'Walking Dead' Star Explains the Show's Biggest Exit Yet

The Walking Dead S08E08 Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from episode 808, "How It's Gotta Be," of AMC's The Walking Dead, as well as the comic book series on which the show is based.]

AMC's The Walking Dead just delivered the biggest shocker in its 100-episode-plus history when, during Sunday's season eight midseason finale, the zombie drama set the stage for the unimaginable death of one of its most untouchable characters.

Revealing that he had been bitten on the ribs a few episodes prior, Carl Grimes — Rick's teenage son, who has been played by Chandler Riggs since the show's pilot — is on death's door. "Yes, Carl is going to die," Riggs tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview. "There's no way he can get back from that. His story is definitely coming to an end."

To put the events of the episode in context, Riggs — who was cast at age 11 and is now 18 and taking a gap year before starting college — and Andrew Lincoln (Rick) are the only original series regulars who have been with The Walking Dead since the pilot. Carl was widely seen as the future of the postapocalyptic world: Rick, a former sheriff, has been grooming him to take over as the leader of the survivors. The version of Carl in creator Robert Kirkman's comic series continues to be a force to be reckoned with and the future of the new world, as the source material is roughly 75 issues beyond where the AMC adaptation sits. Outside of killing off leading man Lincoln, this would be the biggest departure from the source material ever.

But before viewers scream for Carl, it's worth noting that Riggs still has one episode left — episode 809, the 2018 midseason premiere (airing Feb. 25), when Rick, Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the rest of the core Alexandrians will watch as the young man dies before them in what can only be described as their biggest loss to date. (Sorry, Steven Yeun, we knew Glenn's death was coming since issue 100 of the comics.)

Below, Riggs talks exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about getting the dreaded death call from showrunner Scott M. Gimple, how Carl's heroic death will be used to service the story and if Rick could be next. (Click here to read Andrew Lincoln's thoughts on the dramatic departure from the comics and check back Monday for an interview with Gimple.)

You recently were accepted to college. Was it your decision to leave The Walking Dead?

I'm taking a gap year right now to focus on acting for a while. Leaving Walking Dead wasn't my decision. It was all story-related. It made sense story-wise for it to happen for Rick and Michonne and all the other characters.

When did you find out?

I was planning on going to college until I found out. I found out when I was doing rehearsals for episode six back in June. It was quite the shocker for me, Andy and everyone because I don't think anyone saw it coming. It's definitely not a bad thing because it has been awesome being on the show, but now I get to go and do a lot of other stuff that I haven't gotten to do before. Scott wanted to meet in person because it was such a big deal. We had just finished rehearsing for a scene in episode six and he wanted to meet with me and my mom and dad and talk about what's going to happen.

What was Scott's reasoning for killing Carl?

In the comics, Scott was trying to figure out why there was a hole between Rick slitting Negan's throat at the end of the "All-Out War" arc and then there's the time jump and Negan is alive and in prison and Rick didn't kill Negan. Scott was trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between Rick not wanting to kill Negan and Rick also really wanting to kill Negan, which he does right now [in the show's story]. Scott's way to get around that was to make Carl this really humanitarian figure and person who could see the good in people and see that people can change and not everyone out there is bad. That's what Carl's talk to Rick was in this episode: There's no way that they can kill every one of the Saviors and not everyone is a bad person and there has to be some way forward than just killing people.

You're as big of a fan of the comics as anyone out there. How did you respond to Carl being killed off, especially considering that he's still alive and kicking ass in the comics?

It was devastating for me and my family because the show has been such a huge part of my life for so long. For a few days, we didn't know what to do; I just bought a house in Senoia [near where the show films in Georgia]. That was a big deal that I wouldn't be on anymore. I decided that I wanted to not go to college for at least a year and move to L.A. and focus on acting and music. It ended up being a great thing because now I get to do all kinds of other stuff that I haven't been able to do in the last eight years.

Did you talk with Robert Kirkman about this major shift? Are you disappointed you won't get to film a lot of what happens with Carl in the comics, like the arc with the Whisperers?

I don't think I've talked to Kirkman about it at all. If we did, it was briefly at Comic-Con [in San Diego]. I don't talk to Robert that much unless it's press-related. I was excited to do a lot of those storylines in the comics because there's a lot of really cool stuff. I'm more excited to do other things than The Walking Dead than I was excited about doing those things on Walking Dead.

Outside of killing Rick, this is the biggest departure the show can make from the comics. How do you think this fundamentally changes the show?

