The latest Walking Dead victim speaks
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead titled “The World Before.”
Whisperer. Spy. Murderer. The character of Dante was all of those things on The Walking Dead, as we learned last week when Siddiq finally connected the dots and was then killed by his double-agent medical assistant. On Sunday’s midseason finale, there was payback. Rosita showed up right after the killing and subdued Dante in a brawl (while also protecting Baby Coco from beating eaten by her zombified daddy). And then Father Gabriel finished the job, entering Dante’s cell and killing the prisoner by repeatedly stabbing him an absurd amount of times.
We spoke to Juan Javier Cardenas, who played Dante with the perfect mix of creepy charm, about his journey on the show and brutal death. The actor also reveals he didn’t even know Dante’s true role until just moments before filming, takes us through his bloody (and painful) death scene, and ponders whether the character ever wavered in his mission. (Also make sure to read our midseason finale Q&A with showrunner Angela Kang.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a comic book fan, how cool was it to get to be on this show?
JUAN JAVIER CARDENAS: It was very cool because you know in this business of being an actor, I have this little kind of a list. It’s not an official one, but it’s a list of stuff that I want to do and it’s basically what I imagined would be cool to do as a 13-year-old kid when I thought about being an actor. And on the list is, like, be in a Western. I just want to ride on a horse and shoot a gun from a horse. I got to check that. And another one is I want to be a part of some kind of comic adaptation, because I grew up with comics that were a big part of my life growing up. It kind of fed a lot of this propulsion of imagination.
Of course, I was very familiar with The Walking Dead comic when it came out. It made a big impression, but the funny thing is that I was very excited to get this job, but I think my family was even more. I told Angela Kang, the showrunner, that when I got the gig and I told my brother and my dad on the phone, I think there we’re more excited than I was about this gig. They couldn’t get over the fact that I got The Walking Dead.
So when you were first cast, did showrunner Angela or anyone give you Dante’s entire arc and all the info in terms of him being a double agent?
I learned about the dark ulterior motive of Dante probably about five minutes after I showed up on set for my first day of work on the season premiere. My first day was working with Avi Nash. It was a two-person scene and it was the introduction of Dante’s character, and as somebody just kind of stepping their toes into the world, I was given piecemeal kind of information and really all I had to go on was kind of understanding the story moment by moment as I was receiving the scripts or receiving the information. So when I’ve got that first script for that first episode, it was these introductory scenes with Dante and Siddiq and I understood them walking in.
And I felt like I had a pretty good grasp as a starting-off point. And when I showed up to work, I was putting makeup on, got in costume, mic’d up, walk on, set lights were on, they go rolling for sound and then Greg Nicotero, the director, tapped me on the shoulder and goes, “Hey, I just want to ask you how much do you know about this of character and where they’re going with it?” And then I go, “Well, I know this one scene and I know what I’m doing here in this moment.” And he goes, “Yeah, take a five-minute walk with me.” He proceeded to take me off set, take me aside, and essentially lay out the cold war dramatic arc of the character, that I was there as essentially a vessel of a kind of contagion of Alpha.
He gave me the spiel in about a 10-minute pep talk, and then I had to return to set and act in the first scene under this new understanding of context. And then, later on, Angela came to set, and I had further great conversations with her. And as an actor, I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more fun than that really because it puts you in a state of absolute present mindfulness in the moment, because all you can do as an actor is play moment by moment by moment. A really hard challenge is to go into scene work knowing or playing that you have a secret. Because whenever we tell lies or tell secrets in life, we’re interacting with people as we normally would, and we can’t let the other person know that what we’re saying is a lie or what we’re saying is the truth.
We can only kind of act in those moments by moment, you know, beat by beat. So the whole process of Dante, as I learned more about the character, was about attacking each scene and trying to figure out how much of what I’m saying, this line here, how much of this is a lie, how much is this is the truth? Is there an ulterior motive behind what he’s saying? And what that does is that it makes you enjoy it, I think as much as an audience member enjoys seeing it because I was learning about the character as I went along as an audience member does.
So how much in terms of the Dante that we saw was real and how much was just a complete act?
What I say is that I know myself in my heart what I think is real and what I think is true. That’s something that I’ve worked out and I keep that a bit close to the vest solely for this reason. Because I think as an audience member, it makes the entire situation — that character and the context in which he appears in the overarching themes of this season — so much more eerie and unnerving and ultimately more frightening.
But I’ll say this: In those last moments of episode 7 when him and Siddiq are in that room, and there’s nobody else around in those last moments of Siddiq’s life, when Dante says, “I didn’t want this. Not you, not like this” — there’s no audience there. There’s nobody else in that room. Siddiq is not walking out of this room alive. So in that moment, I feel that’s a true moment. That’s a true moment that you see something revealed in Dante’s character that’s not for the people, that’s not serving anybody or anything besides himself in that moment.
Do you think there are ever points where he sees this other society that Alpha said can’t exist and is doomed to fail, and he’s bought this line from her hook, line and sinker, but now he sees another way? Do you think there’s ever any wavering on his part?
