‘The Walking Dead’: Michael Cudlitz Talks Negan’s Victim(s) and Keeping Secrets

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the premiere of Season 7 of “The Walking Dead.”

The Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead” promised brutality, and did not disappoint (at least on that front). With a devastating episode that said goodbye to stalwart regular Steven Yeun’s Glenn Rhee and more recent fan favorite addition Michael Cudlitz’s Abraham, “Dead” started its latest season with a nasty kick in the face (or, if you prefer, barb wire bat to the head).

While Yeun joined his fellow cast members on last night’s installment of “Talking Dead” and spoke with AMC, he’s opted to not discuss the episode at length with press. Cudlitz, however, fielded questions during a media conference call on Monday morning. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

On when he learned Abraham was doomed…

I found out about a year and three months ago. They told me they were going to take me out, and I also knew about Steven. They were talking about the end of Season 6 and beginning of Season 7, Scott [Gimple] wasn’t sure how he wanted to structure the storytelling for the greatest impact.

Our whole big thing was, “How could we possibly keep this secret because of the people out there who seem like it’s their only job in the world to ruin everyone else’s television viewing experience?” They had to balance that knowing there were people who were trying to get that information out there. And also knowing we had some in-house leaks as far as the content. The show airs everywhere around the world at the same time and so some copies are released to international partners for dubbing purposes and in some countries, editing. The show is available out there, and a lot of eyeballs are on the show.

And when the show actually filmed the death scenes…

We filmed the scene about a year ago [during the Season 6 finale]. We finished [Season 6] just before Thanksgiving. I’ve been sitting with it, Steven’s sitting with it, and the rest of the cast for a year now. One of the good things is we were able to spread a rumor that not even the cast knew what was going to happen, they’d find out when they came back, they’d filmed everybody’s death scene just in case, and they were in contract negotiations for some of the cast — all that was a lie. What that enabled us to do was not have to defend who was dead or hide who was dead for at least five months, which was great.

On whether Negan’s “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” game was truly random or more deliberate…

He’s just f—ing with us. He gets to terrorize every single person, while terrorizing Rick, he gets to gauge each person. You’re looking at someone very smart, very good at what he does, finding the weakest link and what’s going to have the most impact. To walk around the room and shake the bat in everybody’s faces, to gauge their reactions, see what they would or wouldn’t do, and see in their eyes what he’s drawing out of them — that’s very important for him to figure out our group. He figures out so much without having any dialogue with any of us. This is probably not the first time he’s played “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”

On Abraham flashing the peace sign before he died…

The peace sign was to Sasha — it was something that ran with Abraham and Sasha throughout the whole series. We had to find a way to connect with Sasha, for him to say goodbye specifically to Sasha. We had established in the finale that eye contact was not broken, you saw Abraham’s point of view when he got hit by the bat. There was no way for him to turn away and address anything to [Sasha]. We had to find a way for him to tell Sasha that everything was going to be OK and say goodbye.

On Abraham sharing his last episode with Glenn’s brutal exit…

I was concerned about that going in, because I’m a fan of both the graphic novel and the TV show. When this came up, I was very specific to Scott and said, “This can not in any way take away from Glenn’s death. Glenn has a much more cemented emotional place in the show.” The fans love Abraham, I’ve been very blessed to be on the show, I’ve had a great time, but the character of Glenn we’ve watched him grow up — we’re so much more invested in the whole Glenn journey than we are in Abraham. We were starting to get invested in Abraham, as far as seeing a future for him, and definitely on board, but from an emotional standpoint the weight all falls on the Glenn death.

I was very happy with how that was put together and scripted. Abraham got to take it like a soldier, giving himself up, but then the emotional weight of the journey with Glenn — his last words to Maggie, “I will find you” — that transcends the show. Whatever you believe, that’s a proclamation of love that transcends the physical reality of our show between those two characters. I think we honored all of that by saying goodbye to Abraham in a great way, but the primary emotional impact of what happened to the show was seen through the eyes of Maggie.

On the cast’s reaction to Jeffrey Dean Morgan joining the show as Negan…

You can’t say, “Here’s this bad guy coming in and we don’t like him because of what he’s going to do to our family.” That’s not how it works. He was more than embraced. He’s a terrific actor and a fan of the show. He knew what he was coming into, to watch him build his character — in the two days we saw him working, all the coverage was on us and every take he would do he would keep something that worked and get rid of something that didn’t and add something in. Every time we saw it was new from an acting standpoint. We were sitting in a semi-circle and you were literally able to watch everybody while they worked. It was a very satisfying, very unique situation. Jeffrey couldn’t have been more loved coming in, and having spent time with him, he’s loved by everyone in the cast, including those he took out.

On keeping the secret even as Season 7 started production…

On paper theoretically I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I told my wife. It would’ve been strange sleeping in every day in Los Angeles if I’m supposed to be in Atlanta. I told my kids last spring for the same reason, when they came home from school [they wouldn’t say] “Why is daddy home?” Other than that, nobody knew. It was not a very difficult secret to keep other than the logistics of it — being at home and having to keep my hair dyed. I tended to travel a lot … to not keep me in one place too long.

You pretend it’s normal. Everywhere I went I’d tell somebody I was just leaving town or I’d just gotten in. Unless you’re really following me — which a couple people did, they would write to me on Twitter and say “We know you’re not there.” You want to write back and say, “shut up!,” but you can’t. I went to the guy who cuts my hair and got my hair dyed. He asked, “Aren’t they doing it on the show any more? What’s going on?” I told him, “If I do it at home I get to stay an extra day.” I told [him] I could stay with my family longer. Even he was on board and didn’t really figure it out, because I would come in every three weeks or so. It was a process. The guy at the gym, at the desk, would say, “I’m getting a little concerned because you’ve been in for a lot of days in a row now.” And I’d say, “I’m actually leaving tomorrow,” and then for the next two weeks I’d go to a different gym.

It’s kind of easy to throw people off, especially when Lauren [Cohan] is taking a trip to a beach somewhere, and Josh [McDermitt] is up in Toronto, and Norman [Reedus] is in New York, and Andy [Lincoln] is in England, Sonequa [Martin-Green] shot back to Los Angeles, and everyone’s popping up all over the place. The cast is so large it helps to diffuse what’s going on. When you really get down to it the people who were really trying to track us and ruin the experience for other people, they were able to lock us down better, because they were specifically looking to do that. But generally speaking I think we did a good job in keeping people confused. You don’t have to lie to people, you just have to keep them confused. As long as there’s more than one idea floating out there, then nobody knows what’s going on.

Video: “The Walking Dead” actor Michael Cudlitz takes fan questions after shocking premiere:

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