SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Evolution” midseason finale of The Walking Dead.
Jesus is dead. And unlike both his namesake and the zombies plaguing the post-apocalyptic landscape on The Walking Dead, he should not be expected to rise from the dead anytime soon. Jesus (a.k.a. Paul Rovia) met his end on Sunday’s midseason finale when a zombie he was casually planning to decapitate unexpectedly ducked his swing and then took out the Hilltop leader. It was later discovered that the enemy — known to comic book fans as the Whisperers — were actually humans wearing zombie skin masks on their faces. (More info from showrunner Angela Kang on these mysterious new foes here.)
How does actor Tom Payne feel about having his character killed off? Pretty great, actually! It turns out Payne had been frustrated for the past few years watching Jesus be relegated a bit to the sidelines and not getting to perform some of the action-spectacular feats of his comic book counterpart. He even suggested to producers they kill him off to up the ante during the war with the Saviors.
But Payne loves the send-off that Jesus got — a full-on old school horror scenario culminating with a spooky graveyard, huge fight scene, and then a shocking and emotional goodbye. We caught up with Payne to get his full-take on Jesus’ last stand and everything that led up to it. Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our interview with Kang.
ENTERTAINMENT WEKELY: So when and how did you receive the news of Jesus’ untimely demise?
TOM PAYNE: Well, you find out an episode before, because that’s when we get the scripts, so just before we started shooting episode 7, which I think was probably late July? I actually missed the first call from [showrunner Angela Kang], and I was texting with my girlfriend and I was like, “Oh, I just missed a call from Angela, maybe it’s the call, ha ha ha ha.” I called her back and it was the call. I was like, oh, okay. It was pretty laid back, I had kind of reached a point in the show where I was a little bit in stasis, and like, “Well, you know, I have to do more with my character, otherwise I’m cool with being killed off.”
So when Angela told me, I think she might’ve been a bit surprised when I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” Like, “How’s it gonna be?” Because at my heart I’m a storyteller, so as long as it’s cool and it tells a good story, I’m down with it. When I found out how we were doing it, I was super happy and excited to tell that story.
Michael Satrazemis, who shot the episode, texted me a couple of times like, “I keep wanting to come over and be sad with you and give you a hug and stuff, but you look so happy the whole time.” And I was! I had a great time shooting that episode, because I felt like it was going back to the roots of the show. It was horror and it was so atmospheric, and then the twist in the tale at the end was so awesome that I’m just super happy that we managed to tell a cool story that was unexpected and shocking. That’s what you want in this show, and I’m glad that we could provide that.
That whole episode felt like old school horror. You know this thing’s happening, you know it’s coming, and then you get in that foggy cemetery — it felt like I was watching an old ’70s horror movie.
Yeah, the whole episode. That final sequence we shot on a stage, but before that we were out in the fields and there’s a high shot where we’re approaching the barn where Eugene is. It looks like there’s CGI, tbut here wasn’t at all. We flooded those fields with smoke and it was so creepy and cool, it was just a fun episode to be in. You really felt like we were making a movie. It was really, really cool and we all had a lot of fun doing it.
It was nice for me to get to work with Ross and Josh and Norman again, and just have a great story. It’s not just guys on a mission; it was like a little murder mystery kind of thing that we were like “We’re just gonna go and get Eugene,” and then Eugene tells us this weird story. There was that moment that we have in the crossroads, and we’re all kind of trying to figure out what’s going on and we’re all kind of on edge. It was really fun to shoot because we could feel the energy of the episode and the creepy weirdness. It was great.
Yeah but they finally give you the man bun and then they take you out!
[Laughs] Oh, I know. I was pretty intent on it, because I found the comic books and I wanted to get that. I wanted him to have the body armor and the sword and the high man bun and do the Samurai thing. So I’m super happy we got into that. That was before we knew that I was gonna die. I know costume was super excited about it, and then they’re like, “Oh, you’re only gonna wear it for an episode and a bit.” But I’m just happy that we got to do it, that we got a cool fight sequence out of it, and I got some cool moves in.
That’s another part of it was just so great, that the audience are gonna be watching it and going, “Oh yes! Jesus is kicking ass! This is amazing! What?” I love that! That’s what I want to hear. Let’s tell a good story, and I think Angela’s been killing it this season and there’s been some great work coming in from everyone, and everyone’s super excited at the way the show’s going this season.
And Jesus’ death certainly is a big surprise, because Jesus is still alive and kicking in the comic, so that gives it all the more of a shock.
Yeah, definitely. This show is a different beast than the comic books. That was definitely the source of much frustration the last couple years, because Jesus gets to do some cool stuff in the Savior war [in the comic]. Like he has a fight with Negan, catches this grenade and throws it back. He’s the most capable fighter of anyone, and he didn’t get used at all — apart from fighting someone who’s on his own side. So, for me, that was a bit frustrating because behind the scenes I’ve been working hard at all of the martial arts and stuff, and been raring to go. But I’m happy that, at the end, we put it all in there and that’s cool.
