'The Walking Dead' star Michael Cudlitz explains Abraham's shocking flashbacks
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead.]
We were treated to shocking revelations from both the past and present in Sunday’s “Self Help” episode of The Walking Dead. Through flashbacks, we saw Abraham seconds away from blowing his brains out after finding his dead family (who had fled from his protection after seeing a brutal side of him that frightened them away). The only thing that saved Abraham was the introduction of Eugene, whose pleas for help on a mission gave Sgt. Ford a new purpose. But back in the present, Eugene revealed that entire mission to be a lie, admitting that he was not actually a scientist and had no information that could end the zombie plague (leading Abraham to almost end Eugene right then and then, before Rosita stepped in). It was a powerful and emotional episode ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead comic book, and we spoke to the man who plays Abraham, Michael Cudlitz, in his trailer on set to get the inside scoop on what went down.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Not to make you sound like a debutante, but even though you’ve been on the show for a little while now, this episode really was Abraham’s moment and coming out party in a way, wasn’t it?
MICHAEL CUDLITZ: Oh, absolutely. The audience has been hearing about Washington long enough. It’s sort of like the only tune he’s been able to sing for the last nine episodes, from the four prior in last season and then these five. Now we get to to see why D.C. is so important and what makes Abraham tick and what is driving him and what is at his core, and why he will stop at nothing to fulfill the mission.
And we see that through these flashbacks. Let’s talk about those: We see the flashbacks with Abraham’s family. He has to do terrible things to protect them, so terrible that his own family is too scared to be with him.
He has basically become what he is protecting them from. That horrifies his family. They don’t know who to be more afraid of, and because of that they wind up leaving. And all he’s trying to do is protect his family from, unfortunately, the group. The way it plays out in the comic is that this is actually the group that he has been traveling with. He goes out on a scavenger mission, comes back, and finds out that members of the group have raped his wife and his daughter, and made his son watch. And then he basically has a dismantling party on those members of the group. What happens is his wife basically says, “You have become worse than them.” And she leaves. And he can’t find them. He finally does find them, comes across them, and they’ve all been killed by walkers. In the comics — which I don’t think was necessary to do and I’m glad we chose to tell it the way we did, because I think there’s more of an emotional punch when you see something visually and there is a line that can be crossed — in the comics, actually, his wife and his son had been eaten so badly that there is nothing left to come back, and his daughter did come back and he winds up having to shoot her in the face. And that’s in the Robert Kirkman graphic novel. I think we’ve successfully captured the emotion of what went down with his family, and then also what has spurred him into action from taking his own life, when he has nothing left to live for, which was a mission that was outside of himself, bigger than himself, bigger than his family, and this is sort of his way to redeem himself for something that he thinks he’s caused, which was the death of his family.
Lets talk about that, where he gets to this lowest point where he finds his dead family and is about to turn the gun on himself. At that point, before he meets Eugene, we see him put the gun in his mouth — has he just lost all purpose?
There’s nothing left. There’s nothing left to his group, there’s nothing left to his family, there’s nothing left to live for.
Yep, it’s completely finished. At the moment he is pulling the trigger, someone needs help, and it is in his core to help. He is a soldier. He is a service-giver at this core. And he can’t even stop himself from helping him. But then he’s going to go right back to finishing himself after he’s helped this person — until something is given to him which is beyond him and beyond his family. It is a mission, and he responds in his DNA and on a genetic level to that word “mission,” because that is who he is.
What I love about that scene that we end on is after Eugene says “I have a very important mission” — your entire body language immediately changes. Your back straightens up immediately, almost like a machine rebooting or something where you were like, I had no purpose, Now at least I have something.
Exactly. Purpose is the right word. He has purpose again in a time where he had absolutely nothing, he now has something to hold onto.
He’s on auto-pilot almost with this mission that he is on. He will not waver. He will not turn back. So what’s the reaction then — we see it physically, obviously — but what is his reaction internally when Eugene finally fesses up that he’s not a scientist?
Well, I think you touch on two things. One is that this relentless drive is something that is new, and it is born out of what has happened when the group has slowed down, when the group has detoured. They had slow downs and detours before they got to Terminus. Terminus he didn’t feel was a good idea, but he had no choice because he didn’t have a vehicle and he is trying to expand the group. Stopping at Terminus turned out to be horrible. They got to the church, he doesn’t want to slow. When you slow, you stop, bad things happen. He does slow, bad things happen. He gets out of there, they finally feel like they’re on the road, he’s not going to let anything stop him now. There’s hope. He has a group. He has a capable group this time — a capable group of what he views as soldiers, because he’s seen them in action. And there’s hope. The scene opens up with them joking about how he’s going to relax the grooming standards, because that means he’s coming to the end of this mission. He does see the end of this mission and he sees life beyond this mission, which he has not seen or felt before and you sense that when he is joking around with Rosita.
The calm before the storm, if you will.
Then everything hits the fan — again. Because once again we break down, we stop. But he’s not going to let that stopping affect what they’re doing. He’s going to keep driving through and he’s going to push the group. He’s not going to let them go back. We’re going to keep moving forward because moving forward is where the answer is, and stopping and pausing makes things go bad. So at this point he is completely driven by this mission and it’s sort of unspooling him, because this is a very bad day for Abraham. Nothing seems to be going right — especially with the vehicles and with the moving forward with the mission. At his lowest point, that is the point he’s almost going to break because they are telling him this is a bad idea and he knows it’s a bad idea. Nobody is saying we’re going to stop, nobody is saying we shouldn’t go on this mission — they’re just saying we need to do it differently, but he really feels that because of past circumstances, because of what has happened before, they have to keep moving forward in basically a straight line. Because right now the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, whereas Terminus wasn’t. That was like, “Well, I need to get to Washington, but it’s more important that I get this group.” Now we have the group, now it’s straight line time. And all of the things that Glenn and everybody are saying to him all makes sense — that’s why he’s more frustrated than he is mad at them, because he knows they’re right. But he doesn’t care.
