The Walking Dead - King Ezekiel and Shiva

Exclusive: The Walking Dead's Khary Payton talks being King Ezekiel

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Apr 26, 2017, 1:12 PM EDT (Updated)

Actor Khary Payton got quite an entrance on The Walking Dead this season as King Ezekiel. When we got our first look at the Kingdom and its larger-than-life king and his larger-than-life tiger, Shiva, it was a page right out of the comics.

"They gave me dreadlocks and a tiger and a kingdom. Yeah, my thought was if I screw this up it's really all my fault," said Payton in an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire.

Payton, an actor and voice actor (Teen Titans Go!, Young Justice), talked with us about Sunday's Season 7 finale, why he got emotional when his fellow actors' characters were killed off on the show, and the one reason he'd really like to smack The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman around.

You had quite an entrance into the series with the tiger and all. What's it been like to take on such a bigger than life role in King Ezekiel?

Khary: Yeah, can you believe it? It's still all very surreal. It's been a really slow roll-out of the character. I had my first episode and they gave me so much to do. And then I had to wait for the subsequent episodes to come along for so long. I'm sure everybody's just dying to see how this all culminates with the finale, because I know that I am.

This season has been excruciatingly slow in getting into the Ezekiel of it all.

Yeah, exactly. With all of these storylines so disparate, it's like in the grand scheme of things you need this. There was so much going on before that. Everything else feels like a slowdown. But you need to be able to catch your breath and get your bearings, figure out where in the hell you're going. Everybody wants Rick to fight immediately, and they want Ezekiel to come on board immediately, forgetting that Ezekiel has never met these people before. I always say, you can't tell me one story, one fable, and expect me to go to war with you. I was like, I'll help you change a tire and I'll give you something to eat, but going to war with a dude takes a little more [time].

Especially since Ezekiel loves these people at the Kingdom. They are his family, and he knows that a war with Negan is going to be deadly.

Exactly, exactly. He knows a war with anybody is going to be deadly. A good king prepares for war but works for peace. So I think that's the modus operandi of Ezekiel and the Kingdom. Every time you are inside the walls of the Kingdom you see people training to fight, but Ezekiel's ... that's his last resort, not his first resort.

The Walking Dead - Khary Payton on Talking Dead

When you got this role, what did you think? Were you familiar? Certainly you have a background in science fiction with all your voice work and everything.

I loved the show. I watched it with my wife every week. We'd been watching it for years. And so I wasn't as familiar with Ezekiel. I was a little familiar with him, but not as much obviously as I am now. But it was all really exciting and the audition that I had for Ezekiel was essentially that last scene with Carol and in the introduction episode of "The Well" where he reveals his way of thinking to her and why he acts the way he acts. And so it was just getting those audition [scenes] ... I was like, okay. This is a huge part and a really incredible character. Asking to be able to play a character that is essentially kind of two characters in one is almost too much to ask for and that's what I got. It's still hard to believe.

The first thing I would have thought of is that there's a really big tiger.

But that's what's awesome about it when you read it on paper, and then you read that scene. He's such a complicated guy that that's not the first thing that came to mind. It was as like, "Okay. Yeah, yeah. You got a tiger, but this guy's got a lot going on."

Does that add certain levels of interest in filming regarding the tiger?

Yeah, my wife was really, "Is somebody going to talk to you about this tiger? What's happening with this tiger?" So yeah, everybody always asks where the tiger is no matter where I am, and I always tell them the truth ... that she's in my pocket.

I know you can't tell us what's going to happen in the finale, but what do you want to say to the fans to tease out what we have to look forward to in Sunday's episode?

I think this is going to be hell of a finale this season. I think it's got a little bit of everything. I would just say watch it with friends because it's going to be a roller coaster.

The Walking Dead - King Ezekiel and Rick

Your character has had some really interesting relationships of the core cast, certainly with Carol and Morgan, and even with Rick. It's been really interesting to see how those have developed. What's it been like for you coming in as a new actor, to fall into the story and develop these relationships?

One of the nice things about the way that Ezekiel is introduced is he had a lot to say and a lot to do. So I really had to just put my head down to get to work. And fortunately I had these these amazing actors to help guide me through the first episode, including Lennie James and Melissa McBride. And Greg Nicotero directed that episode as well, which was amazing to have him. I think he and I just clicked immediately. I mean you can't ask for finer actors than Lennie James and Melissa McBride to work off of. It makes everything so much easier. You come to a show like this and you can feel self-conscious about how you're doing, what you're doing, and because everything has so such quality. I'm making a point to become as prepared as possible. I never felt self-conscious about being on such a big show. It was all about just being honest about the story that we were telling.

Actually Michael Cudlitz was on set when I was there that first episode, he was shadowing Greg Nicotero. Maybe he will direct an episode on down the line. That would be awesome. But I love him being there. He would just quietly sit in the background and every time I finished something, I'd look over at him and he gave me a thumbs-up, a slow nod out of his head and smile, and it just made all the difference that everyone was incredibly welcoming.

Getting the thumbs-up from Abraham himself, now that's cool.

It's the kind of community you would think that they would have these walls up because it's such a beautiful group of people that you're coming into. But I think because everybody comes prepared and comes excited to tell a great story, it just lends itself to people really putting their arms around you and taking you in.

What's been your biggest challenge with this role?

