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‘The Walking Dead’: Chad Coleman Talks Tyreese’s Fate and What He Learned From ‘The Wire’

Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode nine, titled “What Happened and What’s Going On.”

Taking on the role of moral compass on “The Walking Dead” is not a wise move if you want to stay alive. From Dale to Andrea to Hershel and now Tyreese, the characters who make the most noise about holding onto their humanity in the face of an increasingly hopeless zombie apocalypse never seem to stick around for long.

Variety spoke with Tyreese himself, actor Chad L. Coleman, about how he discovered the character’s tragic fate, what he learned about TV deaths from working on HBO’s “The Wire,” the funniest part of shooting his exit episode and the time Chris Hardwick almost spoiled the fatal twist on “Talking Dead.”

When did you find out this would be the end for Tyreese?
I found out three episodes prior, which I was grateful for. A lot of (cast and crew members) wanted to express some wonderful sentiments to me about my demise, so I was able to get a lot of that out of the way. I don’t mean that in a callous way. Honestly I was just happy to be able to focus fully on the work once we got to that point.

And how did you find out?
Scott Gimple, our fearless mad genius showrunner, called me up and said, “Hey, Chad, it’s midseason and I’m kind of checking in with everybody. Can you come by?” I said, “Scott, I’m kinda busy, I just had a new son.” He said, “Everybody’s coming by, please come see me.” So I went in and sat down and he said, “Well, the time has come for Tyreese.” I laughed and said, “Scott, stop playing, stop playing.” Then he teared up, literally, and I thought, “OK, this is real” and I said “wow, wow, wow” about 25,000 times.

After that I needed time to put it all in perspective. I felt like I’d done some wonderful work on the show and been a part of “The Grove” episode (when Carol killed Lizzie), which to me was really bold, groundbreaking TV. I needed to be OK with (leaving the show) right away, that’s just me. I don’t want to keep fighting it or resist. I’ve seen others, no negativity intended, struggle with it. I didn’t want to be that guy. I took a cue from Scott Wilson and David Morrissey — classy, that’s how I went at it.

Scott (Gimple) and I hugged. I think I did shed a bit of a tear. We had a sentimental moment. And he began to tell me how this episode was going to close out. I knew right then this dude loves this character. If you don’t know who Tyreese is by the time this episode is done you just don’t want to know him.

He gave you such a great parting gift, Tyreese really gets to grapple with his demise and face his death.
And others get to help him. The battle to live was a community deal. It’s somewhat reminiscent of (Hershel) getting the amputation, but he lived. What I love more than anything is they had to carry my big 200 pound ass — pick up that dead weight. I have been carrying the moral character of the show for quite some time and it was a heavy load — now you take me! I loved that. They were mad as heck. You know, I’m bigger than all of them. When you see big Linc — Andy Lincoln — and Steven Yeun carry me, it was hilarious. I just gave them all the weight, like “Here, I can’t do anything, I can’t help you.” At one point they went tumbling down, we all fell. We had a good time.

We brought as much levity to it as we could, but it was tough for everybody. Danai (Gurira) is a tough cookie, but I think I saw a little tear in the corner of that eye. She was mad — she said, “This is bullshit.” All of them were. Andy came and talked to me, probably one of the most gracious human beings I’ve ever known. He actually came to watch me in the scene where the Governor and everybody is in the room. After it was all over and I was getting blood off places on my body I didn’t even know existed, I was decompressing and I get a phone call from Andy Lincoln saying, “Chad, the work you did today is the reason I came to America. To work with actors like you.” I’m going, “Who is this guy? Number one on the callsheet, hours later is thinking about my work and willing to reach out to me?”

Were you surprised by how Tyreese developed over the seasons? He was introduced as another post-apocalypse badass, but turned out to be far more emotional and complex.
You know what, it was just a happy marriage. I think they saw this big guy has an incredible wealth of vulnerability and that’s really compelling. I got love for the comic book Tyreese but the TV Tyreese — whenever you get guys who are pretty much geniuses at human behavior and you give them a second pass at a phenomenal character, that’s an awesome opportunity. That being said, there was no Daryl in the graphic novel. Daryl is pretty much (Tyreese), so they had to do something different anyway.

