The Walking Dead – currently the most popular series among 18- to 49-year-olds in the USA –returns to screens on October 23, and today (September 26) the season six DVD is released. Ahead of the biggest season yet on the survival/horror zombie show, NME spoke to one of the newest fan-favourites, Tom Payne, a British actor who joined the show in the middle of season six to play Paul ‘Jesus’ Rovia (a ninja trickster who looks a bit like Jesus).
What was it like joining such an established show and cast?
“It was great, it was a bit of a whirlwind. I sent the tape off on Wednesday, got cast on Friday and was in Atlanta on Monday/ I had like costume fittings and extensions and a fake beard and all this stuff to contend with, and then I was on set running around a field, being chased by Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) so it all happened very quickly, and I didn’t really have time to consider how big the show is, and how successful the whole thing is. I just wanted to try and get my lines out and not get fired.
“I only really understood the extent of how big the show was when I went to the premiere of season six at Madison Square Garden last year. There were thousands and thousands of screaming fans, it actually freaked me out a bit. Like, ‘Holy shit, this is something that’s going to change my life and I’ll have to deal with that.’ But aside from that, everyone on the show is so welcoming and nice, it doesn’t feel like a big deal when you’re shooting it.”
Your character joins mid-way through the season – did the fans already know who you were at the premiere?
“No, it was nice, I was kind of incognito. I’ve been doing different conventions now and people do know me from the show now, which is nice and they’re about to release on Netflix [US] as well now so there’ll be a whole other new group of people who only watch on Netflix who’ll recognise me on the street.
“I’ve grown out my own beard and my own hair now, so I’m super recognisable – I definitely get recognised more now. But it’s nice to have a character that people warm to and not have a character that people hate.”
How was it playing one of the funnier characters on the series?
“When I auditioned I auditioned with a fake part and a fake scene that they’d written especially for it, so I didn’t have anything to go on when I started. I literally had to go back to, ‘Well what did they want from that character who’s completely unrelated? What was it they saw that they liked?’ I just played it as naturally as I could.”
Had you read the comics?
“No I hadn’t, I did all that afterwards actually. At the time I was immersed in not falling over, so I did all that afterwards and just relied on the director, the showrunner to steer the character. And then afterwards I watched the whole thing, watched all the show and read all the comic books. Actually, the new edition of the comic book came out yesterday and I read it straight away. I’m quite into it now. But the comics are quite far ahead of the show.”
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Did you have to learn Jesus’ ninja skills?
“I wanted to do as much as I could on my own. Actually what I did in that first episode was mostly defensive, there weren’t really any big punches or kicks or anything, so I was able to do all of that on my own. I couldn’t do the flying off the truck bit, they don’t let actors do that.
“Then, in between seasons I got in touch with the producers of the show and said, ‘Listen, I know it’s a huge part of the character and I’d like to train’. They hooked me up with this great trainer in LA who’d actually trained Lenny James (Morgan) with his stick-fighting. And I started going to see him twice a week and doing boxing training separate to that as well. I really wanted it to be real on set so you can see that it’s me doing the kicks and the punches. If you look carefully in the Comic-Con trailer you can see me doing some zombie kicks and you’ll definitely see a bit more of that in the new season.”
Is season seven as big as it looks?
“Yeah, we’ve got Ezekiel and the tiger, Shiva… I think this whole season is really a turning point for the show. Up until now it’s been ‘Rick’s group go here and meet some people, and some people die and then they run off somewhere else.’ Last season my character Jesus said ‘Your world’s about to get a whole lot bigger’, and ‘This is the next world’, and then the Saviors came in who are obviously another group.
“This season, you’re seeing that there’s another place called The Kingdom coming in. The show is expanding and you’re not just with that one group. There are these other groups that can be explored, and how they’re then going to interact with each other now they’re aware of each other. For Rick obviously that’s a huge deal, that changes how him and his group have been living the past few years and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that changes the dynamic of the show, and people’s feelings about the world that they’re now living in.”
You mentioned your role has more action this season?
“I think aside from Morgan and his stick, Jesus is the only other majorly physically capable character in that sense. Whenever there’s a big fight in the show it ends up being a big scrap, wrestling around in the mud and I think Jesus is much more calculated, and capable of dealing with people in more efficient way. You could see a bit more of that next season.
Jesus has an on/off relationship with a guy called Alex in the comics. Will he have a love interest in the new series?
“I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t follow the comic books… and actually I think there’d be more outrage if it didn’t follow the comic books. So possibly in the future, yeah.”
What’s it like on set in Atlanta?
It’s pretty hot. Everyone just gets on with it. The main thing is that there can be lots of thunderstorms, so if you’re shooting outside it doesn’t rain just a little bit – it dumps it down, with lightning, and there’s a rule where if there’s a lightning strike you have to wait thirty minutes before you can shoot again, because you’re using all this equipment that could get struck. If you get stuck in the middle of one of these storms you just have to wait it out if you don’t have anything else to shoot. It can be tough in that sense, but also the show is set in that area of America and it’s another character in the show. It’s another hardship that the cast have to endure in the show and in real life.
Do Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln actually have a prank war?
“They do, except Andrew’s a bit crap at it and Norman’s really good, so Andrew tries to prank and it never goes quite the way that he wants it to. Norman always seems to get one over on him which is quite amusing. But yeah, the show can be quite heavy at times and it’s nice to have that aspect to it. Everyone does get on really well and are joking with each other, mucking around – when appropriate – and it’s important to have that I think.”
The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from 26th September, courtesy of Entertainment One