"It changes your body."

As you will learn in the first season 11 episodes of The Walking Dead (which kick off Aug. 22 on AMC) Michael James Shaw's Mercer can be a man of few words when he wants to be. As the towering head of the Commonwealth army, Mercer is able to intimidate through silence, with part of that intimidation coming courtesy of his super-rad red armor suit.

We decided to turn the tables of the Commonwealth interrogator and ask him a few questions about how he landed the plum role, his big takeaway from the original source material, and what it was like the first time he suited up.

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

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, I hear you're quite the musician.

MICHAEL JAMES SHAW: Right now, I'm focused on writing. I started in the fall taking production classes, so I've been adding Logic to my arsenal. In my downtime, up here in Georgia, I've been writing an album of sorts. It's pop, R&B, hip-hop, and a little bit of folk music in there too. It's just all the things that inspire me, all infiltrated into my sound.

So tell me about the audition process that went into landing this role.

I got the e-mail from my agents on the Friday of Thanksgiving 2020. I was debating whether I was going to visit my family in the midst of COVID, but I decided to stay in L.A., and I spent the weekend fellowshipping with that script. A friend came over on Sunday to help stage it. And that was that, man. Sent it off, and maybe a couple of weeks later I was hiking in Runyon Canyon out in L.A., and I get a call from my managers saying that [casting director] Sharon Bialy wants to talk to me. This is at the top of the Runyon hike. So I'm up there, shirtless and sweaty, and I'm like, "Sure, let's do a FaceTime right now."

So, I hiked down through it, and me and Sharon chatted for a bit. Then after that, they told me that [showrunner] Angela King wanted to talk to me. So, a few days later I talked to Angela. We had a Skype call one morning. Because I love records, I started a record collection in L.A., so I was jamming out to some Earth, Wind & Fire when she called. It was good vibes all the way through.

How familiar were you with the show and the comic book?

At first, I wasn't familiar with the comic book at all, but I had watched the show prior. I had a couple of friends who have passed through the Walking Dead family — Chad Coleman and Corey Hawkins. Chad and I shot Roots for History Channel together in New Orleans. When he was on the show, I was watching heavily. I watched up to season 5, and then I kind of trailed off. Then when I got the job, I started with season 1 and watched it all [the way] through, and got the fourth appendix for the comic book, and started digging into that. When I auditioned, I didn't know what the character's name was. I just knew what he was going through in those scenes; I didn't know it was Mercer.

So once you get the job, I assume they told you who you were playing. Were you then tearing through the comic books to see what this guy was about? And what did you take from reading those comics?

There were a couple of moments that stuck out to me and helped me create the character more, like when he's talking to Rick about the differences between their civilizations, and it goes back into his history. He was like, "Before this happened, I was bored." It gave him a purpose again. I think he's a man who loves protocol, and relies on it heavily, and respects it, sometimes to his detriment. That was a moment where, I don't know, I just saw him.

What was your first day on set like, beyond having to observe all the COVID protocols? What was that experience like for you?

It was surreal. Funny story: When I was getting ready to move out, some craziness happened. I was flying out two days later to come to Atlanta, and packed up my entire apartment. I was planning on sleeping on an air mattress for like a day or two. My COVID test came back positive, so I had to spend 10 days in an empty apartment prior to moving out here. It was a nice moment though — nice to recalibrate as I started this new journey. It was a mild case of COVID, thank God. I bought a couple of kettlebells and some dip bars, and carved out some workouts for myself. It was a bootcamp for my physical and mental right before I came here.

So it led to a really good first week on set. It's rare that you step onto a set and everyone has a positive outlook. There's just a lot of love and respect for the craft from top to bottom. It's super rare to find that energy on a set, and I'm thankful I'm able to be a part of it.

What was it like getting to put the red armor on?

I had a fitting in L.A. I tried on the white costume first, and I was like, "Okay, I guess I'm part of the Federation now." [Laughs] But no, dude, it was kind of surreal. It changes your body. It changes your posture. I've grown to love the suit. There's actually two versions of it. There's a soft shell and a hard shell, and I never want to wear the soft shell because it just doesn't feel the same. It doesn't feel as tough. Mr. Sherbet, he's become a dear friend of mine. That's what I call the suit: Mr. Sherbet.

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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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