Jesus has a confession. For “The Walking Dead” star Tom Payne, the headlines that followed his character’s departure from the hit AMC show were a bit of a pain in the butt.
It all started with The Hollywood Reporter, which ran a story titled, ″‘Walking Dead’ Star Gets Candid About His Exit: ‘It Was Constant Frustration.’” The line was quickly picked up by other media outlets and spread across the internet far and wide.
“It was a little bit of a gulp moment for me,” the actor said. The article was “very fair,” but the echo chamber that followed was not what he expected. “I’ve never talked shit about the show because I wouldn’t. I don’t have anything to say badly about the show.”
The frustrations that he was referring to were his own, he said, “frustrations that I think I helped to put upon myself because I’m just very invested in everything I do, and I want it to be the best that it can be. I’m always working behind the scenes, and I didn’t get to utilize everything in the way I would’ve liked.”
Payne’s character, Jesus, is one of the most prolific fighters in the comics, but he didn’t see many of those original storybook moments come to life in the show. In fact, other than his shocking exit by death ― which was used to introduce the series’ new villains, The Whisperers, a group that wears the skins of zombies ― one of Jesus’ biggest fights was against Morgan (Lennie James). And being that Morgan is on the same side as Jesus in the “Walking Dead” universe, it was hardly the blowout Negan vs. Jesus fight comic-book fans had been expecting.
“It’s tough to just keep your fingers crossed for two years that you’re going to get some cool stuff, and then it doesn’t quite pan out, because that’s what keeps you going, really,” Payne said. “When you’re in an ensemble cast like that, you just want to have these moments, and actually I did have one of the best entrances and one of the best exits, and I’m very, very happy with that, and that’s kind of enough for me, really.”
Ultimately, Payne said, he just loves a good story and wanted the show to take more risks, which is what’s been happening in Season 9.
“I had said to the showrunners in Season 8, I was like, ‘Just kill people. We need to kill more people. You need to make some shocking deaths happen.’ Carl [Chandler Riggs] was a big shocking death, but he was the only person that died in the war, the only main character, and I’m all about narrative,” he explained. “I want it to be shocking and exciting, and I ended up being the sacrifice, but I was happy with that. It was badass. That’s all I wanted, really. I wanted to tell a good story and be part of a shocking moment in the show, and I think we did that.”
Outside the world of “The Walking Dead,” you can hear Payne lend his voice to the new Netflix movie “IO.” The actor said the pilot season may bring new roles, too. He’s holding out for a character with a good arc, one that he could perhaps even know about ahead of time.
“There was a line I had last year or the year before [on ‘The Walking Dead’] about, ‘All that I have at the Hilltop is this and a lobster bib.’ Someone tweeted me the other day and was like, ‘We never found out about the lobster bib,’” Payne recalled. “I don’t know [either]. I have no idea, and we’re kept in the dark as much as the audience a lot of the time.”
Even in death, Jesus’s duties aren’t done.
Payne plans to continue to see fans at conventions and is even on an upcoming “Walking Dead” cruise. Plus, he was back on the show last Sunday, seemingly getting more screen time as a dead body than Jesus when he was alive. Maybe in death there’s a chance to address that lobster bib.
Ahead of Sunday’s midseason premiere, Tom talked with HuffPost about playing a dead body, his new plans for what to do with the never-ending stream of fan art he receives and whether or not Jesus will come again.
It’s been a couple of months since Jesus died. What’s it like looking back?
It’s an interesting thing because when you finish on a television show, first of all you finish filming and then second of all you have to wait for it to air. You kind of want to move on and do the next thing, but you can’t. You’re in this kind of position of stasis, where you have to wait for the thing to air, and I’m still not [done]. I was in Sunday’s episode. It’s so funny. I literally get dragged around for the whole episode as a dead body, which is pretty funny. So if you had any doubt Jesus was dead, it’ll be confirmed when you see his lifeless form being dragged around for the episode. It’s a funny thing because, in my head, I’ve moved on. You have to for self-preservation reasons.
Right now, I’m enjoying spending time at home and knowing I don’t have to go back to Atlanta. I love Atlanta, but knowing that I’m not going to have to go back, I can spend some time at my home in L.A., do all these home improvements that I’ve been waiting for a year to do. It’s sad I’ve left behind friends at “Walking Dead,” but we see each other. I’m actually going on a Walker Stalker cruise next week with a bunch of people from the show. The show will connect us for the rest of our lives.
