SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for the Season 7 premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” as well as previous episodes and the Image Comics series.
Following the events of the Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead, co-Executive Producer Greg Nicotero spoke with the press about the episode. During the conversation, he offered his thoughts on a variety of topics surrounding the game-changing premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” One of the biggest talking points was of course the deaths of Abraham and Glenn at the hands of Negan.
Shortly afterward, we spoke with one of those casualties: actor Michael Cudlitz, who’s portrayed Abraham Ford for the past three seasons. Like Nicotero, he had a lot to say, both about the thematic implications of his death, as well as more technical elements such as the makeup design.
On how much direction was given for his death scene:
Michael Cudlitz: This is one of those situations where, at least from Abraham’s standpoint, there was very little direction. Most of us have been doing these doing these characters for a number of years. It’s a situation where we play what’s going on, so there’s not a tremendous amount of direction. Obviously, Greg structured the scene. He set the blocking of the scene. But as far as performances [go], there’s not a ton of stuff.
To be perfectly honest, I think the biggest concern for the show was making sure that [Negan actor] Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] felt comfortable and that he was taken care of. He was coming in from “The Good Wife,” and he had a very limited amount of time with us to shoot the scene. So I think the focus was mostly on the new person coming in and making sure they felt comfortable enough, confident enough to do the best job possible. Obviously, he crushed it.
On why he told Negan to “suck my nuts” instead of the more common “suck my dick” colloquialism:
You would have expected Abraham to say that. And Abraham almost always says almost what you expect him to say.
On whether Negan’s game of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” was random or calculated”
He’s just fucking with us. You’re looking at someone who’s very, very smart; very, very good at what he does; at finding the weakest link; at finding what’s going to make the most impact. By walking around the [circle], eeny-meeny-miny-moe-ing and sticking a bat in everyone’s face, he’s able to gauge what they would or wouldn’t do. That was very important for him, to figure out our group.
You see him do it. You see him say, “Oh, he’s your kid.” “Oh, you two were together.” He figures out so much without ever having dialogue with any of us. I think that was part of it. This is probably not the first time he played eeny-meeny-miny-moe.
I think Abraham [stood] out with the “Fuck you. Take me.” That’s him sacrificing himself for the group to protect Sasha. He feels like that’s what needs to be done. He would give his life to protect anyone in this group. For anyone who has children, it’s the same feeling. He feels like he’s taken care of these people for a very long time. You are willing to sacrifice yourself for your children.
On when his death scene was filmed, and how long he knew about it ahead of time:
I found out about a year and three months ago. They had told me they were going to take me out, and I also knew about [Glenn actor] Steven [Yeun]. They weren’t sure exactly how they were going to do it, how they wanted to structure the storytelling. We filmed the scene about a year ago.
On keeping the identity of Negan’s victims under wraps:
Our whole big thing was, “How can we possibly keep this secret?” There are people out there who feel like their only job is to ruin everyone else’s television-viewing experience. So we had to balance that, knowing that there were people who were trying to get that information out there. We also [knew] that there were going to be some in-house leaks.
There’s also the issue of the show airing in different parts of the world at the same time. Early copies get released to our international partners for dubbing purposes and, in some countries, editing purposes. So the show is available out there, even though it has a lot of eyeballs on it in-house.
I guess on paper, theoretically, I’m not supposed to tell anyone. But obviously, I told my wife. It would be strange sleeping in every day in Los Angeles when I was supposed to be in Atlanta. I told her, and I told my kids last spring for the same reason when they came home from school. It was sort of like, “Why is Daddy home?” Other than that, nobody knew. It’s not a very difficult secret to keep, other than the logistics of it: being at home, having to keep my hair dyed. Any opportunity I had to travel, I would say “yes,” as to not keep me in one place too long.
One of the good things was that we were able to start a rumor that not even the cast knew what was going to happen, that they were going to find out when they came back. They said they had filmed everybody’s death scene just in case. They said they were redoing contract negotiations for some of the cast, that we weren’t sure who it was going to be. All of that was a lie.
On his final peace sign to Sasha:
It was to tell Sasha that everything’s going to be okay, and to say goodbye. For those who caught it, it was highly effective, and for those who didn’t, I don’t think it took anything away from the experience.
On trimming his mustache (or not):
I’m going to keep the mustache for a little while, then probably grow in everything around it. I typically do that until I know what my next gig is. We have a really big fan event coming up soon, and it’s kind of a way for the fans to say goodbye. Even though I’ve been walking around with it for a year, the audience only just found out yesterday. It’s kind of a respectful thing to not immediately take it off.
On sharing Glenn’s big moment:
I was actually concerned about that going in, because I’m a fan of both the graphic novels and the TV show. As a fan of the TV show, when we were doing this, I was very specific to Scott [Gimple]. I said, “This cannot in any way take away from Glenn’s death. Glenn has a much more cemented, emotional place in this show.” We watched him grow up as a kid. We are so much more invested in the whole journey of Glenn than we are for Abraham.
So I was very happy with how that was put together; how that was scripted; how Abraham got to take it like a soldier, giving himself up. But the emotional weight of Glenn and Maggie and that last “I will find you” moment — that transcends the show. That’s a statement in time. It’s a statement of energy and whatever you believe. That’s a proclamation of love that transcends the physical reality of the show between those two characters. I think that we honored all of that. We said goodbye to Abraham in a great way. But the primary emotional impact was seen through the eyes of Maggie.
On the makeup process for his death:
They had come and done a life-cast for both of us. They do life-casts for most of the cast at some point, in case they get a face wound, head wound, or even anything minor. They want to have the actual shape of your face and your head so that they can double you and match the piece that hit you.
In our case, they did full bald pates. They took us all the way down to no hair, and then rebuilt everything from that so they had full control over the blood tubes that went up underneath the bald pate. The clip you saw [on “The Talking Dead”] where I had long hair was before the hair was styled. The wig department supplies uncut wigs that match the hair color, the bald pate’s put on, and then there’s a ring of hair put around the outside. Then there’s a wound chunk built on top. Everything gets laced in between, and the haircut is given.
We came in for a dry test to make sure everything fit and worked. They made some alterations, and on the day we shot, we spent a good 45 minutes to an hour in makeup for each changeover. They also had a mockup they made of me with a smashed head that they laid on the ground afterwards. There was no CGI. [My character] was physically there so everyone could react to it, which was quite disturbing. It’s disturbing to have someone who’s built up to have the exact features of you or somebody you know, then see their head smashed in or see them get beaten, even though you know it’s not them. My wife had said that even though she knew it wasn’t me, she could go a whole lifetime without seeing that again.
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