'Walking Dead' Star on How Jesus Is Both Fighting and Becoming a Savior

Tom Payne tells THR why it's so important for his character to push back against Rick's warpath in season eight.
Courtesy of AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode two of AMC's The Walking Dead, titled "The Damned."]

When the world is on the verge of total collapse, Jesus (Tom Payne) will lead the way.

The fan-favorite character, with roots in the Walking Dead comic books from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard on which the AMC show is based, had a few breakout moments over the course of "The Damned," the second episode of season eight. While Rick Grimes' (Andrew Lincoln) marching orders instruct the Alexandrians and their allies to shoot to kill in their war against the Saviors, Jesus is trying a different approach. Instead of slaughtering all the enemies in his path, Jesus wants to save the Saviors where he can.

Early in the episode, Jesus' mercy gets put to the test when he and Tara (Alanna Masterson) encounter a Savior who initially pretends to be an innocent bystander before turning the tables on Jesus. For her part, Tara is eager to kill not only this man but all the Saviors she and Jesus encounter during their assault on Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) satellite station — the second time the Alexandrians have attacked this very place. But even after becoming a momentary hostage at the man's hands, Jesus disarms and ties up his assailant, proving his capacity to show mercy.

Jesus gets another opportunity to lean into his pacifism, at least when compared to the aggressiveness of both Tara and Morgan (Lennie James), who is firmly off the wagon on the "all life is precious" ways of Aikido. A slew of Saviors surrender in the middle of the battle, and while Tara and Morgan are inclined to kill these soldiers, Jesus successfully convinces them and their allies to instead take them as prisoners. Here's hoping that Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja), the long-lost season one veteran who shows up at the end of this episode, will show Rick the same mercy that Jesus just showed to the Saviors.

For more on the episode (including that bombshell Morales moment), The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jesus actor Tom Payne about the delicate balancing act as his character fights the Saviors while also becoming something of a savior in the process.

The first four episodes have been described by showrunner Scott M. Gimple as among the most intense and action-forward in Walking Dead history. This latest episode certainly continues that trend. Is it a fair assessment, in your mind?

Yeah, I would say so! It's funny with these first four. Every episode, it ramps up with each passing script. I watched this episode this week with my girlfriend, and it was tough for me to not give stuff away: "Well, this is going to go here, this is going to lead to this, and you're not going to believe where this is going to go." During the episode! Because there's so much in these episodes. In this one, we have a few people who die, we have Morales turning up, we have Jesus making that tough decision and going against Tara, we have Morgan hearing things again...there's so much going on outside of the war, and that continues. Every script we got, each time we were surprised they were managing to do it even bigger. I was surprised. I kept thinking: "There's no way it's getting bigger than this." And then the next episode, it got bigger. It's definitely the most action-packed start to a season that we've ever had.

It really feels like we're in the middle of a four-hour action movie.

Yeah! (Laughs) I couldn't believe it, watching episode two. Because you forget what's happening, having filmed so much, and I couldn't believe how much they managed to pack into each episode. There are three major assaults happening in this episode, and aside from that, there's all this other drama. I'm really excited to see the reaction to these episodes. 

Did it feel like you were in a war zone, filming this episode?

It did, because first of all, we were back at the satellite station, which I haven't been back to in two years, since filming season six. Already you're going back to a place that you've been before in real life, and we're pretty much doing what we did the first time we were there — except this time, there's a lot more danger, because everyone's awake. When we walked in that door in the beginning and everyone had their guns raised, we really felt like we were engaged in something dramatic. It was great.

In "All-Out War," the directive seems to be to kill all of the Saviors' soldiers. But Jesus isn't fully buying into that command, is he?

This is the first time Jesus has really engaged with the group and become a part of that dynamic. I think he's made a decision to play a part and to say and do what he thinks is right. I think he feels he can be a steadying force within the group, a steady hand, and help things play out in a less haphazard way. Having said that, in the group he's currently in, he's with people he hasn't really been around before. He has to deal with Morgan, and he doesn't really know Morgan and his past and what's up with him. He's also dealing with Tara. He's not afraid to make a decision and stick to a decision. I think it's interesting that he makes that decision [to save the Savior], and I think the audience will be split on if he made the right one. I happen to think it's the right one. When you let things fall apart during periods of war, you're walking this fine line of what is right and what is wrong. If there's no stability or humanity in them, then who is really fighting for the right cause? For him to make that stand, I think it's really important. You shouldn't just kill everyone. You should have some kind of moralistic attitude about it. 

