Spoiler alert: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Stradivarius.”
He’s baaaaaaack! Fans mourned when Abraham’s head was on the receiving end of a baseball bat back in the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. The show’s epic quote machine was forever silenced. But the next best thing to Abraham’s return happened on this week’s episode, when actor Michael Cudlitz became the first Walking Dead cast member to return as a director. (Fear the Walking Dead’s Colman Domingo also helmed an episode of that show this year, and Andrew Lincoln is planning to direct a TWD episode in season 10.)
What was it like for Cudlitz to return to his former stomping grounds? What were the scenes he was most excited — and nervous — to direct? What’s this we hear about and him and Norman Reedus coming up with a backstory for Daryl? And what would Abraham be up to now had he survived? We asked Cudlitz all that and more. (Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our episode Q&A with showrunner Angela Kang.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what was it like to be back, my man?
MICHAEL CUDLITZ: It was amazing to be back. The crew welcomed me back with open arms. I do think in a strange way that it was a part of the healing of losing Andy. It was a comforting feeling, at least that’s how I felt, and what was given back to me from the cast and the crew was that it was something that they needed. Having people come back through a show that has so much loss is something that I think that has value. There’s just been energy that comes with that, with someone who knows the show, knows the cast, knows the stories, knows the characters, that can’t be denied.
It was a really wonderful script, a very character-driven script. I loved that I had a number of characters that we know really well. Then half the episode is also devoted to characters that we’re just getting to know right now. I was really excited to be a part of that. It has some pretty cool action sequences, but generally in its heart, it was a character-driven piece. That is what I really wanted to sink my teeth into, because I think the action stuff, as I do more of this, I would get better at it. I’m very happy with the way everything turned out, but I know that that’s something that gave me a little bit of pause as we got into it. We definitely storyboarded all of it out so I knew what was going to happen, but I think the more seasoned director looks at the action stuff as a little less daunting than it was for me.
Although, again, I had a great team around me. It was definitely supported by the camera team, making sure I wasn’t doing anything silly, also during the prep period through tremendous amount of assisting and just letting me know that I was not alone. I took advantage of all the talent that we had out there. I’m really, really proud of the episode.
What were you first reactions when you looked at the script and saw what you would be dealing with?
I knew the show was also beginning a new direction with more of a Western quality for the episode. I did a bunch of research watching some really great Westerns. I watched The Searchers and Shane, and a couple other ones. I stole some visuals from that stuff, the way they told stories. There were some really wonderfully framed shots that are outside when Tara is walking up from the garden in the beginning, checking out everyone. That was sort of an iconic shot that I stole from Shane, with the opening of it framed in the doorway.
The interesting thing for me was that I realized as I was reading through the script and working through it was that pieces of the script jumped out to me, like when I would read something and I immediately knew how I wanted to shoot it. One of those things was the fight between Aaron and Jesus. I knew with the fight what I wanted to do right away. The sequence with Tara and Jesus in the house, I knew how I wanted to use the staircase and that big empty space. So there were a couple scenes that really immediately jumped out to me where I was like, ” I know how I want to do this.”
Then there were the action sequences that I read, I was sort of like, “Oh my gosh, how do I begin?” My storyboard artist said, “You just start at the beginning.” We walked through each shot of what I wanted to see, and he started to bring it to life. The more he brought it to life, the more I saw what I wanted to do moving forward from there. Then I would go back and scrap a bunch of work that we had done just to say, “No, actually, let’s do this way, let’s shoot from this direction.”
We’d just build the scene literally shot by shot. I was very excited about working with Melissa and Norman. I think their scenes were beautiful. I think the scene where she’s cutting his hair is one of the things I’m most proud of in the episode. The connection between those two characters, without taking it overboard, I just am really, really proud of it. It’s shot beautifully, and I think that they just performed the hell out of that scene.
What was the dynamic like when you’re giving direction to your former castmates? You talk about that scene with Norman and Melissa, or obviously Danai is in this episode a lot. Was it a little weird the first time you were giving them direction?
I was fortunate enough in that I know their history through watching the show and through being on the show and through working with these people. I know these characters, generally speaking. I felt very comfortable having those discussions with them. I felt very comfortable in some of the pushback that I got on certain things and I was able to push back from my end and have really great, creative conversations, and then have this third thing come out of it that neither of us had thought of, but was ultimately the right thing to do.
There was a lot of stuff that we changed, actually, with Norman’s storyline from the initial script that we got, because Norman had some very specific things that he wanted, and [writer Vivian Tse] had some specific things that she wanted, and I had some specific things that I wanted. Ultimately, in the end, we came up with this amazing sort of backstory that happened while he was separated from everybody else, and how he would come back into the fold — you know, what his camp looked like, what he was doing during that downtime.
