'Walking Dead' Star on the Season's Biggest "Gut-Wrenching" Battle Yet

"It tore my heart out," actor Khary Payton tells THR about the latest season eight episode.
Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode four of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Some Guy," as well as the comics on which the show is based.]

The king is dead. Long live some guy.

But not just any some guy. He's some, terrific, radiant, humble, thingamajig of a guy, at least in Walking Dead actor Khary Payton's estimation. Payton plays Ezekiel, King of the Kingdom, his veritable crown well and truly damaged following the events of the latest episode of the series, "Some Guy." After his initial reluctance to follow Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the Alexandrian alliance into battle against the Saviors, Ezekiel ultimately joined the cause — and now, his worst fears have become reality, as virtually all of the king's men have been killed on the battlefield, his pet tiger, Shiva, included.

In a storyline adapted straight from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's comics on which the show is based, episode writer David Leslie Johnson expands upon Ezekiel's pain and suffering and drags him through one of the most physically and emotionally grueling hours in recent Walking Dead history. The king's low point is easily the high point of season eight of the AMC drama thus far, thanks in large part to Payton, tasked with plunging into dark depths alongside his character. As the actor tells it, tapping into Ezekiel's exhausting struggle to survive was simply a matter of channeling what he was experiencing in reality.

Read on for Payton's thoughts on the brutal Ezekiel episode, the difficulty of saying goodbye to so many cherished colleagues, the common bond between his character and his father, why he doesn't expect the king of the Kingdom to hang his head in shame forever and more.

"Some Guy" is a difficult journey for Ezekiel as a character and you as an actor. You must be proud of this one.

It was one of my favorite experiences. And also one of my most bittersweet journeys to take, as far as just telling a journey. I said goodbye to so many people. At the same time, I was given this wonderful episode and character to play. It tore my heart out. Some of the guys we lost ... because we lost pretty much everybody [from the Kingdom]. That's the thing about The Walking Dead. You get very close to these people, and then you end up having to say goodbye, and not knowing when you're going to see them again. Carlos Navarro, who plays Alvaro [one of the last knights of the Kingdom still standing, before he's also gunned down by a Savior], is one of my favorite people in the world. Besides Shiva, letting Carlos go was one of the hardest things that I've done on this show. It really did feel like all my people got ripped away from me. It was more emotional than I was expecting it to be. I've already had that feeling when Karl Makinen, who played Richard, and Logan Miller, who played Ben [died on the show]. You think it would get easier, but it doesn't. (Laughs.)

It's an interesting parallel with Ezekiel's journey in this episode. Much as you lost many of your colleague in the making of the episode, Ezekiel loses all of these people from his life as well. The episode is aptly named, in that it takes Ezekiel from being the king of the Kingdom to being just "Some Guy." Is this a permanent alteration for Ezekiel moving forward?

It definitely affects him in a strong way. I know with the title, "Some Guy," he's talking about how he's just some guy ... but I would harken back to Charlotte's Web. Charlotte wrote it up there: "He's some pig." And everybody else is like, "That is some pig." You know what I mean? Ezekiel is still some guy. That is some guy! (Laughs.) He's not just some guy, no matter how he feels about it. He's fucking King Ezekiel, and there's nobody quite like him, whether you think he's too over the top or not. There's just nobody like that guy. No matter what happens, he'll never be just some guy. He just has to find his way back. That's what this show is about. It's about how much of yourself can you keep in the most dire of circumstances? We're about to find out with Ezekiel. 

It's a game of high highs and low lows this week. The episode begins with Ezekiel in about as regal form as we have ever seen, delivering a rousing speech to rally the troops of the Kingdom — and then the action cuts to the present, where Ezekiel is surrounded by so much death. How much did you feel the ping-ponging from high to low?

The scene we shot of that speech and leaving the Kingdom we shot in the morning, and as the sun was going down later that day, we shot Ezekiel, Jerry (Cooper Andrews) and Carol (Melissa McBride) returning and facing all of those people he told he was going to come back with victory. The first time we shot that rousing speech, we had such an intense time that morning, and when I came back and it was just those few people huddled there looking at me? I lost it. We never got it on camera, but I bawled like an idiot when I saw those people. That's not what this was about. It needed to be a different response. Frankly, I don't know how much longer I could have cried anyway. Walking back into that situation, it was like, "I told them all it was going to be OK." There was a dude who was specified in the script, Alvaro's father. He was an extra and he kind of looked like Alvaro, and I caught his eye, and it tore me up. It was literally one of the most gut-wrenching moments. 

