dead, "What's Your Story?"]

"Platypus. Pasta. Potable."

Anyone who had money on which words would be uttered within the first two minutes of the new Fear the Walking Dead season likely struck out when it comes to the opening monologue: John Dorie, the candy-craving gunslinger played by Garret Dillahunt, speaking to an unknown "sir or madam," using his voice for the first time in almost a year, and using the occasion to chew on three words connected only by their shared first letter.

It's an odd start to the season in some respects. In others, it's the only way to start the story of what new Fear showrunners have described as a journey from isolation toward community — hopelessness toward hope — all in the backdrop of the Western. The episode, "What's Your Story," begins with Mr. Dorie, a subversion of the genre's lone cowboy archetype. He looks the part, with his trusty hat and his six-shooters. He does not act the part, with his friendly demeanor and almost childlike wonder upon meeting Morgan (Lennie James) and Althea (Maggie Grace), his first companions after a long period of exile. 

Certainly, John Dorie is a far cry from the other character Dillahunt was once associated with in the Walking Dead universe: Negan, the baseball bat-wielding antagonist played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Aside from their shared excellence at monologuing and their continued survival in the apocalypse, John and Negan have little else in common. In an alternate universe, however, Dillahunt was the actor who brought Lucille down upon Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) way back when. Instead, he's carving his own way forward as John Dorie, a role that executive producer Scott M. Gimple says was fueled by the conversations he had with Dillahunt over Negan.

Ahead, Dillahunt speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the John Dorie origin story, the veracity of those Negan rumors, what to expect from the season now that the Clark family is back in the mix, and more.

Fear the Walking Dead has been surrounded in secrecy due to the creative reset. How have you and your colleagues felt about the work, on your side?

I'm excited — I think we all are — for it to finally air, because I'm not good at keeping secrets. And there's so many here, you know? They're like, "Oh, don't say that, oh no, you can't say that!" So I'm excited for it to come out. I'm excited to find out what people think. I'm nervous about that, but excited at the same time because we worked our asses off and I'm pretty proud of it. I knew I would enjoy it, but I'm enjoying it so much more than I thought I would. 

Your name is often thrown out when fans start putting dream casts together. Once upon a time, you were even associated with the role of Negan on the flagship Walking Dead. Was there ever any truth to that? 

It's a little blown out of proportion. I was doing this show called Hand of God on Amazon, a pretty hardcore character there, and I knew Negan was coming up. I'm a fan of the shows. I've watched them pretty regularly from the outset, both of them. And I remember I had tweeted or did something... you know how old people get a hold of social media and shit always goes wrong, right? (Laughs.) And I tweeted a picture of one of the Walking Dead compendiums, and I said, "Just a little light reading for the day." And people went nuts, because they thought I was inferring that I was [playing Negan]. "Oh, that's the compendium that Negan is involved in!" You know? I didn't know this! "Negan shows up in that, I bet he's gonna be Negan." And so then I started looking at it, and I was like, "That would be cool to be Negan." And so I did pester Scott about it enough to merit a phone call or two but I don't think I was ever actually in the running, and I couldn't have anyway with Hand of God. But I wanted to. And that started a relationship between me and Scott, which might have led to this character, so I'm pretty  happy about it.

It's like you willed this into existence. Pestering Gimple led to John Dorie.

(Laughs.) That's right!

What were those conversations like once they started happening with Gimple, about this character and coming into this show and the ideas that you had about John once you started digging into him a little bit?

I'm not sure I remember a ton of specifics, but I do remember him checking in quite a while after the whole Negan thing. I wish I could relay to you verbally the expression on his face, just the sort of bemused thing as I was talking to him about Negan. It was like, "Wait, what? I don't know if that's really ever gonna happen..." But I imagine that on his face every time now. When he called [for Fear the Walking Dead], he just was like, "Are you gonna be available do you think this date?" And I was like, "Yeah, I think so." And he was like, "Just hold on, something's brewing, something's brewing." And then we finally got together, I went over to his house, I met him and Ian and Andrew, and they just sort of laid out the season and their plans for John Dorey and talked to me a lot about this character. And I thought they were giving me a much harder a sell than they needed to, because I was in, but I pretended to be hard to get. (Laughs.) "I'm not sure... let me weigh my options..."

But you were happy with the vision. What was it that made you want to embrace the role?

Well, I didn't want to just show up. For some reason every time someone finds out you're gonna be on the show, they're like, "Oh, are you gonna be a walker?" And look, I got a lot of respect for the people that are the walkers but I'm like... I want to be on it, on it, not just pass through and get stabbed in the head, you know? So I really wanted to be on it, sure, but I wanted a great character. I wanted to be around for a while. I'm a workaholic. I want to be on set. I want to be challenged. And it ticked off all my boxes.

