Nico Tortorella on playing a 'full-blown queer superhero' on The Walking Dead: World Beyond
Ask Nico Tortorella what they love about playing Felix on The Walking Dead: World Beyond and they’ll start with a pretty standard answer. “Felix is great,” says Tortorella. “Felix is loyal to a fault. He is a protector at heart. He is determined to keep the people around him safe and keep his community safe no matter what. He wears a lot of hats in this community. He teaches self-defense classes and survival classes. He helps beyond the wall and track migrating patterns of the walkers, which we call empties on this show.”
All that is true, but we saw another side to Felix on Sunday’s “Blaze of Gory” episode of World Beyond, in which flashbacks showed a young Felix banished by his father due to his sexuality. “He has a troubled past,” notes Tortorella. “He got kicked out of his house at a pretty young age because he was gay, from a religious family. Unfortunately, not an uncommon story for queer people.”
But Felix overcame all of that to become the post-apocalyptic badass that he is today, and Tortorella could not be more psyched to play him. “I'm so excited to bring this character, specifically a queer character, to life in a way that isn't solely realized by the violence that he experiences because of who he is. He’s a full-blown queer superhero, and I'm here to play this role.”
It’s also a great follow-up role to Tortorella’s appearance as a competitor on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race, which the actor calls “a dream come true,” while crediting Drag Race for merging queer and mainstream cultures. “The show changed my life in so many ways,” they say. “And I'm really proud of the way that I was able to step into that space and bring a conversation to the queer mecca of mainstream media. I think that because of who they are and what they do, that there is an expectation that they are the most versed in queer theory and politics. I think that if anyone is going to take up space in an industry with already limited representation, that we need to hold them accountable, and we need to make sure that we are acting both reverently and responsibly every step of the way. As the world continues to change around us, so do the stories that we tell, and that's about all I'm going to say about that.”
Ah, but Tortorella has plenty more to say about joining the world of The Walking Dead, revealing a huge Scream spoiler, and playing a gay character coming to terms with all-too-common parental rejection.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me your casting story. How did you end up on The Walking Dead: World Beyond?
NICO TORTORELLA: It all happened very quickly. I didn't even know that there was a new Walking Dead series in the works. I was actually in Indonesia. I was in Jakarta doing some work with Queer Youth. I was there for a month. I get a call the last couple of days I'm there, maybe like, "Hey, there's a new Walking Dead show. They're trying to find one of the main characters, Felix. The creator, Matt Negrete and Scott Gimple, the big daddy of The Walking Dead want to jump on a call with you." I was like, "All right, fine. Let's just jump on a call."
I had about a day to prep for this call. The only thing that I knew about Felix was that he was gay. That's literally all I knew about the show and this character. I'm quite theoretical. And I'm constantly finding myself in either a social or political spiral of sorts, just on my own time. Always living through the existential. So I prepped for this call and I had a lot of big questions for them. Why is this show important 10 years later? What are we bringing to the table? Especially given the political landscape, what are we saying here? Who we talking to?
Scott said something to me very specific, that's kind of always stuck: The only binary that exists in our universe is dead and alive. Everything else kind of goes away. There's not a political binary, there's not a gender binary, a sexuality binary, a race binary — everything just kind of disappears. And that stuck with me and was like, "S---, imagine a world that looked like that." And I was in. I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer for me. I don't think there's ever been a more important time for queer actors to be playing queer characters. And within a week, I was in Richmond starting my fight training.
What was your familiarity level with the Walking Dead franchise before landing the part?
This is kind of piggybacking off the last question. First series, religious fan. I watched probably the first six or seven seasons. There's just so much television on. Fear, I auditioned for Nick, for the pilot, didn't get the job, then refused to watch the show. [Laughs] I just don't like watching things that I auditioned for. I don't know what it is. I just don't need to see it. I mean, not everything, but this was one of those instances.
I get that.
Right? And then I booked this job and I've gone back and I've done some research. I haven't watched every episode that's ever been made, but I like to think that my character would know exactly what's happening across the country or through the Americas, so I don't need to be fully up to date.
So when exactly did you guys find out that this great new show that you just got this key role on was only going to last for two seasons, which AMC announced a while back? Of course, you could always die before then. You could die in episode 4 and it doesn't matter how many seasons it goes on for.
That’s how I took the news. So we didn't know that going into the project. It kind of came to fruition a bit later. But like you said, that's exactly right. Look, I've died on a couple of TV shows, multiple movies. People love watching me die for some reason. I've gotten very used to being either written off shows or series getting canceled, especially in television. I can't tell you the amount of pilots that I've shot that never saw the light of day. There is no normal. S--- changes on the drop of a dime. I think if 2020 has proven anything at all, it has just enforced the fact that anything that we thought was normal before this year, is so gone. And the big question remains is what is normal or already non-normals in a newly not normal world? You with me, Dalton?
It sounds like a question mark wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a mystery, but I'm kind of halfway there with you.
There's no normal anymore, and that is f---ing freedom. That is freedom. I think that as this series comes out and as everything around us continues to change, the fate of this show can potentially change as well. You never know.
Your showrunner Matt Negrete said something pretty interesting to me, that this first season really took some inspiration from the movie Stand By Me. Did it feel like that to you, or did it feel more like, "Hey cool. I get to kill a bunch of zombies?"
It was a mix between the two. I mean, I think even in the Stand By Me moments, Felix is still on the watch or ready to throw it down at any given moment. I am not one of the kids, but I am watching this story unfold through their eyes with the viewers, and it's so beautiful. I mean, there's an innocence, right? There's a naivete that exists in youth, about the hunger or thirst for life. That unfortunately, as we get older, some of us, not all of us, we lose. We forget that feeling. This story is being told through that perspective. It really leads to the question of not just what does it mean to survive, but what does it mean to live? How can we hold on to life? And if that's not art imitating life currently, I don't know what is.