What does that say about someone like Tara right now, then, as she's so keen to kill all of the Savior soldiers she can? Does it put her decisively on the wrong side of the argument? Is there room for redemption?

I think that's the thing Jesus is afraid of. He knows she's...reckless is the wrong word, but he knows she's more forward and willing to kill everyone. He fears that once you go past that point of no return, it's very difficult to come back. If we win, we're all going to live in a society together afterwards. It will be tough to deliver themselves from the demons they'll create during this conflict. He's definitely trying to make sure they don't slip into a bad situation for what's to come.

When Jesus looks into Morgan's eyes, does he see something different than what he sees in Tara's?

It's different. In the episode, it's cut quite quickly, but there's a moment when Morgan steps out into the light and you can tell he's not quite there. We all see that. There's definitely something else going on there, and Jesus recognizes it. With Tara, Jesus tells her: "You can try to stop me." He senses it's more of a conflict that can be handled and reasoned with. But Morgan definitely strikes him as a little bit more of a wild card.

It turns out Jesus is wrong about the man he's trying to save. What's going through Jesus' mind when he's being held hostage?

In that moment, I think that guy is never going to get out of that room. I actually think Jesus saves that man's life. He knows Tara is going to shoot him. When he disarms him and ties him up on the floor, he's saving his life at that moment. There's no way it was going to end any other way. He still commits to that. He's still sticking to that road: "If we can keep these people alive, then we should." Down the road, it could develop into people being bargaining chips. There's a benefit to it, other than just being nice to people because it's what you should do. These people might be useful as well.

Who knows how any of this would be playing out right now if Jesus hadn't connected with Alexandria. Even in the thick of "All-Out War" and everything that's happened since Jesus met Rick, do you think Jesus has any second thoughts about making this relationship with Alexandria?

I think he's at peace with everything. Everything follows its own path. The thing about that is when he brought everyone to the Hilltop, it was Rick and Daryl [Norman Reedus] and Abraham [Michael Cudlitz] who said they would go and sort this problem out. It's a problem that existed, and Jesus and the Hilltop were kind of okay with the deal. There's that scene where I'm in the room with everyone and they say they can take [Negan] out, and Jesus goes, "Oh, okay. Well, I'll talk to Gregory about it." It's their own bullheadedness that got them into this situation in the first place, and everyone's in it deeper than they expected. Nobody really knew the size of the problem. I think Jesus was always trying to do the best thing. He didn't start this. They started this by killing all of those people in their sleep in the satellite station. In a way, that was a really brutal thing they did, and it had consequences.

One of the big questions this season is wrath versus mercy. We know Jesus is showing mercy toward many of the Saviors. Will mercy win out if and when Jesus encounters Gregory again at some point down the line?

I think he views Gregory as a dangerous character still. He said it in the premiere to Maggie, when Gregory showed up at the Sanctuary: "Of course that's where he went." But the thing about Gregory is that he's actually completely harmless. He's a coward, you know? It will be interesting to see where he ends up, if he tries to come back to the Hilltop, and what happens if he does. I mean, that would be a crazy thing to do! (Laughs) But he might try it to see what happens. I actually think as far as Jesus is concerned, Gregory's out of the picture at the Hilltop, and now Maggie is running things and Jesus is having to talk to her about the best ways forward.

The episode ends with the surprise return of Morales. Were you shocked by that?

Oh, absolutely. As soon as I saw Morales was coming back...because I had gone on forums before and I've read stuff, and I know that Morales has been speculated about since season one. "He's going to turn up here! He's going to turn up in Fear the Walking Dead!" And so many other people are saying, "Shut up about Morales! It's never going to happen!" So when I saw it in the script, I went, "Wow, people are going to love this." And that's a very interesting character to bring back, and it'll be really interesting for fans now to go back to that first season and see how characters have developed since then and where they've gone on to. It's great, because it adds a whole extra layer of thought to the idea that people take different paths. Last season, there was a lot of talk about how if you met Negan instead of Rick, maybe you would be with him. Morales went from Rick to Negan. I think all of the questions surrounding the war this season, it's very interesting to put the audience in a place to question it themselves. This season's even more intense in that way.

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