Gene Page/AMC
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July 28, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

He’s one of the most colorful and kooky characters in The Walking Dead universe, and he is now making the leap from page to screen. That’s right, all hail King Ezekiel!

The leader of a new community called the Kingdom, Ezekiel insists on being addressed as a king and carries around a scepter while accompanied by his pet tiger Shiva. (We told you he was colorful.) The favorite from the comic book will be making his debut when The Walking Dead returns for season 7 on Oct. 23, and we’ve got your first photo and interview with the man playing him, Khary Payton.

Read on as Payton discusses how he got the coveted role, his thoughts on the character and his tiger, and what Ezekiel makes of the Kingdom’s latest visitors, Carol and Morgan.

RELATED: The Walking Dead Season 7: 6 Exclusive Photos

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I guess it must be nice to finally be able to talk about getting this role, huh?

KHARY PAYTON: Yeah, man. I’m honestly a little freaked out just talking to you. I’ve been diving in the backs of vans and having blankets thrown over my head so that nobody catches a glimpse of me and getting in and out of Georgia. I’ve got a lot of family in Georgia and I didn’t even tell them that I was there, so to have an interview with a reporter is a little unnerving.

Why don’t you start off by just telling me how you ended up landing the role. What was the whole process like for you?

The process was relatively simple, honestly. It was essentially a four or five-page monologue that they gave me, so I spent a good 72 hours pretty much by myself cloistered in a cave trying to get everything down. I didn’t audition in front of producers or directors or anything. It was all on tape, so it was just myself and the casting director.

I feel like I had a connection with this character in a weird way. I always say that when you’re in this acting business, you get a lot of rejection. You get a lot of people telling you no and you’ve got to get up, dust yourself off, and try again, and I feel like in a way Ezekiel fits that same mold where he’s in the hope business. I always say I’m in the hope business. You’ve got to stay hopeful. You’ve got to get up off your behind and try again no matter how many times they tell you it’s not going to work out. Your opinion’s got to overshadow whatever negativity might come your way. In a zombie apocalypse one can find themselves getting down about their situation, but Ezekiel’s not one of those people. He fights with all he’s got to make sure he stays positive and stays joyful. That’s what I love about him.

Did you know that you were auditioning for Ezekiel at first, or did you not know who the character was?

It was pretty easy to figure it out. I mean, I knew that I was auditioning for The Walking Dead, and they renamed it in the sides. They changed the name and changed the tiger to a lion, but honestly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of detective work to figure it out.

I love that they changed the tiger to a lion, as if that would throw people off.

It was a little weird because when I started reading the sides, I was like, “Wait a minute. Did I read that right? He’s got a lion?” He just kind of starts talking about his lion, you know? There’s no preface! So it took me a couple of reads to realize, okay, yeah, I need to do a little research here.

How familiar were you with the show or the comic before you got the part?

I actually didn’t read the comics, but my wife and I have been watching the show for a few years. We kind of got into it maybe three or four years after it started, and so we binged the first three seasons and we’ve been fans of it ever since. So when I got the audition, I’d been busy and I hadn’t caught up with the last half of the last season, so I had to hurry up and catch up and see what was going on.

I really adore the connection that people have with the show. I’m not a big zombie apocalypse guy, but I think the acting and the writing of the show is just exceptional, and the fact that I happen to be working with Lennie James and Melissa McBride on the show — their characters and their performances are two of the things that really kept me watching the show, so it was really wonderful to have those guys as kind of mentors and hosts introducing me to this world.

Did you go back and look at all at the Ezekiel in the comics or did you just steer clear of it and focus on the TV incarnation of the character?

I looked at the comics, but more to just kind of get a feel for the world and everything. I don’t feel like I need follow it exactly. I don’t worry about being affected by it too much. I feel like I live in the moment enough that a little bit of information here or there isn’t going to kill me if they totally go off the rails and Ezekiel becomes a very different version than he is in the comic books. It’s just another reason why I love to do this job, man. It’s awesome.

So how do you see Ezekiel? Let’s talk about the character himself because he’s certainly an interesting cat when you first meet this dude in the apocalypse.

He’s in the business of not losing himself to his surroundings. I don’t let things get me down. I brighten the things around me in that it’s a party when you’re going to be around him, and whether it was a party there before it’ll be a party by the time he leaves. I love even his relationship with the zombies themselves. He’s a guy who doesn’t think of them as having a physical disease. It’s more that their joy was robbed from them, and that he’s one of the few people left on earth whose joy hasn’t been robbed, and to him, that’s the difference between the living and the dead. If you’re still human, but you’re letting your joy be taken away from you, you might as well be one of those mindless creatures walking all over. So to him, it’s kind of a weird philosophy of life that he’s developed living in this apocalypse that you don’t let this world turn you into something that you’re not.

Yeah, he’s a guy with a lot of pomp and circumstance. He seems a little like a nut job maybe at first, but there’s definitely a method to the madness with him, which is what I like so much about Ezekiel.

Yeah, you first come upon him and you think he’s a little bit out there, and he is a little bit out there. But the truth is that everything about this world is a little bit out there, and if you want to survive in it and if you want to survive on your own terms, you need to preach your philosophy and preach it loudly so that it doesn’t get drowned out by all the crazy.

We know we’re going to see Carol and Morgan in the Kingdom. What does Ezekiel make of these two?

That’s a good question. I think he sees potential in them. He sees potential in them for understanding his way of living and spreading this gospel of joy and light in a dark situation. I think he considers his Kingdom a lighthouse, and if you use it the right way, it’ll keep you from crashing on the rocks.

So let me ask you about Ezekiel’s tiger Shiva. I know you guys are doing some sort of mix of animatronics and CG to bring Shiva to life, so what’s it like for you in terms of working with that?

It’s just another beautiful way that I get to use my imagination. As far as I’m concerned, Shiva’s as real as the people standing next to me — as Morgan or Carol or any of the other people who move among the Kingdom itself. So I really don’t think of it as CG or mechanic. All I know is that she’s real to me. I’ve done a lot of video games where there’s literally nothing standing in front of me. I’ve done, you know, a lot of voiceovers where there’s literally nothing standing in front of me, I’ve got to make it all up, so this is just another situation where my imagination gets to be used in another context, so no matter how good they bring it to life, it’s already alive in my head.

Talk about what Shiva means to Ezekiel and how Ezekiel uses Shiva.

Shiva is the beginning and the end for Ezekiel. She’s one of the reasons that he didn’t lose hope when this whole thing started. She’s this beautiful unique creature in the middle of this dark, dark time, and so she’s beloved, and she’s also a symbol to him of what it means to be different in the context of the world that you’re living in. It’s like she’s a constant reminder every time he looks at her that there’s beauty in the world. She started off as his protector and now he feels like that relationship is reversed and she’s this giant, powerful symbol that he feels a real kinship with and a need to protect. So she’s kind of the end all, be all for him. I think Shiva’s a really appropriate name for her because she’s hallowed in his eyes. She’s holy in his eyes.

The Walking Dead returns on AMC on Oct. 23 at 9 p.m. ET.

For more on The Walking Dead, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, or buy it here. And don’t forget to subscribe for exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Follow @DaltonRoss on Twitter for more Walking Dead news.

AMC’s zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
type
TV Show
seasons
9
run date
10/31/10
Network
Available For Streaming On
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