'Walking Dead' Star: Eugene "Is Scared to Die"

Josh McDermitt also talks with THR about losing co-star Lennie James (Morgan) to spinoff 'Fear the Walking Dead': "I'm 'sad-cited.'"
Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode seven of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Time for After."]

No amount of giggle juice will change this sad fact for Walking Dead viewers: Eugene is Negan, now and quite possibly forever.

Sunday's episode focused largely on Josh McDermitt's quick-witted scientist, trapped inside the Sanctuary alongside the other Saviors, wrestling with the looming threat of the hundreds of walkers surrounding the facility. Eugene found a way to solve that problem (thanks to an assist from a misguided operation launched by the Alexandrians), but has yet to untangle two other threats: Dwight (Austin Amelio) and his double-agent status within the Sanctuary, as well as some questions about where his own loyalties lie. 

Ultimately, despite protests from an increasingly ill Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), not to mention memories of the recent death of his friend (or "traveling companion," more accurately) Sasha, Eugene has planted his flag firmly on the Saviors' side of the battlefield — certainly a surprising move for fans of the Walking Dead comics, in which Eugene openly defies Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) from the moment of his initial captivity.

While Eugene stops short of selling Dwight down the river, the man with the meanest mullet in the apocalypse has certainly made it clear that he's a Neganist through and through, with very little wiggle room for the charitable interpretation that he's planning a long con against his baseball bat-wielding boss. With that said, Eugene's final moment in the episode — chugging "giggle juice," also known by adults as "wine" — indicates that his do-anything-to-survive tactics are finally taking a toll on his soul. But will it be enough to push Eugene back to the right side of the war when the smoke settles? And what would his old friend Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) think of Eugene's current actions? 

For those questions and more (including thoughts on Lennie James' impending Fear the Walking Dead transfer), McDermitt spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and gave his take on where things stand for Eugene now and moving forward.

When you started having conversations about season eight, were you surprised to learn Eugene would still very much identify with Negan through seven episodes of the season?

I wasn't surprised because that's who this guy is: a survivor. He's not a survivor in the way Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Carol (Melissa McBride) are…though maybe he is a little bit like Carol, in that he's changed and he's adapted to situations. With Eugene, he steps into situations and asks, "What do I have to do to stay alive?" That's definitely what he's thinking about. So I wasn't surprised that he's still Negan after all this time, and I won't be surprised if he's Negan for the rest of his time on the show. He's doing whatever he has to do to survive, and right now, that's aligning with Negan. It's interesting. I get people saying to me all the time: "Why did Eugene go and live with Negan?" And I have to remind them that he didn't just go and live with Negan. He was kidnapped, and he was faced with a choice: "Obey and get in line, or we kill you." This is a guy who is scared to die. He doesn't want to die. He's not the Daryl type, who is going to stand up to him and say, "Screw you," and end up in a cell, naked, eating dog-food sandwiches. He doesn't want that. He just wants to be left alone. Something could happen to the Sanctuary and Eugene will be out on his own, and he'll adapt again and change again, because that's who this man is.

At one point in the episode, Eugene is going to try to chase the walkers away using music and a glider. Dwight shows up and trains his gun on Eugene, but Eugene defiantly moves forward with his operation, knowing he has two options that could both result in his death. He bets on Dwight not shooting him. But even then, there's palpable fear behind his decision. Even at his bravest, is Eugene always fighting some measure of fear?

Absolutely. It's uncharted territory for him, being brave. The times in the past where he's chosen to be brave, it's gone horribly wrong. He felt like he was doing the right and brave thing when he drove the RV off into the sunset [in the season- six finale], hopefully drawing the Saviors away from Rick's group, and that went horribly wrong. He lost two close people in Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham. When Eugene steps up, bad things happen. He's very comfortable with doing his own thing, but when he has to be brave and step up, there's some fear. There's a history there. Especially with Dwight, he was taking a chance, but he was betting on the fact that Dwight wasn't going to shoot him, because Dwight's going to have to answer for that and they would start sniffing around at him. I mean, I guess you could make the argument that Dwight could have shot Eugene and said, "He was the rat." But it's still going to come out that someone's still feeding information [to Rick], so the finger will point back to Dwight eventually. But I also think Dwight didn't kill Eugene because he doesn't want anymore people to die. He only wants Negan to die. 

Coming to the show as someone who reads the comics, the choice for Eugene to stay loyal to Negan comes as a surprise. Every time it feels like there's a chance for Eugene to flip on Negan, he doubles down on his loyalty. With this episode, it feels like he's tripling down on it. Do you understand that surprise from the comic book fans?

I definitely understand it, and I love that they're surprised and emotional about it and have an opinion. You could just be a stale character that nobody has an opinion about. I think it's actually awesome that people are up in arms about this guy's decisions. If you go back to the scene where Negan basically says, "I respect you," and goes to shake his hand, which he adds, "I don't offer [a handshake] to everybody." 

You can tell. Negan has horrible handshake form.

It was like a limp-fish handshake, right? Negan needs to learn how to shake a hand. (Laughs.) I'll tell you this. We were on set that day, and there's always food around, and someone had brought out chips and guacamole. When you're in Georgia, the chips and guacamole aren't always great compared to what you normally get in L.A. This day, we had chips and guacamole, and it was awesome. I remember we were all eating it, and then we started the scene, and when Jeff put his hand out, there was guacamole all over his fingers. He hadn't wiped his fingers off! I tried licking his fingers, because it was funny. Please wash your hand if I'm trying to kiss it, you know? (Laughs.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan's hands are filthy after he eats.