When we catch up with the action, Ezekiel emerges from beneath a pile of bodies. How much did that help you dive into the depths of his despair?

That's one of the beautiful things about the job. Sometimes, you have to pretend like there's a tiger there because there's nothing there. Sometimes, they pile a bunch of dudes on top of you. (Laughs.) There were legs everywhere. They were like, "We can't really take the pressure off of you, man." And I was like, "That's alright. I'll just have to drag my ass out of here." It's true, it wasn't me pretending to drag myself out from under a bunch of bodies. I literally had to drag myself out from under a bunch of bodies. It was fun.

What do you make of the fact that Ezekiel only survives this situation thanks to the help of others: Alvaro, Jerry, Carol and Shiva?

You get what you pay for sometimes when it comes to people. Ezekiel put a lot of equity into holding people up and bolstering people up, and being a light when there wasn't much of one anywhere else. It reminds me of my dad, who is a cancer survivor. He's been a pediatrician in the town I grew up in for 30-something years. When he was going through his chemo, generations of people came out of the woodwork to give him support. He ended up doing really well and coming through and being able to beat leukemia. I could see 30 years of him taking care of people [coming back]. I can't walk around my hometown with my dad; he's the rock star when we're walking around. That's what happens with Ezekiel here. In the moment he needs it the most, in the moment he can't be the rah-rah rabble-rousing speechmaker, every time he got knocked down, someone was there to pick him up. I think it's a little bit of a lesson in you get what you give.

Did you feel Ezekiel's regal manner slipping away at all during this episode? He's let the facade drop with Carol previously. Did he lose it here?

For me, there's a certain point where when you're putting on a persona like that, that if you're putting it on all of the time, it's hard to turn it off. It's not like he goes back and sits in the bedroom and talks to himself like regular Zookeeper Zeke. It's become kind of habitual, that this is the way he talks. When he breaks down, it's got so much less to do with the people around him at that point, and more to do with him turning it off because the weight is too much. When he says, "I'm just some guy!" I think that's not him talking to anybody else. It's him talking to himself and feeling like everything he's ever tried to do was for nothing. That's him at one of his lowest moments.

You lost many colleagues in the making of this episode. As a character, Ezekiel also loses Shiva. Is there an emotionality involved for you in losing an animated character?

The way I justified it for me was that Shiva is the embodiment of rare beauty in this dark, apocalyptic world. That's the symbol she carries for Ezekiel. She's the symbol and embodiment of the Kingdom itself. Who knows how many tigers there are left in the world? At least in [the Walking Dead world], she is a rare creature. I think he felt that way about the Kingdom. It's a rare place. Seeing that symbol that got him through the early stages of the apocalypse, that was the breakdown for me. It's all she represented. I wasn't just thinking about a CGI character necessarily. I was thinking about the embodiment of this rare and beautiful thing he had willed himself into believing could happen.

What did you think about how Shiva's death mirrors Ezekiel's story from earlier in the episode, about how he saved Shiva once upon a time, and how he wanted to be the kind of person who leapt into danger?

It's pretty amazing work that [showrunner] Scott M. Gimple is able to fold into these stories. I know there's lots of discussion about the number of bullets people are using and things like that, devices for storytelling that people kind of laugh about and harp on. But there's some beautiful stuff here I think people are missing when they're worrying about how many bullets are left in the gun before they reload. There's some really great symmetry there. We talked about Henry V, which is one of my favorite plays, and my favorite Shakespeare play. I talked months ago with Scott about the speech that Henry V gives at the Battle of Agincourt, as his lieutenants are saying they should call back to England for more people. Henry says: "Not one more," because we're going to win this battle and they are going to wish they were here. I was talking to Scott about Ezekiel giving these kinds of speeches. He took this "not one more," and he switched it: "We will lose not one of our number." That's just brilliant. It's a different take. You take that Shakespeare, you twist it, you make it your own. 

What can we expect next from Ezekiel, now that he's survived his lowest moment by far?

Falling into the hole is the easy part. Digging yourself back out of it? That's the hard part. That's the part of the journey he's on right now. Can he find his way back to being the light that he needs to be for the people around him? Despite what's happened to him, people are still looking to him — even if there are far less people! (Laughs.) There are still people looking to him. It's not about how many times you fall off, it's about how many times you get back up. He got his leg chewed up, so it's going to be hard to stand up. I think this is a process of figuring out how to do that. 

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