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The Walking Dead: Tom Payne shares intel on mystery man Jesus

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Gene Page/AMC

[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “The Next World” episode of The Walking Dead.]

We still have a bit to go before the introduction of the biggest of bads from The Walking Dead comic book, Negan. But an equally intriguing character from the comics made his long-awaited debut on Sunday as Jesus (a.k.a. Paul Rovia, NOT Monroe) fought with Rick and Daryl over a truck full of food and supplies. Wily and crafty and clearly skilled in martial arts and the art of deception, Jesus was finally captured by Rick and Daryl. Or was he?

We tracked down the man who plays Jesus, Tom Payne, and he tells us that much of what we saw in this last episode may have, in fact, been an act. There’s certainly plenty more to the character to be revealed. Payne tells us about bringing the comic book favorite to life, his first days on set, some difficulty with the beard requirements of the part, and having to stare down a naked Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira at the end. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to check out our on-the-set report about the return and final departure of Tovah Feldshuh’s Deanna, as well as showrunner Scott M. Gimple explaining that huge Rick and Michonne shocker. And for more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So here we have all been waiting breathlessly for Paul Monroe to show up, but instead it’s Paul Rovia — a different last name from your comic-book counterpart.

TOM PAYNE: Yeah, I do think that’s going to be brought up by all the fans, and I think that’s probably just to clear up any confusion with Deanna and the Monroe family from Alexandria.

I was there on set watching part of your first episode. What it was like for you when you first showed up? You’re joining the highest rated show on television and playing this iconic character from the comic. No pressure, right?

There was a lot of pressure. Which day were you there? What was the scene that we did?

The one where you’re changing the tire on the truck, and Norman and Andrew come in, and they toss you down on the ground.

That was an incredibly hot day, as it usually is down in Atlanta, and I’m wearing my big leather coat, and my hat, and I’m doing the tire. Then I have a little fight sequence, so I trained pretty heavily for that. Obviously, I’m super aware that it’s a very important part of the character, so I had trained as much as I could to do the best that I could with that. We did it five, six, seven times, and each time it got harder, and Andrew really knocked me over.

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I saw that. There’s a mat that you’re supposed to land on, and I remember the director saying before it, “Be careful, boys” because these guys, they want it to feel as real as possible, and he laid one on you.

Yeah, he did. That’s one thing that I really realized about the show is that everyone gets their hands dirty, and really gets in there, and when you’re giving everything, sometimes little mistakes happen, but I’m totally fine with that. It’s an all-or-nothing show. I understood that right from the very beginning.

Gene Page/AMC

And you got into it as well. I saw you were throwing Reedus into that truck over and over. I mean, really swinging him into that thing. You liked that, didn’t you?

[Laughs] Yes. Yes, I did. It was pretty fun, but it was very daunting in that respect as well. You know, you are this new guy coming on the show, and you’re roughing up these two very popular characters. That’s quite daunting actually, just because as a person coming on to a show you’re like, “Hey, you massively popular character. I’m going to come in and make you look a bit silly,” which is what I do in the episode — just running around and making them look a bit foolish, which is quite fun, you know.

I really enjoy the fact that the character comes in and changes the energy of the show. I think that episode has a very different energy, certainly since the events of the last two episodes in Alexandria. There’s a time jump, and then a very definitely new chapter. The next world is coming into the show, and it’s nice to be the person bringing that in.

Jesus is very playful here, even more so than in the comic, I would say. What did showrunner Scott Gimple say to you in terms of how he wanted you to play him?

They want this lighter character, not that he’s too light. He’s a very serious person actually. He could be talking about something very serious, but there’s also a lighter side to it. Everything is with a kind of sideways glance, but also not too much. There was a lot of me trying to find the right tone as well because the show is also slightly heightened at times, but also very serious, and that was, for me, slightly difficult in making sure I struck the right balance of tone.

Moving forward, there are obviously more things that happen in the storyline, but this episode was very much on its own because you don’t find much out about me at all actually. The other characters don’t, and the audience doesn’t. I’m just this guy who shows up and causes a bit of mayhem, and then at the end of the show, is out of the shackles and suddenly, in Rick’s bedroom.

Yeah, we can jump straight to that if you want. I mean, just a helpful hint for you, Tom: When two people are naked and in bed together, probably not the best time to barge in for a chat.

[Laughs] Well, I think, you know, he’s quite straightforward. That’s the thing that I’ve found interesting. I’ve watched the episodes a couple of times now on my own, and I like the way that he’s almost playing a part in the episode as well. He’s given away a little bit of himself, that he’s a bit handy with his martial arts, but not too much. And he’s not acting like a dangerous person. You haven’t really seen what he’s capable of actually. I watched the episode with my girlfriend, and she said, “Oh, you’ve been knocked out for a long time,” when they’re driving me back. But even when we were shooting, I said to Scott, “I don’t think he’s knocked out. I think he’s pretending the whole time,” and his whole plan was to get back to where they come from and check it out. I think the whole time he is pretending to be knocked out because he knows they’ve got to shackle him up, and he’s going to get out of it, and then he’s going to scout around and check out what he can check out from where they live.

