Credit: Gene Page/AMC

He arrived like a soldier and died like one as well. Abraham Ford was Negan’s first victim on the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. Fans waited for six months to learn of Abraham’s demise, but the man who plays him, Michael Cudlitz, says he has known for over a year. Not only that, but he says that cast member claims that they did not know until they arrived for season 7 were bogus as well. Sneaky!

Cudlitz spoke to reporters on a conference call Q&A Monday where he discussed when he found out about his character’s fate, how he kept the secret under wraps, what shooting his death scene was like, and some advice he gave to fellow victim Steven Yeun. Here are some highlights from the chat.

On if he thought there was any strategic reasoning behind Negan’s game of eenie meenie miney mo:

“He’s just f—ing with us. He gets to terrorize every single person while terrorizing Andy and he gets to gauge each person. You’re looking at someone who’s very smart, very good at what he does, finding the weakest link, finding what’s going to have the most impact, and sort of walking around that room eenie meenie miney mo-ing, sticking the bat in everyone’s face to gauge the reaction to see what they would or wouldn’t do, or see in their eyes what he was drawing out of them. I think it was very important for him to figure out our group. You see him do it. He says, ‘Oh, he’s your kid…You two were together.’ He figures out so much without having any dialogue with any of us. I think that was part of it. This is probably not the first time he’s played eenie meenie miney mo.”

On when he found out about Abraham’s death:

“I found about a year and three months ago. They told me that they were going to take me out. They were talking about the end of season 6 and the beginning of season 7. They weren’t sure how they were going to do it, [Showrunner Scott M. Gimple] wasn’t sure how he wanted to structure the storytelling for the greatest impact. Our whole big thing was wondering how we could possibly keep this secret because of the people out there whose only jobs in the world are to ruin everyone else’s television viewing experience. They had to balance that knowing that there were people who were trying to get that information out there and also knowing that we had some sort of in-house leaks so far. And also because of the very real nature that the show airs all around the world at the same time. A lot of eyeballs are on the show.

“We filmed the scene about a year ago. It was literally the last episode of last year. We usually finish filming just before Thanksgiving and we had finished filming that one just before Thanksgiving. I had been sitting with it and Steven Yeun had been sitting with it — it’s been sitting with the rest of the cast for a year now. One of the good things was that we were able to spread a rumor that not even the cast knew what was going to happen and that they were going to find out when they came back and they filmed everybody’s death scene just in case. And they said they were re-doing contract negotiations for some of the cast — all that was a lie. But what it enabled us to do was not have to defend who was dead or hide who was dead for at least five months, which was great.”

On if he told anyone about his character’s death:

“On paper, theoretically, I’m not supposed to tell anyone. But I told my wife because it would be kind of strange to be sleeping in every day in Los Angeles if I’m supposed to be in Atlanta. It’s not a real practicality to not tell her. I told her and I told my kids last spring for the same reason. Other than that, nobody knew. It wasn’t a very difficult secret to keep other than the logistics of it — having to be at home, having to keep my hair dyed. I traveled a lot, any time anyone asked me to go do something I would say yes to keep myself from being in one place for too long.”

On the peace sign he made before Negan swung his bat:

“The peace sign was something that ran with Abraham and Sasha, throughout the whole series. It was this sort of unspoken, this very loaded peace sign. We had to find a way for Abraham to connect with Sasha, for him to say goodbye, specifically to Sasha, because we had already established in the finale of last year that eye contact was not broken, but you saw Abraham’s point of view when he got hit by the bat, he got knocked down, he came back up. We could add dialogue, because we didn’t know if he was talking or not, with the ‘suck my nuts’ line, but there was no way for him to literally turn away and address, any way, even kind of nod, and nothing to Sonequa [Martin-Green], because we’d already filmed that.

“So going back into it, we had to figure out a way that he could basically tell Sasha that everything was gonna be okay, and to say goodbye. And that was what we came up with. For those who caught it, I think, highly, highly effective, and for those who didn’t, I don’t think you missed anything in the sense that it didn’t take away from you experience. “

On filming his death scene and saying goodbye to the cast and crew:

“So far as shooting the last scene, saying goodbye, it’s rough. This is our family, and you’re saying goodbye to people you enjoy working with, you’re saying goodbye to a show that has been very, very good to you. You’re saying goodbye to a character that you have had a blast playing, and they’ve been very, very generous to me over the years with the scene work, but also with the dialogue, and with the position of Abraham in the show. So it’s been a very, very satisfying experience and I have zero regrets.”

On how he avoided suspicion about being killed off even though he was home a lot and having his hair dyed by a different person not on set:

“Well, I think the best thing to do is sort of, you kind of pretend it’s just normal. So somebody bumps into you and is like, ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ It’s like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ‘Oh, are you down in Atlanta?’ ‘Yeah, I leave in two days.’ Everywhere I went, I would tell somebody I’m leaving in two days, or I’d just gotten in town. It was always, ‘I was just getting here,’ or ‘I was just leaving.’ So I had people who were pretty close to me who really didn’t know what was going on.

