The Walking Dead: Austin Nichols on Spencer's big moment
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s midseason finale of The Walking Dead, “Hearts Still Beating.”
So much for the Monroe family. The last of Deana’s family was extinguished on Sunday night’s midseason finale of The Walking Dead when Spencer attempted to gain Negan’s blessing to take control of Alexandria. But Negan had other ideas, gutting the traitor — literally — to interrupt what would have otherwise been a nice, relaxing game of pool.
It was the latest unpredictable move from the psychotic so-called Savior, and the end of one of Alexandria’s most complicated characters in Spencer. Was Spencer a hero or a zero? We spoke to man who played him, Austin Nichols, to get the inside scoop on Spencer’s final episode, including one huge difference in how he went down when compared to the comic book on which the show is based. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, sorry we’re talking under these circumstances.
AUSTIN NICHOLS: Yeah, you know it’s coming, but you just don’t know when. But I would have to say it was a gut-wrenching episode. [Laughs] I have to get all the gut puns out while I can.
How and when did you first get the news of Spencer’s untimely demise?
I had a lot of time. [Showrunner Scott M. Gimple] told me before the season started, in march or April, and we usually start shooting in May. So I knew way far in advance. I’m glad he did, but it maybe made it harder because you had to carry it around for so long and I didn’t really tell anybody.
Once you got cast as Spencer, did you read the comic to see how his fate played out there so you knew what might be coming?
I did. I immediately got all the comics. I love source material so I wanted to know as much as I could. It helps me define and realize my character. I just love information. The more I can plug in and layer in the better. So I saw that he died, and he died in that way and I thought it was cool. But on the show you don’t always know because you’re like, are they going to do that or are they not?
So for a long time I thought that they were starting to build Spencer in a certain way and I was like, oh, this is cool. He’s learning some things and he’s becoming a little more adept at moving around in this world and he’s figuring it out. And then as we got closer I started to realize that fans love this comic and I think people really wanted it. And I hope everyone enjoys it because I think it was a great death. I’m glad I didn’t get taken out by a walker in the woods. It was great to die from Negan’s blade. I couldn’t choose a better death.
What was your last day on set like?
It was probably one of the most fun and most fulfilling time because I got to do two whole days with Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] at the pool table and on the balcony drinking whisky with him. It was just really fun to work with Negan and kind of go toe to toe with him, and then we had this big gag at the end where the guts come out. They had to build this chest-plate. He actually had a real razor blade because he actually had to hit me with it to rip open the blood bag with all the guts and blood. So they had to put a chest-plate on me so he wouldn’t actually cut me, which was horrifying because I was afraid that he would puncture the chest plate and actually cut me — because he comes at me really hard and really fast. He nailed it the first take. We only did one take. It was perfect.
It was cool to do all that effects stuff with the make-up team and do all this fun stuff with the zombie make-up and zombie contacts. I remember at the very end when we had finished all the dying stuff, I just stood up and started screaming. And I just started yelling “YEAH! That was awesome!” And the crew started clapping for me. It was just really fun. Of course, it’s sad and I’m so sad to leave, but really, I was just really happy. I loved being a part of the show. It was all positive. I just really loved it.
Let’s talk about that scene where Spencer gets all dressed up to go have his big chat with Negan. Was that symbolic for him?
There’s one thing right before that I think is interesting. He cleans up the ransacked house, Deanna’s house. And then he puts on these nice, clean clothes. I think that’s like he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of his mother and be a leader by putting on the clothes of a statesman. He fixes his hair and wants to present himself to Negan in a way that says, I’m a leader. I thought that was a brilliant thing by the writers to have that little homage to Deanna in a way. He practices in the mirror what he’s gong to say to Negan and then steps up on the balcony and he says, “Hi, we haven’t officially met. I’m Spencer Monroe.” And there’s a little moment where you think, is this guy a turncoat? Is he going to go work for Negan now? And it’s really well done. They wrote and directed that scene very well. I love that moment.
You only had that one scene with Negan at the gate a few weeks ago before this last episode, so what was it like getting to do some meaty scenes with Jeffrey Dean Morgan?
I’ve known Jeffrey for a while, but never worked with him. We really got to get into some good stuff [this episode] with the scene around the pool table and the death. He’s really fun to work with and just a great guy to be around. I really wish I could have done more. In this show, when you get really busy and get all this really good material, it means you might not be on the show anymore. [Laughs]
I know. It’s a trade-off.
I did all my best stuff in there with him, and it was a blast. I loved working with him.
How much of Spencer’s proposal to Negan for a change of leadership is because he thinks it’s what is best for Alexandria and everyone in it, and how much of it is just resentment towards Rick about what happened to his own family after Rick showed up?
That’s a great question. I think it’s a two-part answer. The first part of it is Rick and everybody showed up, and within a week or two, Spencer lost his whole family. I know when we watch the show it takes much longer, but the period of time in The Walking Dead was really short when all that happened. So you’re living in a place like Alexandria that is very safe, and then all of a sudden these people show up and your whole family is slaughtered so it’s hard not to connect those two.