He’s a very clever guy, and this isn’t the first time he’s met new people on the road, and he deals with different people in different ways, and Daryl and Rick are just another couple of people he’s dealing with. He sized them up. I spoke to Scott about it, like he had been watching them before he physically meets them. He had been watching them for a while, I think, and then he’s figured out how he’s going to approach them.

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That was my big question while watching: What’s Jesus’ interest here? Is it the truck, or is it finding out what these two guys are all about?

Yeah, I think so. He was just taking that stuff at the beginning, but then when they catch up to him, he sees that there’s a bit more about them because when I was watching it again yesterday, I was like, “Wow, they’re super persistent. They really ran after him.” You know, they found the vending machine on the road, and then they decided to keep running after me. I was like, “Wow, okay.” So I think the character as well, he’s like, “Wow, they caught up to me, like I drove a fair distance away. I’m going to check these guys out,” and so then he gets on the truck, and at that point, he’s like, “I want to see where these guys come from. They said they don’t have a camp, and they’re taking a huge truck of supplies back to wherever they’re coming from, and they’ve chased me to make sure they get those supplies. They’re not just two guys there. There’s a lot of guys, there’s a lot of people that they’re taking that stuff back to.” So he’s really made a decision that he’s going to find out where they’re from, and that’s what he does. So then from that very moment that they catch up to him, he’s like, “I’m definitely going to find out where these guys are from.”

NEXT: Payne on his fake beard and staring down a naked Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira [pagebreak]

Well, it’s interesting because you had said earlier how we don’t really know a lot about this guy when you get right down to it, but you have that line which I watched you say about 50 times when I was on set, you say, “I think you know I’m not a bad guy.” But then again, stealing a huge truck of food when supplies are so scarce and people could be starving could certainly be interpreted as the actions of a bad guy, right?

It could be. You’re right. It is up in the air. He’s a mysterious character at this point and certainly in this episode, and I think that’s good for the audience to try and work it out as well. His motives should be not necessarily immediately apparent.

What a weird episode for you to come in on in a sense, because you eluded to this a little bit earlier when you said that it took you a little while to figure out the exact tone because this episode of The Walking Dead, tonally, is unlike any episode of the show I’ve ever seen. So you come in and film this and think, “Okay, I got this sense of what this show’s about,” but that’s not really what this show is usually about. So what was it like after this episode? Was there still an adjustment period?

Yeah. If I’m honest, it was really tough. It made the job harder because first of all, normally when you do an acting job, at least somebody knows you, whereas here nobody knows me, and I’m meeting everyone for the first time. And you’re right: It’s a completely different energy to it. It’s very easy to come on to the a show and fall into a certain rhythm and a tone and go, “Well, this is what it is.” But you’re right: It wasn’t like that on the episode either so it would have been wrong to do that. So I really just had to go by instinct and by what I had been told about the character. I was feeling it out a lot of the time. And like I said, even then, I don’t think he’s being himself in this episode.

Right, that adds a whole other layer to it.

It was so difficult.

Speaking of difficult, let’s talk about that last scene with you and Michonne and Rick where they hop out of bed. What was filming that like with them basically in their birthday suits right in front of you?

Well, that was another really difficult thing because yeah, I mean, I need to start working with these people, and then they’re jumping out of bed in front of me, and the director was like, “You should look Andrew up and down, and go ‘Oh my God’ and then give a little smile and then say your line.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me right now?” [Laughs]

Oh God, yeah, that was interesting. Those days always have a certain atmosphere because obviously, everyone has to be respectful, but then I’m the one who has to walk in and stare it straight in the face, and give my line. Obviously, Andy and Danai are in vulnerable positions at that point, but then Danai’s’ picking up a sword and pointing it at me. So I was really worried that she was, you know, going to hit me with the sword. And it’s basic cable so you can’t show certain things as well. So it’s actually very technical, and there’s a lot lining up that has to happen as well to make sure it can be broadcast.

I’m telling you, Dalton, there were so many situations on the show that I was like, “Wow, I’ve been dropped in this, and this is going to be a ride,” and it was. The whole thing was a really wild ride.

What about the facial hair? Did you have to start with a fake beard and then grow out a real one?

You know, that’s not an ideal situation, but I was cast, and a week later, I was on set. There’s no way I can grow a Jesus beard in a week. So it’s not an ideal situation because you’re very aware of it. I have four different pieces on my face — two on my cheek, one on my chin and one over my moustache, and they’re always coming in and touching up between takes. You don’t ever really ever feel like it’s your face, and then the Atlanta heat is really sweaty and hot and uncomfortable.

Also, I had hair extensions as well because the character’s hair is a lot longer. So it’s not ideal, and you can’t grow your beard out at the same time because you can’t stick stuff on top of that. So I had a little soul patch, which I had to keep to match in with the beard, but no, I could only really start growing my beard after the show, which I have now, and it’ll be mine if I go back. So yeah, for what we’ve shot, it had to be, unfortunately, fake. But we had the special effects guys doing it for us, and they did a great job, I think.

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