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'The Walking Dead' star Andrew J. West talks Gareth and those shocking Terminus flashbacks

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TWD 04
Gene Page/AMC

No doubt about it. Those guys at Terminus were bad news. How did they get that way? We learned their backstory through some flashbacks that framed The Walking Dead’s season 5 premiere. Turns out Gareth and Co. used to be some pretty righteous folks who did, in fact, want to use their railway yard as a sanctuary — until some other baddies came and took over and forced them into a new world way of thinking…and eating. We caught up with the man who plays Gareth, Andrew J. West, to get his take on the shocking premiere. (Also make sure to check out our season premiere interviews with creator Robert Kirkman, showrunner Scott M. Gimple, and Tyreese himself, Chad Coleman. Also, feast your eyes on director Greg Nicotero’s storyboards for the big Terminus raid scene.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve just gotta say, you have a security breach here at Terminus, sir.

ANDREW J. WEST: Yeah, a little bit. I think that’s one way of putting it. Definitely. It’s kind of shocking, isn’t it? I was a little blown away myself. I mean, you know, obviously I read the script and I knew what had happened, but after watching it myself I couldn’t quite get out of my seat right away when it ended. I had to let it all sink in for a moment.

Robert Kirkman kept warning me all summer, saying “Those first few minutes we’re gonna get a lot of action and a lot of answers,” and he wasn’t kidding.

They weren’t kidding, right? I mean, that was one of the most surprising things for me, too, even when I first read the script, going into production in the spring, is how fast they just jump right into it and just really start moving things along. You know the pace of the story was quick, but the episode itself was so high octane, too, that it really surprised me. And, you read the script and you can get a sense for how action packed it’s going to be or how intense it’ll be, but you never really know until you see it. And I was still shocked after seeing it.

We have this time device of the Then and Now flashbacks as we got to go back in time to see how Gareth turned sort of into this cold calculating leader, and it starts with him being the one locked in the train car after inviting people to Terminus with good intentions, and they then took over. What was it like being able to sort of film that back story and fill in those blanks?

That was hugely helpful, for me. Starting the job back at the end of season 4 in the finale, I knew very little about the character. Like we talked about last time, when I actually got the job I had no idea what my character’s name would even be, because security on the show is so tight with the material. So, getting to read this first script and getting to jump in and shoot these flashbacks was hugely helpful because it gave me a little bit of backstory. It helped me understand where this guy’s coming from, how complicated he actually is, and how he developed this philosophy that he has, or this way of approaching life in this new world. And those were kind of terrifying scenes to shoot. The actor that they hired who throws my mother into the train car and who hits me in the face and stuff was just fantastic and just terrifying. So, you know, I didn’t really even have to act that much. [Laughs] I was pretty scared.

Well, you were the cattle and I guess you decided to become the butcher instead, right?

That’s the idea, definitely.

You may have taken this butcher analogy a little bit too literally, though, I think.

Yeah, maybe. You’re going to have to take that one up with Scott Gimple.

Well, Scott Gimple, the showrunner, he really gives out information on a need-to-know basis, as you alluded to earlier, when you said you didn’t even know your character’s name for a while. Tell me what that conversation was like when he told you about the Then and Now structure and being able to fill that stuff in.

Yeah, we had a phone conversation, maybe about a week, I think, before going into production on this new season, and again he didn’t tell me much before I actually saw the script. He just said, “We’re going to see a little bit of the backstory, we’re going to see a little bit of where these characters come from, and how they found themselves in the situation that they’re now in, and why they are doing the things that they’re doing.” And that was it, you know. And then he left it to me to just sort of read the script and let that sink in, and then we continued having conversations over the course of filming the first episode as well as the episode thereafter. Scott is great. He’s got this fantastic ability to tell you everything you need to know in order to do your job well, but nothing above that. And nothing that you can’t sort of figure out for yourself just by reading the scripts. And he’s a master at it. He’s a master at helping the people that he works with, but also maintaining the security of the material of the show.

Let’s talk about working with the other Andrew. Tell me about that one scene, you come in — it’s almost game over for him and his crew as they’re sort of sitting there above the trough — and then you come in and have that big scene with him and Lawrence and the others.

He is so intense. And it’s jarring a little bit, because he is just the nicest, most lovely person in real life, and he’s always got a smile for you, and he always has a warm greeting for you when you show up to set in the morning, when you see him. But when we’re working, it’s a totally different world, and that scene in the beginning of the premiere episode, when Rick and company is knelt before that trough, we would get ready to start shooting that scene, and we’d basically be kneeling there, in front of each other, and Andy would be just staring — I mean, just staring daggers — into me. And he would even kind of, like, say stuff to me, you know, before the scene would actually start. Like, stuff that maybe I can’t exactly repeat, but, you know, basically trying to intimidate me. And it’s sort of a method way of approaching it, but you have to go there in a scene that is that intense. And the interesting thing about it, too, is that even while we’re shooting the scene, and I’m sort of interrogating him a little bit and trying to figure out some information, the way that he is just looking at me when he says the line about “That’s what I’m going to use to kill you” — I believed him. And I was a little intimidated. You sort of can’t not be.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. You know, Gareth is certainly a strong guy, he’s a confident guy, he knows that he’s in control, but at the same time he’s a human being. So, when you’re confronted with another very strong, very confident, very resourceful person, as he knows that Rick is, there’s bound to be a little bit of, you know, intimidation, or maybe the slightest hint of doubt or maybe “I actually gotta keep my eye on this guy.” And I felt that a little bit, I’m not even talking about Gareth as a character, I mean me, while we’re doing the scene. And those are good things to be feeling, I think. You wanna try to get all of that into the scene, as much of that as you possibly can. And all of that comes from him taking it so seriously, Andy Lincoln being so intense, and really jumping into that scene full force, and making you do the same, too.

When I go down on set, I give him a wide berth because he’s sitting there pounding concrete with his hands and just doing whatever it takes so I just stay out of his way.

He sort of does these like strange, like, rain dances sometimes. I don’t know what he’s doing. He’s doing these hand motions and stuff. I love it. It really creates an atmosphere of playfulness — not in the lighthearted sense, but in the “We are here to play these characters, to play out these imaginary scenes in this world.” And it really creates that environment and it lets you lose any sort of self-consciousness. It’s great, and for the number one to go there and to really create that sense of place — hugely important. It means a lot coming from him.

Clearly we saw you get shot, but it was sort of in the shoulder-arm area. We also saw some scenes with you in the season 5 trailer that we did not see in the premiere, so it seems we have not seen the last of Gareth.

I would hope that we have not. Everything would seem to point to Gareth maybe making another appearance somewhere down the line. It certainly would appear that way, yes. You know, we see certain things in the trailer and yeah, you know, I mean I would hope Gareth isn’t done that quickly.

I know the other week you had your big premiere party out in L.A. What was that whole experience like getting to watch the show with a big crowd?

Oh, it was fantastic. You know, I’ve been to some movie premieres. I’ve never actually been to a premiere of the first episode of a new season of such a hugely successful show. So, it was a new experience for me and I was floored by it. I mean, it felt like the biggest blockbuster film of the summer type premiere. I was also just blown away by the fan support, and how just excited these fans are for this new season. They really are just the most dedicated fans that I’ve ever encountered. And especially for a character like mine who’s new to the show, and who starts off with a little bit of tension with the much loved main cast of the show, I was surprised at how much support people just seem to sort of have for me and for the character.

Also check out our ‘Walking Dead: One-Minute Refresher ‘below. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.