The Walking Dead: Xander Berkeley on how to play a coward
The actor has concocted a backstory for Gregory that helps explain his behavior
The Walking Dead has seen all sorts of characters over its first seven seasons, but one of the most unique has to be Hilltop leader Gregory — a chauvinistic blowhard whose cluelessness is surpassed only by his cowardice. But what made Gregory such a clueless coward?
We went to the man who plays him, Xander Berkeley, for insight, and we have to say, Berkeley has clearly put a lot of thought into the matter. He has a pretty fascinating take on what made Gregory who he is today. Take a read and find out for yourself.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Maggie has brought the Hilltop into war with the Saviors. How does Gregory feel about that, because I’m guessing not too great.
XANDER BERKELEY: Well, yes, all of my arguments to that date have been in opposition. The Hilltop has been a peaceful, agrarian society that wanted to avoid altercations at all expense. And it was an expense. It was giving away a lot, admittedly, but my outlook was that giving away whatever had to be given away was better than giving away one’s life. And that was my standing argument. These people aren’t prepared to take up arms because they’re craftsman and gardeners and farmers and not warriors, and I don’t think it would end well, and that’s my argument. Of course, people are always wanting to project onto Gregory that this is a self-interest motivated concern of his, but I’m seeing it from Gregory’s point of view, and of course, he deludes himself perhaps into thinking that he’s doing it for the Hilltop as well as himself.
I think you just hit on something really interesting and that’s true because I’ve noticed that he is deluding himself, right? At least that’s his rationalization, right?
Nobody can move forward in life just thinking they’re this person, thinking that they’re just despicable, because at a certain point they just can’t go on. Scott Gimple had wanted me to play this part, and I said to him in the beginning, “I’ve played a lot of s—hills and I kind of don’t want to just be remembered as nothing but a s—hill, and this guy seems to have a lot of unctuous qualities and very few, if any, redeeming features.” And he said life has taught Gregory bad lessons, and that was interesting.
It was a new light for me on these kinds of characters because of course we know they help to move the plot forward and they certainly work very well as the antagonistic foil for the protagonist and all the characters you want to see overcome them, but to make a character feel like they’re real and not just disposable waste, how did they come to be the way they are? That was a good insight that life had taught this guy bad lessons and he’s arrived at a certain degree of success pre-apocalypse in going from middle management up to upper management, where maybe people started all laughing at his jokes that weren’t that funny, and doing his bidding that was maybe not really good stuff to do.
But because he was the guy that signed their checks, they did what had to be done, and he interpreted it as they liked him and that he was good at his job.
So a lot of people end up being taught bad lessons in life, and from day one Gregory operates with Maggie like he’s got some leverage and he’s even coming onto her and trying to use that leverage where it’s clear that maybe this has worked for him. Maybe sometimes it hasn’t, from the other things Scott said, but there’s one time out of 10 that it works.
So what kind of bad lessons are we talking about here?
I think that the bad lessons went in terms of benignly abusive behavior, sexist behavior, chauvinistic behavior. Humor, it’s an interesting thing. Bosses have people laugh with them because they want to keep their job, and they think they’re funny. So there’s just that in general, because I think one of the ways Gregory deludes himself greatly is thinking that he’s a f—ing riot. Part of it was, what can I bring to the show that it needs right now? Because I know it goes to some dark places and it gets occasionally mired in the southern drama aspect and the tempo can slow down. And that’s part of the show’s beauty, but you want to be able to create contrast with that tempo-wise and mood-wise and when it gets really, really dark, you want to be able to lighten it up by contrast.
I talked to Scott about, can this guy think he’s funny and that fit in with our conversation about the lessons he’s been taught, thinking that you can make more money, you can get ahead, you can get on top, you can become a leader, you can get women, and you can get a big round of applause and a lot of laughter even if you aren’t funny if you’re the boss? That fueled opportunities for me without cheapening the show or trying to get a cheap laugh just to make that part of his nature — that he’s always funny, and that allows him to go to some of the chauvinist and sexist places that he goes and it gives the show opportunities for humor where I think it needs it — have something that is not just the antagonistic foil, but the comedic foil in there somewhere.
He’s very theatrical with his gestures and his body movements and the lean back or arms sort of waving in the air as he talks, I’ve definitely noticed that.
Yeah, and you know that’s kind of a lot of the way I’ve played a lot of characters, but I just saw that in the comic book, and since this is my opportunity to bring not just the voice but the whole physical character to life from the comic book, I decided to go for it. I had to create a repertoire of gestures that embraced those comic book physical gestures, and it fit for me into this whole sense of bravado and showman. He feels aggrandizing and he feels his gestures are grand.
I sometimes joke about that I played Malvolio when I was 18 in college and the line was, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I think Gregory believes that all three are true in his case.
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What’s more important to Gregory, dealing with the Saviors or maintaining his leadership position?
Well, I think at the end of the day maybe his key feature is his physical cowardice, that in the old days before the apocalypse you have a police force and a legal system in place to protect you from physical violence. If you’re a big guy and you got a lot of bravado, a push never really had to come to a shove, and your bark could be worse than your bite, and you never had to worry about getting bitten because you could sue. One way or another, people could get away with being a jackass and not get their head cut off.
In this world, it’s different. I made a story for him on some level that I won’t necessarily reveal, but that he has reasons for being physically afraid. I got tall really early in life, but I don’t think he did. I think he got pushed around and beaten up and he’s still got a little guy’s terror in him of being beaten up. And then he grew fast and he moved and put on a whole a new personality as though he were a tough guy, but some part of him was always running from the bully and running scared that he was going to get beaten up and didn’t know how to protect himself and never learned how to fake it.
And now, with a Negan out there, it’s just a primal terror that he’s going to get hurt and/or killed, and so, on some level, I think yes, he loves his leadership role, but he’s so quick to drop into a kneel when Simon is there. He’s a physical coward at the end of the day. That centers so much of everything.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss. Season 8 kicks off Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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