Every bit a commanding presence on AMC's The Walking Dead as the gentle giant Tyreese Williams, or the charismatic combat veteran Colonel Fred Johnson on Syfy's (Syfy Wire's corporate owner -Ed.) The Expanse, actor Chad L. Coleman was an alluring draw for fans at Portland's Rose City Comic Con last fall.
Much trimmer than his days dispatching zombies on The Walking Dead and greeting admirers with a genuine warmth, calm intensity and sincere appreciation, Coleman is enjoying the accolades of the last seven years of hard work and relishing the accompanying recognition of a rising star whose future is brilliantly lit. From his searing role as Cutty in HBO's The Wire to landing the beefy role as the Butcher of Anderson Station on the sci-fi saga The Expanse, this New York-based celebrity looks back on his inspirations as a young actor, his Walking Dead death scene, the walker that freaked him out most and the protomolecule's progression on Syfy's engaging military space opera.
The Expanse has been a smash success on Syfy, and there’s huge momentum building into Season 2 premiering in January. What do you attribute its overwhelming fan appeal to?
First of all, it’s the source material. These guys are wonderful writers and they have a sense about everything that was lacking in the sci-fi world, shows that came before, even really good shows, and they found a way to make this thing even more expansive. With the representations of the different cultures and types of people, it’s very international. So I love that about it. Honestly, they had five best-selling novels and the subject matter, how they go about it and the vast number of representations, from the politics to the real “out-there” sci-fi notions, everything is grounded in reality through NASA and they verify the authenticity. I’m just hoping that they’re putting the money behind the marketing because I really think the show should have an even greater audience. I really do. It’s an amazing show! And I appreciate the fact that they took their time. That’s how I liken it to The Wire. They never tried to make it fast food TV. It’s like… “We’re gonna earn this and we’re gonna engage our audience. We’ve got an intricate layered story to tell and we’re not going to spoon feed it to you.” It’s such a refined way of telling stories. But I will tell you, the second season has put on the gas. (laughs) It’s going to be amazing.
What direction did The Expanse writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham give you for your portrayal of Colonel Fred Johnson?
Well I came to them with the idea that Fred Johnson was very much like Colin Powell to me, except he didn’t tuck tail and run. So once I said that, they knew that I was on the right track. I was pretty much clear and spot on about who the guy is and they were like “yeah, yeah,” they were just excited.
How did your time in the Army help prepare you for your roles in The Walking Dead and The Expanse?
Not really for Walking Dead, because he couldn’t even fire a weapon. That’s the beauty of Tyreese. Tyreese is like an anti-hero, an everyday man, and there’s no superhero-ness to him. He’s very human and that humanity sits up front so when viewers experience it, they think, “yeah, that’s how I would be, I’m scared as hell, I don’t care what my size is and I’m afraid and I don’t want to kill people.” And I think the average person would have that kind of response and then have to push through and find a way to make it happen. The military, in terms of a commander, I was around a lot of high-powered officers so that was great. I met General Wesley Clark when he was the signal corp commander and I was a video cameraman. So being in the presence of that kind of leadership, that’s what Fred possesses. And my own leadership skills, even though it was a squad, I had to take care of people and could draw from that.
Without spoiling anything, what can viewers expect with The Butcher of Anderson Station in the new season?
What I love about Fred most of all is that you don’t know for sure where he’s coming from. And they really go with that so it’s really fun to see this man turn it up a notch and they’ve got me doing some amazing stuff. I get a chance to really work with the cast, Steven Strait and Thomas Jane. They’re great. The whole thing is getting amped up. It’s intense and it’s action packed and you still have to put the pieces together and it’s everything that was in Season 1, times two!
The character of Tyreese Williams in The Walking Dead was a similar ethical pillar of strength like Scott Wilson’s Hershel Greene. What aspects of your upbringing and life experiences allowed you to project those qualities and ground your performance?
And Dale too, on a little more radical level. But my foster parents very much gave me that kind of core and fiber that Tyreese was all about, and we intimated that his father had poured that into him. So I’d say my foster mother and foster father and my older brother, Donald, the minister. These people, from a personal aspect, made it easier for me to completely identify with who Tyreese is. I aspire to be Tyreese in my own life. I grew up in a community where it was important to take care of the person next door. It was important to be kind and violence was not something that was applauded or celebrated. It was frowned upon. That’s your last resort. Know how to talk to people and try to build bridges and not walls. All of that I’m sure was already in my psyche. A person of size usually tries to push their weight around and he was not that kind of person. Gentle Giant is kind of a cliché, but he was in a lot of ways.
