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It certainly looks like a grim future for Father Gabriel, the priest played by Seth Gilliam since season five of the AMC zombie series. Over the course of “The Big Scary U,” Gilliam’s Gabriel and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan were locked together in an enclosed trailer, surrounded from the outside by walkers, left to size each other up. Eventually forming a reluctant alliance, Gabriel and Negan chopped up some zombies, covered themselves in guts (the second time we’ve seen Gabriel participate in this trick), fight through the herd and make it safely back to the Sanctuary…
…except they may not have made it back safely, at least not in Gabriel’s case. In the final scene of the episode, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) visits a freshly imprisoned Gabriel, who is convulsing in his cell, covered in sweat, filled with nervous energy. We never see the man sustain a bite from one of the walkers, but there are few other explanations for his condition. Indeed, it may be the start of a germ warfare storyline seen in the comic books’ “All-Out War” arc.
For more on Gabriel’s fate, The Hollywood Reporter turned to Seth Gilliam himself, who was understandably cryptic when it came to the holy man’s potential death. Beyond the character’s urgent situation, Gilliam weighed in on Gabriel’s interactions with Negan, the nauseating process involved in getting covered in guts, the character’s fate in the comic books (major spoilers ahead in that regard) and more.
How nervous should we be for Father Gabriel right now?
Oh… (Big laugh.) I think you should feel as nervous as you feel!
What went through your mind when you read the final moment in the script?
I thought, “Oh, wow. It just never ends for this poor guy.”
Clearly, you’re not confirming or denying that Gabriel is doomed. What can you say about what’s next, and the journey we’re on with Father Gabriel?
It’s a journey of self-discovery. That’s about as much as I can say without ruining it.
Fair enough. This episode focuses largely on Gabriel and Negan, still trapped with walkers all around them. Given the enclosed space, did it almost feel like performing a play?
You know, it really was kind of like it was a play. We were in a tight space, closed quarters. It was almost like a small theater in a sense, with a lot of emotion going back and forth between Jeffrey and I. It was like having a great front row seat to a fun performance. I was really excited to have a chance to be a part of this scene and for Gabriel and Negan to do some soul-searching — to see if this guy even has one. It turns out that he does. Of all the characters, Gabriel was probably the one best-suited for the job. If anybody else had stepped into that trailer, Negan would probably have brought Lucille upon them right off the bat. I think he’s taken aback by someone like Father Gabriel. What’s this guy trying to do, with the whole priest thing in the middle of the zombie apocalypse?
Does Gabriel’s opinion of Negan change from where the episode begins to where it ends?
I think it may have. I think it may have changed somewhat. I think he has a better understand of what Negan means as a leader to his group, and what his idea of leading is and what his ideas of redemption are. I think he has a little bit more respect for him. But at the same time, I think he still sees him as a psychopath who kills people with a baseball bat.
What about the opinion of Gabriel himself? During his first season, he was one of the most loathed characters on this show. Have you sensed a change of the tide?
I do feel like the tide has changed somewhat! I think people have a little bit more of an understanding of what makes Gabriel tick. It wasn’t so evident before. There’s lots of distrust. Apparently, there was some idea that Gabriel is a mole. That was one of the fan theories floating around for a while, that he and Negan were working together. I found that interesting. I thought by this point Gabriel had proven his loyalty to Rick’s group. There’s something about a man of the cloth [in this context] that might be a little bit suspicious to people, that leads to some question.
Once upon a time, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) anointed Eugene a “stage two badass.” Do you think Gabriel has reached that level yet?
(Big laugh.) You know, I don’t know! He does seem a little more capable of shooting a walker in the face. But a stage two badass? A stage two badass might have taken a run at Negan as soon as he got in the trailer!
Well, Gabriel did take a shot!
He did take a shot. He has to earn the chance to get Negan to turn his back on him, to make him think he’s not a threat. But a stage two badass would have come into the trailer and just rushed Negan.
If Gabriel isn’t a stage two badass, he’s at least able to withstand a punch from Negan to the face. Were there any close calls, shooting that with Jeffrey?
No, Jeffrey is very much a professional. (Laughs.) I felt the wind a couple of times, but that’s about as close as it got. It was fun! I really hope people get a little bit of a chuckle, that we get some laughs out of the audience. That’s what we were looking for. We’re looking to bring some humor out of this dire situation.
Did you enjoy getting back into the guts-camouflage?