That's a great Jeffrey Dean Morgan character note right there.

But [the handshake] is a big deal for Eugene. He's getting respect from a bully. He's been afraid of the bully for his whole life, and now the bully is basically saying, "You're alright with me." He has respect for him. I think that's something Eugene didn't feel in other places. He didn't feel valued. Not that he was harboring any kind of resentment because of that, but if you look at his time in Alexandria, he would contribute and try to make life better for everyone, but he wasn't valued as much as Negan is valuing him. So you take this guy who Eugene is deathly afraid of, who's causing so much pain and heartache and is basically saying, "You're all right with me and I value you," that's got to be make a guy like Eugene feel good. It means it's another day of living, in a world where death is always around the corner. 

How does Eugene justify his alliance with Negan, when this is also the guy who bashed in the brains of one of the only other people in the apocalypse he used to consider a friend: Abraham?

I think he buries it down deep within him and tries not to think about it. Eugene is a very intellectual man. He's a man of logic. As soon as you start injecting emotion into your decision-making, you're in for a world of hurt. It would be better for Eugene to not think about things in an emotional way. He definitely does think about Abraham. He thinks about Sasha, and Glenn, and all of the people who have either died protecting him when he was lying about having a cure, or elsewhere along the way. Look at Spencer and Olivia, who died in Alexandria right in front of him. He thinks about that stuff. He tries to bury it. He doesn't want to think about it. It's better if he's emotionless. It's an easier life. But that's the internal struggle he's constantly confronted with, with characters like Father Gabriel and Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Tara (Alanna Masterson), all of these people who say, "I still believe in you. When are you going to step up and do the right thing? When are you going to be a good person?" He feels like he's a good person, but he knows that all of these people who are his friends — and he just calls them "traveling companions" because the moment you say you're a friend, it's emotional — he needs to bury it and get it out of his life so he can go on being left alone.

When we're leaving Eugene in this episode, then, and he's chugging the "giggle juice," is that the moment he's run out of space in this hole he's trying to bury in his mind? Is it now overflowing, and he can't handle these thoughts of guilt any longer?

Absolutely. This is the guy who probably previously never had much to drink in his life. Even as he's trying to sleep, he's sipping the giggle juice, as he puts it. Now he's slamming it down, because now there's no more hope. He doesn't like the voices in his head. He wants everything to go back to being normal, and he keeps being confronted with it: "When are you going to step up? When are you going to confront these things that are constantly being put in your face?"

Do you have hope for him in that regard? Do you want to see the day where Eugene stands up and gets back on the same page as Rick and the gang?

I don't know. I try not to have many hopes for a character, because I don't want to judge someone. It's hard to answer. I'm sure the fans want me to say, "Yeah! I really want him to go back to Team Rick!" But Eugene is Team Eugene. He's not Team Negan. He's not Team Rick. He's not Team Abraham's Army. He's Team Eugene. I want to see him continue to live in interesting ways. Unfortunately, if that means people die around him? For me, it's still interesting. I probably have a different take on it because I'm playing this guy. If I was a fan of the show just watching it, as I was before I started working on the show, I would probably want him to do the right thing and go back…but as it is now, I just want to see something interesting with this guy. I want to see new and creative ways of how he's going to get out of this situation — or this pickle, rather, since this guy is obsessed with pickles. (Laughs.) How's he going to get out of this pickle? That's fun and interesting for me.

Last week, the news broke out about Lennie James moving over to Fear the Walking Dead, which opens up AMC's zombie universe significantly. What's your reaction to that development, that the two shows are crossing over with this central figure from the very earliest days of The Walking Dead?

Lennie was the guy whose storyline brought me into the show. I'm not necessarily a big horror-genre fan. People ask me what my favorite horror movies are, and I don't really watch a lot of horror, because I get scared. But I watched this show because it was about the human emotion and human survival. It wasn't about the zombies. A lot of what sucked me in was Lennie James [in the pilot]. I'll be honest, I kind of fell away from the show around season three. I still watched it, but I was getting a little bored. The episode that brought me back was "Clear," when they visit Morgan again and we see the writing all over his apartment. Again, Lennie James brings me back to the show. Constantly, over and over again, I'm watching him on this show and thinking, "Wow. This dude is amazing." I consider him a good friend. I'm really sad to see him go. I'm sad for the show. But I'm also excited, and I told Lennie that. I told him that I'm "sad-cited." It's tough. He's a great guy and a great actor. I'm sad I won't be learning from him as much. He's an amazing actor, but you learn more about life and how to be a good person, the stuff not associated with acting, from him. He's that kind of guy.

Can you imagine the day Eugene follows Morgan over to Texas? Would you want to see your character cross over with the Fear the Walking Dead universe?

It would be cool! (Laughs.) I don't know what they're doing with the show in terms of the timelines and stuff like that. I know the timelines don't match up. I wonder if it would even work. But if there's a way for Eugene to pop up on Fear the Walking Dead, I would totally do it. We'll see. I think it's a good thing to bridge those two worlds. Before, they used to say we would never cross. But I think you have to. That's what makes it interesting and cool. It's a cool shot in the arm for Fear the Walking Dead, and bringing over a solid actor like Lennie and a solid character like Morgan showing up in that storyline? It's going to be huge. I just wish maybe they could have brought Baby Judith over there instead. (Laughs.) What a cop-out! 

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