Credit: AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Well.”

All hail King Ezekiel! We were introduced to a brand new community Sunday night on The Walking Dead, as Carol and Morgan were brought to a place called the Kingdom to recuperate. And there they, and we, met its ruler — his royal majesty, King Ezekiel, who rocked both a scepter and a pet tiger.

But there was more to Ezekiel than first meets the eye, as he later revealed to Carol that he was a zookeeper and amateur actor who used his friendship with the animal and dramatic skills to provide leadership to a community desperately in need of it. We spoke to Khary Payton, who plays Ezekiel, about the two faces of the character, whether there is a romantic connection between Ezekiel and Carol, a fascinating theory he has about Ezekiel’s relationship to Negan, and how the Kingdom is different from the other communities.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s it like to finally get out there and be able to talk somewhat freely about playing Ezekiel?

KHARY PAYTON: Honestly, it’s a relief because not only keeping a secret about Ezekiel, but even the secrets about this story in the first episode. He really gets a chance to introduce himself pretty well to the audience, and I honestly love the guy. I think he’s a great character, and I think a lot of people will connect with him and kind of groove with his story. I’m just dying to talk to people about it and see how they feel about the character himself.

There are a few great scenes between Ezekiel and Carol, but let’s start with the first one where they both are putting on faces and acting. Ezekiel says later that she had him fooled at first. When does he start to figure it out that this is not the real Carol in that first encounter?

He’s always off to the side observing, and there are those moments that Carol is stealing this and taking that and I don’t think she thinks anybody’s watching, but I think Ezekiel is watching and he starts to put two and two together slowly — seeing that this woman who seems so sweet and demure, she’s also either a kleptomaniac or she’s putting on some other kinds of airs. So, I think it’s one of those things that happens over the course of the episode.

And the two have this great scene later where he catches her sneaking out and tells her the truth about his past. And I’m familiar with this scene from the comic, but what you can’t pick up in the comic, but you do here, is listening to Ezekiel’s voice as the tone and the language change as he shifts from post-apocalypse king to pre-apocalypse Ezekiel. What was working on that transition like?

That’s one of my favorite moments so far playing Ezekiel. It might be my favorite, period, of all that we’ve done so far. It was a weird kind of slow catharsis and I’d kind of been preparing for that moment for a really long time. I’d done a lot of Shakespeare when I was in college and after that I’d done a lot of voiceover work doing cartoons and video games, and when I read the script the first time, they talked about Ezekiel’s physicality changing in that moment where he becomes kind of the man he was. I call it Ezekiel vs. Zeke. Like, when he relaxes his speech and just becomes a regular guy to Carol — that’s him in Zeke mode.

To me, when I read the script and they said his physicality changes and he’s no longer a king, I didn’t see the physicality so much change, but I definitely heard the voice change and I think that the training I’ve been working on the last 20 years really came to help me in that moment. I was trying to find that transition because when I auditioned, this was a bigger transition; it was a theatrical kind of performance, that entire scene. But when we actually did the scene in the darkness with just the fire pits, it became much more intimate and much quieter and I couldn’t depend on being larger than life in that way. So that moment needed to be quieter.

What was it like working with Melissa on that scene?

I was trying to find something to give me the transition, and Melissa said something great. I said, “I’m finding it hard to slip into this,” and she looked at me and said, “You’re not feeling my pain.” It made all the difference to me, because in that moment, she really insults Ezekiel, and I was taking it as an insult, but what I realize is that she was fighting out of fear. She was trying to protect herself out of fear and that’s what Ezekiel saw, a woman that was scared and he needed to get her to trust him. In order for her to trust him, he was going to have to give her something of a secret. He was going to have to confide in her to get her to trust him. So that’s why he makes this decision and takes a deep breath and says, “All right, I’m going to be myself for a minute.”

This scene in the comic is between Ezekiel and Michonne, who later get involved as a couple. Can we expect a similar trajectory here for Ezekiel and Carol, because there seems to be some chemistry there and we see him knocking on her door at the end?

