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Walking Dead Star Khary Payton Talks Splinter Episode, The Commonwealth, And Who He'd Cast - Exclusive Interview

Actor Khary Payton's resume includes a massive amount of voice work — Teen Titans, Justice League, and Transformers: Robots in Disguise are a few of the animated roles he's tackled with his well-honed vocal talents. He's no stranger to live-action work, however: Prior to joining the cast of The Walking Dead, he also played Dr. Terrell Jackson on the long-running daytime serial General Hospital.

In The Walking Dead, Payton plays Ezekiel — or King Ezekiel, as he is sometimes known. He's a formidable character with a big personality who heads up the community called the Kingdom. Prior to the zombie apocalypse, he was a zookeeper, and he was able to bring a component of his former life into the post-apocalyptic landscape when he returned to the zoo where he had worked to retrieve Shiva, a tiger with whom he shared a unique bond. Along with other survivors, Ezekiel uses his smarts and skills to keep himself and his community safe as they try to avoid the undead who want to eat them and the hostile communities that pose a threat to his group.

Looper recently conversed with the actor. In that conversation, we took a hard look at the recent episode "Splinter," which puts the spotlight on Princess (Paola Lazaro) Ezekiel in a challenging setting at the hands of newly introduced Commonwealth, a community whose motives are not yet known. He also talked about COVID's effect on shooting the series, the feelings involved with Shiva's fate, and who he'd love to see added to TWD's talent pool.

The Walking Dead takes a deep dive into Princess's mind

Let's dive into the recent episode "Splinter," which focuses on what Princess is going through as she's being held by the Commonwealth.

Oh gosh. The most challenging thing, I think was, just on top of telling the story, you have this specter of COVID and we're doing this different strategy of shooting in which we're trying to work with each other and yet stay away from each other as much as possible. So the filmmaking process is an incredibly intimate thing, you're draped on top of each other and it's one of the reasons that a film crew becomes incredibly close. It can be incredibly harrowing and anxiety-ridden when you're working that many hours and on top of each other, but the thing is that there's a familial aspect to that. It becomes comforting knowing that you're in it with each other together and it's very touchy-feely, and so the touchy-feely nature of it all had to go away.

That's a tough adjustment to make.

I see these friends of mine who I've known and loved for years and just want to show that love that you always do, and you can't do that. To me, that was the biggest part of making of the episode, that for me was the most difficult part, is having to be, just like all of us have been over the last year, is having to deal with the fact that you can't be really close with the people that you're close to. Fortunately, I got to hug Paola (Lázaro), who stars as Princess. I haven't hugged somebody outside of my kids and my immediate family for so long, and I got to at least give Paola a hug when Ezekiel and Princess saw each other again. I feel lucky that way.

It is such a poignant episode for Princess. What do you think "Splinter" gives the fans?

Well, I think that if you take Princess' story and realize the trauma and the loneliness and the kind of PTSD that she's dealing with, because of COVID, we've all felt that sort of loneliness. Some of us have been literally locked away in our own little box for months now, trying to just figure things out and obviously Princess is dealing with a whole lot more than that from even before she was locked in that box. But I think one of the things about The Walking Dead that people gravitate to is that the characters are people in a dire situation who are making the best of what they've been given, and that's the crux of the show. And I think this is just another example of that, and it doesn't hurt that Princess has an incredibly infectious personality and she's got that beautiful jacket on, it makes her just that much more bright and bubbly.

Payton offers his thoughts on the Commonwealth

The scenes between you two in this episode have an intensity. Did you do anything new to tap into those parts of Ezekiel?

Yeah. I think I'm given a lot of new ways to tap into the character all the time with what the writers give me. But particularly with this one because I'm not tapping into Ezekiel so much as I'm tapping into Princess, you know? I'm just a figment of her imagination, and technically she's only known Ezekiel for a little while, so really I played this episode as if I were an amalgamation of two or three different people from Princess' childhood and growing up and early adulthood. And nobody told me to do that, I just made it up because it seemed appropriate to me that Ezekiel probably reminded her of people in her life and she built a personality out of those experiences that is comforting and protective.

Recently, we saw Ezekiel and crew held up at gunpoint on the way to meet Eugene's new contact. That was the introduction to the Commonwealth. What can you say about what we can expect from this new community?

Well, when you're talking about The Walking Dead and you're meeting a new community, there's going to be a little bit of good and a little bit of bad. Now the percentages of either, I don't know how that will go. I don't know if it's going to be like with the Governor's people where it seems like it's rosy on one side, or if it's going to be like the Saviors where all the roses have pretty much died. But I think the thing about the Commonwealth is that it's a bit of a mystery right now. And there's hope for some good in there, but it just wouldn't be The Walking Dead if it was all roses and lilies, would it?

A man and his tiger have a deep bond

It certainly would not. The show has such a great cast of enormously talented actors. Is there anybody that you would love to see cast on the show, in any role?

Oh my gosh. Who would I want on the show? Yeah I mean there's so many people, but you know who just popped into my head? Patrick Stewart. I think he would give you a different flavor. I don't know why, maybe it's because I just saw a video of him getting his COVID vaccine and he was just being very happy and grateful and humble and awesome — as he is. And I've loved Patrick Stewart forever. I mean, he's the captain and he's the professor. You don't get much better than that.

I could see it. In the comics, Ezekiel died at the hands of the Whisperers. Were you anticipating that your character would die in the same way? I'm guessing you were probably relieved that the TV version has given Ezekiel more story to live.

Yeah, I was really happy that I was able to stick around. It was also a luxury because I knew that Ezekiel was going to be around at least long enough to see what happens when Shiva dies, because you got to see what happens to his character after that traumatic event in the comic books. And then after Shiva died, I was like, well, it's anybody's guess, I could stick around, I could get my head cut off, I could trip over a rock and get bitten on the ankle, anything's possible. But at least I got to explore the character and I got used to the idea that when it's your time to go, you just take a deep breath, you be thankful for the time that you've had on the show, and you let it go. I feel like anytime that I've got now is just a blessing, and I'm excited to see where Ezekiel goes. I really do love the character. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the on-camera entertainment world then Ezekiel — I really feel like I got lucky in that sense. I'm happy to ride him out as long as they'll let me.

About the death of Shiva, it was very heartbreaking. Did you feel it as hard internally as the fans did?

Oh yeah. I definitely did, because not only Shiva died, but most of the Kingdom died in that same episode. And so, for me, she was the embodiment of the Kingdom and me, and as much as it was sad to see her go in the moment, I felt all of that sadness was from seeing all of those actors that I'd worked with and all of those friends that I wouldn't get to see every day. It was a very big deal to me on a lot of levels.

"Splinter" exemplifies the potent relationships formed on the show. It creates excitement for what's coming next.

I'm so glad to hear that. I really think that this was an incredibly well-written episode, and I think it was a different kind of take than we've seen before.