Oh gosh, the the biggest challenge ... I guess the challenge of any production is just to always find the humanity in this over-the-top situation. Although he speaks in this exuberant manner and Ezekiel has this bigger-than-life persona that he comes across with, it comes from a place of truth. It comes with a place of, "I have to do this because this is the best way to keep my people safe." And so although it seems crazy and over the top, he's always being genuine and that's one of the things that I love about playing the character and one of the biggest challenges.

That and the heat. I want to smack Robert Kirkman around a little when I see him because he knew when he made this character that we shoot the show in the middle of the summer and 150 degrees and 147 percent humidity and still he put a big old leather jacket with the fur on me. I was like give me the dreads. The dreads I don't mind. The jacket is killing me.

You think they could make a jacket that looked heavy but was light.

I don't think there's a way to do that in gortex.

They need to make you an air-conditioned jacket.

They really do. They gave me this like lycra shirt that has tubes in it that shoots cold water through it to keep it to try to keep me from being overheated.

They don't want you to pass out.

Exactly, exactly. And I have gotten pretty woozy here and there. It gets hot!

The Walking Dead - King Ezekiel and Benjamin

What's been the biggest surprise for you, the thing that has happened that you weren't expecting?

Just how emotionally caught up I got when my guys died on the show. When Richard and Benjamin died, I knew it meant I wouldn't see Karl Makinen and Logan Miller as much any more. Especially with the nature of the show. We all were brought on together but we couldn't tell anybody who we were or what we were doing. And so we became a really tight-knit group, my Knights of the Kingdom.

And I tell you what, the day that we shot them dying was really emotional for me and there was moment where I think Carlos Navarro who plays Alvaro was asking when we're standing across from the Saviors ... He was like, "Where do we look? Should we look at them?" And I just bit back at him. I said, "Don't look at them. Don't give them eye contact. They don't deserve our eye contact." And I was really emotional about it.

It's not like I'm the director of the of the episode or something, like I'm in charge of that. But I made a point that I didn't want to look at those guys, even though the actors are really, really lovely people. But in that moment I was like, "They don't deserve eye contact. The next time they see us looking at them it should be in battle paying for what they've done." I just had such a great time with Logan and Karl. I literally ... I miss them already. I missed them in the subsequent episodes that we shot and then in the finale. Yeah, you get really tight. I think it's the heat and the fact that you got to keep all these secrets and and you're sticky and you're hot but you're doing something that you love. You really bond quickly with these people and I'm going to miss those guys more than I thought I would.

If Ezekiel doesn't survive the finale, what do you want to say to fans?

If I don't make it, I would say I hope you miss me when I'm gone (laughs). Because I gave my heart and soul to this guy. I really loved every minute of it and it was such a huge opportunity for me, but also just artistically, you can't ask for better as an actor, for someone to write a character as complicated and beautiful and deep as somebody like Ezekiel.

What are your hopes and dreams for Ezekiel, assuming he survives, and your hopes and dreams for Khary?

My hope is that he continues to learn from his mistakes. I think that at the end of the day he maybe gave the Saviors a little too much credit for trying to keep the peace before he lost people, and because he was acting too rationally. And so I think that, although he was a zoo keeper before the apocalypse, I think that he was meant to be a leader. He's the kind of guy who when things go wrong he jumps into the cage with the tiger. This is another situation of him seeing a problem and deciding that somebody's got to fix it and I guess it's going to be me. And I hope that he would get the opportunity to spread his wings and show what kind of leader he really can be.

And what about for you?

For me, I will hope that I get to continue playing beautiful and complex characters. Honestly, I've been lucky that I've done a lot of Shakespeare in my 20s and a lot of theatre in my 20s and a lot of voiceovers in my 30s where we're all incredibly diverse and different and complicated. And Ezekiel is just kind of the pinnacle of that. But I feel like every time I lifted my head up just to see what character I'm going to get to help tell a story about next, I just hope that they continue to be these kinds of characters. As long as I got enough to be able to feed my family, these characters continue to feed my soul. As an artist and a storyteller, I mean I can't ask for better.

Is there anything you've got coming up besides The Walking Dead?

Yeah, of course I'm still doing my cartoons. So Teen Titans Go! is a big hit and we are continuing to do that. We're coming back with a show called Young Justice that that was canceled after two seasons, but got a big following on Netflix. So we're coming back to do more seasons of Young Justice. I play Wasabi on Big Hero 6 for Disney XD and I'll still be Rafiki on The Lion Guard, which is the spin-off of The Lion King, the series that they do on the Disney Channel. So all of those things I'm continuing to do and I'm excited about the prospects of what comes next.

Your kids must think you're a hero because they hear your voice on cartoons.

Yeah, my kids are five and eight years old. They are the perfect age for all of the cartoons and everything. I've got to be careful though. I took them to see the Harlem Globetrotters and I got recognized for The Walking Dead, so we got to go behind the curtain and take pictures with all the Harlem Globetrotters and it was very cute and we had a lot of fun.

And a week or two ago I took them to Disneyland and we were standing in line for a few minutes and my five-year-old looks at me and says, "Daddy, can you just tell them that you're King Ezekiel or something?" I thought, "Oh man, you got to be kidding me." I was like, it's already begun. And I was like, "We're waiting in this line. You're five years old. You can't start throwing out the King Ezekiel card everywhere you go." But that was pretty funny.

The Season 7 finale of The Walking Dead airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.