Did you have your going-away dinner, which the cast usually gets when they leave the show, and then have to come back as a dead body?
Yeah, so we had a lovely dinner in Atlanta, and then I was a dead body for an episode. It’s just very strange, but nice to still be around and see everyone. Yeah, it was a funny experience actually. I’m excited to watch it. I think it’d be quite amusing to watch.
I mean Jesus’s dead body gets a lot of screen time.
I haven’t seen it yet. I’m kind of excited to see it because I think, for me, it’s going to be comedy, the whole thing. I was very aware. I don’t know if you’ve ever carried someone who’s gone like dead weight, but it’s really heavy. I felt very bad for [Ross Marquand] and [Norman Reedus]. It was that one sequence where they’re carrying me and we get to the horses, and we did that a bunch of times. There’s no acting required when you’re someone who’s a dead weight. It’s hard work, so I do feel sorry for them. It was a really hot day, and, yep, [they’re] carrying my dead body around. The one thing I’m glad I didn’t have to do is be on the horse. We used a dummy, so that promo photo that’s going around, that’s a dummy.
Once we get to the Hilltop, I’m on the horse and it’s a stomach workout. Even though I’m dead weight, I’m still like trying to control my movement on the horse so I don’t fall off. It’s very strange having everyone crying around you and shifting because you’re thinking, “Oh, God, I hope they don’t drop me or I don’t give them a hernia,” thinking all of these things while you’re supposed to be a dead body. It was kind of fun, but also it was very strange because it was over for me at that point. It was all done. I’m dead. I’m finished on the show. “Oh, you want me to come back and be a dead body for an episode? OK.” All I wanted to do was process it and move on and be like, “OK, that’s over now,” but then I was coming back as a dead body.
You’ve talked about reading the comics. Were you advocating for Jesus to have those iconic comic moments, like his fight with Negan and how he catches a grenade?
Of course, I mean, the whole time. That was the toughest thing for me. I think I did myself a bit of a disservice by reading the comic books. I’m an actor who wants to do all of this research and really get in there and understand everything. That was all I had to go from, so of course I dove into that and of course all the fans telling me all the time, like, “Oh, Jesus is so cool, and he’s got this and that, and this happens and that happens.” So I was super-pumped and excited, and I threw myself into training and all that kind of stuff, and then it didn’t really ever pan out in that way, which was pretty frustrating for me, actually. I feel like those two years, which were my main two years on the show, were a bit inactive as far as Jesus goes, which was pretty frustrating. Now this season is kind of breakneck speed, and everything is ramping up. Then I die. I’m like goddammit. At least I had a really cool fight scene, which I was really happy about. It is a bummer he does have that cool fight with Negan and meeting The Whisperers and during the war he catches that grenade and throws it back [which are moments from the comics]. All this cool stuff. That didn’t happen, so I just have to get over that really.
I know a lot of fans wanted to see those moments, too.
Oh, yeah, you get asked about it all the time ― and having a boyfriend in the comic books. That didn’t play out in the show either. That was kind of a bit of another bummer because it was such an opportunity to have this badass LGBTQ character, and that didn’t really pan out … so it was a couple of frustrations.
What’s the most memorable thing that did happen for Jesus, even behind the scenes?
There’s just a lot. The first few episodes for me were such a huge whirlwind. To have that first episode with [Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln] was great, a great way to come into it. I hadn’t worked for a year at that point, partly by choice … but then at the time I was like, God, I need to work again. I have that scene where I meet them, I bump into Andy, and I was like, screaming. I said my first line and I kind of like shouted it, and literally the director, who is so lovely, was like, “Tom, bring it down a bit.” I was like, God, I’ve forgotten how to act! I’ve forgotten how to act on camera! What do I do? It was partially because I hadn’t worked for a while and also because it’s this huge show, and my character had been running and all of these little things just added into me forgetting how to act on camera. Then the director really helped me through it and … oh, fuck, the end of that episode was walking in on [Danai Gurira] and Andy naked in bed. They really threw stuff at me in that first episode. The director was like, I think you should look Andy up and down and give him a smile, and I was like, “I can’t do that.” I literally just joined the television show, the lead character from the biggest television show in the world is standing naked in front of me, and you want me to look him up and down and give him a wink and a smile? I just can’t.