I didn't know how it was going to pan out with Rick trying to move forward past this because his whole reason that he was pushing forward was to protect Carl and to raise him and to have him follow in his footsteps and have Carl be the leader one day. I don't know how Rick and Michonne are going to handle it. I guess I'll have to watch and find out!

Were you surprised that they opted to kill Carl rather than just, say, have him go live at the Hilltop as in the comics?

I didn't expect for Carl to ever get killed off. But it serves a good purpose in the story. There's still a little more left in Carl's story — in episode nine [the midseason premiere in 2018] — and that impacts Rick, Michonne and everyone. Although Carl's story is coming to an end, it's not over yet.

Was there any discussion about not killing Carl off and leaving the door open for you to return?

I have no clue to be honest. When Scott told me, that was his decision.

In a larger sense, Carl winds up sacrificing his life to save someone he didn't know in Siddiq. Is he dying a hero?

I definitely think so. It wasn't saving Siddiq, it was saving all of Alexandria. He was the reason that they all got to safety — because he stalled the Saviors and [prevented] them from finding any Alexandrians with his smoke grenades and he led them away from everyone and saved everyone. It was a pretty cool way to go out.

In terms of timelines, is it now clear that the teary/red-eyed Rick in the season eight premiere was his response to Carl's death?

It definitely could be. I haven't seen any other future footage but it's definitely possible that that was Rick's reaction to Carl. But you never know.

There's still the "old man Rick" scene that now is clearly not a flash-forward to the time jump from the comics. Do you think that's a vision of a future that Rick could be having — maybe on his deathbed?

It's possible it's a vision or another version of the future. That whole scene was taken almost directly out of inspiration from the time jump in the comics, so it could be the future, it could be a vision or it could be something else.

If a character like Carl can be killed off this season, do you think Rick could be killed off, too? I have a theory that this is Andrew's final season, too.

That is possible, too. I haven't talked to him much about it, but I know that he has a family that he leaves every year to come to Georgia for months and months to film The Walking Dead, leaving his kids back home in England. I know he's probably getting pretty tired.

The midseason premiere is going to show Carl in his dying moments. What can you say about that episode?

Episode 809 is really Carl trying to teach Rick as much as he can about what he's learned and trying to convince Rick to not kill every single Savior because there's still good people out there. The Alexandrians, the Hilltop and the Kingdom — all those people probably see him as a villain like the Saviors. There's some humanitarian aspects that Carl is going to try and teach Rick in his final moments.

How much more will viewers see of you in the second half of season eight, or is the midseason premiere it for you?

You'll see bits and pieces and memories of Carl throughout the second half. But his final moments are coming pretty soon.

Carl's mother, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), died in childbirth and he had to be the one to put her down for good so she wouldn't turn into one of the undead. Is there a world in which Carl does something to prevent Rick and Michonne from the heartbreak of having to do something similar?

Yes, definitely. Carl in his final moments is trying to teach Rick what he can so Rick doesn't make any more of the same mistakes that he has in the past. Carl has been watching this whole time and learning from Rick and seeing what he's done right and what he's done wrong, and Carl has come out of that as a very wise and old soul. Carl is going to try and give Rick every last bit of advice that he can.

With Carl no longer the future of the show, do you have any theories on how The Walking Dead will end when all is said and done?

I have no clue. I've never had a hypothesis on how the show or the comics would end. For the comics, Robert Kirkman has plans for hundreds of more comics. There's no telling what character is still going to be alive or dead — or if there's going to be a complete new cast of characters by the end of the comic or the TV show. There's just no way to tell.

Unlike the comics, Judith is still alive on the show. Could she be the future of the show?

It's possible. Rick doesn't have the same connection to Judith that he has with Carl [since Shane is likely her biological father] so Rick may try and make up for it and try to raise her to fill the shoes that Carl was supposed to take.

What's next for you?

I'm shooting [an indie called Inherit the Viper] in Birmingham. It's low-budget, but it's fun getting to play this redneck lowlife character with a mullet. It's something I haven't done before. That's what I'm excited about, this restart — to branch out and do other crazy roles that I've never gotten to do before.

Any parting words you'd like to say to fans?

Thank you to all the fans for giving me a job for eight years and for giving me this amazing experience and blessing me with this career and this chance at having so much opportunity.

Stay tuned to THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage from Sunday's shocking episode, including interviews with showrunner Scott M. Gimple and star Andrew Lincoln.