An Interview with The Walking Dead’s Michael Cudlitz

walking-deadThe question, “Who shot JR?” still resonates in American culture – the cliffhanger was a summer obsession for a generation of Americans. But not too many people remember the answer (sister-in-law Kristin Shepard). “Walking Dead” fans have been held in a similarly painful speculative limbo by Negan’s murder of someone out of 11 favorite characters left kneeling before his barb-wire clad baseball named Lucille. For these fans, however, the episode-long, gut wrenching, tear-inducing reveal provided answers none will soon forget. Spoilers ahead!

The previous season, in case you need a reminder, came to a close with new arch-villain Negan promising to kill one of our intrepid collection of heroes and anti-heroes, to show them their place in his new world order. A man of his word, he took that bat to the head of … until last weekend’s season premier, you could place your bet in Vegas.

The reveal was a grueling episode in which Negan doggedly tried to break group leader Rick, and convert him to a loyal – or at least, resigned and frightened — follower. This included several flavors of psychological and physical torture, not least of which was the batting of not one but – surprise – two members of the team. We had a chance to catch up with Michael Cudlitz between tapings of a morning show and Conan O’Brien, in anticipation of his visit to RI Comic Con this year. Cudlitz portrayed Abraham Ford, the tough army Sergeant who was Negan’s first, cliff-hanger answering victim. The second victim was papa-to-be Glenn, another fan favorite, played by Stephen Yeun.

Motif: What did you know and when did you know it?

Michael Cudlitz: We knew as soon as they broke it – they talked with us about. So Stephen and I knew what was going to happen about a year and four months ago.

Motif: Wow. Was that a hard secret to keep?

MC: It wasn’t hard. You just don’t talk about it at all. Once you know you have this information people want from you, you don’t dance around with it, you just shut down all discussion of it. In some ways, it’s actually weirder now that I can talk about.

Motif: Were you surprised?

MC: If you watch the show – and I was a fan before I was on it – you know the average life expectancy. If you think a certain character or your character is not going to die, you’re kind of a moron. I knew for a number of reasons that Abraham’s time was coming.

Motif: My money was on either Glenn or you, largely because you were both in happy relationships, and those don’t seem to last long on “Walking Dead.”

MC: [Laughs] Well I don’t think there’s a deliberate message there that these characters don’t get to be happy, or get punished for it. I do think sometimes a character’s story is told, and it’s time to make way for new stories. Abraham came a long way, and he was really in a good place. I feel like his story was told.

Motif: So, what’s Jeffry Dean Morgan like? Will you have flashbacks seeing him at Comic Con?

MC: Not at all, he’s awesome. He’s an amazing actor, but, like actors like Donald Sutherland, he brings all the weight of his previous performances to the role too. I think that gravity contributed to him being such a powerful antagonist – but also such a charismatic one. He’s really a likeable villain, in spite of everything.

Motif: Couldn’t Abraham have taken Negan?

MC: Well, in a fair fight I think so, but in this situation… Abraham knew guys like this. He understood how this guy [Negan] thought, and he knew that if he did anything like what Daryl did [fighting back], that it would just be worse for the group.

Motif: So he was taking one for the team.

MC: Absolutely, he wanted to protect his family – the people he loved. He wanted Negan to choose him. But he knew, if he said, “Choose me,” it wouldn’t happen. So he was trying to find ways to get under Negan’s skin really without being obvious.

Motif: I’ve seen you quoted as saying, “As an actor, you try to put a little of yourself in everything you do…” What of yourself is in Abraham?

MC: Abraham has a lot in common with me, and I think with qualities I wish I had, or would like to have more of. He’s direct, he’s chivalrous. He has an anchoring quality – sort of grounds and solidifies situations, which people tell me I have.

Motif: Favorite Abraham moment?

MC: Saying good-bye to Rosita was a really powerful moment. We knew as actors that they wouldn’t see each other again, but our characters didn’t know. And of course Abe said all the wrong things, in all the worst ways. But it was touching for us, and it was great to work with Christian [Serratos, who plays Rosita Espinosa] – she’s new and really an amazing talent who’s going to do some great things. I’m very proud to have worked with her.

And saying good bye to Josh [McDermitt, who plays Eugene Potter]. That was poignant – we really had bonded as friends and characters.

Motif: What did you drink to commemorate your last day?

MC: Well, it was a night shoot, which we finished at about 7am, so I just went home and slept really well. But in general, I like to have a quiet moment with a good cigar and some whisky or tequila. That’s how I like to kick back, and for people who don’t like it, well … fuck ‘em.

Motif: There’s a phenomenon going on with the walking dead. Nailbiting cliffhangers aside, what do you think is behind its appeal?

MC: I don’t know. It’s a really different show now from what it started as, and the character journeys are certainly part of it. And I know a lot of people are intrigued by an apocalypse – not necessarily a zombie apocalypse – but that’s a thing people are thinking about. But really I think it’s just lightning in a bottle. Anybody who claims to know the secret is nuts. Every 6 or 7 years, something comes along that just hits it, all the factors combine and you get magic.

Motif: Is it weird hearing Andrew Lincoln’s accent in real life [the Australian actor portrays American sheriff Rick Grimes]?

MC: No. It’s what we do. We all speak differently from our characters. He’s a good man and a great guy to work with.

Motif: Ever hang out with the zombies?

MC: We don’t really get to hang out with them, because they’re always being well protected from the elements. They have some really dedicated repeat walkers and dedicated zombie artists, and we couldn’t do it without them. But they have so much make up and prostheses, they have to be very carefully maintained between shots.

Motif: What are you watching right now?

MC: Well, right now I’ve been kind of busy, but recently I’ve been catching up on “Game of Thrones.” “Westworld” – that’s a slow build but I really like what they’re doing with it, and I hope they don’t screw that up. As a guilty pleasure, “Lucifer.” And “Mr. Robot.”

Motif: Have you been to Rhode island before?

MC: I have – I had a great time! I was visiting the Luz family – George Luz was on Band of Brothers with me. I remember you have this diner that’s inside sort of an RV and serves these burgers…

Motif: Haven Brothers?

MC: Yes – definitely gotta hit that place again!

Motif: What’s next for you professionally?

MC: I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. Part of keeping this secret was that Stephen [Yeun = Glenn] and I couldn’t really be out there looking for work. We just had to sit tight.

Motif: Well, we look forward to seeing you at RI Comic Con, or maybe at Haven Brothers.

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