The guts thing always grosses me out. I don’t know what they make it with, man, but it’s so gross to the touch, to the feel, to the look. It’s that bizarre part of going on a rollercoaster where you have this fear of sickness, but you get on it because you think the adrenaline is going to take over at the moment you’re going to puke… and then you still get there and feel, “Why am I doing this?” That’s what the guts feels like.
What does it smell like? Hopefully better than it’s supposed to smell on the show.
You know, it smells a little… sweet? (Laughs.) It’s just gelatinous enough looking where you might want to taste it. And then that makes you feel even sicker!
Negan and Gabriel fight through an ocean of walkers. How do you get yourself revved up for the intensity of such a scene?
There’s a claustrophobic feeling that you have from being penned in with lots of people. I imagine it’s what it might be like when you’re in one of those English football stadiums and a fight breaks out, and you can’t get to the exit, and you’re penned in with all of these people. So it’s very claustrophobic. It got my heart racing. And the makeup is really superb, you know? It’s really freakish to see so many different stages of death. The art design really does help. It’s not like holding an empty hand and pretending you’re peeling an orange, like in acting class. It’s right there in front of you. There’s a lot of visual stimulation to go along with the claustrophobic feeling. That does the trick for me.
What was involved in making you look so sick, quite possibly infected, at the end of the episode?
We worked [with the makeup department] through some varying shades of green, and undertones for my skin, to make me look sickly. There were lots of sprayed water bottles and maybe even a little bit of gel so there’s a bit of a sheen. The rest is just shaking like a leaf and trying to make myself as ill as possible for 30 seconds.
When we first met Gabriel, his greatest sin was that he had locked his flock out of his church because he was so afraid to die. The possibility is now on the table that Gabriel’s death might be imminent. What do you think his philosophy toward death is now based on what it was back then?
I think now, he’s dying for a cause. He’s faced his fears. He’s been given a second chance by God to do so. At this point, Gabriel would be kind of okay with what he’s done, with as far as he’s come, and being able to have some kind of retribution — making up for that horrible moment where he failed himself and he failed God.
One of the big themes of the season is whether or not mercy can prevail over wrath. What has that been like to play out?
It’s been a powerful theme this season for pretty much all of the characters, but I don’t think it’s so much of a struggle for Gabriel. I think he’s committed to doing what he needs to do to make [the war between Alexandria and the Saviors] end. He’s always going to lean toward the side of mercy as opposed to wrath. He’s someone you can always count on going in that direction.
How versed in the comics are you? Do you read the source material to see what’s ahead for Gabriel?
I don’t. Someone showed me how Gabriel is killed off. They were very excited, because it took a couple of pages to do it. I looked at it and went, “Okay, that’s pretty cool.” The whole hanging upside down, screaming thing, and being gutted or slit open down to the bone. It seemed pretty grisly. Aside from that comic book and the issue where Gabriel was introduced and stepped out of the woods to ask if they had a moment to talk about God, I haven’t read any of the comics. I couldn’t catch up at this point, and if I did, I don’t know if I would be influenced to try to change my performance, and if that would ring hollow, because it’s not the guy I’ve started to create. I don’t know if I would get attached to material that’s not going to happen and build resentment against the writing team because of it. (Laughs.) I’d rather not question any of that stuff. Sometime in the future, when this is all distant past, I think I’ll sit back and read them all to see what it’s all about.
When that person showed you the image of Gabriel hanging upside down, did you have a fearful vision of the future? “Please don’t put me in a harness…”
Well, the first thing I thought was, how long can my voice hold out? (Laughs.) Because he’s screaming quite a bit! That became kind of a challenge: “I think I could probably do that for about six hours!” Aside from that, I tried to put it out of my head.
For a show like Walking Dead, where the likelihood of dying eventually is pretty high, is there a readiness to playing out those scenes — that when you get to your death, you’re going to give it your all?
I really think so. I think everybody comes onto this show knowing that this isn’t going to be M.A.S.H., you know what I mean? You’re not going to be on the show for 20 years. You’re most likely going to die. I think everyone wants to give as good of a death as you possibly can. It really is part of the package.
If this is the end of the line for Gabriel, what has the Walking Dead experience meant to you?
It’s been a really wild ride. I’ve never had the interactions that I’ve had with fans outside of Walking Dead as I’ve had these past few years, the level of passion that they have for the show — the grand scope of the show and the level of excitement people have around each episode that comes out is really kind of thrilling.
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