'Walking Dead' Star Gets Candid About His Exit: "It Was Constant Frustration"

[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode eight of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Evolution."]

For Walking Dead comic book readers and show-only viewers alike, Sunday's midseason finale ended with a massive shock: the death of Jesus (Tom Payne), a fan-favorite figure who remains alive and well in the comics from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. 

Jesus' season nine death comes at the hands of the Whisperers, the newest enemies in the AMC zombie universe, who wear refurbished skin suits in order to blend in with the dead. In the comics on which the TV series is based, Jesus encounters the Whisperers multiple times and lives to tell the tale, even defeating the deadliest member of the community in a two-on-one do-or-die brawl. AMC's live-action adaptation — which continues to make major diversions from its source material — had other plans, however, with Jesus' fatal encounter standing out as one of the biggest changes from the comics to date, if not quite as big as the departures of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), both of whom are also still active.

Given his character's untimely demise, one can imagine series regular star Payne's sadness over walking away from The Walking Dead. However, it would be nothing more than that: an imagined interpretation of events, far away from the reality of Payne's current existence. In a candid conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Payne — who has been with the series since season six (and a regular since seven) — says he was happy to leave the series, following years of frustration over the direction of his character. In the comics, Jesus is easily one of the group's fiercest fighters, a fact Payne believes the show neglected. The character's final stand, in Payne's mind, was much closer to his vision for Jesus all along, making it a note he's more than happy to go out on.

"I know people will be disappointed and shocked," he tells THR with a smile in his voice, "but I'm happy."

How did Payne's Walking Dead exit come together? What are some of the biggest missed opportunities with the character along the way, from his perspective? Ahead, Payne enthusiastically weighs in on all of that and more, including the romance with Aaron (Ross Marquand) that never was, what it was like filming his final episode with Norman Reedus and Josh McDermitt, and more.

How are you feeling with the secret now out in the open?

I'm excited for everyone to see it. I just wanted to be part of telling a good story that shocks people. That's what the show has been about for me. When they came to me with the idea, I said, "As long as it's a really cool moment, let's do it!" I know a lot of people are going to be bummed about it, but I've been bummed for the last two years, that the character hasn't gotten as much cool stuff [on the show] as he has in the comic books. They gave me a really cool ending, and I'm happy with that.

Was it your choice to leave The Walking Dead, or was this a decision from the writers?

They were aware I wouldn't be unhappy if they got rid of me. I expressed unhappiness last season. I was very frustrated with what the character had been doing. He arrived in a very cool way, and then he floundered at the Hilltop. During the war with the Saviors, the only person he had a fight with was a man who was on his side [in Lennie James' Morgan]. In the comics, he has this massive fight with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He catches a grenade, and throws it back [at his enemies]. He's the most capable member of the entire group! And he wasn't used at all [on the show]. In the background, I was training every single week. I was ready and raring to go. You can't help but feel a little bit despondent when you're not released to do some cool stuff. It was mutual and they knew I would be OK with it. It's an amazing show and I was so honored to be a part of it, but at the same time, being the same character without anything fun to do is a bit frustrating. 

When the call came, [season nine showrunner] Angela [Kang] was surprised at how laid back I was about it. (Laughs.) It was the first time she's ever made that call [to tell an actor about their character's impending death]. Andy and Lauren's deals had been worked out before [the season], so this was the first time. She called and told me, and I said, "Yeah, as long as it's a cool ending!" Because this character really is such a strong character. It would have to be a ton of people or a real surprise in order for him to die — which is what it ended up being. I wanted to make sure we were telling a story that surprises the audience. That's what the show is all about: no one is safe. It sets up the Whisperers in a great way. It was a mutual thing, and I was really happy about it. The whole episode, I had this huge smile on my face. I kept thinking: "This is so fun. This is what I wanted to be doing!" I felt like Jesus was feeling. Jesus has been cooped up at the Hilltop for two years, and he wants to get out there and do shit. It may have gotten him killed in the end! But at least he got into a fight with his sword. The whole episode told such a great story. I was happy to tell that story. This is what the show's about, and I just wanted to be a part of that. You want to be part of the shocking sequences. I ended up being very lucky in the end. I got to introduce you to the Saviors, and now I'm introducing you to the Whisperers. It's a pivotal moment for the show. 