Well, I've seen your wedding photos. You definitely have not lost the zest for life.
I said not all of us. [Laughs]
It’s a young cast. I guess you worked with a young cast when you were in Make It or Break It, but that was a decade ago. Do you notice a different vibe on set when you got a lot of young actors on there?
On Make It or Break It, we were all the same age. I was young as s---. But I'm used to being the youngest person on a set. Past Make It or Break It, everything I've ever done, I've been working with older, established actors. Everything great that I have learned about not just the crap of this industry, has been from these wiser folk. Now, I've been put in that position, and I am so grateful for it. It is really a chance to help. I mean, they're not kids, but to show them things that aren't taught. This industry isn't taught anywhere.
You can go to acting school and learn the craft, but this industry, the only way to learn it is to live it. There is so much more that goes into our jobs than being on screen. We're on screen probably less than 10 percent of our days, if that. And I was able to show up for these incredible people just starting off in their careers, and I got to share the little bit of wisdom that I have, and hopefully, help shape them into even better people.
I know they don't like spoilers on this show and in this franchise. Did they give you the talk at some point about, "Listen, don't say anything. Here's what you're allowed to say, and don't say anything else?"
There is a talk, there is an email before any single interview that we get, there are NDAs. Yes, absolutely, they exist. But I've been doing this for a long time. I have had to learn the hard way of what happens when you release something that's not supposed to be released. I don't think I've ever told the story to anyone. When I got cast in Scream, I immediately went and tweeted that I was cast before a press release happened. And I got in so much f---ng trouble. I almost lost the job actually. So I've gotten really good at almost giving information. But you got to feed the beast. Right? You got to give the people what they want, but also make sure everyone's happy.
You all were supposed to debut in April. I think it was about two weeks before the premiere, when it had to get pushed back due to the pandemic. How bummed were you to have your new baby be delayed by six months?
I mean, when Contagion was the No. 1 movie on iTunes, and then I get the call from Matt being, "I don't think the world's ready for World Beyond". And I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I think this is the perfect time!" All that being said, I think this show is coming at the perfect time. I don't think that there are any coincidences in this life, and World Beyond is absolutely art imitating life, in ways that none of us expected when we were creating it. There's some real medicine in these characters, in this story. And I'm just excited for the show to come out as maybe a tool that we all can use to heal, even just a little bit.
So let’s talk about this last episode of World Beyond. We see these flashbacks of Felix's dad finding out he's gay, kicking him out of the house. And then the night when all hell breaks loose, he still doesn't want his help and says, "Get out of here." What did that do to Felix? How did that — in either a good way or bad way — make him who he is today? How did these flashbacks we see form the person we see now?
I think that for Felix to look into the mirror, for any queer person, to look into the mirror and to decide who you are, and decide who you love, and to unapologetically commit to that identity, even in the face of any sort of bigotry is innately spiritual. I think it builds character. It builds strength. And when that moment comes to fruition with his father, Felix could have immediately denied and fought, but he didn't. He committed to who he was and what he believes in, and he walked out of that house, never to return until the night this guy fell, which is profound and unfortunately not an uncommon story for queer people.
I think that as Felix was living on the streets for all those years, he was a survivor before the apocalypse, and the night the sky fell, he was prepared. He was already on the streets, fending for his life. I think the hardest moment was when he went back to go save his parents, in that second episode, to try to reconnect with his family, to be close to his loved ones in a moment of terror. The doors were still locked, and it just breaks my heart. It just breaks my heart that some people, because of how this world and the society was built are so hateful. How any sort of love can never be denied. I never understood that, and it's been such a huge part of my own queer journey and finding myself.
I think finding the forgiveness is really where the redemption lives. I don't blame Felix's father for kicking him out of his house. I don't think that that was his fault. That's our world's fault. That is what he was taught to do. That is what colonialism and coercive religious indoctrination really enforced upon us. Finding that forgiveness is kind of where we find Felix in present day, going back to the house. We don't really know what he's going back to the house to do. I think he's going back to the house to see if there are empties, which we find out. And is he going there to kill them in a violent manner, or is he going there to take them out of their misery? I would like to believe that it's the latter.
That was my interpretation of it. But he sees empties in there, and then he walks away. He tells Huck he went there to kill his parents, but we see him walk away from the house. So what's going on there and why does he not go through with it?
I don't think that he needs to. I think that he is relinquishing some sort of control and forgiving himself even. As he turns around, there's that walker that is behind him, and he gets to take that anger out in that moment. It's complicated. It's nuanced. I can't imagine killing my parents, let alone if they were zombie parents. That's really hard. It's really hard.
When you film a scene like that, how much are you having to create as an actor, emotion and how much are you building on things where an emotion you already have from certain circumstances that are relatable?
It's definitely both. I have a certain access to my emotionality. I don't have to dig that deep for any of it, to be honest with you. I'm a very emotional person in my everyday life, and I think a lot of that just comes from how I live, and what I choose to explore and what I choose to keep out. But the most difficult part is having to match every take. I am a very fluid actor, and in these more emotional scenes, it's really important that you hold on to that continuity. You're sometimes shooting a scene for four or five hours. You got to get all of these different takes and pick up all the sides, and shoot it from all these different angles. It's a lot of work, and living in that emotional state for four or five hours takes a toll for sure. I mean, I'm so exhausted by the end of those scenes.
This Walking Dead spin-off focuses on the first generation to come of age in the apocalypse.