Spoiler alert: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead.
He was the villain you loved to hate. Gregory’s equally cunning and cowardly ways to came to an end on Sunday’s season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead. Upset over being replaced by Maggie as leader of the Hilltop, Gregory sought his revenge in the grief of an alcoholic father who had just buried his son. Gregory manipulated Earl into attacking Maggie, and when Earl was foiled, Gregory attempted to finish the job on his own. He too failed, and the retaliation was swift and severe as Maggie hung him for his crimes.
While the man who played Gregory, Xander Berkeley, was happy to see Gregory go out in a similar fashion to his comic book counterpart, he also feels his exit was rushed and should have played out over a longer stretch of time — which he reveals was the initial plan. Read on as Berkeley discusses Gregory’s untimely demise and his feelings about why the character deserved more. (Also make sure to read our season premiere Q&As with showrunner Angela Kang and director Greg Nicotero.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How and when did you get the news about what was going to happen to Gregory?
XANDER BERKELEY: Well, you know how the show works. They kind of work on leaving their options open story-wise while they juggle 18 balls and storylines, especially with this spinning off into Fear the Walking Dead, as well as maintaining this franchise. That’s such a huge job, and they’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face to make decisions permanent before they had to. I’ve watched over the years I’ve been involved in the show, people being freaked out about the suddenness of the information, either of changes about the storyline or about their demise.
I’ve always been very philosophical because I’ve made my living dying. There’ll always be another job and there will always be a time in which you got to go, whether it’s with the show or prior to the show’s going in order to keep the show viable and vital. There’s only so long a douchebag like Gregory can stay alive, so I wasn’t shocked to find out, even though it was very much at the last minute and I had been a little bit set up to expect a very different journey. That was when [former showrunner] Scott Gimple was guiding it.
Last year, this assistant had given me ideas of where it was going to go and then he switched over to Fear the Walking Dead, and Angela [Kang] came in and she had her whole set of ideas — which is part of what Scott does and any good show writer will do when handing the reins over to the new showrunner is, let them run with it and go with their ideas. I know there was a certain amount of up-in-the-airiness about Lauren [Cohan], and then we all know about Andrew [Lincoln]. All that shuffling must be involved in the balancing out of storyline so, yeah, it was very last-minute for me, but I have no hard feelings about it.
That’s interesting to hear that there was originally a different plan for Gregory than what we saw, or at least a different timeline.
Well, what I had been led to believe at one point — not through Scott directly, but through an assistant — when I was stuck in that damn pen. I had so much fun on the show. I mean they gave me such great stuff right off the bat, and it was just so much fun no matter how unctuous or devious the character was. But the stuff in the pen last year in season 8, it got a little purged for me. It was just a long way to be away way from home at my stage of the game and to be away from the children.
That was the first time on the show that I was in conflict because I was like, “Kill me out.” You know, “Give me something exciting. Kill me out so I can get home to my children and/or other more interesting projects.” I’ve always got more interesting things to be doing than sitting around in a prison pen saying the same lines that I said more or less five times before. I’m like, “I don’t deserve this.” You know, how many times can you do that? And then they did come up with some cool stuff in getting out, and then when he gets hauled back in and the bumping of the head — I loved that episode. But I told Scott’s assistant, “I’m languishing a little long in the pen,” and he said, “We’ve brought Gregory down here, and the intent of course is to bring him back up into power before the inevitable demise”.
As for his actual demise, I had always hoped they were going to follow through with the hanging, because I’ve never been hung before and that would be good with all the death reels. I’ve got three falls from 30 floors. I’ve got three explosions in planes. I’ve got at least 15 stabbings and 25 gunshots. I needed a hanging. So I was counting on them following through on the comic book’s inevitable swinging from the tree at one time or another, but I just wasn’t sure it was gonna happen.
It felt a little bit jammed into an also-ran for a season premiere, but eh, it’s just me. It’s a bit mustache-twirly when I turned on her. They did as much as they could, but I think they just had so many stories that they were trying to juggle. Angela is a good writer and I think she knows what she’s doing, so I don’t really question it. I can’t imagine having her job with all those characters and then all the actors that go behind them.
What do you think it is that drives Gregory to this heinous act? Is it just his lust for power or is it revenge on the woman who took it away? A little bit of both? Something else? What is the ultimate thing that drives him to this?
Well, that’s the thing. I’m my mind, it did happen so abruptly and suddenly. I had hoped to see it played out a little bit. It felt like it was jammed into the first episode. If for the sake of the show to effectively begin the season off with a bang, then great! I’m happy if I could jump-start the season in that way, but… I would have really liked to have seen a little more depth go into it because, especially if you’ve waited a couple of years, where you’ve seen him humble himself and he’s gotten back. He’s gotten himself out of the pen. He’s gotten himself to become a member of the community enough to where he’s gotten the trust of his old compatriots back, and he’s humbled and working among them and he’s able to speak at the funeral — I would have liked to see that played out a little bit more.
I love that scene with Lauren where Gregory confronts Maggie outside. I love that scene, but then to send someone else into the fray… I would have liked to have been able to cover his tracks a little better and not just go straight away into pulling a knife on her. Because I felt like they needed me to actually try to stick a knife in her in order to justify her hanging me. So from a selfish point of view, I would have liked to have seen that played out in a little bit more elegant and interesting way, but if it works for the show, then that’s it.
Tell me about filming the execution scene. What was that like?
That was intense. It went on all night, and they shot if from every possible angle. That was my last day. I’ll tell you a little secret: They always save the killing of a character for the last scene, and in my experience because it’s usually dangerous, if they’re going to actually kill you they want to save it for the last day. [Laughs] They did ask me if I was willing to be blindfolded and have my hands tied behind my back on the horse, which was a little bit unruly, with a noose around my neck, but I thought at this point it’s the law of diminishing returns and I’ll get the stunt man to do that bit. That guy said, “Dude, I think you made the right call. That thing freaked me out!”
I wanted to get three or four different really strong choices to the editor and the director to have to play with and the context of the episode as they were editing it — to see what would play the best and in terms of the overall arc of the character. I wanted one for just to kind of break your heart a little bit, and one to just go, “Oh, you f—ing sniveling piece of s—, shut the f— up and die!” What I did in that last take was just beyond bizarre and disturbing because I didn’t have to stay straight with the script. I’ve done a whole lot of deaths — maybe 75 death scenes in my life. I usually try to air on the side of discretion, but I went for it, and because of being in the noose and everything I figured I could really go for it because it was so visceral.