You know, generally you’re happy on the show if you get one cool thing to do, and I had a really cool beginning and a really cool end, and that’s enough for me. It’s exciting to be part of this legacy show, and then have really cool moments in it. And I love that my character introduced the Saviors and now is introducing the Whisperers in a really cool, weird, scary, unexpected way. I’m happy with that, definitely.
You mentioned how Jesus is an incredibly skilled fighter. So how does he get taken out here? Is it the element of surprise that ultimately gets him in that he can’t even figure out what he is even fighting after that zombie ducks down under his blade?
I think that really helped to sell the moment. It was in the script at one point that the Whisperers start running at the group, and it was brought up that maybe one of them runs at Jesus, but I think his instincts, he wouldn’t have got him like that. If he saw someone running towards him, even if it was a walker, his natural instincts, he would have dodged it and killed him.
But the fact that, the walkers to him are like nothing now, especially when he has this sword, so he’s actually having fun. He goes out there and kills those walkers, and he’s walking back and he sees those two and he’s like, “Oh, I’m just going to take this,” he’s not even concentrating. He’s “I’m going take this one out, and then I’m gonna…” and it happens so quickly and it’s so unexpected at that point.
That’s the only way that you could have gone, I think. A total surprise, like no one at that point was expecting a walker to move like that, or certainly not to kill him in that way. I think that’s probably the best way for him to go. Otherwise, it was either that or get overwhelmed by 20 guys or something. The element of surprise is great because it sets up that group as really scary and I love the end of the episode when everyone is looking out into the fog, wondering what’s coming out of, what’s coming to get them. I’ve really enjoyed that there was a big surprise like that, and it sets them up really, really well. (Interview.)
Tell me about filming your death scene. That’s always a big moment for anyone.
It was really fun. I mean, it’s weird, because you’ve been killed and you’re lying there on the ground while everyone else is still alive, and you know that they’re going to carry on and do stuff, so that was a bit weird. There’s also, what happens with my body and all that kind of stuff moving forward now, And what happens next in that scene? There are lots of things that could then happen, so that’s kind of interesting part as well. Yeah, they have to get out. But I enjoyed shooting what I knew was gonna be a really cool iconic sequence in the show and I honestly had a great time. I had big smile on my face the whole time.
Talking about the comics again, Jesus and Aaron become a couple in the comics so when I saw last week’s episode you guys having these secret meetings, I was like, “Well here we go, now they’re gonna be a couple.” Clearly that’s not going to happen. In your mind, were they heading that way, or is that just not even a part of the story on TV at all?
I think that’s a bit unfair to the fans, because it does tease that whole thing and then it’s only two episodes really. Someone else asked me if anything had happened in the six years, and I think probably, but I don’t think they’ve ever been, like, a couple. But I think they maybe fooled around a bit, hopefully. Because you know, six years is a long time and why not, you know? Then, I think at this point in the story they’re just good friends and they connect on a bunch of different levels. That’s really nice, and I’m really glad that relationship was explored even just a little bit.
Do you have a favorite scene or episode from your time on The Walking Dead?
I have a few. I obviously think I need some distance from the show to look back on it. It’s been three years, but it seems to have gone kind of quick and a lot of stuff has happened. I think I need a bit of distance, but I loved how I ended, and I miss that sense of fun. I think that’s what kind of was missing with the character in the intervening years, when he was kind of trapped at Hilltop. That kind of went away. He came in in this really fun way and had this wry humor, and I think we lost a bit of that unfortunately. But those first episodes, and then the fight with Lennie, obviously, because I just love Lennie and that was really cool to do that sequence with him. And then that last episode, really felt like we were telling a strong story and going back to the roots of the show, and I think that fans are gonna love it. I know they’ll be upset about Jesus’ death, but I think they’ll love the storytelling of it.
So what’s it like to watch yourself die on-screen?
Cool. I just loved how epic the fight is, and then have a death afterwards. And I can’t wait to see the audience reactions and all that stuff. I love being surprised, I love it when a story takes a turn that I wasn’t expecting. And this is a huge because, as you said, he is still alive in the comic books. I just love how unexpected it is and hope the audience aren’t too mad at the show for doing it. I think it’s a good story turn, to make the Whisperers as dangerous as they are.
I guess that’s always the calculus though when figuring these things out. When you’re producing a show like this, you have to say, “What do we lose by not having this character here long term, and what do we gain in terms of the short-term surprise and long-term story?”
Yeah, it has to be about story the whole time. I was talking to the showrunners about this last year, and they were aware I was a little bit kind of bored and unhappy, and “Let’s do something, kill some people, kill me, I don’t care. Let’s do some shocking stuff!” Carl was a shock last year, but I thought tons of people were gonna die against the Saviors and barely anyone did. I was like, “What’s going on? Let’s kill some people, let’s do it. Let’s be what this show is.” And I’m happy to be a part of that this season. I wanna be a part of the shock and the horror and what makes the show great. I’m happy with it.
So there it is. For all the people that are upset that Jesus is gone, blame Tom Payne!
Also make sure to check out our interview with showrunner Angela Kang. And for more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.