Just the other day I was with Andre Royo, who played Bubbles on “The Wire.” He came up to me and said, “Yo man, the work you’re doing on that show is beautiful, man. There are a lot of dudes who can’t do that vulnerable thing, either they can’t do it or they’re running from it. You’re killing it.” I appreciate that. On one level it’s a homage to actors like Howard Rollins, he was a bad boy in “A Soldier’s Story” and “Ragtime.” I came up in a time where that was the thing. Showing vulnerability was how you proved you had the chops.

It happened on “The Wire” too. You’ve managed to find two different characters on two very influential shows where you can’t judge the book by the cover.
That’s right, and I bring that to real life. You know, I’m a big black man [laughs] and I still have to cross the street. I don’t mean no harm. There’s still that stigma. Whenever you can step inside a stereotype and blast it out of the water you want to do that. I won’t just take it to color, every man at his best must show vulnerability. You can’t be a father and not show vulnerability, you’ll be doing a disservice to your child. I’m grateful to carry that.

I will go to conventions and they’ll come up and say this word that my ego can’t handle sometimes: “Why are you so soft?” I go, “Whoa, whoa, let me help you understand what you’re seeing.” To see a man wrestle with his conscience, to fight tooth and nail not to kill, is a beautiful thing to me. Remember the photo of the President before Osama bin Laden (was killed)? Did you see the pain on their faces? (Bin Laden) is a butcher and he deserves it, but they weren’t in the room going, “Woohoo, we killed him!” It’s a hard thing. I think it’s really important I was able to represent that level of gravity. I tell people Tyreese is not a superhero, he’s superhuman.

Did you always feel Tyreese was on borrowed time because of how he goes out in the comic?
I’m such a seasoned vet at this, I’m never not in a place of “It’s gonna come one day.” The thing I always carry with me is when Stringer Bell got killed off on “The Wire” it was like, “OK, all bets are off, anybody can go.” He was the most popular character on the show. Here’s my volley shot to Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman: I dare you to kill Daryl. Or kill Rick. Really turn them on their heads. [laughs] It’s not gonna happen. But I really felt anybody else, we’re all susceptible.

Do the actors talk about that on set?
We do. I remember distinctly talking about it to Danai and Andy, and maybe a little bit with (Norman) Reedus. Especially Danai, we did Broadway together for August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” so we had that connection. I remember her saying, “What are you talking about? You’re not going anywhere.” And Andy would say the same thing. But I remember thinking the minute Tyreese is sure of his position about this nonviolence deal, he’s gonna go.

It seems to be a trend, whenever someone takes a moral stand against the philosophy of the world they’re not around much longer.
When I was on “Talking Dead” (last year), Chris Hardwick was saying that and it was like, “Dude, do you know what you’re saying right now?” He called it out without knowing it. I did think, “That’s sort of painfully obvious.” I did take the baton from Hershel. But our deaths mean something, you get real traction out of our deaths. That’s what Scott was saying: These are beloved people because of what they stand for. We need to see the world without them to see what the other people are going to do.

We talk about it in the African American community all the time: Where is the Martin and Malcolm in you? Not that we need these oversized leaders to come back, but we need to see the Martin and Malcolm in ourselves. We’ll see how (Tyreese and Beth’s) deaths play out with the rest of the characters.

I’m especially interested to see how Sasha handles it. I thought it was particularly striking Tyreese never mentions her in the episode.
I did too, but you know we just had that major heart to heart. (Tyreese) can’t see the future, and he was focused on Noah. When everything goes down and he’s going in and out of consciousness, his subconscious took over. There was nothing about his sister he was suppressing. Everything he was suppressing took over his subconscious. Bob, Mika and Lizzie were horrific deaths he had to come to terms with. He hadn’t fully dealt with the Governor, this charismatic leader he was almost seduced by. Those were the things he was still wrestling with. There was no conflict when it came to his sister or to Karen. He came to terms with that.

So will you still be watching now that you’re not on the show?
Absolutely, I’m a huge fan of this show. I’ll be tuning in every week because I want to see where this thing is going.

Who’s your favorite character now that Tyreese is gone?
It’s across the board: I’m certainly curious to see Michonne’s warm and fuzziness coming out. I’m curious about Daryl — there’s something going on with him when he agrees to go about things the way Tyreese said. I’m always curious where Carl is going, and always want to know what’s around the corner for Carol. And Rick is a pinball machine — where is that ball going next?

“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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