The Walking Dead: Michael Cudlitz interview

We chat to The Walking Dead's Michael Cudlitz, about Sgt Abraham Ford's lovelife, intensity, facial hair and more...

Michael Cudlitz, it transpires, has been a very, very busy man. A quick check of his IMDb page reveals over one hundred credits in film and TV, but what really surprises are the appearances you spot with the sudden dawning realisation that The Walking Dead’s Abraham, in all his militaristic and gloriously moustached manner is the same actor who once played an undead jock in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode The Zeppo, or rubbed up against John Cusack as the former big man on campus turned drunken poet in the superb Grosse Pointe Blank.

More of Cudlitz’s work was mentioned in the roundtable interview below, which took place during London’s inaugural Walker Stalker convention, and began with an apology that some of the assembled journalists were drinking beer. Cudlitz’s response? Appropriately for a man so well-versed in playing badasses: “If y’all had any balls you’d have whisky!” When the first question began with “I just wanted to start by saying that you’re…” he immediately interjected “handsome and extremely talented? Thank you so much! What a way to start, I love you!” putting the room in hysterics. After that we got down to more serious fare, but not for long…

Your list of TV credits are really extensive, how does The Walking Dead differ to anything you’ve done before?

In so many ways, so far as the outward perception – when you’re doing the work, the work is the work and sometimes it’s better than others and everyone hopes for good material, because it starts with the script – but just as much hard work goes into making something shitty as it does something amazing. What you do not have any control over is what happens once you do it, and this is at a whole other level.

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I’m very fortunate to have been involved in some really well done projects, Band Of Brothers, Southland, critically acclaimed stuff I’m very, very proud of and had very intense fan bases and a lot of response from the media and the fans. But this level of intensity from mature people – it’s not like a Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills 90210 where it’s all these screaming girls who are out of control – these are adults, these are families. I’ve had grown women break down in tears when they see these characters, or meet these people. So the way that they connect with the show has been fantastic and something I can’t even wrap my head around.

My character was introduced in Comic-Con in New York two and a half years ago and I thought I knew, because I saw what the guys were going through when I was on set, what the fan response was. There’s a shot of me floating around the internet where I walked up on stage after I’d been announced and there was so much noise coming from the crowd that I felt like I had to acknowledge it, so I raised my hand and it threefold increased. If you zoom in on my face on that photo, it’s fucking terror! It’s like holy shit. And there’s no masking that, it was literally this wall of sound and this wall of support coming from those people that was just amazing.

I’ve always been fascinated by fandom and what draws people to any form of show – for me the transition to The Walking Dead was easy, because I’ve been a lifelong horror fan, but the mass appeal of the TWD seems to be because of the characters and that’s what people connect with. The zombies and the apocalypse happen around them, but it’s the characters that people really latch on to.

Absolutely. It all comes down to story, it all comes down to character, when you really get to the nuts and bolts of it. When you see shows that are very large and very successful, when they start to fall apart is when they start to lose character stuff, like the whole jumping the shark thing. That’s why I’ve always appreciated that in Europe they’ll do a series and if the show does really well there’s no plan to do another one, until they know if it’s done well – these six, eight, ten that they’ve done – and if it does well it’s like ‘well maybe in two or three years we can get the cast back together and do another series.

Because they have something to say, it’s not just about – sometimes in the States it’s this machine that’s doing twenty-two episodes – we don’t do twenty-two, we do less episodes. They know the stories they want to tell, they’re not making stuff up and when a character’s story has been told… they get killed. Which is a great, it’s a great way to cycle through and bring in new characters, with new perspectives and new stories. So the show is constantly renewing itself and staying fresh. As much as we hate to see these characters go, we love to see the new characters come in, so I think the show has a lot of years left in it, there’s still a lot of stories to tell.

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Moving on to season six, is there love in the air with Sasha?

There’s always love in the air. Like [Robert] Kirkman has said even two months ago that he plans in the comic to kill the Rick character – he said Rick won’t make it through to the end of the comics… probably. I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s a way to make everybody fear that Rick might die at one time. The audience thinks it’s smart and that ‘oh they’ll never kill that character’ and they constantly go ‘Nope [evil chuckle] – bye bye Hershel!’ What the hell did the old man with one leg do! He’s the voice of reason! [everyone laughs]. That’s one of the things that Kirkman has said, that Gimple has said – you need to be constantly reminded as an audience member that it’s a dangerous world, because you get complacent and you think you know these characters and that’s when the rug gets pulled from underneath you.

And what about Sasha – is there love in the air?

There’s always love in the air – right? [he says raising his eyebrows towards the female writer who asked, making the room erupt again.]

Abraham’s made his feelings known, but do you think it’s reciprocated?

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Well yeah, she didn’t tell him to go pound sand or anything. She said ‘you’ve got some shit to deal with’, he said ‘yeah I do’. Maybe we go back and deal with the shit, maybe we move forward.

How is his relationship different with Sasha than it is with Rosita?

I don’t know if we know that yet. I think that’s one of the things we’re going to find out and hopefully enjoy watching. Why would he choose to leave a strong, sexy, beautiful woman? Or choose one over the other? Or does he have to choose one over the other?

The worry is that their relationship seems founded from being on a knife’s edge…

Yeah but I think that it was clear that he came back from that edge, as in the episode where he’s out in the bridge with the walker – he could’ve shot the walker in the head and stolen the RPG, but he chose to put his weapon down and go out there and face death, but he also disengaged from that and think ‘what the fuck am I doing? This isn’t worth it.’ And realises he has a future, like he says to Sasha at the end of that episode – we have walls, air conditioning, beer, there’s potentially a tomorrow and there’s never been a tomorrow in his mind.

Downtime for him has always been bad, downtime has always been time to think and for a soldier to have downtime and think is not a good thing, you want to constantly move forward and have something to move forward for. And now I think he’s realising that there are other things outside of himself that are worth living for and dying for, but dying in the right way.

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Photo credit: Jack Bloss

Abraham is pretty intense. How do you cope with that after the scene is done?

For whatever reason, that’s a part of me that is extremely accessible. I can very easily and very, very quickly tune in and tune out of, and it’s fun. I can’t really explain it but that’s what I do. I’m drawn that way!

Is the moustache going to survive to the end of the season?

I have a theory on that and on the way Kirkman draws his characters, as everything in the graphic novel is grayscale. He makes it very clear so you know who you’re looking at when you move from panel to panel. You know Michonne with the dreads, even with Daryl where he was brought in after he has a very iconic look because every scene you’d see someone with a crossbow and Rick has a very certain look.

So you move from panel to panel and you know exactly in your head – that’s Abraham, that’s so and so. So that’s why is hair is always pretty much perfect all the time. And if you ask how does his hair stay so perfect, I’m like “because he’s fucking Abraham Ford!” and that’s our reality that we’re working in, those are the rules that we set and you sign on and go ‘yeah, that’s perfect I don’t have to think about it anymore.’ So yeah, this [gestures to moustache] is staying.

I think [the moustache] should be epic and you should look at him and – that’s how he chooses to present himself to people and I think in the comics you see this guy and think ‘oh shit’ and you’re gonna think twice before you do anything and I think it’s a tool, it’s a weapon just as much as everything else – it’s the thing you first see and it’s something he uses to intimidate.

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The Walking Dead airs on Mondays at 9pm on FOX.