Warning: contains spoilers for anyone not up to date
It’s not often you get a chance to speak to royalty. The first appearance of The Walking Dead‘s very own King Ezekiel, Khary Payton, marked a turning point, not just in terms of opening up the world that Rick and company inhabited, but from a visual standpoint too. It embraced the comics’ aesthetic and the outlandish concept of a ruling monarchs with a pet tiger. Outlandish, but also fantastic.
That Ezekiel has worked so well on the small screen is down to Khary Payton’s pitch perfect performance, making him at once majestic, grounded and tragic. The character’s dichotomy has made him a compelling addition, with season eight finally breaking his kingly façade after a slew of heart breaking losses. By contrast our phone interview found Mr. Payton in fine spirits and full of enthusiasm – when I disclaimed that it was the middle of the day in my office, with the possibility of background noise, he exclaimed “I’m all about the background noise man, let’s make it a party!” and with that we were off…
I love Ezekiel and the way that you’ve brought the character to life. It was making me laugh that for this interview there was a part of me that wanted to refer to you as “Majesty”!
You know, it’s very funny because being cast as Ezekiel, I have so many friends of mine who just won’t stop doing that. It’s not just people who are fans or whatever, it’s literally like my boys would be “My King! What’s up?” and I was like “Dude! Why are you calling me that!?” I think it’s fun for people to have an excuse to have a friend – who you don’t hate! [laughs] – that you can have this kind of nickname for, because I get it so much. A friend of mine that I’ve been working with for, I don’t know, twenty years or something and at this point it’s always “My King” and he’s kind of eccentric anyway, but now that he can call me ‘King’ I can’t get him to call me Khary ever again. He’s just like “My King! Hey, wassup my King!”
That’s awesome, because I did wonder if people would take advantage of that situation!
I guess it links itself to the whole idea of why Ezekiel did it in the first place, you know? People enjoy it. Anytime you get to have a kinship with royalty, whether it’s real or imagined, I guess is a fun thing.
People just look for it, as they want to feel like there’s some type of guidance and leadership, especially in the world of The Walking Dead.
Exactly. And, at the end of the day, royalty is a man-made construct, you know? There’s some royal lines that have been around for thousands of years, but it had to start somewhere! So I guess this royalty literally starts with Ezekiel, there you go.
I think the thing I love most about the character is that there is such a duality to him and what’s so tragic is that his ‘real’ self, as it was before the apocalypse, remains hidden for the majority of the time. What kind of challenge does that present to you, in terms of how to balance the two sides of him in your performance?
Well, I feel like there’s a hidden side to him, but there’s also – you know what they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention” and this thing comes out because of a necessity. The funny thing is that sometimes I try to relax the way Ezekiel’s talking, but I can’t because I’ve been doing it too long this way, you know? When I start to do Ezekiel, it just becomes a part of my cadence and I feel like that’s kind of what happened with Ezekiel, is that every once in a while he will drop it, but he has to make a concerted effort to stop because he’s been doing it this way for so long, it’s not just this thing that he puts on, it’s this thing that he’s put on so long ago that’s become a part of him.
Kind of like if you were to move to another part of the world, like I hear people who grew up in Britain and then they move to the States and then they move back and everybody says “Well, you don’t talk quite like either one, you’ve got this way of talking that’s entirely your own” and they slip into it and they can’t really slip out. I feel like that’s where Ezekiel is now.
That makes a lot of sense, like a new reality where you would lose your old self almost entirely. I always think of that early encounter with Carol, where the two of them were sat together and it was one of those rare moments where he did soften properly for a moment.
Yeah, yeah. I think it takes a certain amount of relaxation for him to do that. That he has to consciously take the ropes off. It’s not just something that he can just snap out of. It is such a mechanism for him, a survival mechanism and especially a survival mechanism is not something you can just switch off so easily.
Season eight was a really great one for Ezekiel, because he went through such extreme highs and lows. Was it a thrill to have the character hit rock bottom and to play that out?
Yeah, it was an incredible experience and I really am thankful that [Robert] Kirkman wrote that storyline into the comics and that we translated it. I think honestly my favourite episode that I’ve done is probably episode four, Some Guy, and although it was a gut-wrenching episode and it was a couple of weeks of shooting, it was also one of the most gratifying and one of my proudest moments just as far as my acting career is concerned, because he did go from this high to such a low.
He has that speech at the beginning of the episode and is immediately crushed back down to earth and to be able to play all those highs and lows all in one episode and to be able to take a show like The Walking Dead, where it’s such a phenomenon and to be given an episode where they kind of just put it on your shoulders and ask you to run with it, was an amazing experience and amazing feeling. And although we lost Shiva, and Ezekiel lost so much of himself and his people, it was also like an incredibly wonderful artistic experience.
Ezekiel and Shiva were one of my favourite dynamics on the show, so it must have been really surreal to mourn a character that was never really there as an actor, because for me as a viewer the tiger is real and I’m invested.
Yeah, it’s funny, to me the more dramatic thing was losing most of The Kingdom warriors on the show, that was the thing that impacted me most of all, but I’ve always thought of Shiva as kind of the embodiment of what The Kingdom is, she’s this magnificent creature, maybe one of the last of her kind and she’s this brilliantly coloured, beautiful thing that’s left in this apocalypse surrounded by death and I feel like The Kingdom itself was kind of the same thing.
So, when I lost all of the people, that was my losing Shiva, so when I saw Shiva being devoured by the zombies it was seeing all of those people that I’ve been working with for like a year and I’m not going to be working with them anymore, they’re all dead and they’re gone! So it really impacted me because even the extras, the people who don’t actually say anything in The Kingdom, they all really brought their A-games every time we worked together and I always appreciated their commitment to telling the story in their own ways and giving me whatever I needed, whenever I looked them in the eye. So Shiva dying really was about The Kingdom dying for me.
Having spoken to a lot of your fellow cast members throughout the years I’ll often ask “What about this loss, or that loss?” and it’s normally about one character, but you lost almost everyone in one hit.
It was pretty gut-wrenching – there was a shot of me coming into The Kingdom after it was all over and seeing the remanence there and the first time I walked through I just bawled, like it was an ugly cry, it was way too much. But I think it was because I was seeing the faces of mothers and fathers and I was coming to tell them that they had lost their families and it was like “Woah, this is heavy”. And personally, I just loved The Kingdom as a construct on The Walking Dead, I think if you had to have a place where you’re going to live, people would come knocking on The Kingdom’s door, if people were trying to enjoy their life, not just survive it.
Yeah, definitely. Well I think we’ve run out of time.
Sure, sure, I talk a lot man!
No, it’s great, that’s nothing worse than the opposite! I’m fingers crossed for Ezekiel in season nine and while you probably can’t say anything about it, I’m hopeful for him.
I’m so excited that we are so close to finally getting this season off the ground, because I think everybody is going to be blown away, the premiere is going to hit and I think everybody is going to be like ‘Wow, that’s something wild that’s brewing.’ I can’t wait for everybody to see it!
Awesome. Well thank you so much for your time.
No problem, man. Take care now.
The Walking Dead the complete eighth season is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from 24th September 2018, courtesy of Entertainment One.