So it was a lot of wonderful building of these characters, because we are really only two episodes into where we’ve cleaned the slate and started over. So I think it’s important for those discussions to happen. It’s important for that character development to happen in front of the audience so that they know where everybody is at this point, because these people have changed over the last few years.
Some of the stuff we know why it changed, and some of the stuff we’re going to discover. We will discover where those Xs come from. It’s a really f—ed up story. It’s a big, really f—ed up thing that happened during that break. At some point, we will find out about it. You will find out eventually what that is. It was bad. (Interview
It’s interesting to hear about how you and Vivian and Norman collaborated in putting together Daryl’s backstory, because something that I’ve heard from everyone this season — including when I spoke to Josh McDermitt recently — is how collaborative it is with new showrunner Angela Kang. It seems like it’s a place where that is definitely encouraged this season.
Yup, absolutely. It’s just different ways of working. I think that at this point it’s needed for the people who have been there a long time and have so much invested in it. It’s a way to reward them, in a way. So it is definitely something that is respected in the sense of from a performers’ standpoint when you’re able to have input, and your input is respected the other way. It’s a good situation.
And clearly there is a new energy there now with all the changes.
I think she has a really wonderful, creative thing going on. It’s just completely different technique of running things than [former showrunner Scott M. Gimple] was doing. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but I think there’s a reason he was finished in that position. It was just time. It was time for him to do something else with the show for the show to grow.
And although personally I would prefer Carl and everyone else to still be there that is historically there in relation to the comic book, because they have lost who they have lost, it was a wonderful choice to have Andy go, because it is literally a clean slate. Nobody can ever say again, “Well, that’s not what they did in the comics!” We’re so far from the comics that you would sound like an idiot if you said something like that, because it just has no bearing on the stories we’re telling anymore other than the circumstances, the world, and the locations we go to. But the family and the people we are following have all changed. I think that gives the audience an opportunity to really grab on even tighter and enjoy the ride now and not compare it to the what-ifs and why-nots of the comic world.
We talked about getting back and seeing some of the old gang. There are also a lot of new people this episode. And you have Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, and Angel Theory, who is hard of hearing. What was it like meeting all of them and communicating with Lauren and Angel, because that is just another level of stuff to consider as a first-time director?
Yes, we had everything. We had American Sign Language, we had minors that had limited hours, we had animals! We had the ASPCA with the horses and the dogs. I got stopped for lightning strikes for six hours. There was one day when Matt Lintz, who plays Henry, checked in for work, and he was on the clock, and the minute he went on the clock, we were shut down for three and a half hours for lightning strikes. We immediately lost three and a half hours with somebody who I only had for eight hours. So it was amazing. [Laughs]
But the sign language stuff was phenomenal. I was so happy to be part of the dialing in of how that all worked between the direction and the translators. What people don’t know is we always have a translator on set, because Lauren obviously needs to know what’s going on to keep everything safe and to communicate. But on top of that, we have another translator who is behind the monitors so that they see whatever is actually put on film, so that we know that it was done correctly from the ASL speakers where ASL is not their first language.
So there are people who are not only acting, but they’re doing American Sign Language for the first time, so we had to make sure all of that was captured correctly and try to figure out what was the best way to do that. Do we sign everything? Do we sign parts of it? Do we come of it in a way where we’re above the hand so we’re shoulders and above so we don’t have to make sure everything’s perfectly dialed in? What are those choices we’re going to make? I think the new group and the new infusion of energy is a really great direction for the show. I think the fans are going to love it.
Let’s play a game of What If? Let’s say Negan had chosen someone else: What do you think Abraham would have been like if he’d made it to now, about eight years later with all the time jumps and time that has passed?
It’s obviously all ifs, because I think if Abraham had his way he would have opened up on the first roadblock and would have killed half those people. But let’s say we got past the lineup, we got past the time jump, and everything happened as it was. I think that he and Sasha would be raising a baby. I think that they would be making the difficult decisions that you see Carol and Ezekiel making. I think they would be in a very similar situation, because they’re both powerful leaders, and they would have probably been best used to be split up. So I see more of that in sort of that Ezekiel-Carol relationship.
But he would want the future. He has made that decision — the same conversation that Rick has with Michonne, and let’s literally make the future he had with Sasha in the motor home. At that point, he had made the decision that he could see himself doing that. I think that at this point we would have been doing it. I think he would have settled into a pretty wonderful leader, a very caring leader.
So you came, you did it, you conquered. Are you going to come back and direct again? What’s the plan?
I hope so. That’s all up to them. I spoke to Angela pretty recently. I know there are a lot of demands that are outside of choice for her sometimes, so I don’t put any pressure on them other than letting them know I’d love to do it again. We’ll see from there. I’ve also spoken to Michael Satrazemis, and we briefly chatted about me possibly going over to Fear the Walking Dead, but again, that would again be their choice. I let them know that I would love to do that. Now the ball’s in their court at this point.
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