What was your introduction to sci-fi movies and TV shows, comics and cartoons growing up?
Ah, I love that question. Now first of all, Saturday morning cartoons! You know, Bugs Bunny, that was iconic for us. Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote, that’s how it started. Comic books were a part of my world for sure. My brother had them so I was always interested and excited about that. I was very much into Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, I used to draw Iron Man growing up and Spider-Man, Superman, so they were all in the wheelhouse. When I went back to reflect on it, I was a little dude growing up, I didn’t have size, so I was drawn to Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, the big dudes that could smash. I now, in retrospect, realize why that was, which is great. I think that’s one thing about comics, the idea that the creators don’t get enough credit for helping people work through those awkward years of their lives. Something to hold on to and identify with that gives you strength, because bullying was huge. I grew up with Star Trek and saw it of course and I watched Lost in Space and The Incredible Hulk on TV. For movies, there was Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and It’s Alive and The Thing. All of this was part of our existence and things that made us excited in our entertainment world.
As a young performer coming up, who were some of your inspirations and mentors?
My inspiration was my drama teacher, Robert Pemberton. He had gone to New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was learning method techniques by the time I was a sophomore in high school. Learning about Stanislavski and Group Theater, Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and things of that nature.
I knew who Sidney Poitier was. But the first gentleman that moved me, and I told him so, was Howard Rollins. He was in A Soldier’s Story and Ragtime. He was a fantastic actor, he just had personal issues that got in the way. I distinctly remember Denzel the first time in A Soldier's Story, but I had told Howard Rollins that I didn’t have that one iconic inspiration, but he was as close as it came. Because I was in the community and I was doing it. The play was the thing and it was about Broadway. I wasn’t thinking of television and film until I saw A Soldier's Story as a freshman in college. It was always theater to me.
What do you miss the most about The Walking Dead and those long days and nights on the southern sets of Georgia?
The interaction with the cast and crew and the production team. It’s like being on a great basketball team where everyone’s so passionate about what we do and we’re all smart and funny. So whatever’s going on in the real world, you have a bunch of folks that are opinionated about it with a wicked sense of humor. They’re extraordinary people. Just being around them and being able to create with them, that’s what I miss most.
Do you still communicate with any of the cast and who are some of your best friends from the show?
Oh, yeah. Lawrence Gilliard, Sonequa Martin, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Andrew Lincoln, Greg Nicotero, Scott Gimple. I could text them right now and they’ll hit me back.
When you first read your Walking Dead death scene, what was your initial reaction and was it improvised or changed when it was eventually filmed?
No, and I didn’t read it first, Scott Gimple told me. And as soon as he described to me what was going to happen, I said “let’s go, let’s do it now.” It’s an homage to Terrance Malick, a great director, and… well, Scott Gimple was a genius, man. A mad genius. So he told me and then when I read it I had always thought nothing could trump The Grove. But he trumped The Grove in this one. I feel like those are two Top Five iconic episodes. It was amazing and I think that kind of cushioned the blow of having to leave the show. He told me in enough time that it gave the cast and crew and production the opportunity to share their sentiments about me leaving so that by the time we got to work I didn’t have to negotiate that, you could go all in with the work and Greg Nicotero did an amazing job of directing it. I don’t think that will ever be out of the minds of the people.
Do you ever have nightmares about shuffling walkers?
No, I never did. It’s amazing to me but because I like being scared, there’s no trauma. My nightmares are about somebody trying to fight me or restrain you but the walkers, I always thought it was fun and cool.
Which walker freaked you out the most or was your favorite?
The Well Walker was probably one of the best. While I was there, they had this one that was growing out of the tree I believe. In a way it doesn’t freak me out but makes me go “wow” at the level of artistry involved. How did you come up with that?! And the detail and how real it is, you know? This guy, Greg Nicotero, is a genius.
What are you look forward to most closing out 2016 and leaping into next year?
Arrow, man! I get to play this bonafide villain, Tobias Church, who’s twisted with a great sense of humor. Most times you see African American guys, they lead with anger and this guy leads with his wit. And I love that! It’s a lot of fun. Like Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Kevin Spacey, it’s great to be able to play someone who’s not just about brute force and anger. I’m excited about that and I have an apparel company, A God Amongst.com and I’m excited about that growing, and we already talked about the second season of The Expanse. There’s another show I’m in on Hulu called Freakish, that’s like The Walking Dead meets high school, so that’s gonna be a lot of fun. And I’m also working on development of my first independent film, so there’s a lot on the calendar!