I think there’s obviously a spark and a connection between the two of them, but I think that the cool thing about relationships like this one is that it rides that fine line of — have you ever known a person and you’ve been attracted to them and you’ve known them for awhile and nothing ever happens until it does? That’s kind of the way I see this. They could walk this line without ever really becoming involved, or one of them can trip on a root and fall into the other one’s arms. But it’s as simple as that to me because they both have enough to protect themselves, especially in Carol’s eyes. She’s still very much trying to protect herself even though she trusts him more. There’s that chance, but it literally in my mind could happen or could not happen and both to me kind of make sense. I honestly don’t have a clue what might happen yet. Until the writers write it down, I won’t know.

Like the Hilltop and now Alexandria, the Kingdom is under Negan’s control. What’s Ezekiel’s philosophy at this point in terms of how to deal with the Saviors?

His philosophy is that he puts a good front, and the front has been working. I may be talking out of turn here because I haven’t discussed this with Scott at all and he may come back to me say, “Khary, that was total B.S. I don’t know how you came up with it,” but since he hasn’t given an explanation, I’m going to tell you what I think.

My idea is that the Kingdom was the one place that Negan hasn’t come to on his own and hasn’t Lucille-d anyone from. I think the Saviors came upon him and he brought out the tiger and he made a deal: “If you don’t touch anybody, we’re going to be all right.” I think the whole king thing and the tiger and everything might’ve thrown them off just enough to be like, “You’re gonna do as we say just as long as we walk away and don’t go any further.” I think as far as Ezekiel’s concerned is that as long as he can keep his people alive, then that’s all that matters. If he can keep the peace, he can walk this fine line with the Saviors, and as long as they don’t do any harm to the people in the Kingdom, because I think that’s kind of where he draws the line.

We see that Ezekiel has taken this kid Benjamin under his wing. And we learn that his dad died somewhat under your watch. Ezekiel clearly feels responsible for this guy.

Oh yeah. Benjamin is kind of a metaphor for the Kingdom as a whole. He absolutely has this connection with Benjamin and feels the need to kind of take over as a father figure in his life and to give him responsibility and help him become a man, but beyond that, he absolutely feels a responsibility that these lives are precious and that the true mark of a leader is how you treat your people and how you protect your people. I think that that, in his mind, is the most important thing.

Ezekiel was an actor in the past life: Is this the role of a lifetime for him?

Something like that. I think it’s become more than a part that he’s playing now. In his mind, it’s become a philosophy of life that he kind of fell into this idea of living exuberantly. When you happen upon a guy with a tiger, you’re not going to walk up to him and have a conversation from five feet away. You have that conversation from 30 yards away. So, he just became the guy who when he introduces himself to people, he’s always kind of loud and it’s kind of over the top because he’s like, “I’m fine. The tiger’s fine. You wanna come with us, the tiger will protect you.” Every introduction is going to be allowed and across an expanse, so he kind of starts that way and that’s the way everybody sees him.

I think he kind of fell into this, that people started following him because he’s the guy with the tiger. He has this way of speaking because nobody’s going to get that close to him at first, and when he maybe tries to back off of this way of doing things, I think somebody pulled him aside and said, “You should do this, because people need this. They feel safer when you’re being this way. You should just keep being this way,” and I think it just kind of rolled and it became this way of protecting himself and protecting his people. So he started faking it, and before you know it, he’s leading and it’s working for him. That’s kind of the way that it happened in my head.

What did you think when you saw how the final animatronic-meets-CGI tiger looked on screen in the final product?

I thought it looked amazing and I was so happy about it because I was feeling really good about the episode. I felt good about what we were doing, how everything was coming together, but I hadn’t seen the end of result of the tiger until the trailer came out and now with the episode. Before that trailer came out, in my head I was like, if this tiger doesn’t look good, they’re going to blame me. I’m going to be the reason this whole Walking Dead thing goes down the toilet and I’m going to be the one sitting there next to that. If it doesn’t look good, they’re going to be like, “Khary’s the reason this all went to hell.” When it stood there next to me and roared, there was no one happier, I can tell you. It was amazing. So I’m looking forward to seeing more Shiva, definitely.

Also check out out our episode Q&A with director Greg Nicotero, and check out our new Walking Dead cover of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here. Plus, subscribe now to receive a free Walking Dead tote! 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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