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‘Walking Dead’ Q&A: Ross Marquand on What’s Next For Aaron

Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season 5, episode 11, titled “The Distance.”

Ross Marquand’s introduction as Aaron on last week’s “The Walking Dead” — joking about “stranger danger” to a still grieving Maggie and Sasha — turned out to be unexpectedly prophetic this week. Only the danger didn’t come from Aaron, but from an ultra-protective Rick, whose understandable suspicion of Aaron’s intentions wound up leading the group into even more deadly situations.

Of course we still don’t know for sure if Aaron’s role as a “recruiter” will bring salvation or another hellish situation, but we do know he helped everyone (including baby Judith) get out of that smelly barn. Fans of Robert Kirkman’s “Walking Dead” comics already have their theories for where Aaron’s storyline is going, but Variety spoke with Marquand about the stuff he’s allowed to talk about: joining the show, how much he knows about what’s next for Aaron and revealing another side to the character in that intimate scene with Aaron’s boyfriend Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson).

Were you already a fan of the show and/or the comics before you got the job?
Absolutely. I was not as well-versed in the comics as I was in the show. I started watching (when it premiered) on Halloween 2010 and was just blown away. It’s really unlike anything else on TV. My buddy Doug has all the compendiums so I asked to borrow one and voraciously read as much as I could. It was such a thrill to go from watching the show religiously to being part of it.

Was it a show you had identified as wanting to be on or was it something you liked strictly as a fan?
I secretly hoped I would be a part of it some day but as an actor you always acknowledge the fact that you might not be right for certain shows or a certain part. When this did actually happen I was over the moon.

Did you get far enough into the comics that you knew who Aaron was?
I was not as familiar with him going into the role. I wanted to talk to Scott Gimple about [reading] the source material. There’s obviously so much to draw from. I asked if he wanted me to mirror the character as close to the comics as possible or do an original thing. He said don’t shy away from reading the comics, it provides a fantastic background into who Aaron is and what makes him tick, but feel free to have some artistic license and make it your own. It was freeing advice to get from him.

Sometimes the show’s storylines follow the comics and sometimes not, so how much did you know about Aaron’s arc from the start?
Scott plays his cards pretty close to his chest. From one episode to the next you really don’t know where he and the writers will go. It makes it extremely exciting as an actor but terrifying as well. You’re trying to come at the character from a logical place and create this interesting backstory, but you have no idea episode to episode where the plot is going to go. It keeps us on our toes and I think it keeps the fans on their toes too.

Do you think viewers will see Aaron the same way Rick’s group does: Some thinking they should trust him and others thinking, “No way. Never”?
I hope it’s more of an even split than it was last week on the “Talking Dead” poll — I think 81% thought I was a “polite cannibal.” That kind of hurt [laughs]. But if I was going into the show fresh having not been a part of the shoot and not having read the comics I would’ve absolutely thought the same thing. Historically on the show whenever there’s a very affable, polite person introduced it doesn’t end up well for the group or the individual.

We do get to see a more intimate side of Aaron with his boyfriend Eric, and Rick sees at least some of it too. What was it like to show that side of him after being tied up for half the episode?
On the one hand you have this very dark scenario where Aaron is risking his life to convey to these people that everything is fine and he’s leading them a safe haven, and the whole time they’re really treating him terribly — as well they should, given their experiences. So after going through all that, and what’s been lovingly called our “zombie carwash,” and saving Rick and Michonne from impending doom — when Glenn and Aaron are fighting side by side — hopefully that gives the group some cause to let Aaron in. I think for Rick and also for the audience it’s nice to see that relationship between Eric and Aaron. It’s clear to anybody watching this that these two absolutely love each other and they’re not afraid to express that.

One of the great things about the comic books is Robert Kirkman doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the apocalypse there are people from all different walks of life. Of course there are going to be gay and lesbian characters and diverse groups represented, as well there should be. I’m really glad AMC didn’t shy away from that. They’re illustrating that relationship in such a bold and human way. At the end of the day I think the show is about relationships — familial, romantic or just the nuts and bolts of surviving in the apocalypse with this ragtag group of people you’ve bonded with.

Aaron’s introduction was anticipated for that reason: comic fans already knew he would be the show’s first gay male character. Did that add any extra responsibility for you taking on the role?
Absolutely, I think there’s a great deal of responsibility to our gay and lesbian fan base and the fan base at large. There are people who read the comics and expect [the show] to follow that as closely as possible.  Of course there will be departures from time to time, as there already have been on the show — but at the end of the day you want to do justice to the character that Robert Kirkman has presented to this world, and that the writers have laid out for you.

I love these little moments getting backstory into who Aaron was before the world fell apart. He worked for a NGO in Western Africa, a really violent hostile territory, I think we decided on Liberia. If that was his experience before everything went to hell, [the zombie apocalypse] is actually a return to normalcy for him. Arguing and negotiating with warring drug lords in Liberia is going to be far more terrifying than dealing with Rick’s group because they’re actually level-headed. That’s why [Aaron] is so calm about this. He’s used to being in pressure cooker situations where he has to think fast on his toes and get out of it the best way he can.

There was a lot of humor in this episode, relatively — especially coming after a run of some of the darkest episodes the show has ever done. Aaron’s joke about the dance troupe, for example. Is that something he brings to the show?
I hope it does continue. That’s what initially attracted me to the role when I met with [casting director] Sharon Bialy months ago to audition. She had said she really wanted me to hone in on some of my comedic chops and improv work because that’s a big part of who Aaron is. He’s a very polite, diplomatic man on the surface but there’s a smartass side to him that’s undeniable. It’s in the comics throughout. Even in dire situations Aaron will say something — it’s funny and it’s disarming. I think it’s a tool Aaron has adopted to navigate this complex social circle.

Did you have a favorite character you couldn’t wait to work with?
Some of my favorites were actually in that car during the zombie carwash. Since we’re first introduced to Rick as the protagonist of the show and we see his journey, as a fan it was a real thrill to get to work with Andy. For one, he’s a really sweet guy, but he also takes the role very seriously. It’s great to play off someone like that, who comes in with so much preparation and great ideas. He was insistent on doing a rehearsal outside of the shoot with our director and writer a few times before we got to set. You can imagine the nerves I had as a fan going to work on one of my favorite shows, so I will be forever grateful to him for suggesting that. It allowed me to ease into the role and that scene in the barn so much more effectively.

You also had a lot of scenes with Judith. What’s it like to act with a baby on the set of “Walking Dead”?
The parents are so great with Judith, getting her to calm down when she needed to calm down and getting her riled up when she needed to cry. I thought it was funny when we started rolling on me walking into the barn she immediately started crying.

Baby improv.
It breaks the ice, so to speak.

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

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