Alpha’s modus operandi is always saying to the Whisperers that civilization is all a facade, it all breaks down eventually. There’s nothing within those walls that’s of any value to us. I believe that the people that join the Whisperers are people that have most probably suffered inhumane kind of horrors, physically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually, that are unimaginable to the people that find themselves into places like Alexandria and Hilltop. Those are people that are beyond broken. So the dedication to that Alpha character borders on a kind of a messianic level.
So when Dante is able to go and see the workings of Alexandria, he can still hold fast to this idea that this is all a facade, that eventually this all breaks down. And the reason he can do that is because out of all the nameless hordes, Alpha picked him based upon his skills and based on his talents that she saw in him. So to be anointed in that way is like getting a blessing from the Pope or being knighted by the Queen. Even the way that she held him, she touched her hand on the shoulder, which I can only assume is one of the only physical acts that he’s experienced that wasn’t through violence or something horrible to even have that bit of human connection. You know, he’s willing to lay down his life for her in a way that he’s saying, you gave me a purpose, I’ll give you my life.
And at the same time, I can only think that once Siddiq is gone, those moments along the way where Dante might’ve seen that there’s another way here — I’m actually developing a relationship with someone based on a purity of friendship, not on competition, not trying to take something from him, not trying to persuade them that something’s being created here that’s organic — in those moments when he’s found out, he returns to a fight or flight situation. His eyes go black, right. He has to nullify that threat, and once Siddiq has gone, any kind of possible lifeline that this character could have held onto is gone. All that hope is lost. And I think that’s why he reverts back.
You got the crap beaten out of you in this last episode. First Christian knocks you around, then Norman is taking his shots, then Seth comes and repeatedly stabs you. What was it like being on the receiving end of all of that abuse?
I’ve worked on on-camera violence for a long time. There have been other kinds of situations and things that call for big acts of violence. It’s super fun to do. It’s fantastic to do. But, of course, the common denominator between fighting with Avi and fighting with Christian and fighting with Seth is that all those actors from the get-go establish an immediate sense of trust between each other. And if you establish that immediately from the get-go saying, “Listen, I’m here for you, you’re here for me, I’m going to catch you. If you fall, we’re going to do this the right way. We’re just going to care about each other” — that’s when you can finally play.
Christian and Avi, I think I outweigh them by little bit, but they are extremely strong and they’re wily and they give as good as I could get. And with Seth, I’ll tell you this: They had to hose me down at the end of that day, the amount of blood I was going, it was like a candle being dipped in red wax! It was a lot of fun. When you have the right people, it’s not a hard day at work. It’s a fun day at work.
I was going to ask you a little more about that death scene specifically. Did they have blood packs in you that he was puncturing with the knife, or how did that all work?
So the thing is that it’s supposed to be a messy, rough and tumble kind of stabbing for the back based off of a clinch. And I’ll tell you, it looks so real and it looks frightening, and it looks even more horrific in real life. You see the life-size puddle of blood on the floor — well, slight problem is that by take 15 that blood starts to congeal and starts to get sticky. And then the retractable knife started to get stuck a little bit. So by take 15, my liver was, you know, I ended up taking a couple of shots, delivered with a non-retractable knife a little bit.
But it all resolves itself great and it was fantastic. But you have to be careful. That set is a legitimate concrete bunker. It’s concrete walls, concrete floors. So any kind of shoves up against a wall or taking down to the ground and stuff like that, you have to be careful. But Seth was fantastic, and when he’s basically trying to stab my heart to the ground, it was difficult to remain lifeless after the 20th stab wound because he’s a very strong guy, I was literally bouncing off the floor.
But it was fun and I think what we did is that we succeeded in telling a really poignant, horrific story, which is more important than the violence because the violence in any kind of fight scene serves the story. And in that moment you see the breakdown of Father Gabriel emotionally and you see somebody that is built up as this like leader of civility, a leader of kind of moral understanding. And to see him break down in such an animalistic way towards the end is serving the story of understanding his arc. So as long as we get that across, that’s why the violence is justified.
So what was your actual final scene that you shot?
I think my last scene was possibly painting Whisperer graffiti on the streets of Alexandria. There’s a quick shot that you see a montage of all the ways that Dante was selling distrust and suspicion over the weeks and tampering with the water supply, et cetera. And one of them is painting Whisperer graffiti, and I believe that was the last thing that I shot.
So I asked Angela this, and I want to get your take on it too. Do you think Dante had a son? Cause he turns the question around on Gabriel but he doesn’t reveal it one way or the other. So what do you think?
I know what I think, and I can’t give you. I just can’t. There was actually kind of a maybe in my mind, like an unsaid kind of understanding that when you were dealing with this character that’s duplicitous and fracturing together his storyline in the backstory, I was given a lot of space to kind of understand within myself what was real and what was true and finding stuff that I thought was useful to me to be able to portray the character in a way that I did.
And so that’s one of those questions I got to keep close to the vest, because I know what I think, but I leave that up to the audience. Listen, this character ultimately was created to keep people up at night — the audience and the people in Alexandria — and to think: How can this person do what he could do? Was it all real? Was it not? If it’s all real, that’s horrifying. And if it’s all fake, that might be even more, you know what I mean? A close friend of mine was asking me about it and I go, “I think I’m going to have to keep this myself.”