'I felt the lines were kind of blurred because it's so personal,' says the actor

It’s been a rough go for Father Gabriel on The Walking Dead. The group first found him on a rock fighting for his life, and then we learned the terrible secret from his past that he had left his parishioners to die during the outbreak due to his own cowardice. He then turned on Rick at Alexandria. Let’s just say that last one, in particular, had fans quite upset, and they were not shy about letting the actor who plays him, Seth Gilliam, know about it.

Gabriel has had a resurgence in the past season-and-a-half, becoming a core member of the group. And if the season 8 trailer is to be believed, it looks like he will have a key scene coming up in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Negan. As a result, fans have started to warm to the character as well. In a candid chat, Gilliam talked to EW about the arc of his character and what it was like dealing with that fan vitriol, which included death threats from viewers unable to logically separate the actor from the character.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So first off, I’ll ask you Seth: Do you have your “s—ting pants” on for this interview?
SETH GILLIAM: I do not have my s—ting pants on, but you know something? I like that runny feeling down my leg.

Clearly, Father Gabriel is getting a little face-time with Negan in the season 8 trailer. What can you say about that?
I think it’s an interesting pairing of characters. We’ve got the far extremes. We’ve got the peaceful priest who’s fighting to be a fighter and the guy who’s just willing to bash people’s heads in on principle. So it’s a really interesting combination to stick Father Gabriel and Negan together in close quarters and see who can have an influence on whom.

How do you think the old Gabriel would’ve reacted to that situation?
I think the old Gabriel probably would have s— his pants.

What was it like working with Jeffrey Dean Morgan?
It’s a roller coaster because he’s just got some of the best lines, I think, on television, and it was really kind of fun to sit back and watch him run. Plus, Father Gabriel is very much sizing up Negan. He’s only heard about the guy really, and shot at him, but he doesn’t know anything about what makes Negan tick or what’s behind everything else. And the truth of the matter is, Rick’s group did attack first. So Negan does kind of have a point defending his place, and his people, and such. But it was a blast working with Jeffrey. He’s a lot of fun to work with.

The old Gabriel would have wanted nothing to do with the war, so how is Gabriel 2.0 approaching this?
Gabriel has found a little footing, finally, where he can be of service to the group. And I think it’s given him the purpose to live again. There was a point where Gabriel felt that there was no purpose in him to living. And he tried the suicide by walker, suicide by Sasha, and that didn’t work. But I think now he’s got purpose, so he’s more willing to do things because he feels that he’s being guided by God again. Whereas I think he lost God for a while, and now he’s hearing God again.

When we first met Gabriel, his own self-worth was just at rock bottom because of what he had done. But after proving his worth to the group a few different times in few different ways, how’s he feeling about himself now?
I think he’s feeling like a man who has a reason to live again. He’s probably feeling about two inches taller and 10 pounds of muscle heavier. He’s feeling more fortified AND he’s feeling more righteous about what he’s doing, and that killing is okay if there’s a reason behind it, a meaning behind it.

I remember back in season 2, Laurie Holden, who was playing Andrea then on the show, was getting all this hate mail just because her character mistakenly shot Daryl at one point. So, I was curious what it was like for you when Gabriel was going behind Rick’s back, and fans were not happy about it. That means you’re doing your job, but what was it like dealing with the fans just being so angry with the character you were playing?
It was kind of different for me because it’s unlike any other role that I’ve played. It’s had such an impact on the audience. It took a little getting used to, the death threats, and realizing they were coming from 13-year-old boys in the basement of their Wisconsin home, as opposed to people who were really meaning me harm. That had a profound impact on me, on just how seriously people are involved with the characters in the show.

At first it was a little uncomfortable because every actor wants to be appreciated for what they’re doing — even guys who play bad guys. Yeah, you want to dislike the bad guys, but you want to like the actor because he’s making you dislike the bad guy. And for a while, I felt the lines were kind of blurred because it’s so personal. It was like, Well, wait I didn’t write these lines. This isn’t me improvising on set. This is the way the plot is going. So, it took a little getting used to, and I had to take a little distance. That actor love me, love me, love me thing that I think all actors have — I had to kind of put that on the back burner and realize that I still had a job to do, whether I was being loved or not. Which is kind of hard, because I think everybody wants to be loved. I think actors particularly want to be loved.

Some people just seem to have trouble differentiating between the actions of the character and the actor.
I think there’s still hatred directed at Laurie Holden because of the Daryl thing, and because she had an affair with the Governor. I thought she did a fantastic job! What you want is for people to move forward when you come onscreen. You don’t want them to get up and leave the room to go get a snack, you know? I think if people are leaning forward to say, “Father Gabriel, you this!” or “You that!” then all the better! It means yeah, I am doing my job — even if only me and my family can appreciate it. As far as conventions go, I would be making a lot more money out of them if I was a loveable character. But I get some great conversations out of it. I could talk about acting all day long, so for me, it’s alright.

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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