When we meet John, he is in a challenging place. He's talking about how this is the first time he has talked in a year or so. The scene sets the tone for how this is going to be different from what Fear the Walking Dead has been in the past. How did you begin the process of entering this character's life at this moment in time for him?

I don't know if it was any different than preparing for any other role. I learned the lines. It's a very passionate set. I like to get involved, maybe to everyone's chagrin — like, "I don't know if this is the best place to have this scene." I have a lot of input. But everyone is civil and it's under the umbrella of we're all trying to make this thing as good as it can be. But I've never done any trick shooting before. I've had to handle a lot of weapons in my career but I've never had to do any tricks like that. So I did spend a lot of time on that. I sought out some guys here in L.A., I went down to them and they taught me some stuff and how to draw, how to spin, how to hold it, better ways to hold it, what kind of things to look for, where you can catch your hand if you're not careful. So there was a couple of those kind of things I had to work with. But other than [the gunplay], I felt very keyed into this guy right away. I really like this kind of person. I like the kind of person who you can rely on. You want him on your side, but he's not a braggart, you know what I mean? You just feel safe around him. I was worried; I kept saying, "Is he simple? Is this guy simple?" And they're like, "No, he's not simple." Because I thought, "How do I not see this? How do I not know that?" But I think he's just innocent. And how sad is it that that was so foreign to me?

What kind of impact does John's year in isolation have on him?

Well, you're going to learn a lot about John pretty soon into this series. A lot of his motivations are explained. Those are real triggers for me. I don't know how you operate, but there are all of these unspoken things about being a man in this world, aren't there? What is that, and what does that mean? I think those are starting to be redefined, but shame is a big key for me; desire to take care of, desire to protect. And when you fail at those things, it can mess you up. It can mess you up for a long time. So the reasons for his exile, even before maybe there was an apocalypse, are interesting and profound and I really appreciate the boys giving me such material to work with.

John develops a quick friendship with Morgan, although Morgan might classify the relationship differently in that first episode. What do you think it is about this newcomer in John's life that draws him to Morgan? Is it something specific about Morgan, is John a people person, or at this point is he just kind of an "any people" person? 

I think there might be a little bit of both of those last two. (Laughs.) I do think he does like people. As comfortable as he might be, being alone, or as capable as he is of surviving that way, he might not even realize  how much he has missed human contact and companionship. And I think he really smells a friend in Morgan. He really senses that Morgan has needs, too. There is something about Morgan I think that happened — it seems to happen a lot with Morgan and other people — that people just want him to be happy, they want him to look at things just a little different way. He is a nice guy, you know? you kinda want him to hang around. I don't know how many choices you'd have in the apocalyptic kind of situation of companions. And I suspect a lot of relationships you'd have might be those of necessity. But if they could also be nice people to hang out with, that'd be great. So I think it's a bit of both: "Oh my God, a human being! A living, breathing human being!" But also: "Oh, and you're cool too? Yeah don't go, don't go." (Laughs.) John Dorie is kind of the guy who won't leave the party.

What was involved in shooting the action scene at the heart of the episode, which was also your first major Walking Dead action scene?

I remember it took all day, most of the episode. I remember it took three or four different weather changes. (Laughs.) Austin was crazy. One day we're shooting and it's blazing hot, the next day it's raining, the next day it was snowing, and I didn't know how they were going to make this all cut together but they did. So many walkers, so much goop. But I really dug our fight choreography. You're not going see a lot of [what was shot]. There just wasn't time, they cut a lot out. But it was a lot of fun. I liked that stuff, and we got great stunt people there.

The episode ends in a very unexpected way, where the old guard of Fear the Walking Dead and the new guard of Fear the Walking Dead are pitted opposite each other. What was your reaction to the way that Nick, Alicia, Strand and Luciana reentered the story in this adversarial way?

Well, I knew that there were going to be some time changes going on. I think there has been every season, some slight jumps in time as the two worlds get closer together. So I was prepared for it before we shot anything, because they told me what was going on: that suddenly the Clarks were going to show up and they were going to be feral and different and scary. It's easy from John Dorie's standpoint, because he has never met them. He doesn't have anything to compare them to. But as far as me? What I love about these shows, and it's something that I kind of learned as we shot this season, because I have always enjoyed them but I just thought... oh my god, someone is trying to write modern day parables here, you know? A myth. I have such admiration for that because you can tell so many different kinds of stories about so many different kinds of things under that umbrella. And I think it works really well. It's sad what the Clarks go through and are going to go through this season. It's sad what they went through and what they're trying to find answers to in John Dorie's timeline, anyway. It's going to be a wonderful, harrowing trip for the fans, for those that love the Clarks.

What are your hopes and expectations for John Dorie as Fear the Walking Dead moves forward?