And yet, the great irony is you're leaving The Walking Dead just as you're getting into so many elements from the comics that define Jesus: the sword, the top knot, the ninja gear…

That was the main reason why I was bummed [to leave after] episodes seven and eight. I was getting to work with so many different actors [in my final episodes], like Josh, Ross and Norman. It was fun. I loved the stuff with Ross this season. I think it's unfair to the audience, to tease that Aaron and Jesus relationship. But it's also great that we have it in there. I'm happy they did that. I did think it would be fun to stay on the show a little bit longer — but only if I got to act with everyone! If I only had that episode and then I had to go back to the Hilltop? I would have hated my life.

In the past, you have said you didn't want to see Aaron and Jesus in a relationship, as they are in the comics. Did your mind change given the direction of the characters this season?

I liked that they had a friendship, but I felt like a further relationship wasn't necessarily required. I thought it would have been a bit lazy: "Here are two gay characters. They should get together!" But someone else asked me about the six-year time jump [that followed Lincoln's departure], and I was like, "Maybe they did hook up once or twice in those six years!" Maybe that contributed to their [friendship], but as you do, you just become friends afterward. I could see that happening. But a long-term [relationship]? I'm not sure about that. They have a lot in common, and they did connect in a few different ways. It was nice to have them chatting; their sensibilities were similar. They were quite natural friends.

Not only is Jesus an iconic Walking Dead character, he's also an iconic gay character on television. How was your experience in that regard, and what do you say to viewers who felt represented by Jesus, and are going to be disappointed by this loss?

It's been so amazing to be a part of that community and to give visibility as a gay character on one of the biggest television shows ever. It was an amazing responsibility, and I was happy to take it on. But I was disappointed it wasn't in there more. It wasn't ever even explicitly mentioned. [Jesus' sexual orientation] was just one scene with Lauren in season seven. The right people picked up on it; they did recognize it. But you can find people who still don't realize Jesus was gay. I think they could have been a bit more up front about that. While you've lost Jesus, you still have Aaron and Tara (Alanna Masterson), and now Magna (Nadia Hilker) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), so there's still representation on the show. But it's a shame. He was such a badass character. They could have made more of it. It's really Robert Kirkman who was so amazing to do it in the comic books. I was super excited to play that. I wish they made a bigger deal of it. But other storylines take precedent, I guess.

Do you have any interest in reprising Jesus at some point down the line, perhaps in a Walking Dead movie, as is the plan with Andrew Lincoln? Given the time jump, there are lots of potential stories involving Jesus viewers haven't seen…

I would never say never, but I would only want to do it if it was good material. I don't have any interest in being there in the background, or showing up just for the sake of doing it. I would love to tell a story about Jesus' beginnings or whatever happened in those six years, and there's a lot of scope for that. If the material is strong, I would be interested.

Were you sent off with one of the cast's legendary death dinners?

Yes! We had a nice little dinner. People have different attitudes toward leaving the show and I was really happy! (Laughs.) I gave a speech about how I was happy. Even though there were times I was frustrated with the show, I was happy we were telling this great story. That's the whole point. It's what I want to do in my career, and to now be able to do that on this show…and I really hadn't felt like I had been involved in that many story points, aside from when I first joined the show, and then they gave me this huge one at the end. I'm hugely honored Angela put me in this position. 

What was the hardest part about saying goodbye to Jesus — which perhaps is a moot question, since you were clearly happy to say goodbye.

I loved the character. It's sad to say goodbye to the character. But there was just so much potential in the character that wasn't realized. I was frustrated by that and wished we had explored it further. I wasn't sad to say goodbye to that frustration. It was constant. I had been training for two years. I was so prepared for this character and what he was capable of. There was just lots of unrealized potential. That was very frustrating for me. When we finally showed off this year what he was able to do, that was great. I have no wish to go back to being frustrated by a character. (Laughs.) It's really just part of being on an ongoing series. You're constantly hoping the next episode you get, something will happen for you. You're on the edge of your seat all the time, pressing your hands together and hoping that something cool will turn up. You can only do that for so long. I'm looking forward to doing something now that has a beginning, middle and end, so I can see the character in front of me. I spent a long time hoping my character was going to have more to do. I was happy to have a great beginning, a great bit [in the middle] with Lennie, and then a really great ending. That's enough for me. I'm happy it rounded off in a fun way, with a great impact on the story. But at the same time, I'm ready to move on.

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