But I don’t think Spencer was only thinking about that and only resentful of that. The really important thing to remember at the end of season 6 is what Spencer says to Rick as he’s getting into the Winnebago. He says in the final episode “If the Saviors do show up, shouldn’t we just try to make some kind of deal?” And Rick basically slammed the door in his face and took off. And what we find out in the end of that episode and the beginning of season 7 is that Negan kills Glenn and Abraham.
And it’s tricky with this fandom. I’m a Rick fan. As a fan, I’m totally with Rick and everybody. But Spencer in this instance was right. If he had listened to him, it’s possible that those two characters might not be dead. If we would have bowed to Negan and said, “Yes, we’re going to do what you say,” we might not have lost those two great guys. And that’s hard to argue. Spencer was kind of right. It’s an awful situation, but it’s one thing that I really believe he was right about.
NEXT: The big difference between Spencer’s death in the comic and on TV[pagebreak]
Spencer must have been an interesting character to play because he really does exist in that grey area. We saw him at times risking his life and taking the initiative to help the group, like when he was on the grappling rope, and other times we saw him acting selfishly by hoarding food and booze for himself. So what was your take on that guy?
I feel like my job as an actor is to find a reason why he’s doing these things and make it all work, but I can’t just play a character who’s selfishly stealing food and doing these things. So I spent a lot of time reading these scripts and building my own backstories and writing in journals and coming up with legitimate reasons. But it was tricky to play him and it was frustrating, because he would do something great or heroic, like when he was up in the tower and did his best to stop that semi from ramming the wall. But then the next thing he did was give this great speech in the panty, and then he went and stole a bunch of stuff. So it’s super frustrating. He could be duplicitous. He could be confusing. He always kept me guessing. I’d be like, who am I? What am I going to do? Am I going to turn the corner and start figuring things out and doing things the right way or I am going to keep screwing up.
It was interesting in that way because I think in this world we have clearly defined roles. We have heroes and villains, and Spencer was this interesting character who was in the middle, like you said. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud I got to play someone complicated and someone who wasn’t on one side or the other. I believe he wanted to be good. He wanted to do the right thing, but he struggled. It was interesting to play, for sure.
What happens in the comic and what happens here on the TV show feels a bit different in that I’m not sure I buy comic book Spencer’s protest at all when Negan brings up that he thinks Spencer wants him to kill Rick, while here it appears that it was not Spencer’s actual intent for it to come to that.
Spencer does say “We’d be much better off” like in the comic, but the distinction is that Negan comes to him and gets in his face and says “You want me to kill Rick and put you in power?” And Spencer starts going, “What? Wait! No!” And he starts backtracking and saying “That’s not what I meant.” And I think that’s super important, that moment, because what Spencer was saying is that “I would like you to remove him from power and I’d like to be the leader here. I think I’d be a much better leader.” I don’t believe Spencer ever wanted him killed in the show. I think that is an important distinction from the comics.
Spencer in the show and Spencer in the comics are a little different and I think the ending there reflects the Spencer that we created on the show. We made him different from the comic book character, and I’m proud of that. I loved Spencer in the comics but I feel like what we did on the show, he was more fleshed out and more complicated and more tangible. I hope I had something to do with that. The writers were really responsible, but I hope that I could take a little bit of credit because I loved playing him. I had a blast.
Like a lot of Walking Dead viewers, I wasn’t really sure what the deal has been with Spencer and Rosita. They hooked up, but then it was unclear if they were a couple or not and what was going on. So what was going on leading into this episode and what do you think about their big moment here where they seem to get back on the same page?
He says in this midseason finale, “Why did you start this?” And she gives him a direct answer. She says, “I was lonely and I used you.” And she apologizes and says she’s sorry. It’s been interesting to watch the relationship because of that reason, and I also love how fiery and bitchy she is. It’s super funny and attractive and I think Spencer likes that fire and loves that about her.
She’d be kind of rude to him and be mad at him all the time, but I think he needed someone like that. He grew up the son of a really strong, powerful, smart woman. I think that’s probably what he needs and is attracted to in a partner. It was a bummer that we couldn’t see that relationship develop more, but it left something to the imagination and it was really well done by the writers because it always had us guessing and wondering and hoping.
Poor Rosita. She’s got some bad luck with the men in her life.
She does and she’s going to have an incredible second half of the season. I can’t wait to see what happens with her.
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What will you miss most about working on The Walking Dead?
First and foremost, I am going to miss the people. Everyone on the show is really a joy to be around. I know everyone says that and people probably say that about every show and movie, but this is really a special show and a really cool vibe around it. The other part is that I’ve never been a part of something that connected with so many millions of people and it’s just really cool to talk to people on the streets and see how much people love it. That doesn’t come around that much any more. When we had three networks, it was not that crazy for Dallas to come on and there were be 20, 40, 50 million people watching, but that doesn’t happen anymore. There are so many channels, so many shows. It’s really rare and special to be a part of something that connects with that large of a number.
Finally, what do you think the fan reaction to Spencer is going to be after watching the episode?
[Laughs] I think they’re ready for him to go.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.