walking dead jesus tom payne rick
Courtesy of AMC

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” Season 6, Episode 10, titled “The Next World.”

The Feb. 21 episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” introduced beloved comic book character Jesus (Tom Payne), who caused no end of trouble for Andrew Lincoln’s Rick and Norman Reedus’ Daryl on their ill-fated supply run — first stealing a truck full of food and later managing to send it to the bottom of a lake, and then breaking out of his restraints and interrupting Rick and Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) post-coital nap after the two characters finally had sex for the first time.

After that auspicious start, Variety caught up with Payne to discuss the trepidation of tackling such an iconic character, the humor of the episode and what’s ahead after Jesus’ visit with Rick and Michonne.

Have you ventured onto social media since the episode aired to check out people’s reactions to Jesus?

I did last night, yeah – it was pretty fun. I was a bit scared to; you’re always apprehensive – there are a lot of people to please and the fans are very intense and very particular about what they want to see, so I was a little bit worried about it. When I started, I realized that it’s such a warm fanbase for the show – everyone is really nice and they just want the best thing, and I had a really, really lovely response and I’m super happy with that.  People have been messaging me since they found out that I got cast like, “hope you don’t screw this up!” and I’m like “oh my god, I really hope I didn’t as well!” You want to do the best that you can and you know that certain things will have changed from the comic book and what people know, and you just hope that fans will be accepting of that and they really have been.

I think we really got the essence of how he should come across as a person. There’s more to come next week, but this is more of a fun introduction which, after you watch the episode, if you thought about what he did in the episode and how he handled himself, there’s a lot of information there, actually. I was saying to Scott Gimple that I don’t think he’s unconscious in the car… at the point when they caught up to him, I think, he’s made a decision that he’s interested in these guys and he’s gonna check out where they come from. Even when he’s running away from them in the field, he’s still trying to figure out how he can get back to where they come from, but obviously he was also on top of the truck. I loved that moment in the show when Norman’s like, “I think that dude’s on the roof,” it was really funny. The way that it was played out worked really well. The fans are a big part of the show – you talk to them during the show and after the show and apparently for the rest of my life now – they’re a big part of it, and I’m really happy that they seemed to enjoy it.

This week’s episode felt fairly unique in the series to date, because it was unexpectedly hilarious. Was that lighter tone something you got a sense of on the page when reading the script?

Yeah. There definitely was… I was a little bit apprehensive of making Norman look silly. [Laughs.] Like, “oh my god, this is going to be a bit awkward.” I’m coming in and running rings around these guys… that was a little bit weird, because behind the scenes you’re the new guy coming in and messing around, and also, I’d arrived at a point in the show where they’d said goodbye to a lot of people, and that episode was [Tovah Feldshuh’s last] episode as well, so you come in at a time when things are moving behind the scenes. As an actor that was a little bit like, “Hiiii, I’m the new guy!” I’m trying to make a good impression and do the best job that I can as well, but it was really fun. And tonally, it was a bit difficult because yeah, the show is not an out-and-out comedy, so to come in and have those scenes was interesting. But it’s such a gift, like, “wow, they’re giving me this introduction as this character which is a totally new tone for the show,” and what an amazing way to come in because you’re going to make even more of an impression, so it was a lot of fun to do. I’m just glad that it worked and that people liked it – it was the perfect introduction.

I love that Jesus shows up as this man of mystery and manages to get the jump on Rick and Daryl several times, but you mentioned that feeling of trepidation about making Norman look silly, and when there’s a newcomer being introduced and almost outclassing these beloved characters, there’s always an inherent risk that the fans could turn on you. Was that a concern that you and Scott Gimple talked about — how far you could take his showboating without losing the audience’s goodwill?

Yeah… We didn’t talk specifically about not making Norman and Andy look stupid [laughs] but we did talk about who the character is and how he should come across. He has the line “I think you know I’m not a bad guy,” and I think at this point in the world, you’ve met people who you know are bad guys straight away, and they will screw you over. I could’ve just shot Daryl and Rick at the gas station and stolen the truck – but I did this whole thing, I bumped into them and made up a story and didn’t really dump them in it. I’m like, “these guys know how to handle themselves, they’ll be okay.” And then especially after they ran after me, “they’re more than okay; they really know what they’re doing.” So at that point it’s like, “okay, I’m going to go and check out where they come from.” Yes, I was lying to them, but they were definitely lying to me too. Jesus is a very clever guy and he sizes people up – if you’ve survived this long, then you’ve got something about you, and he’s met enough people in the world that you can very quickly size people up and know what they’re about. And he saves Daryl – he shot the zombie in the face, and that was nice; I enjoyed the progression of those characters, and Andrew looking after me and saying “he didn’t pull a weapon on you and he didn’t shoot you,” and even then, Daryl wants to put me up a tree…

The show is very secretive about new cast additions, but obviously Jesus is a character from the comics, so how did you get a handle on who he was – did Scott tell you a lot up front or did you go back and read up on him?

My favorite approach to interviews is to go “well, in the comic books…” It’s amazing that we’ve got the comics to talk about because we can’t talk about anything else! Those things are such a gift. [Laughs.] He was pretty tough, actually – I came in pretty quickly; within a few days of getting the job, I was in Atlanta, and having fittings for my facial hair because obviously I can’t grow a beard in a week, and costume fittings and a bit of martial arts training, so somewhere within that, I found the time to talk to Scott. But it was all so overwhelming, the whole thing, that I didn’t really have a chance to sit down and watch five years of “Walking Dead” or read 150 issues of the comic book, so I really put my trust in Scott and Kari [Skogland], the director, to look after me in that sense. I’m there, willing and able to give whatever you need, but I’m going to need a little bit of help, because it’s not my show – I’m coming in and meeting these two huge characters on this huge show, so I did need some help. I was like, “okay, guys,  you’re going to have to walk me through this a little bit because I can give you what you need and what’s on the page,” but what’s on the page is difficult as well because nobody in the world that we’ve met has met me before.

And on the same note, I think he’s pretending – he’s not showing his true colors. He’s giving them what he wants to give them and not necessarily who he is, so that first episode was quite disconcerting for me, and quite difficult to go “this is the guy, this is who he is,” purely because I’d not played him before. Generally you get an opportunity to play someone and then “oh, he’s pretending to be this way,” but he came in, he made an impact and he was doing the whole act at the beginning. So it was a little tough but I had conversations, and next week you find out a lot more about him and that was when I started to settle into it. But I was nervous about last night and the episode because I was like, “I really hope we got there with an interesting and fun character,” and we did. But you’re joining the biggest show on television – god, it was stressful! [Laughs.] But I’m super happy with what we came up with.

Rick was the one who advocated for keeping him alive and taking him in, but Jesus just burst in on him and Michonne naked in bed, so what can you preview about their dynamic moving forward and what we can expect when we pick up next week?

At that point in the show last night, you can tell that there’s a lot more about the character. If he could get out of his handcuffs or however you’ve tied him up, where has he been before he’s been in the bedroom? Why has he not killed everyone? Why has he not stolen stuff and run away? Why is he waking up Rick and Michonne? So there’s a whole mystery behind that – and he might explain himself in the next episode, but I really enjoyed that. There is a lot of mystery about the character, and if you went back and watched it again and questioned all of his motives for everything that he did, you would get a lot more about the character and who he is. Why has he done that? I think he’s recognized that Rick is an important person within the community and so there’s a reason why he’s gone there to wake him up and talk to him. And next week we should find out why.

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

What did you think of Jesus’ introduction? Weigh in below!

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