That’s crazy. I mean in your first appearance, you also mimic Jesus on the cross with your arms out, right?
It wasn’t intentional. I even crossed my legs. I even did a little thing with my foot. I think it was something that I did, and then the director loved it and everyone did. Everyone’s like, oh, my God. That’s so cool. So I kept doing it.
Even though Jesus maybe didn’t have his comic book moments, you still made a big impact. During the Super Bowl people were even tweeting that Jesus died on “The Walking Dead” and came back to be the guitarist in Maroon 5.
Oh, my God. No way. That’s so funny because my cousin texted me the same thing.
Yeah. And my fiancée has met that guy a couple times. He’s pretty nice. I texted back my cousin and said, “Actually that’s not me, but we do know him.” And my cousin’s like, “Ugh. Of course you do. You’re so Hollywood now.” It was pretty funny.
Social media can be intense for “Walking Dead” cast members. What’s it like interacting with fans online?
That’s the other side of it, and it’s a huge part of being on “The Walking Dead,” is the fans. That’s why the frustration comes out as well. They’re always asking questions, and they’re super enthusiastic about everything, and you just want to make them happy and engage with that. But in engaging with that it makes you realize things aren’t panning out how you’d want them to pan out. If you get very involved with that, like I did, it can sometimes not be helpful. But I’m still involved with the fans a lot, and I do talk to them on social media and at many conventions around the world. That is such a huge part of it. The job really is about connecting with people.
Are you still going to keep the Jesus look now that you’re gone?
I still have it right now. I’ve cut the beard back a bit, but I would shave the beard for something tomorrow ― like for an audition. But I’m going to keep the hair until I get another job because there aren’t that many actors with long hair, so there might be a role that comes along which requires shoulder-length hair or something. I do not want to go through wearing extensions again because, as much as they do the best job, it never feels like your hair. You can’t run your fingers through your hair. I really nailed the look of Jesus toward the end of my time on the show because I’d grown the hair out. I’d reached the look, so I’ll keep it until a part comes along.
As Jesus, what’s the weirdest fan experience you’ve had. Have people asked you to bless their babies?
We meet so many people, every story is weird and wonderful. We get given loads of gifts, like soap with our faces on it. I had soap with my face on it in my guest bathroom for a long time that everyone found pretty amusing. I have a ton of Jesus candles. Actually, my favorite thing at the conventions is when we get given the candles. I had a Norman one as well. Norman did that Lady Gaga video. [He was] Judas in that video, so I had one of him and one of me, which was quite fun. I’m looking around my living room right now. What do I have?
… You get loads and loads of pictures people have drawn. I’ve got just a huge stack of pictures of myself because you don’t want to throw them away because you feel really bad about throwing them away. So what do you do with them? You look at them and say, “Thank you so much. That’s amazing. I’m so jealous. I wish I could draw.” Then what do you do with them? I could literally make a room and wallpaper it with pictures of me. Maybe I should do that?
Why not? You don’t put them on the fridge?
My fridge isn’t big enough. You would need a whole room ― a creepy Tom room.
I mean, you said you were doing improvements to the house.
That’s true! Maybe I could just put them underneath the wallpaper, so I just know that they’re there underneath. We’re going to have new countertops put in in the kitchen, and I saw on Reddit or something not long ago, where someone was doing renovations on their house and the previous owner had put something under the wall … maybe I should put pictures of myself under my new countertops. That’s kind of a funny idea. I’m going to do that. So if anyone every rips it up, there’s just like, a picture of me.
It’s so funny. People come up to me like, “So why is he Jesus?” And I’m like, “Well, he’s got long hair and a beard and he’s nice.” I think if anyone ever came up to me and was like, “Oh, it’s sacrilegious,” or whatever, I’d be like, “Well, but his nickname is Jesus because Jesus is a really, really nice guy, and he looks like him with a beard and long hair, so what’s your problem?” I’d be like, “Are you saying it’s bad that he’s named after Jesus? Because I think that’s kind of an honor.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.