So that’s all building up inside of him?
And that’s where everything falls apart. Because Eugene not being a scientist aside, is still very smart, he knows human nature, he knows Abraham. He knows they’re going to drive straight through that and he knows they’re probably going to all get killed. He can’t let that happen. He’s tired of the lie, people are getting hurt, I’m physically pushing people away — it’s his fault. It’s one more thing that’s his fault, aside from the bus flipping over. And then you start putting things together and you’re like, oh my God, that bastard shot the truck up on purpose — all of the little things are falling into place where you realize he has been doing all of these little things by design to slow them down. Every problem that they’ve had has been caused by him.
In that moment when he basically says, “I’ve been lying,” everything falls apart for Abraham. He is right back to where he was a year-and-a-half, two years ago, with losing his family. He is at his lowest point. The reason for him living at all has been a complete and utter lie. Eugene talks about the people that died. Abraham can’t think about anything but the people that he’s killed doing this. It’s not just the people that died trying to do it, it’s how many people have I killed because they were potentially in the way of this mission as a soldier, who maybe didn’t deserve to die now? It completely unravels his world and he will kill him. If he was not stopped, he would have killed him. He would have had zero problem with killing him. And I think at that point a lot of the audience wants him dead. As much as we sympathize and empathize with him — and in the moments after you sort of warm back up to him and his plight — but it’s sort of one of those moments where you’re like, “Okay, he deserved it. The world that we’re living in now? Yeah, he deserved it. He deserved that and more.” As crappy as it might seem to beat the hell out of somebody who is, in a sense, defenseless, Abraham would argue in that moment that he deserved to die.
Even though Eugene essentially saved Abraham’s life with that lie.
He saved his life. And that’s the irony. And that’s what we’re left with to process. And hopefully the audience is on board with us on that in the end, and you realize that that big lie is what has ultimately saved Abraham’s life and given him a stay, if you will. From this point on, the big question is — what does Abraham do now? What is left to live for now, because all of that was a lie. So he’s back on the street in a similar position as he was at the end of when he lost his family. And you have to process what’s next, because he’s right at that level of his lowest point, except it could be argued that it’s even lower because not only does he have the loss of that, but he has this other loss which was compounded on a lie on top of it. It’s a very compelling character piece.
I also want to ask you about that moment where Abraham gets on top of the firetruck and just starts cackling when he sees the “SICK INSIDE LET THEM DIE” written on the sidewalk around all those dead zombies. Is he just losing it a bit here? Is this one of those situations where you can either cry or you can laugh, so he chooses option B?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a commentary on the world right now: “Sick inside, let them die.” They’re already dead. This whole world is full of death. It’s just ridiculous. Everything is completely unraveling. Nothing makes sense and sometimes all that’s left to do is cry or laugh. And laughing is more painful than crying sometimes.
How about that sex scene between Abraham and Rosita? We haven’t seen many of those on the show, and this time you had not only the whole crew there watching, but Josh McDermitt as creepy Eugene staring at you from the self-help section while you do your thing.
That was an interesting scene in many ways. We had that as a recreation from one of Kirkman’s comic book panels. We were sent the image we were recreating. It’s not from that specific place in the story, but it is from a scene that Abraham and Rosita are having sex. And I always call it the sex scene because there may be love in that relationship but there’s no love during that scene. That’s just a sex scene, and that is what I feel would be going on in this world. There would be fighting and sex, and a lot of it. And I think the show needs more of it because that is one of the elements that actually brings in conflict. It’s a very primal thing. You hear about during wartime what soldiers do and what they do in war torn areas. When tragic things happen, that’s when people come together for that type of comfort. It’s a base animal need. That being aside, we are actors doing a scene. I joke about this that I am going to be 50 this year and I have been naked on screen more than most of the people who are good friends of mine. On Southland it happened a lot, and when it happened on this show I was sort of looking around going, “What? You know, Norman hasn’t been naked!” Steven has been naked, I guess. But there are a lot of other choices that could have been naked. And I find it very humorous. But it’s fine.
What is the process of filming a scene like that?
It becomes a very technical thing. My take on it has always been that if you are naked in a scene with a woman, my job is to make her feel as beautiful as possible, and the more beautiful she feels the more comfortable she feels, and the more we’re going to just be able to focus on the scene and not the fact that we’re both naked and barely covered with 50 people around us filming. Christian was fantastic, very cool with everything. We talked about everything beforehand. I told her that if she ever felt uncomfortable with anything that was going on to let me know and I would stop whatever was going on so she would feel comfortable. Because we know it’s TV there are certain things that just are not going to be seen, so if anything were to be asked that was out of what was necessary that could be seen, there is no way we’re going to do it. There is no reason for it. And they don’t. But I just wanted to make sure she felt comfortable in that way and didn’t feel that she was alone. And, once again, if everybody feels comfortable, it’s going to be smooth. And we joke. It’s a fun set. Everybody is professional. It’s a joke with Josh and I now where I’m looking around saying, “You’re not going to watch me now, are you?” But I think the show needs more of it. The show could stand for more of it. Kirkman has a lot of it in the graphic novel. It’s true to the world and something everybody is willing to participate in.
Does that mean you’re volunteering?
[Laughs] Trust me, I don’t have to volunteer. I believe it happens again sooner or later in the season.