“But I went in to the guy who cuts my hair, and I got my hair dyed and he says, ‘Oh, aren’t they doing it on the show anymore? What’s going on?’ And I told him that, ‘Well, if I do it at home, I get to stay home an extra day, because if I go out there, they have to bring me in a day or two early because they gotta get it done before I shoot, and sometimes it wraps around a weekend, so that one day could mean three days.’ So I told him about the guy who cuts my hair, that if you do it, they’ll allow me to stay in L.A. a day longer and I can hang out with my family longer. So even he was on board, and he sort of didn’t really figure it out because I would come in every three weeks or so.

“So it was a process, you know, the guy at the gym at the desk said, ‘I’m getting a little concerned, because you’ve been in for a lot of days in a row now,’ and I would say to him, ‘Oh, no I’m actually leaving tomorrow.’ And then for the next two weeks, I would go to a different gym. So it’s kinda easy to throw people off.… When you really get down to it, the people who were really trying to track us and really trying to ruin the experience for other people, they were able to lock us down better because they were specifically looking to do that, but generally speaking, I think we did a good job in keeping people confused. ‘Cause you don’t have to lie to people. You just have to keep them confused. You don’t have to tell them the thing that they’re believing isn’t true, you just have to always keep that in their mind that there might be another alternative and that alone makes it so that they confuse themselves. As long as there’s more than one idea floating out there, then nobody knows what’s going on.”

On if he is going to keep the mustache:

“I’m gonna keep the mustache for a little while, probably grow in everything around it. I typically do that until I know what my next gig is. Honestly, we have a really big fan event coming up soon, and it’s kind of a way for the fans to say goodbye, and it may, for people who don’t follow the show really closely, that might sound ridiculous, but it’s not. The fan base, the fan connection with us is very strong and we respect them. I think that even though I’ve been walking around with it for a year, the audience just only found out yesterday, so I think that it’s a respectful thing to not immediately take it off. ‘Cause they know that for them, it just happened, so we’ll give them some time.”

On being worried that he was taking away from Glenn’s moment:

“I was actually concerned about that going in, because I’m a fan of both the graphic novel and the TV show. So as a fan of the TV show, when we were doing this, when this did come up, I was very specific to Scott, I said, ‘This cannot in any way take away from Glenn’s death.’ Glenn has a much more cemented emotional place in this show. I get it. The fans love the Abraham character, I’ve been very blessed to be on this show, I had a great time. I get it, the fans love me. But the character of Glenn we’ve watched him grow up from a kid. We are so much more invested in the whole journey of Glenn than we are in Abraham.

“But from an emotional standpoint, the weight all falls on the Glenn death. So I was very happy, actually, with how that was put together, how it was scripted, how Abraham got to take it like a soldier, giving himself up that moment. But then the emotional weight of the journey, of Glenn with Maggie and him wanting to, that sort of Last of the Mohicans moment, ‘I will find you’ basically, that transcends the show, that is a statement in time, that is a statement of energy and whatever you believe, that is a proclamation of love that transcends the physical reality of our show, between those two characters. And I think that we honored all of that. We said goodbye to Abraham in a great way, but the primary emotional impact of what had happened on the show was seen through the eyes of Maggie and as a direct result of the passing of Glenn.”

On bonding with Steven Yeun over the double death:

“Yeah I think we did bond over it. I’m not some f–king guru or sage or you know like ultimate father figure in all this, but I’ve been around doing this a lot longer than Steven has and I knew for Steven this would be a very, very different experience than for me leaving the show. You know you’re talking about an actor who started on the show very young, grew up on the show basically into a man, into a fully realized, amazing actor. He’s always been one of my favorite actors on the show and Melissa McBride.… I told him, ‘I’ve left shows before, not to this scale,’ but I said, ‘You’re going to feel good some days then it’s going to creep up on you some days and you’re going to feel like crap. You just need to know that it’s going to be okay,’ because he’s so focused on the work. He really is — all he cares about is making the story better, making the character more layered, keeping the audience engaged. Because of that work ethic and how he cares about the work I knew that this was going to be harder on him than me. I just tried to make sure I was there for him so it was a bonding experience for the two of us because we did connect over the show over the years and I loved working with him. “

On what he will miss most about working on the show:

“I loved how they tell the stories. I think it’s very applicable to life, what we all go through. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, it’s Christmas Day. This is chosen family, the people you want to have with you on Christmas Day and you know, it’s not the family you’re obligated to and the show has through the years built a family, so to see that dynamic shift and change as the group got larger, got smaller has been fun. It’s a great, creative group of people who live down in rural Georgia far away from our families, but we’ve created a new family with ourselves out there. We are all we have out there and it’s great. I am going to miss that element of it.”

Make sure to also hear what Steven Yeun, producers, and director Greg Nicotero had to say about Sunday’s season 7 premiere last night, and for more Walking Dead scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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