The actor discusses his character's big coming-out party and what's next for him in season 11.

"I went to West Point, a--hole." And with that last line of The Walking Dead's "Archeron Part II," we finally learned a little something about Mercer (Michael James Shaw). While the Commonwealth military leader was mostly a silent presence on TWD's season 11 premiere, he asserted himself through a tense interrogation from Eugene (Josh McDermitt) in which he promised, "If you lie, I'll know." (Note: He didn't.) He also seemed to take a measure of joy (and intimidation) in correcting Ezekiel's (Khary Payton) guess that he was merely a "power-tripping beat cop."

We spoke to Shaw, the man under the Mr. Sherbet red amor, to get his take on Mercer's big coming-out party, working with McDermitt on that fraught scene, and playing "an elite motherf---er."

The Walking Dead
Michael James Shaw on 'The Walking Dead'
| Credit: Josh Stringer/AMC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For most of these first two episodes, Mercer is pretty quiet, so you have to get this guy's aura across in very few words. What was that like?

MICHAEL JAMES SHAW: The hardest thing with that is you constantly have to be thinking very hard, and then hopefully it reads across without you doing too much. But I think just trusting and having lots of thoughts about everything that's going on allows for that to ring. I had a great time being a looming presence on the wall, observing and calculating and assessing these new intakes.

It's an interesting dynamic because as viewers, we're trying to figure this guy out, but he may also be trying to show something different to the intakes. So he may not want to show them his full hand, and, therefore, we're not getting to see his full hand.

A big umbrella word I use for these two episodes is "inscrutable." I think that's just Mercer's nature as well, and his love for protocol allows for him to not really have to show a lot of what he's thinking or feeling.

There's a moment I found really interesting where Ezekiel calls Mercer a power-tripping beat cop and then starts coughing. Mercer asks, "Thirsty?," and then waits a few more beats before sliding that water over. Are these gestures of kindness, or an F.U., or something in between?

That's one of the moments where you see the top pop a little bit, because he takes offense to Ezekiel calling him a beat cop, or questioning his morality in a sense. We're tough at the Commonwealth, but I don't think we're here to hurt you. We just want to assist and make sure the people we're allowing into our civilization are going to be fruitful members of the community, and also assess what liabilities we're taking on as we're bringing them in.

When Ezekiel uses the word "fascist," Mercer believes in the Commonwealth and all that it stands for, and it's not that. I think that is the core of why he pops the top a little bit. Even though he's offended by the remark, I'm still not there to hurt or harm. I got the information that I needed to know: He's sick. We take a note of that, and we're going to file him through to medical for testing. That's all we're there for, so me offering him the water is like, "Dude, calm down. It's not that deep. Yeah, you guys feel threatened, but we're protecting ourselves, and we also need to know who you are. That's all."

What about when he says "I went to West Point, a--hole" at the end of the second episode? What should we make of that? Are these two still butting heads, or is that all in good fun?

I enjoyed the fact that we had a little tit-for-tat. It's like, "We let you in, motherf---er, but I'll have you know that I ain't no fascist, I'm an elite motherf---er. Welcome to the Commonwealth." It's reestablishing who's in charge still.

The Walking Dead
Josh McDermitt and Michael James Shaw on 'The Walking Dead'
| Credit: Josh Stringer/AMC

Let's talk about the Mercer and Eugene interrogation scene in which Mercer gives him this big speech and warns him not to lie. Tell me what filming that was like and how you wanted to play it.

For me, it was about the whole entire sequence of events observing the interviews. In that process Mercer realizes, "Oh, this guy's an over-sharer. This is our target. This is how we're going to figure out where these people come from for real." So I don't think it was by happenstance that they chose to interview him. Also, he was in love with Stephanie (Margot Bingham), and I thought that was interesting. I was curious as to what information he found out about our civilization from the conversations with her, and why he was so enthralled to meet her. I was wondering if it was possibly a ploy. I was trying to make sure there was no threat to the Commonwealth.

I was talking to Josh McDermitt, and obviously it's a big scene for him — he's got a big speech to give with a lot to memorize and a lot of emotions to convey. He told me he was really nervous about it and that you gave him a fist bump right before shooting. When you did that, that sort of locked him in and made him relax, and he was ready to go.

Well, tit for tat. I gave him that fist bump, and I was super nervous too. This is the first moment where I'm on the screen, and there's nothing else to distract you. I have a scene with one of the best actors on the show. Josh is really amazing to work with because we sat down at that table, and when both actors take that leap, willing suspension of disbelief, it was like the entire warehouse was zeroing in on that room. The energy was right there.

Right after the rehearsal, I stepped out for a cigarette, and he joined me, and we had a little conversation about music that was so totally outside of what was happening. That was another thing that was like, "Oh, wow, this guy is cool. It feels like he's got my back, so let's go and just allow for some fun to happen."

What can you say about what we can expect from Mercer moving forward?

I think we started to peel him open, like an onion almost. There are a lot of sides to this guy besides politician. There's the sergeant, the general, the brother, the lover, and a lot of those get to be explored in future episodes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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